by Worley Kennedy, Redeemed Hearts Ministries, December 2019
This is a different kind of Christmas season. For the first time in my almost 53 years, my dad has not been present. He died October 11 after a multi-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. Dad is better than okay now. He lived 87 full years and was ready to die at the Lord’s appointed time. He is in a good place. But his absence does take a toll on those he loved so well. It is not the same.
And all of this has me thinking about loss and the suffering that death brings into our lives. Suffering does not take holidays. It does not care that Christmas is supposed to be the happiest time of the year, which spurs me to write to those of you who are in the midst of loss or other kinds of suffering this Christmas season.
I am taken back in my mind to a well-known tragedy that happened seven years ago this month. As Christmas drew near on December 14, 2012, twenty-six people were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty of them were children between the ages of 6-7. That was on a Friday, and I had to preach a sermon for the Christmas season two days later. I’m sure every preacher around the country was struggling that Sunday to say something hopeful amidst such devastating loss. Even though Pampa is over 1,700 miles from Newtown, many, if not all, in our fellowship were affected. Unfortunately, we are often desensitized by the many shootings that occur these days. But when children die, it shakes most everyone. It should.
I had selected the text for my sermon weeks in advance as a part of a series leading up to Christmas. It was from Mathew 2. If you know the story, a group of Wisemen came from the East in search of the child who had been “born king of the Jews.” You probably know that they followed a very bright star, but you may not know that it led them to Jerusalem first, and not to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Because they were asking if anyone knew where the child might be, they were summoned by the ruthless King Herod. The thought unsettled him that a promised “King of the Jews” had been born. He was known for killing anyone who might be a threat to his rule—including one of his wives and two of his sons. So as a result of the Wisemen’s search, Herod had his soldiers murder all the male boys under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem. Jesus’ parents had been warned in a dream of the impending massacre. So after the Wisemen had come to see Jesus, they fled with him to Egypt. Jesus was spared, but the youngest boys of Bethlehem were not. There was a significant loss of life. Based upon the size of the town and the likely demographics, scholars believe the number would have been about twenty. Twenty boys in Bethlehem were murdered because a star led the Wisemen to Jerusalem, where an evil king was alerted. Why did the star not merely take them straight to Bethlehem? Who controls the stars? Did God know what He was doing?
We all ask that question of ourselves many times a year. Does God know what He is doing? Sometimes our question is overt. Sometimes it is more subtle when we find ourselves angrily blaming God for the pain and suffering that we go through…which if He’s God…we know He must allow.
I’m not sure the word’s of my sermon on December 16, 2012, did much to ease the sadness in our fellowship for those families in Newtown who had lost their young children. We all knew that those parents would never be the same. Grief like that is deep and ongoing. Life would go on for the rest of us, but theirs was charting an entirely new course. Whatever suffering I had that season paled in comparison. Even the loss of my dad this year does not match the sorrow of one who has lost a child.
So I don’t think my words that year did much. But I do believe the Word of God from Matthew did much to apply healing to some profound wounds. It still does. Twenty children in Newtown. Twenty children in Bethlehem. God could have stopped either one, but He didn’t. In Mathew’s story, we know that God essentially led the Wisemen to Herod. Did God not know that Herod would try to kill Jesus? Of course He did. Did God not know that innocent children would die? Again, yes, he would have known that there would be this kind of searing loss. He is an omniscient God. But how could He let this happen?
Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This means the Holy Spirit worked through his mind and heart as God’s appointed writer. So we ask ourselves why Matthew would have included the story of the massacre in his account? And we should also wonder why very few people write or speak about this tragedy. It is rarely emphasized as a part of the Christmas story. What happened shortly after the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was anything but sweet and peaceful. This small town may be known for a quiet manger scene and a cooing baby Jesus. But it should also be known as Newtown, the scene of a horrific tragedy that God didn’t stop. I can imagine that one of Matthew’s hurdles to trusting God was the slaughter of the twenty unsuspecting boys. What kind of God allows this? But because Matthew came to know Jesus, he wants us to know that there is always more to a story than our suffering and tragedy. Matthew helps us to understand that the presence of Jesus in the world arouses Evil of the worst kind, because it is Jesus who is our only hope. Evil has always wanted to destroy Jesus and His work, and cares little about the casualties of war.
