The Ugly Side Of Christmas

Read Matthew 2:16-18 – On this Sunday after Christmas – on what is one of the traditionally low attendance Sunday’s of the year, I have decided to do something that (for obvious reasons) I never do.  I am going to sing a solo.  In fact, I am going to sing one of my favorite holiday classics.  If you know the lyrics, you are invited to sing along.  Are you ready?  Okay, altogether now, let’s sing the theme song for “The Grinch.” 



The Grinch Song

 You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.
You really are a heel.
You’re as cuddly as a cactus,
You’re as charming as an eel.
Mr. Grinch.

You’re a bad banana
With a greasy black peel.

You’re a monster, Mr. Grinch.
Your heart’s an empty hole.
Your brain is full of spiders,
You’ve got garlic in your soul.
Mr. Grinch.

I wouldn’t touch you, with a
thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole. 

You’re a vile one, Mr. Grinch.
You have termites in your smile.
You have all the tender sweetness
Of a seasick crocodile.
Mr. Grinch.

Given the choice between the two of you
I’d take the seasick crocodile.

You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch.
You’re a nasty, wasty skunk.
Your heart is full of unwashed socks
Your soul is full of gunk.
Mr. Grinch.

The three words that best describe you, are as follows, and I quote:

Stink, Stank, Stunk!

You’re a rotter, Mr. Grinch.
You’re the king of sinful sots.
Your heart’s a dead tomato splotched
With moldy purple spots,
Mr. Grinch.

 Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, Mangled up in tangled up knots.

You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch.
With a nauseaus super-naus.
You’re a crooked jerky jockey
And you drive a crooked hoss.
Mr. Grinch.

 You’re a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich
With arsenic sauce!

What fun?  Now why would I have us sing such a song?  I did it to accentuate one of the most evil events perpetrated by one of history’s most renowned scoundrels.   If you listened as the scripture lesson was read earlier in the service, then you know I am talking about Herod and “The Slaughter of the Innocents” recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.

I learned something new this year about Herod.  Do you know what his name means?  It means “Hero” or “Son of a Heroic.”   What?  This is nothing heroic about Herod whatsoever?  He was called “Herod the Great.”  A more appropriate name would probably be “Herod the Obsessed” or “Herod the Paranoid.”

Who was this guy?  Without resorting to indecent language, let’s just say that Herod was a jerk.  He was a cruel, heartless, crafty, and manipulative.  He was a real monster.  In the Christmas drama, Herod plays the role of sin incarnate.  Billy Strayhorn describes him like this:

Herod is the quintessential villian. He is Simon Lagree, Philthy McNasty, Snidley Whiplash, Captain Bly, Lex Luthor, Darth Vader, the Grinch and Lord Voldemort all rolled into one.

Strayhorn continues:

Herod is the Scrooge of the original Christmas story but a Scrooge whose heart never melts, a Scrooge whose heart is never touched and remains hard as stone and cold as ice. He may be the one John Calvin was thinking of when he came up with the theology of the Total Depravity of Humanity. In all of Christian history, there may not have been anyone as vile and evil as Herod.

A Roman citizen of Jewish descent, Herod used his political connections and Jewish ancestry to convince the Roman Senate that they should appoint him governor over the Jews.  For several years Herod served in this capacity, proving himself to be a good “yes man” for Rome. So impressed were the Romans at Herod’s loyalty that in 40 BC they conferred upon him the ceremonial title “King of the Jews.”

To say that Herod was mentally unstable would be a gross understatement.  He was a manic depressive who suffered from paranoid delusions.  He was insanely protective of his royal title.  Indeed, at one point, Herod murdered his youngest son because the child seemed a too eager to one day be king.  Herod held the child under water in the palace swimming pool until the boys’ struggles eternally cease.  When the child’s mother protested, Herod went into a fit of rage and killed her as well.  He also murdered his grief stricken mother-in-law because she went behind his back and reported his actions to Cleopatra.

