Born to Die–The Darker Side of the Christmas Story

Posted: December 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

My son loves for me to read to him.  We have read all of the Narnia books, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and N.D. Wilson’s 100 Cupboards series.  He has been begging me to read the Harry Potter works for months and I balked because I really didn’t want to.  From the little I knew, I just didn’t find anything remotely appealing about a kid at wizard school.  But I eventually broke down and we have been working through the books.  We are now halfway through the 4th book, The Goblet of Fire and I have discovered that the books get darker as the series progresses.

We have looked at the Christmas texts in Scripture and found that they too are much darker than we expect them to be.  We have seen that Mary & Joseph were outcasts and that the angelic choir was really a military procession preparing for the epic war that they had long anticipated.  

Now we will look at the story of the Magi, which technically shouldn’t be a part of the Christmas story but more on that later.   

Let’s look at the text, Matthew 2:1-18:

2:1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Note a few things, Joseph & Mary are now in a house, the star has disappeared and re-appeared, Jesus is no longer a baby but a “child”, so this isn’t “Christmas night”

Second, despite liberal scholars who try to cast doubt on the story, Herod was a monster who had recently murdered his own wife and two of his sons suspecting they wanted his throne.  Also, Bethlehem was a very small town.  So, it is not surprising that he slaughtered possibly a dozen or so babies and infants that he saw as a threat.

What is sad is that the Old Testament presents many righteous Jews who refused to obey the wicked commands of pagan kings but no one in all of Jerusalem protested Herod’s actions. 

But that’s not even the darkest part of the story. 

The magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh (v.11).  Why? 

In John 19:39, we see that it is used for perfuming the dead.  Unwittingly, the magi brought the very scent that would fill Jesus’ tomb.  Why would Matthew include this story? 

Jesus was born to die.  He left His throne solely for each of us.   

I recently finished reading the amazing book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  The book is the story of Louis Zamperini who was a juvenile delinquent turned Olympic and collegiate track star.  Zamperini’s career was cut short by World War II and, despite a fear of flying, he became a bombardier in the Pacific theater.  

Zamperini’s plane crashed in the Pacific in 1943 and he survived on a life raft with two other airmen for more than 40 days at sea with little provisions. In fact, at one point, they ate only by luring 5-6 feet tiger sharks onto the raft and killing them by stabbing them in the eye and eating their livers raw!  And you thought you were hardcore!

Zamperini was eventually “rescued” by a Japanese naval vessel. He spent the next 2-years as a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp.  He was treated horribly.  In fact, one guard, known as “The Bird” made it his mission to torture the famous POW every single day.  He starved Zamperini, refused him medical care, beat him about the head with a brass buckle and even forced him to do push-ups in a human feces. 

After the war, Zamperini suffered from post-traumatic stress before they really understood what it was.  He received no treatment and began to medicate himself with liquor until he was a raging alcoholic. 

In the meantime, Zamperini began to pool money and plot a return trip to Japan. He wanted to hunt down “The Bird,” who haunted his dreams, and murder him.  He believed that killing the Bird was the only way to achieve peace of mind.

Then, one night, Zamperini’s wife, who was threatening to divorce him, talked him into listening to a young, fairly unknown preacher named Billy Graham.  God saved Zamperini that night and began to heal him,

Years later, Zamperini would return to Japan to meet the surviving prison guards, save “The Bird” who was still at large.  He embraced all of them, shared the Gospel with them and handed them New Testaments.  He believed “The Bird” was dead.  That is, until, a documentary crew informed him decades later that “The Bird” was alive and was a succesful insurance agency owner.  He was also fairly unrepentant about his vicious actions. 

Louis Zamperini travelled to Japan to try to see “The Bird” but he refused to meet with him.  So, Zamperini wrote “The Bird” a letter.  The note essentially said the following: Zamperini had hated “The Bird” who haunted his dreams for years.  He told the former guard that he had robbed him of his dignity and nearly destroyed his life.  Zamperini confessed that he had been plotting to murder “The Bird” for more than 5-years after the war had ended but that he had met Jesus Christ and everything had changed.  He forgave “The Bird” and implored him to become a Christian.  In essence, Zamperini told the man who had tortured him for 2-years that he wanted to spend eternity with him as brothers.  

Can you fathom that type of forgiveness? Do you know how much it must have hurt to offer such forgiveness.  

Tim Keller, in his pimp book The Reason for God wrote that, “Forgiveness is always a form of costly suffering…it is a kind of death.”

 Yet, it is this suffering and death that can and will save the world.

It may seem spectacular for Louis Zamperini to offer such forgiveness but it is not as awe-inspiring as what God offers us.  Jesus was born to suffer for such forgiveness. He was abandoned, tortured, murdered and ripped from the very presence of the Father and Spirit for all of us.  Our sins place us in the position of the sadistic guard for it is our actions that made it necessary for Jesus to suffer and die.  Yet, despite such extraordinary pain that we have inflicted, the Bible is a letter to us stating, “I have every right to seek justice from you but I love you, I forgive you and want you to spend eternity with me as a brother or sister.” 

No one but God knows if “The Bird” accepted the forgiveness offered…will you?

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