Christmas Mourning

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Matthew 2:13-18 (Escape to Egypt)

INTRODUCTION: It is the last Sunday of Advent, and we are following the story of Christ’s birth through the opening chapters of Matthew’s gospel. So far the story has been one of joy. A young couple is married, a child is born, Magi come bearing gifts, prophecy is fulfilled. But in today’s passage, the story turns sour. You may have noticed the title of today’s message is “Christmas Mourning,” spelled “Mourn,” to weep or to mourn. I wish it was a typo, but it’s not. In today’s passage we encounter the dark side of Christmas. (Read Matthew 2:13-18 and pray)

Joy to the world! Have a holly, jolly Christmas! It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Most of the songs at Christmas focus on the joy of the season. And rightfully so. It is a joyful season. It is meant to be. Joy is part of the story. The angel told the shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

But the Christmas story is not all about joy and wonder. There are elements of sadness in it as well. In today’s passage we come to the heartbreaking slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem. This is traditionally commemorated on December 28 on the church calendar. It is a stark reminder that although Christmas is a time of joy and rejoicing, for many it is also a time of sorrow and tears.

One woman said very honestly, “Around Thanksgiving time I feel like going into my apartment and not answering the door until after Christmas.” Kay Warren, wife of Pastor Rick Warren, recently wrote an article sharing how difficult her first Christmas was after losing her son. She writes: “Christmas 2013 was our family’s first without our son Matthew. I could barely breathe. I stayed away from the grocery store and the mall, fearing I couldn’t hold it together in either. The Internet became my friend as I shopped late at night, without sentimental mall music stirring up memories of Christmases past – when all three of my children were alive.”

We live in a broken world, and Christmas can sometime magnify that brokenness for people.

I. A sudden crisis (13)
      – Isaiah 53:3; Revelation 12:1-6; John 10:18

One way we experience sadness at Christmas is because of a sudden crisis. Whether it is an accident, injury, illness or loss of employment, when these things happen at Christmas, it only seems to magnify the pain.

Joseph and Mary also experienced a sudden crisis at Christmas. It happened right after the Magi left to go back to their land. Look at verse 13: When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2:13)

When Joseph and Mary went to sleep that night, all was well. They were living in a house in Bethlehem. They had a beautiful baby boy. The Magi had just come to worship the child and presented him with lavish, expensive gifts worthy of a king. I’m sure they went to bed that night saying, “This was one of the best days in our life!”

And then the angel came. “Joseph! Get up! Now! Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt! Herod is coming to kill your child!” Talk about a shock to the system! This, of course, threw the family into crisis mode. Joseph woke everyone up, and they made a hasty escape to Egypt in the middle of the night.

Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ humanity in these verses, but especially his helplessness and vulnerability as a little baby. Jesus was completely dependent on his parents in this situation. This was part of Christ’s sufferings. Isaiah 53:3 says that Jesus was “a man of sorrows,” and Matthew shows us that he was a refugee even from birth.

The book of Revelation pictures this scene in graphic terms. In Revelation 12 a woman is pregnant and about to give birth. A dragon stands before the woman ready to devour her child as soon as it is born. She gives birth to a son, a male child, who is then snatched away from the dragon and saved.

It is a picture of the spiritual battle that has been taking place since the beginning of time. We see it in the book of Genesis with Cain murdering Abel. We see it in the book of Exodus with Pharaoh murdering the Hebrews boys in Egypt. We see it here in Matthew with Herod seeking to take Jesus’ life. Satan would try and take Jesus’ life repeatedly in the years to come, but Jesus would not die until the time was right. Jesus said in John 10:18: “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” (John 10:18)

The angel came to Joseph in a dream and warned him about Herod, and all of a sudden the whole family was thrown into crisis. They got up in the middle of the night and escaped into Egypt. N. T. Wright comments: “The shadow of the cross falls over the story from this moment on. Jesus is born with a price on his head.”

