This past Sunday morning we wrapped up our series, Bible Stories to Make You Squirm, by looking at another doozy. When Jesus entered the world as a baby and King Herod found out about it, he murdered all the boys two years and under in Bethlehem. What we are supposed to do with this and what it means for us is what we talk about here. Keep reading to learn more.
Also, this week I am going to make some changes to my posting schedule. Producing two posts, three days a week isn’t such a big deal for me on the writing side, but as someone who reads other blogs, I know that trying to read two posts on any given day is a lot. You’ve hung in here with me as I keep learning how to do this better over the last couple of years, and I am supremely grateful. Going forward, I am going to move to five weekly posts–one each day, Monday through Friday, all at 8:00 am. Mondays will be the previous day’s sermon or a Digging in Deeper post if I’ve had the weekend off. Tuesdays and Thursdays will be the usual Morning Musings. Wednesdays and Fridays will be Digging in Deeper posts (usually just a bit longer than the Morning Musings or else a chance to go a little deeper into a conversation we have started on Tuesday or Thursday). Saturdays and Sundays will still be off, although I may start adding some guests posts on the weekends in the not-too-distant future. Hopefully this will make for better pacing for you, the faithful reader, while keeping you still interested in making connections between the Word and the world. Thanks for sticking with me all this time. I’m looking forward to many more good conversations in the days ahead. Blessings to you!
The Hard Road
Most cultures have a set of proverbs, adages, axioms that form the popular foundation on which the bulk of its people stand when it comes to thinking about how they are going to get by and get along with one another. Many of our culture’s most popular proverbs come from the wit and wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, one of our Founding Fathers. Many of these you probably know well: Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man…healthy, wealthy, and wise. A penny saved is…a penny earned. Don’t put off for tomorrow…what you can accomplish today. Some of his proverbs are a little less familiar, but still really good: He who sows thorns should not go barefoot. The one who is content has enough; the one who complains has too much. Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it.
Some people are just able to see the world like that. They have a practical, positive outlook that often winds up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy (especially when they take their own advice). Other folks see the world in terms that may seem practical at first blush, but turn out to be pretty cynical upon closer inspection. Now, that word cynical is one we hear on occasion today, but it’s not ever terribly well-defined. A cynic is someone who sees something wrong with the world, but instead of doing something positive to fix it or make it better they settle for merely complaining about or making fun of it. They see something true, if broken, but respond with a careless indifference that has no meaningful positive impact. Cynicism is poisonous to a heart. It is deadly to a culture. But it is usually good for a chuckle.
Consider a few cynical proverbs. You winning at something is like a 50/50 chance of others just being really bad. That’s true, isn’t it? You may be good, but it may just be that you just came to the plate against someone who’s really awful. My volleyball team in middle school got the chance to play at the Junior Olympic Nationals tournament one year in Denver, CO. You could say we were really good to get there, but stacked up against the other competition, we got smoked. A teammate of mine actually made America’s Funniest Home Videos taking a spike to the face. The truth was that the other teams in our region were just really bad. Still, pointing it out doesn’t really do much good for the one hearing it.
How about this one: You don’t have to try to be someone else, just be yourself; people will hate you anyway. Or this: Money can’t buy you happiness…but it can buy you a private jet. Or this one: If you’re having a bad day, take a breath and remember: Someone else is probably living your dream. That’ll make you feel better, won’t it? So will this: If you don’t have anything nice to say, you are probably just being realistic. Cynicism.
Just one more for you: No good deed goes unpunished. How many of you have lived that one personally? I read about a family in Alabama who took a homeless man into their home in order to give him a good meal and warm place to sleep. He responded by stealing their car, one of their cell phones, $5,000 worth of tools, and two puppies. They finally found him, but never recovered any of the things he stole from them.
Now, these kinds of stories are often ultimately innocuous, just monumentality irritating. But, the truthfulness of the idea that no good deed goes unpunished is unfortunately borne out more often than we’d like to admit in this life. Sometimes, though, things go much worse. This morning as we wrap up our series, Bible Stories to Make You Squirm, I want to look at one last hard story together that sits pretty firmly in this cynical camp. If this is the first part of the series you’re catching, you can go to the church’s website to catch up on what you’ve missed, but you don’t need what’s come before to make sense of this morning.
The big idea driving us on this early summer journey has been that while much of the collection of ancient histories and biographies, prophecies and letters, that we collectively call “the Bible” is great and encouraging reading, some of it is hard. Some of it is really hard. Some of it is so hard that it’s just not comfortable to read, much less think about. There are stories like God telling Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, up as a burnt offering—a practice He explicitly forbade in other places. There are stories like the one where God destroys the world with a flood. There are stories like the one where God kills two young men on the spot for not worshiping Him properly. He would later do something like that again in the book of Acts. And then there are stories like the one we looked at last week in the book of Judges where everything is just terrible and hopeless. As hard as these stories are, though, if what Paul wrote about the Scriptures in his letter to Timothy is true—that every word of the Scriptures is breathed out by Him (and thus true) for our benefit—then we’ve got to be able to make some positive sense out of them.
