Sermon 12-09-23

       The Massacre of the Innocents. Found in the collection of Musée Condé, Chantilly.As we know Advent season for many has become little more than a secular holiday where the entire focus is on having a good time with hardly any thought given to the reason for the season.   In fact, the reason for the season for many has changed from a celebration of the birth of Christ to simply a celebration.

       I trust that in this congregation we understand that this season of the year is an opportunity to reflect on the momentous event of the birth of our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus and reflect on the fact that without His birth there would be no atonement for sin and no opportunity for eternal life.

       It is often pointed out that Christmas is way too commercialized.  People eat too much, drink too much and party too much.  People focus on the secular aspects of Christmas and pay little attention to the birth of Christ.  All of this is true. But we have the power of choice.  We can choose not to eat too much, drink too much, party too much or get involved in the secular and commercialized aspects of Christmas.

       There will always be people who abuse celebrations and stray far from their original intended purpose. I remember during the years we kept the Feast of Tabernacles that some would eat too much, drink too much and party too much. Such abuse of a celebration doesn’t make the celebration in and of itself wrong.  As to celebrating the birth of Jesus, we should take our que from the Scriptures where we see great rejoicing over the birth of Jesus.

      Without the birth of Jesus there would have been no crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We would not have a savior and therefore we would have nothing to look forward to beyond this physical life.  The birth of Christ is central to our Christian belief system.  It is the foundation of the gospel.  The Kingdom of God exists because of the birth of Jesus.

      When Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she would give birth to the Son of God, Gabriel said that the child that would be born would preside over a Kingdom that would never end. The Kingdom is a present reality for us today because of what took place in a small town called Bethlehem in southern Judea over 2000 years ago.

       The Christ event involves many things.  It involves the ministry of Christ. It involves His death and resurrection.  It involves His ascension to the Father and his return.  But it all starts with His birth. To celebrate the birth of Jesus is to celebrate the beginning of our salvation. When the angels announced the birth of Christ to the shepherd’s, they announced that a savior had been born.  The angels are seen as rejoicing because of this.  It is more than appropriate that we two rejoice because of knowing that a savior has been born.

       The birth of Jesus is recorded in the narratives of Matthew and Luke. Luke goes into great detail as to the events surrounding the birth.  Matthew does not go into as much detail as Luke but sees in the birth of Jesus what he perceives as Old Testament (OT) prophecies being fulfilled.

       A number of Christian scholars have taken issue with what Matthew writes because they feel Matthew takes OT sayings out of their original context and inappropriately applies them to the birth of Christ.  These scholars are in essence questioning the creditability of what Matthew wrote.

       Is there any reason to believe what Matthew wrote is less than an accurate account of what happened nearly two thousand years in the town of Bethlehem?  Today, I want to address just one of the OT prophecies that Matthew sees as being fulfilled in association with the birth of Jesus and discuss why scholars question what Matthew wrote as being a fulfillment of OT prophecy.

       In Matthew the second chapter, we are told that Herod’s decree to kill all male children less than two years old fulfilled something Jeremiah said hundreds of years earlier.

       Matthew 2:17-18: “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”

       Jeremiah 31:15: This is what the LORD says: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more."

       A careful reading of Jeremiah chapters 29 through 31 will reveal that Jeremiah is dealing with the issue of Judah’s dispersion created by the Babylonian captivity and their subsequent returning from that captivity.  It’s an entire message of hope and not one of mourning.  In Jeremiah 31:16-17, the prophet answers his observation about a voice of weeping and mourning heard in Ramah.

       Jeremiah 31:16-17:  This is what the LORD 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. "Your children will return to their own land.

       Jeremiah appears to be reflecting on the sorry state of the Babylonian captivity while offering hope of a return from that captivity which indeed did take place some 70 years later under Ezra and Nehemiah.

       There is nothing in the context of Jeremiah 31 that foretells the killing of the children in Bethlehem as Matthew appears to indicate.  The captives of Judah, hearing what Jeremiah had to say would not have understood it to refer to an event hundreds of years into the future. Neither is there any indication that Jeremiah had such a future fulfillment in mind or that there was some sort of duel meaning.

       What adds fuel to the fire of scholarly skepticism is that there is no record of this killing of the Bethlehem children in secular history.  First century historian Josephus, who wrote extensively about the life of Herod in his history of the Jews, makes no mention of Herod killing the children of Bethlehem.  In reading Josephus, it becomes apparent that he had little use for Herod and went out of his way to write about all the evil things Herod did.  Yet there is no mention of the event recorded by Matthew.  Luke, the other New Testament chronicler of the birth of Jesus, makes no mention of this event.

       Because of this apparent lack of contextual connection and absence of secular historical verification, some scholars believe the killing of the children in association with the birth of Christ never took place. They believe Matthew made this up to give prophetic credence to the birth of Christ.

       How do we answer the scholar’s conclusion?  We could simply say the Bible is the “inspired” word of God and so what Matthew wrote must be valid.  On the other hand, we can be like the Berean’s mentioned in Acts 17:11 and carefully examine the matter to see what Matthew is talking about.  I will take the Berean approach.