Sometimes we experience sadness at Christmas because of a sudden crisis. But we need to remember that God works even in the crises in our lives. God sent Jesus to Egypt to protect him, just like he sent Jacob and his family there to protect them many years before. Your times are in God’s hands. You can trust him to help you through the crises of life.

II. Far from home (14-15)
      – Hosea 11:1; Matthew 8:20

Another way we experience sadness at Christmas is when we are far from home. Whether you are in the military, or you are a student, or work and circumstances have taken you away, Christmas can be an especially difficult time when you are away from family and home.

Joseph and Mary also knew the pain of being far from home. Look at verses 14-15: So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14-15)

It was about an 80 mile trip from Bethlehem to Egypt, but remember, they wanted to go back to their home in Nazareth which was 80 miles in the opposite direction. Going to Nazareth by way of Egypt was really taking the long way home.

Not only that but they were to stay in Egypt for an unspecified period of time. They were not to leave until Herod had died and the angel gave them new traveling orders. They had no idea how long this would be. And so they settled in Egypt, the land of bondage and slavery, far from family and home.

But even this was all part of God’s plan. Matthew says that this fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hosea 11:1) He was quoting from Hosea 11:1 which was a historical note about God calling Israel out of Egypt at the Exodus.

But now we learn that Hosea 11:1 is both history and prophecy rolled into one. Throughout his gospel Matthew draws some fascinating parallels between Israel and Jesus. Both were called God’s son, both were sent to Egypt for protection, both were called out of Egypt in God’s timing. Once again, God’s plan is bigger than we realize. God could have sent Jesus anywhere, but he sent him to Egypt so that Hosea 11:1 might be fulfilled

By the way, this is the first time in the New Testament that Jesus is called God’s Son. So far in the gospel of Matthew he has been called the son of David, the son of Abraham, the Christ, Savior and Emmanuel. Now you can add to all those titles “the Son of God.”

Jesus going to Egypt is a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” And so just as we found a new “Genesis” in Matthew 1, a new beginning in Christ; now we find a new “Exodus” in Matthew 2, a new deliverance for God’s people in the person of Jesus Christ.

Are you far from your home this Christmas season? Far from your family? Experiencing loneliness? Jesus knows how you feel. Jesus once said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20) Jesus knew what it was like to be far from his earthly home. But even more Jesus knew what it was like to be far from his heavenly home. The story of Christmas is the story of Jesus leaving his home in heaven and entering our world as a little baby. Jesus left his Father in heaven to come to us.

Jesus knows what it’s like to be far from home at Christmas. But God took care of him. He protected him from Herod’s plot. He sent the family to Egypt. The gifts of the Magi probably helped with expenses. God provided in advance for their trip. They were to stay there until the death of Herod. Which means Herod will die, but Jesus will live. The word translated “death” is a word that means “to be finished.” In other words, Herod is finished – but Jesus is just getting started!

Jesus knows what it’s like to be away from home. God took care of Jesus, and he will take care of you.

III. Unspeakable loss (16-18)
      – Jeremiah 31:15-17; Matthew 5:4; Romans 12:15

And then a third way we experience sadness at Christmas, and this is probably the toughest one, is when we have lost a loved one. Christmas is a time that hold special memories of our loved ones and times past, and so the loss is especially painful at this time of the year.

Sadly, the Christmas story itself contains an occurrence of unspeakable loss, the loss of the innocents at Bethlehem. Look at verse 16 with me: “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Matthew 2:16)

We read this and wonder how one man could be so cruel, and yet Herod had a reputation for both cruelty and paranoia. When he first came to power he took out the Sanhedrin and then later slaughtered three hundred of his own court officers. He murdered his wife, her mother and her grandmother, and two brothers-in-law. He murdered three of his own sons prompting the Emperor Augustus to comment that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. The historian Josephus said that Herod “was a man of great barbarity toward all men equally.” In other words, he treated everyone like dirt. He even ordered that one person from each family in Jerusalem be executed at his own death so that when he died the whole nation would be in mourning. Fortunately that order was never carried out.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we see his reaction to the Magi not coming back to him. In accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi, he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.

