A River of Tears

“Scrooged” is one of the movies that shows up on TV every year come Christmas.

A comedic retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” the film stars Bill Murray as the hard-driving, cynical, and unsentimental TV executive Frank Cross. His network has sunk millions into a live Christmas Eve production of Charles Dickens’s classic tale, complete with an all-star cast and lots of over-the-top hijinks and shenanigans.

As the movie opens, the hard-charging Frank is viewing the promotional ads for his big holiday extravaganza.

Problem is, Frank absolutely hates the ads that his staff has produced. In his wild eye, they’re way too tame! He screams at his cowering minions that he wants “to make people scared to miss the show.” And so, he cues up his own version of a promo spot.

By the time the debut of Frank’s trailer comes to a merciful end, most of his assistants are shaking in stunned alarm. Some are in tears. A couple appear on the verge of vomiting. Most feel like they’ve just experienced a living nightmare!

It’s upsetting, because Frank’s idea of enticing viewers involves using clips of carnage, terrorism, drive-by shootings, and other graphic mayhem – all as the run-up to the ad’s tagline, voiced-over in that scary tone you hear all the time in movie trailers:

“In a world as horrible as this, you can’t afford to miss this year’s Christmas Eve Spectacular – only on the IBC network!  Your life might just depend on it!”

Of course, the staff absolutely hates Frank’s bull-in-a-china-shop slant. It’s Christmas, for goodness sake! No time for death and mayhem. That’ll spoil the mood, sour the eggnog, and sully the holiday. No one likes killing and death come Christmastime.

Apparently, no one mentioned that to King Herod, who shows up in Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story like the most obnoxious and unwelcome guest at any holiday party – the one who talks too much and too loud, the one who spills his drink on your carpet and double-dips his chips, the person who no one wants to talk to and everyone wants to avoid.

Listen for the Word of the Lord in chapter two of Matthew’s Gospel:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. Calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him,

“In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child and, when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another way.

Now, after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, 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.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

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

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matthew 2:1-23)

If ever there was someone whom you’d go out of your way to avoid, it would be the cruel, reckless and vicious Herod.

When the Wise Men innocently ask him about the newborn King of the Jews, his blood pressure undoubtedly spikes, and the veins start popping out in his neck. And Herod plays the Magi like a cheap violin, offering up dishonest wishes to worship this new king himself – if only the Three Kings wouldn’t mind sharing the little monarch’s contact information once they get it themselves.

Then, in steps God to keep Herod from discovering that vital piece of information, but it’s precisely that divine intervention that leads to a horrific mini-holocaust. If he can’t take out the new king with a surgical strike, Herod will try carpet-bombing – killing every child under the age of 2 who’s toddling around the places where the Wise Men visited.

Herod executes his evil deed to protect his precious throne and his stranglehold on power from this new rival king.

However, as with all the sinister plans of evil despots, Herod’s schemes are all in vain. The baby Jesus escapes Herod’s wholesale annihilation, and Herod himself ends up dying not long afterward.

According to those who study such things, Herod dies a slow, miserable death from some putrid bowel ailment. He literally putrefies from the inside out, which seems a fitting end, since Herod’s been rotten to the core all along.

Maybe that’s why Matthew lets Herod crash the Christmas party.

In the living room of our lives, Herod teeters drunk with power, sporting the ugly sweater of sin that’s been knit into the heart of Creation ever since that day when Adam and Eve decided to stage their own palace coup and seize control from God.

If we connect Herod with all that’s gone wrong with our fallen world since the beginning of time, then we can begin to see how, in one sense at least, it’s not surprising to see the powers that be react so violently to the advent of the One whose mission in life is to wipe clean sin from the face of Creation.

As another puts it, Herod fears that somewhere out there in the Judean countryside is someone in diapers who poses a threat to all that he stands for.

To his credit, Herod at least gets that part right.

Even though Jesus will never have the kind of political ambitions that would have threatened Herod’s royal position, in the longest possible run the greedy, self-centered sin that fuels Herod’s political machine will be siphoned off through the saving work of God in Christ.

In Jesus, God’s dreams of bringing the engines of sin to a grinding halt and sending off into exile the engineers whose designs only contribute to making the world more broken and fearful.

Hard as it is to hear and wrap your head around – much as it throws a wet blanket on the parties and kills the holiday buzz, the only way life can ultimately triumph through the work of that little Babe of Bethlehem is if first sin and death are met squarely and head on.

In other words, we won’t experience the joy of Christ unless first we encounter the sorrow.

Jesus’s birth smackdab in the middle of such suffering, sin and death is the only hope that we’ve got for now or anytime soon. Advented right here on this earth, in this life chock-full of things that vex and annoy, grieve and hurt, Jesus tells us that it’s not for angels and heavenly realms that he comes down to dwell among us.

No, God in human flesh dwells in our midst precisely for all the folks who weep without end – all the Rachels past and present whose lives are nothing more than a never-ending string of bitter tears.

As the earth begins another annual trip around the sun, we take a deep breath in grim anticipation of all that can and will go wrong in our lives and in the world. We’ve certainly had unhealthy shares of disappointment, heartache and grief in the year that was, and those sorrows will carry over into the new year.

Until Christ comes again, we know it won’t all get better.

But if that Child of Bethlehem is who Herod and those Magi dimly suspect he just might be, then hope endures through even the darkest of times.

The end of the story is life. The end of the story is resurrection! When we’ve cried ourselves out in this old world, there will be One who will wipe every tear from every eye. 

That just has to be true. And it is!

Cue the scary voice-over: In a world as horribly sick as ours, you can’t afford to miss this year’s Christmas Eve Spectacular. Your life might just depend on it!

And it does.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward all!

Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message for the second Sunday after Christmas, January 3, 2021. Adapted from a message written by Scott Hoezee, it is part of Pastor Grant’s Advent-Christmas series, “Those Who Dream.”

Related video worship: Christmas 2020: When Faith Feels Small

Related Advent and Christmas sermons:
Like Those Who Dream,” from Mark 13:24-37, about Jesus’s caution to “keep awake” for his return. (Available in audio and text formats.)
Something New Begins,” from Mark 1:1-8, about “preparing the way” for Jesus to enter our lives. (Available in audio and text formats.)
Connecting the Dots, from Luke 1:39-56, about Mary’s song of praise for God choosing her to be the bearer of God’s dreams(Available in audio and text formats.)
God Removes the ‘If, from 2 Samuel 7:1-16, which offers assurance that God is always leading our way. (Available in audio and text formats.)
Infected with Jesus,” from Luke 2:21-40 and the startling news that Mary and Joseph receive about their baby boy at the Jerusalem Temple. (Available in audio and text formats.)

Related video meditations:
Lighting the First Candle of Advent – Hope
Lighting the Second Candle of Advent – Peace
Lighting the Third Candle of Advent – Joy
Lighting the Fourth Candle of Advent  Love

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