Well, if the stories we’ve looked at so far have been hard because either God or people did something we struggle to wrap our moral imaginations around, this last story is hard on both counts. God acts and people respond in ways that are hard to accept. They are ugly and violent and heartbreaking. Let’s take a look at this story together that finally brings us from the Old Testament to the early pages of the New.
This story is one that at least in part, you probably know well. You know it well because if you’ve been hanging around the church very long, you’ve probably been to a Christmastime service or two. And if you’ve been to a church service around Christmas, you’ve heard this story. This story takes place in Matthew 2, and no, it isn’t about the birth of Jesus. It’s about what comes next. Listen to this: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea [the very same Bethlehem we mentioned several times last week] in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him.’”
The wise men. We know all about the wise men, right? We three kings of orient are bearing gifts, we traverse far. You’ve perhaps heard that Matthew doesn’t actually tell us how many there were. They were probably astrologers from Babylon who were either connected to or else relying on Scriptures from the Israelites who had been exiled there several centuries earlier. They may have had some kind of a clue as to the political structure of Judea, but, then again, maybe not. What seems more likely is that they saw the Scriptures, figured all the Jews were on board with what they said, and went to where they figured a newborn king would be—the capital.
As dignitaries from afar, they would have received a royal welcome to the court. Unfortunately, the one welcoming them was Herod. He is known to history as Herod the Great. He was called great because of his extensive building projects, not his character. Herod was a pretty infamous character. He was jealous and paranoid. The Jews tended to hate him and he loved provoking them in one way or another. When Herod knew he was dying, he had his servants round up several dozen well-respected and liked Jewish leaders in the community with the instructions that they be put to death on the day he expired so there would be people weeping in the streets, rather than celebrating in them. In other words: Herod was a bad dude.
The news of the birth of this so-called “king of the Jews” left him disturbed. Matthew’s note in v. 3 about all Jerusalem being disturbed with him doesn’t mean they were worried about another king. They were worried about him going on a killing spree to eliminate this potential threat to his rule. Fortunately—if you can call it that—he decided that more of a surgical was in order rather than a blanket action, and so, as Matthew tells us in v. 4: “…he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Christ would be born.”
They quickly identified Bethlehem as the location, and Herod passed this information along to the wise men with the secret instructions to report back to him with news on the child’s location “so that I too can go and worship him.” Now, perhaps the wise men knew the character of Herod and smelled the rat, but then again, maybe not. Either way, they went on to Bethlehem and found Joseph, Mary, and Jesus just as they had been told.
Now, if you were reading this for the first time—and maybe some of you are—at this point in the story, everything seems fine. I mean, Herod summoning the wise men secretly to tell them to report back to them after they found Jesus seems a little fishy, but it’s only a little bump in an otherwise smooth road. Assuming no background knowledge—something Matthew’s original audience would have had, by the way—the apostle’s note in v. 12 catches you off guard: “And being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, [the wise men] returned to their own country by another route.”
If that was the signal that something is amiss, though, what comes next reveals that something isn’t just amiss, it’s downright a-wrong. Verse 13 now: “After they were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to kill him.’” Who tries to kill a child? What kind of a sicko does something like that? That may be our reaction, but in the culture of the day, Herod’s actions made perfect sense. Take away the moral assumptions of the Christian worldview and Herod’s actions have always made sense. If you have power and there arises a potential threat to that power, you eliminate the threat.
Fortunately, Joseph gets his family out of Dodge…er, Bethlehem…just in the nick of time. They had only been out of town a short while when Herod’s troops rolled up into town. You see, when Herod realized that the wise men weren’t coming back to tell him where to find the young Jesus, he abandoned the surgical strike and went for more of a carpet-bombing approach. Verse 16: “Then Herod, when he realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men.”
That’s right: Herod had every boy two years old and under murdered in the greater Bethlehem metro area. Maybe that was a few, maybe it was a lot. That doesn’t really matter. What matters is his intent and the families who were grieving; the families who had Roman soldiers kick in their door, grab up their toddler, slit his throat, and toss him aside like garbage before moving on to the next house.
Now, this story is obviously disturbing. I don’t need to make that case to you at all. What makes it hard enough to make our list—to finish our series—is that this wouldn’t have happened had Jesus not been born. These massacred boys were collateral damage to the action of God in His world. Had God not acted in the way He did, maybe they would have died young anyway in a culture where only about a third of the population of the rich people made it to adulthood, but their lives probably wouldn’t have ended this way. What do we do with this? I mean, aren’t these senseless deaths blood that drips from God’s hands? Had God not acted in the way He did, Herod wouldn’t have done this. He did plenty of other awful things, sure, but this is one tragedy he wouldn’t have perpetrated.
