O Little Battlefield of Bethlehem

25 Dec


“You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions.”

– Hebrews 1:9a


Brothers and sisters in Christ, today is Christmas!

And often during worship services at Christmastime we think about scripture readings that speak of what happened around Christmas Eve and Day:

-no good place for Mary and Joseph to sleep

-baby Jesus being born in a stable, among animals

-shepherds in the field, watching their flocks by night

-angels suddenly bursting on the scene, announcing to them the good news of the Messiah for all people

-wise men from the East coming to visit Jesus and shower Him with gifts…

Maybe you are feeling ready for a Christmas pageant right about now with some really cute kids!

And so… all this being the case, we might be a bit taken aback by our scripture readings for this morning!

What do they point to?


Why, it seems that they emphasize the Son of God’s victory, the overpowering of his enemies!

He is the One who reigns from the heavens!

Sitting at the right hand of his Father!…

Or, in the case of the Gospel of John, it emphasizes the Word of God, that is the Son of God, being with God and in fact being God as well! (and that, understandably, might also seem to us to be primarily about power!)

Still, some of the most popular Christmas hymns emphasize not overpowering of enemies, war, or battles but peace on earth

…and create in our minds picturesque scenes like those we might see in Hallmark cards and television specials…

“Silent night, holy night!

All is calm, all is bright.

Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.

Holy infant so tender and mild,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.”


“The cattle are lowing

The Baby awakes

But little Lord Jesus

No crying He makes…”


“O little town of Bethlehem,

how still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

the silent stars go by;

yet in thy dark streets shineth

the everlasting light.

The hopes and fears of all the years

are met in thee tonight…”

There can be no doubt that our Almighty God has come to us in utter humility, simplicity, and even weakness. He doesn’t want us to feel threatened… to be threatened.  

…The Babe in the Manger really is the One in Whom All can and should Hope!

And yet, are some of the pictures that we often have about Christmas Eve and Christmas Day perhaps too sentimental?

And, in sharing with us the humble and simple facts that it does about the Christmas account, does scripture perhaps actually discourage such sentimentality?

How would the residents of Bethlehem at the time, including Mary and Joseph, have experienced these days?


One Bible commentator, a Lutheran pastor from Australia, Harry Wendt, is keen to paint a very different picture of the chosen location of the Messiah’s birth…

In his short and punchy book, Christmas: the Real Story, he points out that when the King Herod from the Bible’s Christmas account knew that he was terminally ill, just a few years after Jesus’ birth, he wanted to make sure that people would be sad when he died…

…so he gave orders that many notable Jews from all parts of the land were to come to Jerusalem where they would be shut up in the massive sports stadium there, the hippodrome, and killed at his death.

This, of course, would ensure tears and mourning after his death! Fortunately, this plan was never carried out.[1]

Why would Herod have felt he needed to do this?

Well, having ten wives and many sons who wanted to be his heir, he faced one family crisis after another, revolving around struggles for power.

And he had, truth be told, been absolutely ruthless. He had a number of people killed, including several of his sons, his favorite wife, and his mother-in-law. This prompted the Roman Emperor of the time, Augustus, to quip, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son”.[2]

In fact, everything that we know about Herod comports with the behavior we will read about later in the book of Matthew, where he attempts to have every boy in the Bethlehem region under the age of two killed in order to eliminate the promised Messiah or King, that is, Jesus.[3]

Wendt concludes: “Such was the world into which Jesus was born – a world in which kings were ruthless in their quest to attain and maintain power…”

When I heard Wendt speak years ago, he characterized Bethlehem not as peaceful, but as a warzone.


Perhaps when we consider this very different picture our chosen Psalm for Christmas Day, Psalm 2, begins to make a bit more sense.

Let’s take a look at some of it one more time…

“Why do the nations conspire

    and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth rise up

    and the rulers band together

    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,

“Let us break their chains

    and throw off their shackles.”

And then later:

Therefore, you kings, be wise;

    be warned, you rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear

    and celebrate his rule with trembling.

Kiss his son, or he will be angry

    and your way will lead to your destruction,

for his wrath can flare up in a moment.

    Blessed are all who take refuge in him…”

Also Isaiah chapter 52, our Old Testament reading for this morning, fits here perfectly.

For when it speaks of the strength of the Lord’s arm, it is speaking about the power of the Lord that will rule the nations….

When our Lord visits Earth at Christmas, he visits a fallen world that really focuses on the primacy of power… and so here is some language they should understand…


Many in the world will deny that for them it is all about power. For they also, for example, want to talk about good and evil.

And yet – even as our world quickly uses the labels good and evil to its own advantage – it certainly, perhaps more than ever… struggles with any real truth beyond “might makes right”….

Like Pilate, they say, what, really – is truth? Objective truth?!

