The wise men, by far, are the most mysterious characters in the whole Christmas Story. And that is why the wise men are so interesting to me. This mystery, though, ends horribly and tragically with the deaths of all of the little boys living in Bethlehem at the time of Herod’s mental breakdown. The collapse of Herod’s mind is yet more evidence of the cosmic battle between the powers of light and the powers of darkness. This battle rages all around us, even today. We prefer not to remember that the visit of the wise men was directly connected to the horrendous deaths of little boys, and we do not care to recall the narrow escape of the holy family who had no choice but to live as refugees and aliens in a foreign country.
In truth, we do not know a whole lot about the wise men. Even Luke, as he writes his version of the story of Jesus’ birth, knows nothing at all about them, or of their visit to honor the Christ-child. Matthew, in his Gospel, calls them magi, which is not, in the rest of the Scriptures, a very complimentary term at all. In the rest of the Scriptures, a magus is a demonically motivated magician who is to be shunned and spurned and avoided at all times. Faithful Jews and Christians are to have no dealings whatsoever with magi. In the book of Acts, the Apostle Peter actually curses a magus and threatens him with eternal damnation. And, that’s a really mild way to put it. Peter, being a former fisherman and all, used much more colorful language when he cursed the magus, but don’t look for it in our English versions.
But this we do know about the wise men: they came, they eventually located a young child named Jesus, they worshiped him, and they presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and then they went back home. But in doing that, they managed to excite the anger and the paranoia of a man who was already plenty angry and plenty paranoid. And the wise men had the gall to trick him.
When Herod realized he had been tricked by the wise men, he quite characteristically flew into a rage. They had disobeyed a direct order, and no one treated Herod in this way. And so Herod mobilized his soldiers and sent them to Bethlehem to ransack the town. The soldiers broke down doors, ripped young boys from the arms of shocked and dismayed parents, and slaughtered the children as the parents looked on in horror. Before the day or night was over, every boy-child in that town, two years of age and under had been senselessly murdered. The entire community was plunged into deep grief and loss by this act of terrorism, and helpless to do anything about it. They were yet even more helpless victims of a crazy, despotic man who styled himself as a king, and who believed that there were no limits on his authority. If the Christmas Story has been messy and disappointingly complicated so far, this makes it an utter and complete disaster.
Why did God allow this to happen? Why does God allow things like this to happen even now? Could not the Lord of the universe have prevented this? Why did the birth of the prince of peace have to be characterized by so much violence and by so much horror?
It is difficult to know how many little boys died in that terrible massacre, but population data indicates that a reasonably conservative guess is that about 20 little boys met their deaths. Even so, just one child would have been too many. When we start to use the word “only” when we are counting violent deaths, we have slipped a notch.
The short answer to these questions is that we live in an evil, broken world, populated with evil, broken people. There is no question that Herod was certifiably nuts, but he was also certifiably evil. We are no strangers to death and violence. Some of the violence that we see is perpetrated by crazy, evil people, but sometimes that violence is perpetrated by evil people who are wise and calculating, and who work in cooperation, intentionally or unintentionally with the powers of darkness.
In his Gospel, Matthew attempts to put this terrible evil into some kind of meaningful context. He quotes from Jeremiah, chapter 31. He says, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentations, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When we go to the prophet Jeremiah, we discover that Jeremiah is describing the long, forced march of the people of God out of the city of Jerusalem. These people are prisoners of war, and they are being driven into exile in Babylon, where they will become slaves. As they are forced out of Jerusalem, they are hustled past the grave of Rachel. Rachel has been dead for a very, very long time. She was the first love of Jacob, and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. But historically, she has been considered to be the mother of all faithful Jews. And as the people are marched past her grave, in poetic metaphor, Jeremiah depicts her as weeping for the loss of her children. Her children, the people of God, are as good as dead. Many of God’s people have already been slaughtered by the Babylonian soldiers, but even the survivors have have lost all hope as they are forced out of their homeland. We can see clearly why Matthew would draw lines of connection between the horrors of the exile and the horrors of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. It makes even more sense when we consider that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were forced by threat of death out of their homeland, where they lived in exile, for a time as refugees in a foreign land with a foreign language and a foreign religion.
But when Matthew quotes from Jeremiah 31, he intends for us to familiarize ourselves with the whole chapter. And in this chapter, in the midst of absolute horror and terror, there is also hope. And so we hear these words:
“Thus says the Lord
Keep your voice from weeping,
And your eyes from tears,
For there is a reward for your work,
Says the Lord:
They shall come back
From the land of the enemy;
There is hope for your future,
Says the Lord:
Your children shall come back
To their own country.”
There is hope, even for a people who are being driven from their homeland. There is hope, even for a people who have been surrounded by much violence and much death. There is the promise of restoration and renewal even for a people who have lost all hope, and who believe that they are dead. And these promises and this hope are ours.
Further along, in the same chapter, we hear these words: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt: a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, ‘know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”
The prince of peace has come into our world, and he is here to stay. He lives and reigns within our hearts. He shows us daily, if we will allow him to reign within us, new ways of dealing with the frustrations and the temptations that flood our lives on a daily basis. We have a new way of relating to one another, summed up in those terribly penetrating words, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Yes, we do live in a violent and evil world, filled with terrorists and despots who insanely delight in the death and destruction of everything around them. People who intentionally perpetrate evil are all around us. We cannot always avoid them. But we will not perpetrate evil because that is not who we are. It is not how we choose to live with one another. We are becoming the people of Jeremiah’s new covenant. We are the people of peace and hope who live in the glorious covenant of light that our Lord and savior Jesus Christ has established in our midst. We will share our peace and hope with all whom we encounter. We are the ones who have been given the power to transform the evil structures and institutions of this world that are empowered by the very forces of darkness themselves.
Jeremiah says, “There is reward for your work.” We have much work in ministry in God’s Kingdom ahead of us, but God has given us every resource that we can possibly imagine needing. God has made a covenant with us, we are Jeremiah’s people. Let us be faithful in the fulfilling of that covenant.