On this second Sunday in the Season of Advent, we are continuing our reflections, inspired by that familiar Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” As I was listening to that song, I was struck by how each phrase of the song might echo a theme we find during the Advent season, as we prepare for the coming, not of Santa, but of Jesus Christ. Last week, we were reminded that, since Jesus is coming again in glory, we had “Better watch out,” so that we are ready to greet him. This morning, the phrase that triggers our reflection is the second line of the first verse, “You better not cry.” How could that fit into Advent?
After I had selected this secular Christmas song as the jumping-off-point for our sermons, I have to confess that I almost had second thoughts. “You better not cry?” How could that fit into Advent? Crying doesn’t seem to have much to do with the celebration of Christmas – it’s not something that we usually associate with the season. After all, doesn’t one of our favorite Christmas carols tell us, “The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes?” Isn’t Christmas all about happiness and merry-making? To focus on crying during Advent would be a real downer – an unwelcome guest to our Christmas party. But, in spite of my misgivings, I decided to stick with the theme and see where the Holy Spirit might lead me.
In the meantime, I decided to read the Advent devotional study by Bishop Richard Wilke, entitled, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And as I began reading Bishop Wilke’s devotion, God showed me that, not only is focusing on weeping appropriate for the Christmas season, it is essential if we are to fully appreciate the joy Christ brings!
Bishop Wilke’s devotion looks at the usual players in the Christmas drama…the wise men, Joseph, and the shepherds – very familiar and beloved characters. But he opens his reflections, setting the stage for our preparations for the Christmas season – by focusing on the brutal and evil King Herod, and that gut-wrenching story of the slaughter of all the baby boys of Bethlehem. Herod, the murderer of innocent babies? Of all people, Herod is the person the good Bishop chooses to kick off his study of Christmas! Seems an odd choice.
But then I begin to reflect on the story itself and I came to understand why Herod might be key to having a compete and balanced view of the Christmas story. Herod, as despicable as he is, can’t be ignored if we are to get the full-picture of the birth of our Savior.
You know the story, I’m sure. You will recall that, when the wise men arrived in Jerusalem seeking out a newborn who would one day rule as king, they naturally went to the palace – that’s usually where princes are born. They asked Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews.” Herod was furious. He was “the King of the Jews,” and he had a long track record of destroying anyone who threatened his throne, even to the point of murdering some of his wives and children. He wasn’t about to allow any rival to survive.
So Herod hatches a scheme. He ascertains from his advisors that the biblical prophecy which prompted the wise men’s journey indicated that this new king would be born in the little village of Bethlehem. Deviously, he pretends that he wants to also worship Jesus, and so he instructs the wise men to return to him once they have found the child. The wise men then take their leave from Herod, find Jesus, and present him their gifts.
But the scripture tells us that Joseph is warned in a dream that Herod is plotting against the baby. He is told to take Mary and the Christ child and flee to Egypt – and so they did. The gospel writer also tells us that the wise men also had a dream. Their dream warned them not to return to Herod – and so they didn’t. They by-passed Jerusalem as they returned home.
Once King Herod realized he had been double-crossed, he ordered that all the boys of Bethlehem, two years old and younger, be killed. And with that, the bloody slaughter began. Soldiers broke down the doors of every home in Bethlehem, pulled the baby boys out of their mother’s arms and hacked them to death with their swords, right in front of their parents and older siblings. Screaming babies, shouts of panic, cries of horror, and the wailing of grief-stricken mothers and fathers echoed through the streets.
As Matthew recounts the awful tale, he quotes 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.”
And that, my friends, is the final scene of the Christmas story. I’ve never seen that portrayed in any Christmas pageant I’ve ever attended, have you? And I seriously doubt that you have ever received a Christmas card depicting the slaughter of innocent babies. But there it is – the Christmas story concludes with a night of terror and grief, and weeping. What a contrast to the “silent night, holy night” of our Savior’s birth! Even though we may choose to overlook it and pretend it’s not in the Bible, “crying” is an integral part of the Christmas experience, after all.
That’s why I was having so much trouble with this phrase from the song. As I was reflecting on this line, I had allowed my thinking to get drawn in to the popular notion that weeping should be banished during this season because it might take away from the joy of the coming of Christ. The song tries to convince us that tears and Christmas have nothing to do with one another – “you better not cry…” we are warned.
But as I was reminded of the story of the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem, I have come to the conclusion that the song has it all wrong. That secular Christmas song tells us not to cry – but the Christmas story ends with tears. Maybe we “better not cry,” or Santa will reconsider his visit to our house on Christmas Eve, but the Bible is telling us that our tears are precious. That caused me to begin to explore how weeping and joy are intermingled in our observances of Christ’s coming.
So I asked myself the obvious question: Why does the beautiful and peaceful Christmas story conclude with such an awful bloody scene of tragedy and unimagined grief? Wouldn’t it have been better just to leave out all that unpleasantness? The story of the birth of our Savior is so tranquil and idyllic, why does it have to end with such discord, and horror, and violence?