Truly, our sin-sick world – as the gospel of John in the first chapter this morning reminds us – finally rejects the light of day, preferring the darkness…

As we heard John say in our Gospel reading:

“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone…was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him…

This has implications, for no man or woman can escape the importance of truth, of the true light, nor that which follows from it: true knowledge of right and wrong, righteousness and wickedness, good and evil

Sinful man – even the better ones who resist “might makes right” thinking – believes that the concepts of good and evil can finally be used apart from any real reference to the content of our readings and particularly our Psalm, Psalm 2, for this morning…

Truly though, they cannot.

While we speak of a natural law that exists apart from any particular person that might cause the best governments in history, for example, to give a nod to the second table of the ten commandments, for example…[4]

…the same can certainly not be said for the first table of the commandments!….

And yet, as Psalm 2 shows us, God holds all people, all nations, accountable for the rejection of His Annointed King, the Christ!

And our chosen text from Hebrews 1 makes very clear why. Of the historical person of Jesus Christ, scripture says:

“You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions.”[5]

For Jesus Christ – being the Son of God, the very Word of God – is the true embodiment of righteousness, of goodness itself… that goodness that cannot abide evil!

While the power of God graciously creates a way for Him to come to sinners without destroying them – by grace through faith in the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, that is, through His Son…

…what inevitably must happen is that the Pure Light – even the very Presence of Jesus Christ Himself – scatters the darkness, chases it out, and yes…

Finally, even actively destroys it. 

Salvation cannot finally come apart from this destruction of evil.

Jesus Christ comes so that we might know this, that we might get this, that we might love this, and might love such righteousness now and forever….

But again, this world would like to think about the concepts of good and evil apart from Jesus Christ, because if it could do that it could finally… ultimately… decide what is good and right and true and pure for itself, giving its darkened heart what it wants.


And doesn’t this make us think of the very beginning? Take us back there?

There in the beginning God created everything, said that it was good – and that it was very good!

Correspondingly, again, our readings from the book of John and Hebrews this morning also make it clear to us that the Son of God who would that first Christmas take on human flesh is himself God… is our Creator.

When God created everything in the very beginning everything was amazing and beyond belief.

I remember when I was young how Christmas time always seemed otherworldly. Christmas Eve especially seemed to me particularly magical.

On that night, God entered human flesh and it seemed like the whole world could not escape the pull of this wonderful truth even if it tried!

To me, it was as if the whole creation could not help but sing songs of joy because of what God had done!

“Peace on earth and good will towards men!”

Well, we know that when God originally created the world that everything truly was, in fact, very good!

All of the creation truly did sing for joy, unhindered, uninhibited, and not infected by sin!

There was true joy, true happiness… in every square inch of the creation!

And yet, God allowed for a test, a test that our first parents failed… and that we too have failed ever since.

We are told that in the garden the serpent asked Eve the fatal question: “Did God really say?”

With that question asked, the seeming possibility of something other than what God said was good and right arose. Perhaps our ideas of good and evil are not something that is finally the business of God alone – but we ourselves might be those who can determine what is good and what is evil!

Why not? The world, after all, is not only one that has elements of stability – but change is a reality as well, right?

Is not change built into the order that he has blessed us with?

So why not posit that the Bible provides guidance but only contains and not is God’s word? And why not question what some of God’s undeniably imperfect servants have said in the Bible? Shouldn’t our own spiritual maturity help us to decide what is and isn’t really from Him? Why believe it is really the Holy Spirit when it speaks about premarital sex or kinds of divorce that must not be permitted? Why not wonder if the Bible really means what it says when it states that what happened in the Garden long ago should affect our behavior today – or even just when it talks about how God created us male and female and gives marriage to these distinct persons for our good? Or when it says that children are always a blessing and a reward to the godly? I mean, sure, life is a gift and all that, but not every child is really even wanted or convenient.

If we don’t think these thoughts – if we don’t question Divine Authority and stand up for ourselves – is that not just chains and oppression?

Don’t go there brothers and sisters!

The truth is that the Lord is our Creator, and has made things, then and now, to work according to His proper specifications. There are, you might say, “grooves” to the creation. We want to fit in these.

And here, I must commend a very good pastor, a man by the name of Jason Braaten, who, in commenting on the biblical book of Titus, notes that through Paul God is sending Titus to Crete to put things that are out of order back into order….

God justifies us through the love of Jesus Christ, making us right, putting us into place, reestablishing his order among us.

We aren’t just put under Him as any creature, but actually adopted into His family as children with an inheritance!

We have something to live in and for and to pass on!

Braaten notes that we need to be reminded of this all the time… all the time… to take our place in God’s order where there is life and not death. In submitting to God, works that are rightly ordered, properly arranged, excellent, profitable, and fruitful arise!