This was only the beginning of Herod’s murderous ways. He would destroy anyone who dared to challenge his authority.   This became abundantly clear years when Herod publicly declared that his oldest two sons would inherit his kingdom.  After making this announcement, rumors reached Herod that his boys had begun making plans for their assent to power.  Herod became angry.  You guessed it—he ordered their execution.  No wonder Caesar Augustus once said that it would be safer to be one of Herod’s pigs then one of his sons. 

Herod’s final murderous act of bloodshed wouldn’t take place until following his death.  Fearing that his own death would become a cause for celebration in Israel, Herod ordered his soldiers to travel throughout Jerusalem on the day of his death killing the oldest child in every home.  In that way he could be assured that the nation would weep rather than rejoice on the day of his death. 

As we see from the story, the wise-men arrived at Herod’s palace.  They enter the presence of the pompous, insanely jealous, and mentally unstable puppet king of Jerusalem.  In Herod’s chambers they ask a question:  “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?  We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Herod is stunned.  “What baby?” He says!  Herod’s political advisors gather around the King.  They suggest that perhaps the heavenly star which the Magi are following might point to the birth of the Jewish Messiah.  “Messiah?  I thought that talk about a Messiah was some sort of myth!  Where is this Messiah supposed to be born?”  His advisors couldn’t answer that question.  Herod excused himself from the wise-men’s presence and called for an assembly of the Sanhedrin—the Jewish religious leadership.   Within hours rumors began to race through Jerusalem.  “The visitors from the east say that the Messiah has been born.”  You’d think that the town would have erupted into celebration, but it didn’t.  In fact, everyone was quite fearful.  Matthew says “all Jerusalem was troubled.”  They have good reason.  They know that Herod will do whatever is necessary to protect his throne—even kill the baby boys of all the Jewish because one of them is said to be born the “king of the Jews.” 

While in conference with his religious advisors, King Herod reads the scripture—probably for the first time in his life.  From the prophet Micah he reads these words:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah:  for out from you shall come a Ruler—a shepherd over my people Israel.”

“Bethlehem,” Herod whispers.  “The Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem.”

Summoning the Magi again into his presence, Herod inquires as to the exact time that the star appeared in the sky.  “About two years ago,” the wise men replied.  Herod tells the Magi what he had learned from his study of scripture.  “The prophets say that the Messiah will be born in a little town called Bethlehem.  Go and find the young lad and when you do come back and tell me.  I’ll want to head down to Bethlehem myself so that I can pay my respects.”

Herod lied.  He had no intention of worshipping the baby.  When the Magi left, Herod immediately went to work devising a plan to protect his throne.  “As soon as these wise men tell me how to find the baby,” he says to himself, “I’ll head right down to Bethlehem and slit his throat myself.”  The wise-men, however, were quick studies in human nature.  They knew Herod could not be trusted.  After finding the baby they worshipped him, offered him gifts, and left the region by another route.

Herod must have sent spies to follow the wise-men.  He quickly discovered their duplicity.  Herod felt threatened.  He couldn’t take any chances.  He had to act decisively.  His power and possessions hung in the balance.  He had to decide on a course of action.  In the most heinous acts recorded in the New Testament, Herod orders the murder of every baby boy in Bethlehem under the age of two.  In this story, thanks to Herod, we see the ugly side of Christmas.

“But what if the baby really is the Messiah?” Herod’s advisors asked.  “If you try to kill the Messiah, you’ll be declaring war on God!”  Herod silenced them with a look.  He ordered his troops to begin making preparations for the slaughter.  Then he went into his chambers. “No one is going to take away my throne,” he muttered.  “Nobody . . . not even God.”

Matthew searches for words to describe the bloodshed and grief that surrounded Bethlehem the night of the slaughtered.  He quotes Jeremiah:

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel is weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

When we imagine the surroundings of the first Christmas how often do we think about the slaughter of the innocents?  Probably not very often!  Few of us read this passage as a part of our family devotions.  No one sings Christmas carols about pain and anguish of Rachel in Ramah.  Hallmark sells no cards depicting the slaughter of Bethlehem’s babies.  We would find it rather difficult to sip eggnog, unwrap presents, and revel in the innocent delight of children with all that weeping and wailing in the background.  Nobody really wants to talk of the ugly side of Christmas.  Let’s sing a few more Christmas carols and call is a day.

