“You Can’t Stop Christmas”
“Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville – did not. The Grinch hated Christmas – the whole Christmas season.” Thus begins Dr. Seuss’ classic tale of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” In case you are unfamiliar with this story, it’s about a green character with a cold heart that’s “two sizes too small” who lives alone with his dog. Resentful of his noisy neighbors, the good people of Whoville, and their Christmas celebrations, he plans to steal Christmas by sneaking into their homes through the chimney at night to steal their presents and Christmas dinner. He takes everything, including their presents, Christmas trees, ornaments, and even the roast beast! The Grinch really is a mean one – until he realizes that he didn’t stop Christmas from coming as the Whos still celebrate on Christmas despite the Grinch stealing everything.
Now I’m not here today to just retell the story of the Grinch who stole Christmas. What I really want to talk about is the original, “Grinch,” King Herod the Great, who not only tried to steal Christmas, but tried to kill Christmas by murdering all the boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem. Herod was intent on taking Christ out of Christmas by murdering the baby Jesus. Herod wasn’t concerned about noisy neighbors. He was worried about holding onto power and doing whatever it took to remain the so-called “king” of the Jews.
In fact, Herod’s power really came from the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. Herod came from a well-connected political family, and when Rome conquered Judea and Jerusalem, he was put on the throne. Herod was known as “the Great” because of his great building projects, such as the Temple in Jerusalem. But Herod knew his position was tenuous, and so he became so paranoid and so power-hungry that he even executed two of his twelve wives and three of his sons for supposed conspiracy against him. Not even Herod’s own family was safe.
So when the so-called “wise men,” or magi, come from the east, inquiring about the birth of the new king of the Jews you can imagine the angst it caused him. We read in Matthew, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). No doubt! You know how the story goes. Herod summons the wise men for an audience and then sends them to Bethlehem, instructing them, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him” (Matt. 2:8). Of course, Herod has no intention of worshiping the newborn Christ child. He wants only to kill him. This child is his competition and a threat. Jesus is the trueborn King of the Jews, a descendent of King David himself and the promised Messiah of Israel’s hopes and dreams. Herod knows only one way to deal with threats to his throne: put them to death.
And so Herod, like the Grinch who stole Christmas, tries to ruin the very first Christmas. But worse than the Grinch, Herod in fact will do whatever it takes to try to take Christ out of Christmas by taking Christ out of this world with a sword.
This is where our Gospel lesson picks up the narrative. God sends an angel to warn Joseph about Herod’s plan so that he can take Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt. But when Herod finds out that he’s been duped by the wise men, who “departed to their own country by another way” (Matt. 1:12), he comes up with a scheme to kill off the child: he sends his soldiers to murder every baby boy in Bethlehem “two years old or under.” A man who wasn’t above killing his own sons certainly didn’t have a problem killing other people’s children either.
So what do we make of this story? Where is the Good News in today’s Gospel reading? What hope do we have despite the tragedy of the massacre of the Holy Innocents as we call them? First of all, we rejoice that God carries out his purposes even when wicked men oppose and try to stop them. King Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus, but he didn’t. God sent an angel to warn Joseph in a dream. And through Joseph, God protected the infant Christ when the Holy Family fled into Egypt. Three times in our Gospel reading, Matthew quotes Old Testament Scripture and says that whatever took place happened to fulfill the Word of God’s prophets (Matt. 2:15, 17, 23). So no matter how hard Herod tried, he could not put a stop to the good and gracious will of God.
In Galatians 4, we read, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). God sent his Son to die for our sins and to make us children of God, and nothing was going to get in the way of God’s plan. Absolutely nothing! Not Joseph’s original plan to divorce Mary. Not King Herod’s attempt to kill the baby Jesus. And not even the later temptations by Satan for Jesus to abandon his journey to the cross. Nothing can get in the way of God’s love for you and his plan to save you from your sins.
It's interesting how just four days after Christmas we are brought back to reality. On Christmas we’re flying high with togetherness of family, opening gifts, Christmas carols, and of course celebrating the birth of Jesus. Then the next day everything goes back to the way things were before. We might have a brief moment of peace on earth but then life comes crashing down. The same is true after the first Christmas. Little children are slaughtered. One can only imagine the grief of their moms and dads.
Mary too would come to know that grief – the pain of losing a child in a violent way. Mary’s son Jesus escaped Herod’s clutches that day in Bethlehem. But Jesus was still destined to die. He was born to die. Is there anything as mournful as the picture in which Mother Mary holds the limp, bloody corpse of Christ beneath the foot of the cross?
But even more than Mary’s son, Jesus is the Son of God. He is the Son who gave up his glory in heaven and “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Jesus did die. No, he didn’t day as a baby in Bethlehem, but that’s only because God had a bigger plan for him. Instead of dying at the hands of King Herod, Jesus would die on a cross for the sins of the whole world. And so we find that the flight into Egypt wasn’t just so that Jesus could live a long and happy life. He lived to die another day. He lived to die for you and me. And so, even now at Christmas, we must recognize that the cross casts a shadow over everything in Jesus’ life.
What then of the baby boys of Bethlehem? By their deaths Jesus is secured safely in Egypt and the prophecy is fulfilled, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18). The scandal of suffering for the sake of Christ is perhaps the most perplexing concept to the human intellect, yet as the poet John Keble wrote, their deaths ensured “That Thou [Christ] might’st live for them a sadder death to see.” Only in Christ does death equal victory and weakness equal strength. Long before Christ would say to his disciples, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39), these children were already resting secure in the arms of their Savior, the infant child Jesus. While the wisdom of God cannot be comprehended in this slaying of the Holy Innocents, what remains is the Child who lived, died, and rose for all in order that the promise of the Resurrection would belong to these Holy Martyrs and all who have been baptized into his name.
So this morning we have seen how God carried out his plan for Jesus – his plan for you and your salvation. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:39). You can’t take Christ out of Christmas. And it does no good to kill Jesus either. Or rather, it does you every good, for if you kill him, he comes back on the third day and gives salvation to everyone who believes in his name. So Merry Christmas!