Finally, he says:

Pay attention then to where you are in relation to where God has actually called you to be. Let us not profess to know God but deny him by our out-of-order works. Let us not let the word of God be reviled by our disobedience, insubordination, and disorder. Let us not condemn ourselves by living as warped and unfruitful people. Rather, let us take our place, be put into order, devoted to good works — the works he has prepared for us in our stations. That we would be where God put us, that we would watch over what God would have us watch over, that we would subordinate and obey what God calls us to submit to and obey. That no one would disregard us….”[6]


God has given us His word. The fact that we live in a society increasingly at odds with it is never any excuse for us.

Never any excuse for us.

All of us, wherever we are in our questioning and in our attitudes, should know better than we do. As Adam and Eve should have known better.

It is here that we also might speak about how while the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, failed this test, the second Adam and Eve did not.

You are familiar with the idea of the second Adam. He is the One whose birth we celebrate today!

The Promised One who destroys all darkness and evil, crushing the Serpent’s head!

To Him Alone we pray and sing and worship!

You may not be familiar with the idea of the Second Eve however, the one who we really should recognize as the core representative – other than the Perfect Man, Jesus Christ – of the Church.

The early church Father Irenaeus does her justice here when he explains things like this:

….As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.”[7]

So, the second Eve that is the mother of Christ, the very mother of God, did not fail. Like Job whom we spoke about a few weeks ago, she, a fallen woman, succeeded in the Special Mission God had assigned for her by His grace, leading to her blamelessness before her fellow believers.

As the theologian Peter Leithard puts it “Jesus saves, but He doesn’t save without Mary’s help. For the Last Adam too, it’s not good to be alone…”[8]

Let this great woman be an example and model to you! She too, like her son, was one of whom the Lord could say “loved righteousness and hated wickedness…”

That is right. God wanted His Son to hate. And He wants His servant Mary and us to do the same.

Hence, we read things like this in the word:

“The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8:13).

“Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15), and “O you who love the Lord, hate evil! He preserves the life of his saints; he delivers them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 97:10).

Love hates what is evil.


Does talk of hate steal our Christmas joy?

Why should it?

If anything, this should re-orient and re-invigorate our Christmas joy, a joy that is not based on good feelings, the pleasures of what we can see and touch and feel, but a joy that is rooted in the One who is beyond us, whose ways are not like ours, and yet, who came to us to rescue us from this fallen world, to save us from ourselves.

Love opposes, that is hates, all that is opposed to this.

When the angel came to her to share the promise from God about the Messiah and bear, Mary did not doubt the word of God as did Eve or Elizabeth’s husband Zachariah. Mary, on the contrary said “Let it be done for me according to your word.”

…because of Mary’s trust in the promise of God, God in his wisdom used her faith to give us His very own son from Mary’s own flesh and blood.

With the Son of God being very God, we can even say “Christ made a Virgin who gave birth to her own Creator.”

Chew on that one again: “Christ made a Virgin who gave birth to her own Creator.”

So let us be humbled! Let us be like the simple ones, the poor, who gladly embrace and treasure the Word that God gives to us. That Word is given to us today!

Behold the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and in a manger, the One of whom we sing words which, in truth, are completely unsentimental:

“Why lies He in such mean estate

Where ox and lamb are feeding?

Good Christian, fear, for sinners here

The silent Word is pleading

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through

The cross be borne for me, for you

Hail, hail the Word made flesh

The Babe, the Son of Mary”

God’s Holy Spirit, exemplified by Jesus, the true King of the Jews and all the nations, gives us love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

The world’s spirit, exemplified by the false king of the Jews, Herod, gives us arrogance, jealousy, selfish ambition, slander, quarreling, biting, devouring, dissension, division, discord, rivalry, disorder…

Let us not embrace the world’s ideas of what good and evil are, or can be

…and let us not imagine that we ourselves will be able to determine in this more fluid environment of the early 21st century what good and evil are, or can be, by our own powers…

…rather let us submit to the timeless word of God, to the One who does not change, to the one who has truly loved and come for us to save us from the grip and lies and false promises and hopes of this fallen world… whose goodness fades away as quickly as most the Christmas gifts that we receive and then soon forget about…[9]

Brothers and sisters, in your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ there is forgiveness, life and salvation! Be happy, and be happy warriors as you face your Bethlehem Battlefields and do spiritual battle in Christ’s power!

So that the Grinches who would steal Christmas and far more away from us will never succeed in their endeavors.

Merry Christmas!