But if we are to be true to the texts we must include this story in our observations of the season.  We must muster up the courage to look into the darkness and deal with the ugly.

Sometimes the biggest challenge we face when interpreting the scripture is trying to discover why a particular passage has even made it into the Bible. Why does the Spirit inspired Matthew to place a story of such horror, bloodshed, and grief so near the beauty and simplicity of the manger?  Why draw attention away from the Christ in the crèche to think about the slaughter of all those babies in Bethlehem?

Let me suggest one reason.  The story of the birth of Christ and the slaughter of the babies, when considered together, reveals on the one hand, a God who places great value on the gift of human life.  On the other hand, these stories also reveal a human tendency to devalue human life. They reveal the ugliness of our sin and the brokenness it brings into our lives – made so much more real with the images of God’s self-giving and sacrificial love in the background.

Consider Herod.  Was he the kind of man who placed a great deal of value on the gift of life? No!  Herod was the kind of person who would kill his subjects, his children, and even his wife if it could be seen to serve his personal interests and ambitions.

Now let me ask you:  are there any expressions of this evil spirit of Herod in modern day civilization? 

Not long ago in Chicago workers at a waste treatment facility discover the body of a infant child.  An autopsy revealed that the baby was perfectly healthy.  The cause of death was simple neglect.  A police detective said:  “It appears as though somebody decided that the pressures of parenthood were too much to bear so they simply threw their baby away.”

In Florida last week a young boy was arrested for selling cocaine.  What makes this story so unusual is that the police consider the boy more a victim than a culprit.  According to the police the boy’s mother had sold him as a slave to the drug dealer in exchange for more drugs. 

What about the mass number of abortions taking place for no other reasons than the convenience of parents to not raise a child they conceived?

What about the ongoing terrorism taking place in all corners or the world?

What about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

What about the slaughter of innocent civilians in so many countries? 

What about the ethnic cleansing? 

What about that teenage boy not long ago who murdered his grandparents?

The spirit of Herod—the human tendency to devalue and destroy human life—is very prevalent in our society today, isn’t it?

Now we don’t have to look on such a grand scale to see this human tendency to devalue human life.  You see this tendency to devalue human life has its roots in attitudes frequently express by what we might otherwise consider to be good, decent folks.  Have you ever heard someone insult or put down another individual or group because of the color of their skin or their racial heritage?  Have you ever heard somebody talk as though they were better than another because they had more money or a better education?  Have you ever observed as one person sought to build themselves up by maligning, ridiculing, and destroying the reputation of another?   Have you ever seen another person treated as a source of pleasure or satisfaction rather than as a individual who is worthy of respect and love simply because they are created in the image of God?  If you have ever witnessed these types of attitudes then you have seen the spirit of Herod.  You have seen the evil spirit that leads to the devaluing and destruction of human life.

Now let me ask you this:  why would Matthew place an account of these evil deeds so near the birth of Christ?  Why not leave this story out of the scripture?  Why not allow us to celebrate the birth of the Messiah without resorting to a discussion about such sadness, sorrow, suffering, and sin?  It’s because Matthew wants us to see the contrast between the destructive spirit of Herod which so devalues human life and the Spirit of a God who so greatly values human life. 

I want you to notice something about Jesus.  I want you to notice that from the day of his birth in Bethlehem his life becomes the source of a great cultural, social, religious and political turmoil.  From the very beginning of his life Jesus was embroiled in a conflict with the powers and principalities of this world. Martin Luther put it best when he said that the cradle and the cross were created from the same wood.

Of course we know that Herod fail in his quest to kill the baby Jesus.  We know that the baby Jesus grew up.  We also know that throughout his life the evil spirit of Herod refused to give up the fight.  The spirit of Herod continued to pursue the baby of Bethlehem—eventually catching him one day in a garden tomb called Gethsemane.  By this time Jesus was an adult.  He busy preaching and teaching about the arrival of God’s kingdom—a kingdom in which human life is highly valued. 

