And in despair I bowed my head/”There is no peace on earth,” I said/”For hate is strong, and mocks the song/of ‘peace on earth, goodwill to men’!”
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Christmas Bells, 1863.
Setting the Stage for Christ’s Birth
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of our savior Jesus Christ, there is little doubt that we live in a fallen world. The evidence of sin’s curse is all too evident. The evil we see around us makes even the most jaded heart cry out, “This is not the way it was supposed to be!”
At creation, things were as they were supposed to be. Everything God created worked as he intended. There was perfect shalom.
The biblical narrative explains that sin and death then entered the world through Adam’s rebellion, which explains the broken state of creation now. But God was not pleased to leave things this way. He sent his only son into the world to redeem it.
Christ’s redemption brings great hope amidst this sin cursed world, showing us the way things could be one day. At the end of the age God will again send his son back to complete the work Christ began at the first Advent. He will restore all things, bringing perfect shalom back to creation.
This is the way thing will turn out. We call this meta-narrative the “four-chapter gospel”: creation, fall, redemption, restoration.
The Christmas Sermon You Haven’t Heard
Regarding the first Advent and the chapter of redemption, there is an odd story included in Matthew’s nativity narrative that you will probably not hear in any Christmas sermons. It is a story found in Matthew 2:16-18 called “Massacre of the Innocents.”
The story tells how the vicious Herod murdered the male babies two years old and under in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus. Herod’s actions brought cries of anguish from the hearts of the inhabitants of the region.
Matthew then says something that to us seems quite strange:
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.”
While we are puzzled about the meaning of this verse, Matthew’s original Jewish audience would have clearly understood his point.
They would have immediately thought of the larger context in chapters 30–33 of the book of Jeremiah from which this quote is taken. This section of Jeremiah constitutes one of the most powerful prophetic sections in the entire Old Testament.
In this passage, Jeremiah juxtaposes the picture of Rachel weeping, representing all those who mourn the powerful grip of sin on this world, with the promise of the coming Messiah who would restore shalom to this broken world.
This cluster of prophecies, given during the last eighteen months of the siege of Jerusalem, reveals a stunning vision of God’s plans for his people’s future, including the end of exile and their full restoration.
Matthew is saying that these words of comfort and hope spoken by the prophet Jeremiah are now becoming a reality through the birth of Christ the Messiah. Seen from this prospective, this story fits into a larger narrative that Matthew is trying to convey to his audience.
The unknown 12th century Latin hymn writer captures the essence of the theme that Matthew is seeking to introduce, a theme that will echo throughout his gospel:
O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel/That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.
Matthew wanted his Jewish readers to understand that God’s people were still in exile. Even though a remnant returned from Babylon and lived in the land, God’s people still lived in spiritual exile, and remained under the physical bondage of sin and death. The prophecy of restoration by Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the other prophets had gone unfulfilled – until now.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, let us remember that the words foretold by the prophets have become a reality. As Isaiah 9:6 declares,
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Shalom.
Longfellow realized this, as evidenced by the last stanza of his poem Christmas Bells:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep/”God is not dead, nor shall he sleep/The wrong shall fail/The Right prevail/With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Such is our hope in this Advent season, and the knowledge that is the Second Advent. Revelation 21:4-5 reminds us:
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
Christ will completely restore shalom, and then shall all the Rachels of this world finally be comforted.
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