Tiny Coffins and Bitter Tears
Matthew 2:13-18; Jeremiah 31:15-22
Midweek Advent 3
December 18, 2013
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
There is no shortage of villains to be found in the pages of Holy Scripture. Wicked Queen Jezebel left her imprint on the Old Testament to such a degree that she is held up as the personification of unbelief and false worship in the book of Revelation. The Iscariot betrayal was so unthinkable that very few, if any, parents today choose to name their sons Judas. Caiaphas and Pilate will forever live in infamy for the role each played in the crucifixion of our Lord. But few names in Scripture are so vilified as the name Herod. After all, there was a Herod involved in each of the two most commonly known events in Jesus’ time on earth. There was a Herod involved in Jesus’ execution, the same Herod who beheaded John the Baptist. And the father of that Herod, known by the same name, was the one who bathed the streets of Bethlehem with innocent toddler blood and rinsed them with mothers’ bitter tears when he learned that the Magi had not upheld their end of the bargain and the young Christ had escaped his clutches.
It’s an ugly part of the Christmas story that typically goes unread. It’s not likely to be included in the kids’ Christmas pageant where we instead place our focus on the inn and stable. We hear each year of the shepherds and the angels. We honor the arrival of the Eastern Astrologers bearing their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. We know that, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their country by another way. But we’d like the story to stop there, with the young Jesus safely delivered from the evil plot of a wicked king. It’s uncomfortable to continue reading, to hear that Herod was so enraged by the betrayal that he order the murder of all the male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who were two years and under. It’s one of those sections of Scripture that we’d rather sweep under the rug, one that we hope doesn’t come up in casual conversation with unbelievers.
But take heart. For as with so much of Scripture, the main message is clear at first hearing, so clear that a preschooler can understand what is basically happening. The clear message of the story is that Jesus got away. He was not killed as a baby in Bethlehem. No, the Word of God accomplished the purpose for which he was sent, making it all the way to the cross to die for the sin of the world. That main message of this story is understandable, but the details also provide some helpful insight. You see, although he was King in Jerusalem, Herod was not an Israelite by birth. He was an Edomite, which means he was not a descendant of Jacob, but rather of Jacob’s older brother Esau. Think back to the book of Genesis, and you will remember that Jacob was born grasping the heel of his older brother Esau. But even before these brothers first breathed outside air, they were fighting in the womb of their mother Rebekah. Rebekah was told by the Lord that there were two nations battling in her womb, that the descendants of these two sons would be divided, and the older brother Esau would serve the younger Jacob.
You remember, no doubt, how Esau sold his birthright to the younger Jacob for a bowl of soup, and how he intended to break that deal when the time came for their father Isaac to actually impart that birthright. You remember how Jacob deceived his father by dressing up like Esau, receiving himself the birthright that the blind old man thought he was bestowing upon Esau. You remember how Esau was so angry that Jacob had to flee for his life. You may even remember that the two brothers eventually reconciled before they died. However, while the brothers themselves may have been able to put aside their differences, their descendants could not. Esau’s descendants, known as the Edomites, are present in the Old Testament as a thorn in the side of the Israelites, who are the descendants of Jacob. Apparently, the Edomites resented the prophecy that the younger would rule over the older, and hated the Israelites for Jacob’s deception.
And so 500 years after the lives of Jacob and Esau, when the Israelites left Egypt on their way to the Promised Land, the King of Edom would not allow them safe passage through his territory. He chose to force the Israelites to walk hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid setting foot on Edomite soil. In any Old Testament list detailing the enemies of Israel’s kings, you will no doubt find the Edomites. In the Psalms and Prophets, words of judgment are spoken against Edom, who serves as a representative of all the enemies of God’s chosen people. And yet for all Edom’s antagonism, they did not prevent the Israelites from reaching the Promised Land, and they could not prevent God from fulfilling his promises through the descendants of Jacob. The kings of Edom have no control over God himself.
What a contrast between the kings of this world and the King of Kings. Even though at the birth of Jesus it is an Edomite, a descendant of Esau, who sits on the throne of Jerusalem and seems to have all the power, Herod the Edomite is not the one born King of the Jews. Herod got his title through bribery and manipulation of the Roman Empire, and when he saw a threat to that self-made title arise he did whatever he could to wipe it out – even if that meant the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. He desperately lashed out in a vain effort to prevent our Lord’s word concerning Edom and Israel from coming to pass. But that should not surprise us, for that is the way of evil. That is the way of sin. That is the way Satan works in this world.