Now that doesn’t mean that Jesus was two years old. In fact considering Herod’s paranoia, that is very unlikely. Herod didn’t like to leave any margin for error. Notice he doesn’t just kill all the boys in Bethlehem but in the surrounding areas as well. If Jesus was two years old, Herod would probably have killed all the boys three years old and under! No, it means Jesus was still an infant, perhaps still under a year, which would explain why they were still in Bethlehem and had not returned to Nazareth yet.

Bethlehem was a small town. It’s about 28,000 in population today but there were probably only about four or five hundred people living there at the time of Jesus. That means there would have been about twenty boys in Bethlehem at the time, but then there would also be the boys in the surrounding areas. Either way twenty baby boys means forty bereaved parents as well as brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles all in mourning together. It was an unspeakable loss.

One of the sad truths of Christmas is that in this world we are confronted with great evil. We just recently passed the anniversary of the Newton school massacre, an unspeakable loss that happened within weeks of Christmas. Several days ago militants from the Pakistani Taliban attacked an army-run school in Peshawar, killing 141 people, 132 of them children.

Once again, there is a great spiritual battle going on. Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem was part of this battle. Warren Wiersbe writes: “The coming of Jesus into this world was a declaration of war.” Satan’s opposition to Christ and the church continues in the persecution of the church around the world. As Warren Wiersbe reminds us, “People still die today because of Jesus.”

And yet none of this catches God off guard. None of this means that God is defeated. Far from it. Matthew writes in verses 17 and 18: Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17-18)

Matthew quotes here from Jeremiah 31which spoke of the people of Israel being marched from Jerusalem into exile to Babylon. Jacob’s wife Rachel was buried at Ramah on the road to Bethlehem, right on the border between the two kingdoms. (Gen 35:16-20; 1 Sam 7:17, 10:2-4) When the people of Israel were exiled to Babylon they passed right through Ramah. And so here in Jeremiah 31 we find Rachel figuratively weeping for her children as they are marched off into exile.

But Matthew tells us that Jeremiah not only spoke poetically about Rachel weeping at the exile. He also spoke prophetically about the mothers of Bethlehem weeping over their infant sons. Rachel is symbolic of all the mothers of Israel, and so Matthew sees her weeping even now over the lost sons of Bethlehem.

Notice he says that she refuses to be comforted. How often when we are mourning do we refuse to be comforted? Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) There is comfort available. There is a balm in Gilead for those who will receive it. God comforts us in all our sorrows, so that we may comfort others in their times of sorrow. But we must receive his comfort.

The Jeremiah passage that Matthew quotes goes on to speak of hope. Jeremiah 31:16-17 says, “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:16-17) You may be weeping now, but I want you to know there is a hope for your future, too. There is comfort through the Holy Spirit, and there is the hope of the resurrection for those who are in Christ.

Jesus knows what you’re going through. He has not abandoned you. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, which means that he is also with us in our suffering and our pain. Psalm 30:5 says,“Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5) It may be hard to see it now, but there is life beyond grief, there is comfort from God, and there is hope for your future.

CONCLUSION: This passage from Matthew is a good reminder to us that Christmas can be a sad time for many people. A sudden crisis, being far from home, or the loss of loved ones can make the holidays a difficult time. We need to be sensitive to the needs of others and point them to God who offers us true comfort and hope.

Romans 12:15 tells us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) I would encourage you to look for practical ways to reach out to people who are experiencing sadness this Christmas season. Invite them into your home. Invite them to church. Send them a card acknowledging their loss. Let them know you are praying for them.

May God comfort you in all your sorrows this Christmas season. And may God use you to comfort others in their sorrows as you look to him.

© Ray Fowler

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