Each spring my siblings and I converge on the shores of Lake Michigan to open up our family cottage. One sister sends out a list of potential projects and we decide on those that seem most pressing. So we arrive with an itinerary of tasks and bring the necessary supplies with us so that we can make the most of our three days together. We are continually amazed at how much more needs to be done even though we have been doing home improvements for years. But, as any homeowner knows, things fall apart. Depreciation hits the minute you drive the car off the lot. So a cottage that sits empty in the woods all winter has its share of challenges, many of which stem from woodland creatures who seem to know when we’ve closed up shop for another season. They seem to find their way in through the tiniest spaces because dry accommodations await them.
A few years ago our project was to clean out the sizable shed that my father built as a workshop. The best way to tackle something like that is to vomit everything out of it and assess what is still serviceable. Then only those things go back in. We were amazed at how much stuff had been gnawed apart by hungry creatures trying to fill their bellies in the cold of winter. When an electric cord didn’t provide nourishment, they moved on to the rider mower engine and then the work gloves and so on and so forth. My sister was in the barn and lifted a tarp off a table saw. Looking up at her with terrified eyes was a mother mouse with four tiny pink babies. They were the size of jelly bellies and attached to her chest. Frozen in a momentary stare-down, Mama Mouse snapped out of it and ran, leaving a string of squirming newborns behind. Michelle was horrified—and sad to have disrupted such a beautiful scene of nature living safely in our barn. But, as she stood there looking at the babies, she saw the mother mouse coming back from wherever she had fled. She was coming back for her babies! Michelle stood back a bit, a looming figure trying to give off friendly vibes—if that was even possible! Whether it was the peaceful intentions my sister sought to communicate or the mother’s refusal to leave without her babies, she returned to the top of the table saw surface. One by one, she took those babies in her mouth and carried them off to safety. She looked up at this gigantic human being each time she came back then continued her relocation project. Michelle filmed it for the rest of us to watch and we all ooh-ed and aahh-ed over the protective instincts of a simple barn mouse. It seems like the tender parenting instincts we possess as human beings can be witnessed throughout creation from the lowliest to the most impressive of species.
We move on quickly from the birth narrative after Christmas. In Matthew 2 we read about the visit of the magi to the Christ child. In verses 13-23 we witness how God’s commands evoke human action. There are three commands (two by the angel of the Lord and one by Herod). There are three actions and three scripture prophecies fulfilled. Matthew’s Christmas story, we quickly realize, does not depict a silent night, holy night. Devout followers of God are pawns in a political arena where tyrants order killings and families flee in the dark of night. If we think we suffer from insomnia today, with our worries preventing us from dropping off to sleep, the ordinary citizen of the Roman Empire had much to fear with an unstable ruler who didn’t hesitate to order a murder. And no one questioned the actions of King Herod!
Herod the Great is the despot identified in Matthew 2. He was given this title because of the many work projects he accomplished that advanced the progress of his empire. Roads made travel smooth and unified the kingdom so that folks could move more freely from their hometowns to other places. Of course, the work was accomplished on the backs of slaves and anyone who went against Herod’s orders was killed. Early on he had to fight for several years to take control of his kingdom. The result is that he never felt secure. He built fortresses all over Israel where he could hide out with the protection of his own squadron of soldiers. On our trip to the Holy Lands we ran into Herod the Great’s projects continually. What he built was impressive and lasting! His home life was less admirable. He ordered the death of one of his wives and one of his sons when they were perceived as a threat. Before he died he commanded that, upon his death, political prisoners be killed. This would ensure that there would be mourning across the land when he died even if it wasn’t for him!
So this is the ruler who learns from the magi that there is a new king born whom they have traveled long distances to worship. When the magi do not return to Herod to tell him where the baby can be found, he is furious. No one disobeys him like that without some sort of retaliation. Since the magi are long gone, Herod commands that all baby boys under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem be killed so as to snuff out any future threat to his power. The quote from the Old Testament paints an eerie picture of wailing mothers who have their infants torn from their protective arms and murdered. So the Messiah’s birth prompts what is referred to as the “slaughter of the innocents”. Our world then and now is fallen, sinful, violent and wreaking with the consequences of sin. How swiftly we have traveled from costly gifts offered from worshiping dignitaries to mass graves for tiny children.