       Defenders of Matthew’s account point out that the population of Bethlehem may have been very small and therefore only a small number of children were killed.  Since Herod had a record of killing his enemies, the killing of some children in a small town would not have produced much of a stir and consequently historians of the time would not have paid any attention to this event. This is a reasonable argument for the Bethlehem killings not appearing in secular writings.

       So how do we explain Matthew’s contention that the killing of the children is a fulfillment of what Jeremiah said when Jeremiah’s statement does not appear to be at all related to the Christ event?  It is obvious that Matthew is putting a different spin on what Jeremiah wrote.  If we are to conclude that God moved Matthew to apply Jeremiah’s statement as predictive of the killing of the children, we must then conclude that in God’s mind what Jeremiah said must have a duel meaning.  Such a conclusion, however, is speculative and assumes the thing to be proved, namely that Jeremiah’s statement was intended to have a duel meaning. So how do we begin to resolve this issue.

       It must be recognized that authors of Scripture use a great deal of analogy, metaphor and rhetorical exaggeration (hyperbole) in their writings.  Analogy is showing something to be like something else. It involves the drawing of parallels. Metaphor is using the non-literal to represent the literal. Metaphor often uses symbols to represent the real thing. You see a great deal of that in the Revelation.  Hyperbole is the use of metaphor in exaggerated ways to make a point.

       When Matthew says that the killing of the children fulfilled what Jeremiah said, he is not necessarily saying that what Jeremiah said is prophetic of what happened in Bethlehem. The Greek rendered into English as “fulfilled” means, “to make full, to fill, and to fill up.”  Keep in mind this definition as we move through this material.

       When you read Jeremiah, you will see that what he says about women weeping for their children is not prophetic at all but instead descriptive of the captivity extant at the time Jeremiah wrote.  Jeremiah wrote this commentary on the captivity in the overall context of prophesying Israel’s return from captivity.  Matthew’s statement can be seen as using Jeremiah’s statement in an analogous manner to show a parallel between what happened in Bethlehem and what was being experienced during the time of Judah’s captivity.

       The killing of the children in Bethlehem resulted in the same kind of heartache that was experienced by those in the Babylonian captivity. In that respect it fulfilled or made full or brought to a full what happened during the time of Jeremiah.  Matthew could be simply paralleling the Jeremiah event with the killing of the children in Bethlehem.  The Jeremiah event becomes a shadow or type of the Bethlehem event.

       The question that must still be answered is whether the statement by Jeremiah, which can be seen as being a type or shadow of the Bethlehem event, is also prophetic of that event.  To be prophetic it would have to be predictive of the Bethlehem event and not just a type.  A type or shadow isn’t predictive in and of itself. 

       Many OT events fit into the category of being a shadow or type of an event in the life of Christ.  When we read of these OT events in their OT context, they appear as stand-alone events that pertain to the time they occurred and don’t have any obvious prophetic content. What we also fine, however, is that often there is a prophetic context wrapped around the more limited context of what actually occurred during the time of the prophets writing.

       When we read Jeremiah 29 through 31 there is no doubt that the prophet is dealing with the Babylonian captivity of Judah and predicting their return from captivity within 70 years.  The passage about women weeping for their children is part of Jeremiah’s critique of Judah’s captivity.  What is interesting, however, is that melted into Jeremiah’s overview of Judah’s captivity and predicted release from captivity are prophetic statements about Judah and Israel being brought back from captivity and David becoming their King. In this same prophetic context, Jeremiah speaks of the time coming when God would make a New Covenant with both Judah and Israel.

       Jeremiah 30:3&9: The days are coming,' declares the LORD, `when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their forefathers to possess,' says the LORD."  

       Verse 9: “they will serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.”

       Jeremiah 31: 31-33:  "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, "declares the LORD.” This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

       The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been taken into captivity by the Assyrians many years before the Babylonian captivity of Judah and David had died hundreds of years earlier.  What is Jeremiah talking about? 

       We know from other passages of Scripture that it was Christ who filled David’s shoes as King over Israel and through His death and resurrection established a New Covenant with Israel and Judah and through them with the Gentiles as well. In writing about what was happening in his time, the writer to the Hebrews gives attestation to this.

       Hebrews 8:10: This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 

       Mary was told that Jesus would set on the throne of his father David.

       Luke 1:33: He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

       What the angel Gabriel said to Mary has parallel to what Jeremiah said. It is therefore apparent that Jeremiah, while dealing with a situation current to his time, is also dealing with events far removed from his time.  While Matthew may be using what Jeremiah said about women weeping as a shadow of what took place in Bethlehem, it must be noted that there is Messianic content to what Jeremiah said and therefore prophetic relevance to Christ. Such OT prophetic relevance to Jesus is clearly supported by what Jesus Himself said.

       John 5:39: You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.

       Luke 24:44-45: He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

       Just before His ascension to return to the Father, Jesus tells the eleven disciples that what is written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms testify of Him.  These are the three major divisions of the OT Scripture. This covers a lot of territory.  Matthew would have been present when Jesus made this statement.  Matthew learned directly from Jesus that there is connection between OT events and events in the life of Jesus.