Again, then: What do we do with this? Well, let me start here: This was a tragedy. Again, I don’t need to make that case to you, but let me say it all the same. This was a tragedy. This broke the hearts of the parents who experienced it. It breaks our hearts to read about it today. It broke God’s heart too. But isn’t it His fault? I mean, the very next verse talks about it being the fulfillment of a prophecy. Jeremiah was inspired by God to speak a word of prophecy that was fulfilled by this event. And unfulfilled prophecy was the sign of a false prophet. Everybody believed that Jeremiah was a real prophet. His book has always been considered Scripture. He couldn’t have been wrong about this. If God knew then what was going to happen when He broke into our world in the form of Jesus, why not take a different path? Why stick with this one in spite of what He knew in advance was going to be the result of it?
Because the only alternative would have been to not come at all, and He loves us way too much to have taken that route. Remember what we said back at the beginning of this series about what is one of the most fundamental things we must have in place if we are going to have a chance at making any kind of positive sense out of hard stories like this one? We’ve got to get God’s character right. If we see God as anything less than perfect in justice and love, then this story represents a black mark against Him. It can’t be anything else. But if He is just and loving, then we can rest assured that He knew what He was doing, what the consequences would be, and also that He was going to make things right when the time came.
Understanding that, here’s the truth is story sets before us in depressing detail: When God works in His world, the world is going to work against Him. It’s going to work against Him in the most painful ways possible. Every single time God moves in some way to advance His good plans for His world down the path to completion, the forces of this world, the forces of our enemy, are going to take it as an opportunity to cause as much harm to as many people as possible. The goal of these efforts is to deceive people into equating God’s activity with pain and suffering and misfortune. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? If people think that joining God in advancing His plans is only going to cause them and others pain, how likely are they to eagerly jump in with both feet when He invites them to join Him? That logic may be twisted, but it’s sound. And this hard story is a perfect example of that.
As a matter of fact, the Scriptures on the whole are a testament to this hard truth. The Scriptures are routinely realistic when it comes to the kind of resistance and opposition we can expect from the world when we set ourselves on the path of Christ. As a general rule, the harder we push forward to advance the kingdom of God, the more resistance we can expect to find blocking our way. When you want to sit down and pray as a part of your daily routine, chaos will erupt just before the time you have chosen for it on a regular basis. When you set out to make sacrificial generosity a part of your financial habits, you will suddenly find yourselves facing unexpected bills and expenses that make the thought of giving more unimaginable. When you seek to invest in the life of another person to disciple them in the direction of Jesus, you’ll soon find yourself up to your eyeballs in a sticky mess of life-goo that was way more than you bargained for at the beginning. When a whole church is rocking along and making some steady strides to advance the kingdom of God, she can expect trouble to come. The exact form of that trouble will vary, but its presence in the first place will not.
When God entered this world as a baby to eventually grow to become the man who would sacrifice His life for the sins of the world, opening the doors to eternal life and freedom from the power of sin to all who would enter them, as soon as the enemy was alerted to His action, he set about working to undo it. He set about making His efforts as painful as possible for the people who would benefit the most from them. And so Herod murdered all the baby boys in an entire region.
Here’s where all of this lands for us: Following God’s path isn’t easy. Following God’s path isn’t easy. It isn’t. It hasn’t ever been. It won’t ever be until the final kingdom arrives. As long as our heavenly Father waits patiently for the day when He will return to bring judgment and restoration and the total destruction of all sin and death, resistance to His kingdom’s advance will continue to be fierce. Following God’s path isn’t easy. Some of you know that very personally. The resistance you faced may have been something external, or something entirely internal and personal, but if you have ever committed yourself to the path of Christ, you’ve faced resistance. Following God’s path isn’t easy.
But. Are you ready for this? Our God is bigger than the resistance we face. Do you know that? Say, “Amen,” if you do. Our God is bigger than the resistance we face. Following God’s path isn’t easy, but our God is bigger than the resistance we face. Every resistance to the advance of His kingdom comes from sin. There is a day coming when God will destroy sin. Completely. It will be gone. Forever. There is a day coming when every wrong will be righted; every injustice will be overturned. Every act of faithfulness will be recognized and rewarded. Our efforts to stand out as free people in a world of bondage will be acknowledged and appreciated. Indeed, even as we celebrate the freedom we have in our nation this week, we remember just how much freer we will be in the kingdom of God and recommit ourselves to seeing it brought more and more into reality in our circles of influence.
Yet even as we do, we cannot forget this truth: Following God’s path isn’t easy. It takes being willing to walk through valleys that are so deep we are left wondering just where exactly the bottom is. It takes being willing to face persecutions that are as unjust as they are unwarranted. It takes being willing to be ruthlessly honest about our own motivations for what and why we are doing. It takes a willingness to remember that no matter how hard things might get along the way, our God is bigger than the resistance we are facing. What’s more, He’s already faced it Himself on the cross. Following God’s path isn’t easy. But it is good. It will lead to life. It will lead to joy. It will lead to hope. We’ve just got to keep following. Keep following. Keep following. Keep following. Life lies at the end of this road, and nothing hard along the way is going to keep you from getting to it. No hard story or hard experience will stop your heavenly Father from rewarding your pursuit with the prize you are seeking. Following God’s path isn’t easy, but it’s the only one that’ll get you there.