In his study, Bishop Wilke points out that it is important that we keep Herod and the murder of the babies of Bethlehem in our observance of Christmas – Why? To help us avoid falling into the trap of sentimentality, naively assuming that the birth of Jesus was all sweetness and lullabies. Christ’s advent into our world triggered a cosmic battle for the soul of humanity that ultimately ended on the bloody Cross of Calvary, and the victory of the Empty Tomb. The grieving parents of Bethlehem weeping for their sons murdered by a wicked king are a constant reminder of how desperately the world needed a savior. 1
And it still needs a savior. The world we live in is a world that continues to be filled with sin and evil and hatred and violence – as we are reminded over and over again as we watch the evening news – one scene after another of senseless shootings at schools and other locations, leaving untold horror and grief in their wake (and even since I wrote this sermon, there has been yet another school shooting in Michigan). Yes “Herod” still is seeking to destroy the Christ Child.
Throughout history, there have been countless “Herods” who have been driven by evil and hatred, causing untold suffering and tears – Nero throwing Christians to the lions or covering them with tar and setting them on fire as torches to light the streets of Rome; Hitler unleashing war on our world causing millions of casualties, and attempting to annihilate an entire race of people; Pol Pot, who was responsible for the genocide in Cambodia, where 2,000,000 people were put to death; Osama bin Laden and ISIS and the Taliban (and so many other fundamentalist religious fanatics of various religions – including some so-called “Christians”… terrorists of all stripes who, in the name of their god, seek to subjugate or destroy anyone who doesn’t share their twisted zealous religious views…. And the list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, the spirit of Herod is alive and well. Keeping Herod in the Christmas story is a vivid reminder that our world is still mired in sin and evil – and desperately needs the coming of a Savior.
So throughout world history, powerful demon-possessed men have caused oceans of tears to have been shed. But as individuals, you and I also are familiar with tears.
Life is, by its very nature, difficult. Certainly, most of the time, we have reason to rejoice and be happy – thankfully, most of the time, life is good to us. But every one of us also faces situations and seasons when life is hard, almost unbearable. Our marriage fails, or we lose our job, or we can’t financially provide for our family. We are injured in an accident, or we face cancer or other life-threatening illness, or a spouse or child or other loved one dies – and the only way to deal with our loss is through tears. Yes, weeping is part of being human. Just as joy and tears were interwoven into the Christmas story, so they are interwoven in our lives. Weeping is an inescapable part of the human experience. You know it and I know it.
Far from being something to be avoided during the Advent and Christmas season, I have come to the conclusion that there is a place for tears during the holidays. Even though Christmas is a time of joy and celebration, that very joy shines a spotlight on our trials and griefs and sorrows. We may valiantly try to put on a happy face and pretend we are jolly and festive, but we know we aren’t. Inside, we are weeping. No matter how hard we may try to hold them in, tears just naturally flow.
But as I have reflected on the tragic scene at the close of the Christmas drama, I have discovered that it’s OK to cry during the Christmas season. The Biblical story of Christmas gives us permission to cry.
There is a song that was recorded by Holly Cole that also says it’s OK to cry. The final lines go like this:
When it’s empty and ugly And terribly sad.
I can’t feel what you feel, But I know it feels bad.
I know that its real And it makes you so mad.
You can cry. Cry if you want to… 2
The Christmas story itself gives us permission to “cry if we want to.”
The song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” tells us we shouldn’t cry, but I disagree. Scripture says just the opposite. The Bible tells us there was weeping in the Christmas story, that even though Jesus had just been born into the world, the world had not changed. Evil still rears its ugly head. And so, even at Christmas time, I believe God understands our tears. He knows that at Christmas we may be going through difficult times – a “dark night of the soul.” He gives us permission to weep at the manger, to release our griefs and sorrows to the only One who can transform them into joy.
That’s why we will be offering an “alternative Christmas” service this year – a “Blue Christmas Service.” It will be held on Sunday, December 19 at 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon right here in our sanctuary. If the holidays this year are especially difficult for you because of some loss or situation in your life, you are encouraged to come to our “Blue Christmas” service, where tears will be welcome. Please help us pass to word to any friends or neighbors who may find this service helpful. (Invitation cards are available in the back of the sanctuary or by contacting the church office.)
You see, tears are not only natural and healthy, they are holy and precious to God. It is only when we can cry, that we can fully comprehend the hope and joy that Jesus brings! We have to pass through the darkness of the night before we can rejoice at the coming of the dawn. Jesus is the Son that rises in our lives and banishes our darkness. He is the light of the world and the light of our lives.
As it is written in scripture: “The light (that is, Jesus) shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” And in another place: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
That, my friends is the crux of the gospel message this Advent and Christmas – it is why the gospel is “good news” — because Jesus has come into the world to bear our griefs and sorrows, and exchange them for hope and joy. That’s why, even when we shed tears at Christmas-time, we can still sing “Joy to the World” through our tears!
In the 16th chapter of John, Jesus promises this about his coming: “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
That is the message and hope for all those who cry this Christmas. Weeping is here for a season, but when Christ dawns in our lives and on our world, joy will take the place of our tears.
As Psalm 30 expresses it: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Friends, that is the hope and promise of Christmas.
1 Richard B. Wilke. Christmas: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: An Advent Study for Adults, p. 13
2 Casey Scott. “Cry (If you Want To).” http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:dP66SJPtBpQJ:1heckofaguy.com/2006/09/06/ill-just-be-here-if-you-want-me-to-be-near-you/+when+it’s+empty+and+ugly
“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, the darkness is as light to you.”