Christmas With Herod.
Most manger scenes tell the story of the Christmas we want instead of the one that happened. The principles represented by the figurines (wise men and shepherds) probably didn’t all make the scene together. No Scripture accounts describe angels being present at the manger but out on the hillsides. Actually the manger as a free standing wooden structure was condemned as heretical by parts of the church; they said it was too European and could never have been a real Middle Eastern manger. A few tweaks stand to be made. First of all, domestic animals stink so we should add a teaspoon full of manure. Just slip it into the back, the effect lies not in the seeing. Then we should add the one person who holds the key to Christmas (besides Jesus) since his statue never shows up. A figurine wearing a robe and crown, holding a knife with the bodies of two or three dead children at his feet – Herod the king.
Other people besides wise men and shepherds came looking for the baby Jesus. “Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under…A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.” (Matthew 2:16,18) If we scratch Herod out of the nativity, we don’t have much to say to the sufferers of Newtown or anywhere else. A suicide killer took out three others in Pennsylvania a few days ago. As I write on Christmas Eve, four firefighters got ambushed at a house fire set simply to lure them into the line of fire. Herod rubs our Christian noses in four important questions.
Why did this happen? On the surface we don’t know. It’s not sinful to say that and might be sinful to say anything else. There’s no explanation, theological or otherwise that will drain the pain out of this. Nobody explained anything to those Jewish mothers in Bethlehem when babies got snatched from their arms and slaughtered in front of their eyes. So we should stop all this stuff about how this is the nation’s pain. If our children still breathe tonight, we know nothing about their pain, don’t hurt like they hurt. When our children get killed, then we’ll catch up. So let’s curtail this weak, vicarious, often me-centerd “I feel your pain”. Cry copiously, pray with broken hearts, hug these people if we can reach them…and otherwise shut up. Som people’s pain screams so loudly they refuse to be comforted. And that’s okay.
Job. Everyone talks about him but few actually read him. Yeah, he lost everything but he got it back at the end. Happy ending right? While God knocked the bottom out of Job’s ideas of who He was and restored much of the lost wealth, Job never got any explanation in this life as to why everything happened. He came downstairs for breakfast in his new house looking at chairs that his dead children would never fill. Job tells us that human evil maintains this world in a random moral chaos where there is absolutely no straight line, connect-the-dots, correlation between what we suffer and what we’ve earned or deserve. Jesus disciples thought someone must have been a real sinner for a man to be born blind. (John 9:1,2) A tower in Siloam collapsed killing eighteen people and Jesus Himself said these were no more evil that anyone else. (Luke 13:4) Undeserving people get caught in the crosshairs of bad stuff. We don’t have to like it or explain it. But it’s the truth. In resentment and humility, I embrace it because my sin and evil lies on the pile that sustains it.
There are no safe places. When we live in a world that kills its children, there are no safe places. Pharaoh’s solution to the Jewish problem involved throwing every Jewish baby that was a boy into the Nile; Moses wasn’t the only baby in the river but he floated while the rest fed crocodiles. The same day as Newtown, a man in Chenpeng, China, entered a preschool and stabbed, mutilated and killed twenty-two children. Another school attack outbreak in 2010 involved meat cleavers. Why no safe places? Because “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked above all things; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Anywhere sinners gather can become dangerous without warning; we could be in danger in our own home around our own family. While we should resist evil and do everything to make our world as safe as we can, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every person.” (Aleksandr Soltzhenitsyn) Now it gets a little tense.
People who do this are sick. Maybe but not necessarily. Many voices now call out for national data bases monitoring all the mentally ill or for modern medicine (one of the messiahs of our age) to find ways to “fix” or tip us off to when “these” people will go of next. Five minutes spent with any mental health social worker will tell us “good luck with that”. First of all, not everyone who is mentally ill will become violent; this outcry could easily lead to demonizing a whole group of people. But it goes deeper. Alcoholics or compulsive gamblers who can’t face reality assure us “I don’t have a problem; it’s under control.” Drug users always know more than the doctors. “Those guys are in bed with the pharmaceutical companies.” For secularists, humanists and sippers of homogenized spiritualities, Newtown is a punch in the chest when we believe that man is basically good and will do the right thing or that we don’t need God to be good. They say,”You have to be sick to do something like that. I know I would never do that.”
All this adds up to nothing more than a firewall we keep to separate “them” (those mentally ill sickies) from us. Christians do it too because we don’t really believe what the Bible says about us. We say,”It’s the devil!” I completely believe in Satan. And if I were him, I’d love a lot of Christians because they give me so much credit. The subject of suffering and evil may be the most important question we could study in reaching out to a bleeding world. But I could draw more of a crowd from the atheists’ club on a university campus than from most churches. We can’t look very deeply into this subject without seeing the reflection of our own face rising to meet us. As a pastor, I’m a physician to people’s souls specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of evil. learned early on that most people don’t want their evil diagnosed or treated. I can tell you that mental illness and responsible, sinful evil can coexist in the same person. And when they kiss each other on the cheek – horror.
Where was God? People crab at God expecting Him to be a helicopter parent hovering over every human being and making everything sweet and wonderful. The real question avoided lies in why humans can’t stop messing themselves up. Job 40:8 has God saying, “Will you indeed condemn me to justify yourselves?” ABSOLUTELY!! God could have held His nose and walked off to another galaxy. J.B. Philips wrote a fantasy where a young angel gets his first lesson about the Visited Planet.
He says,”Do you mean to tell me that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures…?” A senior angel replied, “I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For strange as it may seem to us, He loves them and went down there to lift them to become like Him.” The little angel went blank; such a thought for him was incomprehensible.
For me too. They called Him Immanuel – “God with us.” God actually became a baby and plunged into a world that kills its children, almost as if a small hand raised out of the manger said,”I’m here! Come and get me!” About thirty-three years later, they did. And that’s exactly what God had in mind. He could have held His nose and walked away from me. But He didn’t although there was good reason, much of which I don’t the stomach to look at or own
One more tweak on the nativity. Take baby Jesus out to the garage and place Him on two crossed sticks. Run your power drill down through all three and fasten them good and tight. A lot of people would be shocked but it’s just plaster, ceramic and wood. We did this to the real Jesus and it doesn’t hardly shake the tree anymore. Our fingerprints are on the hammer and all the nails. And that’s exactly what Jesus had in mind.
He plunged as a baby into a world that kills its children and since we still do this and give a million other reasons we can’t stand to look at as to why we need a Saviour, Jesus Christ remains up to His neck in the Newtowns and anyplace else where Rachel will not be comforted. And neither will He.