When I was growing up, my Grandpa Hall distributed the gifts on Christmas morning around the tree. Many Christmases, just when we thought all the presents had been given out (adults had left the room to get more coffee and kids were playing amid the piles of crumpled paper), Grandpa would exclaim, “Say, wait a minute. What’s that I spy back here?” He’d chuckle and reach behind the tree to pull out some final surprise presents for the grandkids, bonus gifts that we didn’t see coming! (One year, it was cap guns. Grandma was none too pleased with Grandpa as all the kids ran about the house, firing their cap guns and stirring up smoke.)
We gain surprising joy in a gift that is tucked behind the tree in the original Christmas story. Just after the Wise Men had worshipped the Christ Child by giving him their presents, these Magi were warned by God in a dream to not return to King Herod. They obeyed God and took another route home. What was going on? Herod was one VERY bad King. History reveals that Herod, the regional ruler appointed by the Roman Emperor, was paranoid about his throne. He readily murdered people to protect his kingship. He would stop at nothing. Herod was evil incarnate, one VERY bad king. But God was working to bring His Son, Christ, love incarnate, the VERY good king. Now, this new king’s life was in jeopardy. Herod was out to crush him.
After the Wise Men left, Joseph was warned in a dream to take Jesus and Mary and head to Egypt. The angel explained, “Herod is going to seek to destroy the Child.” So, middle of the night, Joseph wakes everyone and off they go to Egypt. (Moms, you are shuddering as you imagine Mary’s emotions, all the fright of a sudden flight by night. And you NEVER wake a sleeping baby, right?!)
Why Egypt? It was not a new place for God’s people to run for protection. There was actually already a large population of God’s people living in exile in Egypt during Joseph and Mary’s time. And hundreds of years before, the fledgling family of God’s people, Jacob’s brood, had run to Egypt to survive a famine. Four hundred years later, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus. The story in Matthew’s Gospel sees this as prophetic fulfillment, an echo of previous Holy Writ. “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Part of Matthew’s story is showing Jesus to be the new Deliverer, an even “better Moses.” God’s new Deliverer has come!
But now the unthinkable happens. It’s so ugly and treacherous. Herod found out he was tricked by the Magi, and he was furious! He dispatched troops and they put to death every male child, two years old and under, living in and around Bethlehem. It’s SO ugly. The weeping and wailing are outrageous. Again, Matthew captured this as fulfilling an ancient prophecy by Jeremiah, “Great wailing in Ramah; Rachel is weeping for her children, because they are no more.” It’s SO sad. Here was the work of one very bad king, trying to crush the very good king, and the outcome was so heartbreaking.
Perhaps this Christmas, you can relate to the mommas of Bethlehem. Maybe you feel more like crying than singing carols. You are not alone. Amid a season that pumps the glitz and glitter of twinkling lights and joyful songs, the rugged reality is that many of us are facing deep sorrow and pain. For some, this is the first Christmas without a precious loved one. For others, there is the agony of having lost a job or having passed through a year that felt filled to the brim with failures. Some families are too busy battling cancer to even think about being jolly. And some of you are just dreading the after-Christmas clean up, taking down ye ol’ tree, going back to work, and the doldrums of post-holiday blues.
BUT there’s something else at work in this scene, behind the tree, and still at work in God’s story today. Here is where the Good News of God’s grand story is SO good. God the Father saved his Son, so King Jesus could save you! This baby, born to be King, would grow up to work hard in this world, teach truth, work miracles, then go to the cross and shed his blood for us. He would be buried and rise again for us. He would commission us on a mission in this world, promise us his presence for that work in this world, and then ascend back to the Father. And there’s this amazing promise that King Jesus, who is love incarnate, will fulfill. Revelation chapter 21, verses 3-5 tell us that he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. No more death, or sorrow, pain, or crying. And King Jesus says, “I am making everything new!” That’s a promise that he starts fulfilling today as we trust him and encounter his joyful presence. And it will be fulfilled fully someday upon his return to finally rule and reign.
In Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the oldest of the women serving in the House of Healing, Ioreth, wept over Farimir. And she declared: “Would that there were kings in Gondor . . . For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.” In the scenes to come, with Aragorn’s arrival, the old lore proves true.
And with King Jesus’ arrival, such renewal work proves oh-so-true.
Though there was treacherous murder and weeping in Bethlehem, the evil work of King Herod is not the end of the story. God the Father saved His Son, so King Jesus could save you. It’s still true today! Will you trust King Jesus? Will you trust His presence in the here and now, for forgiveness, for new life? Will you trust his promise that he has come to end your weeping? Yes, we still know ugly tears in the here and now. That is part of still living with the likes of Herod haunting our world. But the whole story is not yet told. There’s more behind the tree! There is more to come in the final restoration. Will you encounter His presence after the presents?
When all is said and done, the Renewer will fully complete his work of presence and powerful healing. Such an astounding present “tucked behind the tree.”
Let’s rejoice this Christmas. Our King has come!