Jesus revealed that ALL are loved and accepted by the Triune God—without regard to race, color, culture, or national origin.  Jesus revealed that women do not sit as second class citizens in the economy of God, but are persons created in God’s image and worthy of respect.  Jesus demonstrated by his attitudes and actions that our Triune God welcomes little children with open, loving, and playful arms—not regulated to the corners of life where they were expected to stand as silent statues until they were mature enough to act like adults.  Jesus taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit desires that all who are hungry be fed, all who are naked be clothed, all who are homeless be sheltered and who are oppressed be set free. Jesus taught that the love and grace of God was bigger than the worst that any sinner could bring.  Our Triune God loves and aims through the incarnation and the cross to redeem the lives of us all – even the most rotten and terrible sinner’s among us are love by God – for God was in Christ, not counting our sin’s against us, but instead redeeming us from sin’s cruse of death.  The backdrop of Herod’s treachery serves only to accentuate God’s goodness in a world of such terrible human sin—after all, he had come to seek and save all we who were sinners.

Now we know why conflict seemed to follow Jesus everyday of his life—from his birth in Bethlehem to his crucifixion on the cross at Golgotha.  It was because the kingdom that Christ came to establish stand in sharp contrast to the attitudes and values of this world.  Jesus taught that all persons are precious in God’s sight—be they black or white, male or female, young or old, born or unborn, rich or poor, powerful or weak, influential or outcast, well-educated or ignorant.  In Christ we see expressed the love of a God who greatly values human life.  We see this love against the backdrop of a humanity that so greatly devalues human life.

We love to hear the traditional story of Christmas, don’t we?  We love to hear about angelic visitors, shepherds in the field, and the sweet baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger.  We must remember, however, that there is another chapter to this story.  It is the chapter about how Herod slaughter’s the innocents in a vain attempt to kill the baby Jesus.  This part of the story makes us feel very uncomfortable because it reminds us that too often we fail to truly appreciate God’s love or human life.

“Oh, come on preacher.  Yesterday we celebrated the birth of Jesus.  It was such a good day.  We want to hold on to that feeling.  It was bad enough that we had to listen to you sing.  Let’s not do anything else that reminds us of our sinfullness and brokenness.  Tell us, again, about the cute little baby in the manger. We want to sing some of those glorious Christmas carols.  We don’t want to hear about all that weeping and wailing.”

You see these parts of the story remind us that we are sinners—and we when realize that we are sinners we so much more fully appreciate that we need a Savior – and that Jesus came to be that Savior.   

 In The Reformed Journal, Harry R. Boer writes, “The Point of Christmas is that…God understands [us].. It tells [us] that God identifies with [our] problems, sorrows, hopes, frustrations and joys. God knows them not because God made [us], not because God is all-knowing, but because God became…one of us.

 God became one of us.  God became Immanuel – God with us.  God was in Christ, reconciling the world…not counting sin against us.  God was incarnate in Christ Jesus as the greatest act of generous and loving grace ever shown – and not even “Herod the Paranoid” could stop that love from bringing us all the gift of redemption.   

The story of Jesus—from the cradle to the cross—is a continual reminder of our sin – of how much we human beings can devalue life.  But the story of Jesus is also a message about grace.  It’s a message that even when we are at our worst, there is nothing we can do to stop God’s loved from bringing us redemption.  It is a message that says that God so values all human life that he was willing to become one of us, sacrificing himself so that we might all know what it means to be a part of God’s family.   We need mercy and Jesus brings that.  We need God’s love – and Jesus reveals it to be real and offered to us all.   

We have to look at Herod.  He reminds us how needy we are.  But he is only in the foreground for a moment.  He quickly fades to the background and just as quickly out of the picture.  The love of God – which seemed at first to only be a backdrop – eventuallu moves clearly into view through Jesus the Son.  Not only that – Jesus eventually pushrd everything else out of the picture so that all we see throughout eternity is one thing: that we are beloved by God – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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