I Want To Skip This Part
As I work through my annual meditation on the various parts of the Christmas story, today I have come to the part I like the least. Matthew 1:16-18 describes the way King Herod, when the magi did not return to him with news of the whereabouts of Jesus, orders the massacre of all the male babies in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. It is really a horrific story.
In all my 60+ years of listening to Christmas messages I have never heard a sermon that even mentions this passage, let alone is about it. This is totally understandable. We love the fact that the Nativity is “good news of great joy that will be for all people” and this just does not fit. For sure the parents of the slaughtered babies were not convinced this was good news.
While the majority of us deal with this horrible story by ignoring it, others have looked for ways to explain/understand it. Many choose the easiest path – believing that it never happened. They cite Josephus, the Jewish historian, who says nothing about it even as he goes to great lengths to describe Herod’s villainy, plus the fact that there are no other sources that talk of it. But for most of us the idea that Matthew is lying, that he just made it up, is not acceptable. We don’t get to edit out parts of the Bible we don’t like and, frankly, if we assume that everything in the Bible needs external proof we really have no Bible at all.
So we are left trying to understand it. My Calvinist friends might say, perhaps reluctantly, that God ordained this before the foundation of the earth and who are we to question his goodness and justice? My Arminian friends might say that God is as grieved by this as we are but this was the work of the freewill of a sinful, despicable man so God was just an innocent bystander. It would seem we are forced to choose between a monster God who was willing to step in to save Jesus but let hundreds of other babies die in order to proof-text Jeremiah’s prediction; or a God who had no ability to, or interest in, stepping in to help. This is an example why I am increasingly attracted to “Neitherism,” the idea that neither Calvinism nor Arminianism gives a truly clear understanding of God.
It is uncomfortable to be forced to say “I don’t know” in response to a question about the Bible. Our western, contemporary evangelical ethic insists that the Bible is clear and that our goal in growing in the faith should be to understand it better and better. Our common belief is that to “grow in grace and knowledge” commands us to figure everything out; equating spiritual growth with increase in knowledge. Yet “I don’t know” is where I stand on the subject of whether God caused the massacre of innocent children or stood painfully by as it happened. There just are sometimes when we can’t, and aren’t expected to, figure things out.
I do have two ideas that come to mind though. First, we live in a world of innocents dying in Aleppo; of the shooting of children in Sandy Hook; of the murder of people at a prayer meeting in Charleston. Herod’s despicable actions are consistent with the fallen world we live in. Second, it is times of tragedy when the promise of the nativity that “God is with us” is most needed.