        There are many statements in the NT documents that speak of OT events foreshadowing what the Christ event accomplished and established.  When we read OT passages of Scripture showing ancient Israel killing lambs in celebration of the Passover, there is no reason to believe that those Israelites saw in the Passover the coming of Christ as a lamb slain for the sins of the world.  When the Israelites painted blood over their doorposts, they didn’t see this as predictive of the Christ event.  They didn’t see anything inherently predictive of the Christ event in the Passover, the annual Holy Days or the many historical events they experienced.

       It is only through the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus that a connection between these past events and the Christ event can be seen.  It can be seen because Jesus clearly said OT events testified of Him.  The disciples, themselves, were unable to see these connections until Jesus opened their minds to see how these OT events pointed to Him.

       While many OT events can be viewed as shadows of events in the life of Christ, we often find, upon close investigation, that such events may have been programmed to take place as part of the overall purpose of God establishing a trail of historical events pointing to the one great event of Christ coming into the world to be our Savior.  In that respect these shadows become prophetic as well.

       Scholars question the creditability of Matthew because they see him taking what they consider non-predictive OT statements out of their original context and applying them as predictive of events related to the birth of Christ.  This is a mistake.

        What scholars should be doing is seeing OT Testament statements in their entire context and then determine whether such statements relate to Jesus in a strict prophetic sense or in a type/anti-type relationship which is to see them as forerunners of greater events that were brought to greater expression and therefore greater fulfilled in the birth of Jesus and all related activity.

       Jesus made it clear that the Scriptures testify of Him.  It was the OT Scriptures He was speaking of as the NT didn’t exist at the time.  Many OT events foreshadow the main event.  The birth of Christ is the main event.

       As I mentioned at the beginning, for many, Christmas has become a secular celebration where the intended reason for the season is overlooked. For many the main event of history is over looked and replaced with current events.  I encourage everyone here to focus on the main event during this season and in so doing truly celebrate the purpose of the advent season which is to reflect on the birth of our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus.

       I want to close with a story that is heartwarming in that it reveals to us the real reason for celebrating the birth if Jesus.  I don't know whether this is a true story or not but it certainly makes an important point.  I will tell this story  from the point of view of view of the mother telling the story.   

       The Upside Down Letter:

       Each December, I vowed to make Christmas a calm and peaceful experience. I had cut back on nonessential obligations -- extensive card writing, endless baking, decorating, and even overspending. Yet still, I found
myself exhausted, unable to appreciate the precious family moments, and of course, the true meaning of Christmas.

       My son, Nicholas, was in kindergarten that year. It was an exciting season for a six-year-old. For weeks, he'd been memorizing songs for his school's "Winter Pageant." I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd be working the night of the
production. Unwilling to miss his shining moment, I spoke with his teacher. She assured me there'd be a dress rehearsal the morning of the presentation. All parents unable to attend that evening were welcome to come then. Fortunately, Nicholas seemed happy with the compromise.

       So, the morning of the dress rehearsal, I filed in ten minutes early, found a spot on the cafeteria floor and sat down. Around the room, I saw several other parents quietly scampering to their seats. As I waited, the students were led into the room. Each class, accompanied by their teacher, sat cross-legged on the floor. Then, each group, one by one,
rose to perform their song.

       Because the public school system had long stopped referring to the holiday as Christmas," I didn't expect anything other than fun, commercial entertainment - songs of reindeer, Santa Claus, snowflakes and good cheer. So, when my son's class rose to sing, "Christmas Love," I was slightly taken aback by its bold title.

       Nicholas was aglow, as were all of his classmates, adorned in fuzzy mittens, red sweaters, and bright snowcaps upon their heads. Those in the front row-center stage -- held up large letters, one by one, to spell out the title of the song. As the class would sing "C is for Christmas," a child would hold up the letter C. Then, "H is for Happy," and on and on, until each child holding up his portion had presented the complete message, "Christmas Love."  The performance was going smoothly, until suddenly, we noticed her; a small, quiet, girl in the front row holding the letter "M" upside down
-- totally unaware her letter "M" appeared as a "W."

       The audience of 1st through 6th graders snickered at this little one's mistake. But she had no idea they were laughing at her, so she stood tall, proudly holding her "W" which was supposed to be an “M.” Although many teachers tried to hush the children, the laughter continued until the last letter was raised, and we all saw it together. A hush came over the audience and eyes began to widen. In that instant, we understood the reason we were there, why we celebrated the holiday in the first place, why even in the chaos, there was a purpose for our festivities.

       For when the last letter was held high, the message did not read Christmas Love as intended but instead read:

                                                                      "C H R I S T  W A S  LO V E"

       Indeed, the reason for the season is to celebrate the love of Christ.  It is because of the love of Christ we can be assured of life after death.  In celebrating the birth of Jesus, we are in essence celebrating his ministry, death, resurrection and ascension.  None of these things would have occurred if He wasn’t born in a manger in a small town called Bethlehem nearly two thousand years ago.  Christ is love.  That is the reason for the season and let us never forget it.