But this passage tells a story of God’s protection of the tiny Messiah from the jealous hatred of a dictator. Through dreams the angel of the Lord instructs father Joseph where to go so that the Savior of the world will survive. His sleep is interrupted the first time with the instruction to get out now before Herod orders the killing of the little boys. In the night, Joseph awakens Mary. They don’t question what they’ve heard or encountered in the dark. They run under the cover of night and make the long journey to Egypt where they live as refugees for the first years of Jesus’ life. After Herod died, the angel speaks to Joseph again in his sleep and tells him he may now return to their land, their family, their customs, food and faith. So they leave Egypt, where their ancestors had been enslaved for 400 years, and returned to Israel, the land promised to their people. But, even then, as they approach home, more instruction is needed. The politician in charge of their hometown is known for his brutality. In fact he was later removed from office by the Romans because he was so cruel. That says a lot because the Romans were known for the barbaric ways they kept their subjects in check! So the Holy Family settles in a remote town called Nazareth that is disrespected and overlooked. Here Jesus will be raised in a rural area that is believed to have had only 200 residents at that time. He would be safely off the grid and learn what it was like to live a simple life with a primary focus of faith and family. Alan Culpepper writes, “…there is a provident God over all who guides a devout and compassionate, dreaming and trusting father so that a child will be able to grow to become the Savior of his people and of generations to come.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, page 169) We understand how Jesus later speaks of the transience of his own life in Matthew 8:20: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
There is no serenity to be found in Matthew’s nativity scene. When baby Jesus enters our broken world, hell breaks loose. There is no comfort for the Bethlehem mothers of Jesus’ day. They were unable to protect their precious sons from armed soldiers carrying out orders. The gift of the Messiah is sent to people who are powerless over their own children’s lives. We recently learned the plight of the missing mother from Texas who disappeared with her two-week old daughter. After nine days of searching the woman’s body was found in the trunk of her good friend’s car. The baby was inside the house already being claimed as the friend’s own child. This friend had been in the delivery room with Heidi when little Margot was born. During the search for Heidi, her friend Magen acted concerned. But it appears that she hatched a plot to kidnap and kill Heidi so that she could claim the baby as her own. It’s hard to imagine that she thought this horrific plan would work. Just when we think we’ve heard it all, a story is broadcast that sets off the protective instincts of every parent who thinks they understand the threats they face in raising their children. We realize all over again that the world into which we have brought our children is sinful. In spite of our most heroic efforts we aren’t always able to protect them. From what well do we draw hope when danger seems to lurk around every corner? How can we say God is good when bad things happen to innocent people?
A stark image of maniacal, egotistical rulers is painted in the little town of Bethlehem that appears to be anything but still in this story. The tiniest citizens of the Roman Empire are slaughtered because a leader feels threatened by word of a future king. Where is the hope in this story? It comes in the whispers of an angel who disturbs a young father’s sleep. This divine messenger urges him to get up NOW and get his wife and newborn son to safety. God gives us freedom to live as we please which can work against us when sin takes over. But God also protects the young Savior so that the world of Joseph and Mary could have hope for their future. God protected Jesus so that He could grow up and bring hope and healing into our broken communities. I wonder what threats we have escaped? I wonder when God has protected us and we didn’t know it? Can you think of a close call after which you murmured, “Thank you, Jesus”? As we look back on a year do we recognize bright spots when Christ walked alongside of us, guiding and protecting? Do these moments give us hope that we can carry with us into a new year of life?
Tyrants of the mighty Roman Empire were some of the original terrorists. Jesus’ birth story contains elements that have never been featured on a Christmas card. What we see in this story is the good news that nothing can defeat God’s promise of Immanuel—“God with us.” When terrible things are happening around us our Christian faith instructs us to cling to the conviction that God is all-powerful, the ultimate shaper of our history. There may not be peace on earth but the promise in Matthew’s nativity scene is that God is here, in our broken world, never losing sight of us. Our protective instincts and those of every creature that moves on the face of the earth, stem from a loving Creator who protected the baby Jesus so that we would have a Savior. That’s hope to carry into our new year.