I am convinced that either Jesus or the Holy Spirit helped Matthew come to terms with the tragedy at Bethlehem by directing him to the Old Testament prophecy written by Jeremiah. In chapter 31, it records that the coming of the Savior would bring “..lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel (the matriarch of Israel) is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more (Jeremiah 31:15, quoted by Matthew in 2:17-18).” Old Testament prophecy often referred to two events: one in the short term and one in the future. The short term event occurred shortly after Jeremiah gave it when the mothers of Israel lost many children who were killed when that nation was taken into captivity by the conquering Babylonians. The one in the future is the story told by Matthew. He was undoubtedly disturbed by what happened in Bethlehem. He was directed to Jeremiah’s passage to see a prophecy fulfilled, a sovereign God allowing tragedy in a fallen world as a part of His promise for deliverance. Jeremiah 31:11 says, “The Lord has ransomed Jacob, and redeemed him from hands too strong for him.” We live in a world of Evil and sin. Both of those things oppose the Believer—from outside and inside of us. And they are both “too strong” for us. Do we know how much we need a savior from our sin and the Evil around us? Jeremiah pleads with his people to look for the One who can deliver them. Though things may be bleak and dark, one day the Lord promises a future day in which there will be “…singing from the heights of Zion, radiance over the goodness of the Lord, rejoicing, dancing, being merry, mourning turned to joy, comfort, gladness instead of sorrow, feasts for the soul, being satisfied with God’s goodness, reward for their works, and hope for their future (Jeremiah 31).” And Matthew picks up on this…that the Evil in Bethlehem was the ongoing backdrop for why the Savior MUST come into the world and live. It is also the constant backdrop of suffering that exists to this day, where people are not spared the impact of a fallen world.
The mothers of the Israelite children who were murdered when taken into captivity were not spared the agony of the murder of their children. The mothers of Bethlehem were not spared the agony of the murder of their children. The mothers of Newtown, Connecticut, were not spared the murder of their children. And you and I are not spared the many troubles and losses we are encountering as we prepare for Christmas this year. Suffering does not take a holiday.
The bigger story to all of these stories, including our own, is that God only spared Jesus from death at Bethlehem for a short time. Thirty short years later, the grief and agony that His earthly mother faced was upon her as well. And the grief and agony of the Father God was not spared when Jesus willingly gave His life so that we sinners of the world might be spared the eternal death and wrath from God that we rightly deserve. In dying, Jesus overcame sin and Evil, as Jesus said about Himself, “In the world, you will have tribulation, but take heart, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”
Would you consider Jesus this Christmas, as more than a baby in a story? Would you tell your kids that we live in a world of heartache and suffering and that their sin and their struggles are not the end of the story? Would you help them to understand that our Savior, Jesus, was spared the Bethlehem massacre in all of its horror so that He might not be spared the suffering for our sins? Would you help them to know that suffering is a part of our holiday and that we need the only Savior who can truly handle our suffering for us? Will you and your children turn to Him and trust Him?
I close with these words from John Piper, who wrote shortly after the Newtown massacre and said, “Mass murder is why Jesus came into the world the way he did. What kind of Savior do we need when our hearts are shredded by brutal loss? We need a suffering Savior. We need a Savior who has tasted the cup of horror we are being forced to drink. And that is how he came. He knew what this world needed. Not a comedian. Not a sports hero. Not a movie star. Not a political genius. Not a doctor. Not even a pastor. The world needed what no mere man could be. The world needed a suffering Sovereign. Mere suffering would not do. Mere sovereignty would not do. The one is not strong enough to save; the other is not weak enough to sympathize. So he came as who he was: the compassionate King. The crushed Conqueror. The lamb-like Lion. The suffering Sovereign. (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-does-jesus-come-to-newtow).”