Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men's report of the star's first appearance. Herod's brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, "A cry was heard in Ramah - weeping and great mourning.Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead." (Matthew 2:16-18, NLT)Can you imagine? Can you imagine the grief, the devastation, the utter despair that must have been felt by the mothers of those children? Unfortunately, we can all imagine it just a little better today than we could have four short days ago. Because we have seen it on TV, as we've watched in horror the scenes from Sandy Hook Elementary School and its community. There is nothing more heartrending than the death of children, and when it's deliberate, cold-blooded, and totally senseless, that makes it so much worse. I know all our prayers tonight are with those families and their friends.
The fact that it occurred during the Christmas season does not make it any more horrible, but I think it some ways it may seem so. This is the season of celebrating childhood and its innocence, and that has been cruelly ripped away from the people close to Sandy Hook forever. Maybe that's part of why it struck me. It struck me that a devastating tragedy - an eerily similar one - was part of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus.
You know what happened, but there's a good chance that you've never attached yourself to it emotionally. Because it was so long ago. In a foreign land. Happening to people you know nothing about.
So can you imagine? As you think about Sandy Hook, sure you can. Believe it or not, the numbers are probably similar, according to this source which extrapolates the probable number of deaths at around 20 based on the population of Bethlehem. Around twenty children murdered - not by a deranged madman but by an intentional act of the government. Chilling...and heartbreaking.
So how do we make sense of it all? Where do we find our comfort in times like these (and those)?
After this interview [with Herod] the wise men went on their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! (Matthew 2:9-10)Filled with joy. Unbeknownst to them, as they left to see the child Herod was setting in motion his evil plot. They rejoiced because, whatever else was going to happen, the promised King had been born.
This is the one who was coming to fulfill the promises made to mankind throughout history through his people Israel. One day, all the evil in the world would be defeated. One day, God would reign as king over the world. One day, he would come to rescue people from the world's system, the forces of evil, and their own corrupt selves.
It wouldn't be by force. It would be through suffering, through a cross that defeated death and sin, and a resurrection demonstrating his power and his plan to free us all from death. But make no mistake, he came to reign over the world and it is his.
It's hard to understand why bad things happen. Why is suffering part of God's plan to bring his kingdom on earth, spreading justice, grace, and mercy? Why did children have to die as part of the Messiah's entry into the world? Why is there still so much suffering today?
I confess: I don't know. But I do know the God who is over all and loves us so much, and I trust him. I know that through all the pain in my life he has been right there, extending love and mercy and comfort. I know that he has a plan so big I can't even begin to fathom it.
And I know that's the message of Christmas - it's why the wise men rejoiced. Maybe we needed to know the horror of Herod's action to understand that Jesus' mission was not about providing easy answers. It's about love coming down to suffer in our place, bringing joy not instead of suffering, but in the midst of it.
Joy to the world! Let earth receive her King!