Satan is a foe who has been defeated. He must have known on some level that he would not ever be able to stop the Christ of our Lord from accomplishing his purpose. He must have known on some level that the true Passover Lamb would indeed be his undoing, that this newborn King would bring peace on earth and mercy mild as he God and sinners reconciled. Satan must have known this, but that knowledge didn’t stop him from fighting. That didn’t stop him from pulling out all the stops in a vain effort to thwart God’s plan of salvation. And so just as a toddler thrashes and flails about when they know they can’t escape the stronger grip of their parent, Satan violently fought against the Lord’s Christ, using King Herod to do it.
Yet Matthew makes so abundantly clear that Satan and the evil kings of this world have no power over the Christ child. Satan is not stronger than God. Sure, Herod would not take defeat lying down. He would not sit idly by as the descendant of Jacob rose to take the throne from this Edomite. Herod would do everything in his power to fight, but Herod had no control over the Christ child. The infant Jesus was delivered safely to Egypt before Herod even knew what was happening. Even to this day, Satan has no control over the Christ, so in frustration he will lash out at what he can hurt or harm. He will do anything possible to take our eyes off of Jesus, trying to distract us with every manner of injustice and tragedy. He maliciously interjects himself into the Christmas story, a story that should be good news of great joy for all the people. He barges into the mix in an effort to upstage the birth of the Savior, reminding us that for those children who were murdered in Herod’s effort to kill Jesus, for those families who lowered tiny coffins into the ground and covered them in bitter tears, the glad tidings of the babe in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes did not fill them with great joy. “Where is your peace on earth now?” he hisses. “Look at this tragedy! Look at this bloodshed! Look at this senseless violence!”
But we must not let Satan take our eyes off Jesus, for even in the midst of a tragedy such as this, the Savior of the Nations was protected by faithful Joseph. We must not forget that those children who were buried in tiny coffins, if they had been spared, would have been spared only to find themselves in larger coffins someday, that if they had escaped the villain Herod they would not have escaped death by disease, starvation or some other means. Those mothers who shed bitter tears at the death of their children were themselves one day the source of similar tears as their families were forced to bury them. Neither Herod nor his rage is the real enemy here. The slaughter of the innocents is not even the real tragedy here. Death is the real problem. Sin is the real enemy. It is Satan who must be dealt with.
And dealt with he is. Yes, tragedy still exists in our world today. Tiny coffins are still lowered into the ground as heart-broken parents weep bitterly. Families are blind-sided with unexpected grief when their loved ones are struck down by car accidents or heart attacks or other callous acts of violence. But as heartbreaking as these events are, they are at their core simply a more hasty arrival of the fate that awaits us all. You will have a coffin of your own one day, as will I. But death will not have the last word, for the Christ Child escaped Bethlehem. The boy Jesus escaped Herod’s wrath and was later called out of Egypt to die in our place in order that we might have new life in him. The heaven-born Prince of Peace, the Sun of Righteousness who light and life brings, is now risen with healing in his wings. Mild, he laid his glory by; born that man no more may die; born to raise the sons of earth, born to give us second birth.
Do not be surprised that the wicked kings of this earth rage against you, for this earth is all they have. Do not be surprised when Satan barges into your life uninvited as he did in the Christmas story, leaving a trail of sadness and death behind him. Do not be surprised that he tries to suffocate your faith in torrent of grief, for he knows that the sting of loss and grief do not fade quickly, but linger like the smell of campfire in your clothing. In the midst of these attacks, “Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears,” declares the Lord. “There is hope for your future, and your children shall come back to their own country.” For even though Satan and the kings of this earth will continue to cause suffering while they can, rest assured that your eternal victory has been won. Jacob has triumphed over Esau. Israel has triumphed over Edom. Jesus has triumphed over death – first as a child when he escaped Herod’s sword, and later as a man when he fell victim to the sword of a different Herod to win life eternal for you, for me, and for all those children of Bethlehem. Now that he is victorious over death, risen to life eternal and seated at God’s right hand, he will on the last day unearth every coffin and grant eternal life to all believers. He will wipe away every bitter tear from their eyes, from your eyes.
This is the true joy of Christmas. This is the birth we are celebrating, the birth of the one who spares us not merely from earthly heartache, but from the ultimate enemy. Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth is the beginning of your salvation, Him who conquered the great enemy Death once and for all. Come, adore on bended Christ the Lord, the newborn King.