[1] The historian Paul Maier writes of this:

“At one point late in his life, Herod plots to kill a stadium full of Jewish leaders. The plot fails, but what does it reveal about him?*

Well, Josephus has a very grisly thing to report about Herod in his last months. He was paranoid, though he did have some grasp of reality. For instance, he was worried that nobody would mourn his own death. Of course, that shows how deadly accurate he was. They were preparing a general celebration. And nobody likes to die knowing that they are going to dance on your grave. And so he was going to give the people something to cry about. In 4 BC he is in his winter palace in Jericho. It’s the only place in the holy land that doesn’t get snow or get cold in the winter; it’s 1,200 feet below sea level. And Herod is dying. He tries every remedy in the world to stop the gang of diseases that were creeping up on him. He went to the hot springs on the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea, Callirrhoe (which is still springing hot water two thousand years later), and that didn’t cure him. So he goes back to his winter palace, and he invites his sister Salome over, and he says, “I want you to arrest all the Jewish leaders in the land and imprison them in the hippodrome, just below the palace here.” (And the hippodrome has been discovered archaeologically, by the way.) And so she does what he asks, and then she says, “Brother, why am I doing this?” And Herod says, “Well, I know that when I die the Jews are going to rejoice. So I want to give them something to cry about.” And so he wants these leaders all executed in that hippodrome, so that there will be thousands of households weeping at the time Herod the Great dies. So is that the kind of sweet guy who could have killed the babies in Bethlehem? Yeah, I think so.

Yes, most certainly — goodness.” From:

[2] More from Maier: “As a matter or fact, Augustus himself, to whom Herod was always very deferent, said, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” It is a double pun. In Greek it is choiros and huios, a clever turn on words, and the other idea is that at least pigs weren’t slaughtered for human consumption over there; they had a better chance at a longer life. And so it was a brilliant pun on the part of Augustus.

Ouch. Yes.”

[3] Maier is asked: “Speaking of Matthew 2, the Bible records this scene from Herod’s paranoia late in his life. The wise men alert him to the birth of a new king in Bethlehem. He wants to know where, so he can eradicate this new rival. The wise men wisely don’t return. Herod then responds by slaughtering all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and in “all the region.” For all that Josephus writes about Herod, he makes no mention of this — in fact, there’s no extra-biblical evidence that this slaughter ever happened. How do you respond?”

He says in reply:

“No, it is interesting. Josephus does not mention it. And therefore, a lot of biblical critics will pounce on that aspect of the nativity account and say, therefore it didn’t happen. Now please understand that this is an argument from silence, and that is the weakest form of argumentation you can use. As we say in the profession, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

In this case, one or two things could have happened. Josephus may have heard about it and not used it because maybe you don’t have hundreds of babies killed; maybe you have only about twelve, as a matter of fact — twelve or fifteen. The infant mortality in the ancient world was so huge anyway that this is really not going to impress the reader too much, believe it or not. And I think if Josephus is choosing between the two stories about how Herod died right before his death, I think I would take the one where he is going to slaughter hundreds of Jewish leaders.

Or he may not have heard about it. Again, simply because, in little Bethlehem, it doesn’t amount to much — a village of about fifteen hundred residents. In my actuarial study, Bethlehem at the time wouldn’t have had more than about two dozen babies two years old and under — half of them female. And so this is not a big deal, and I think that is why Josephus either never heard about it or didn’t feel it important enough to record. So this does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.

In fact, I was arguing once years ago on the infant massacre with a professor at Wagner College in New York who claimed that this is all fiction — that surely a massacre of hundreds of Jewish boy babies would have come to the attention of other accounts of history. Well, I agree it would have if there had been hundreds of slaughters. But that is ridiculous. A little village that size to have hundreds of boy babies, two years old and younger? It couldn’t possibly be the case.

The KJV adds “in all the coasts thereof.” Well, look: Jerusalem is five miles away, right? So this would include Jerusalem as well if we are going to take literally “all the coasts thereof.” We are talking about Bethlehem and probably a half-mile around when we are talking about the surroundings of Bethlehem.”

Interviewer: “Fascinating — and certainly no less a real tragedy. So, finally, as a historian, in your mind, is there any reason to doubt the historicity of the slaughter of the innocents?”

Maier: “I see not one iota of evidence here it could not have happened. And therefore, again, there is no reason to doubt the account as far as I am concerned. To be sure, Luke hasn’t heard about it. Remember, Matthew and Luke don’t copy from one another when it comes to the Nativity. And that is good, because this way they can hit it from different angles. I think it really happened. And let’s remember again that the first martyr of Christianity was not Stephen; it was Jesus. But not even Jesus, for my money, the first martyr in the Christian church, was not the first baby sought out to be killed in Bethlehem, and we always overlook that.”

[4] Coveting?

[5] What is the truth about power?

It is that only the rightful ordering of power gives power true authority.

Our text in Hebrews makes this clear in talking about the role of God’s Messiah:

“You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions.”

Here, we see that sheer power – physical or intellectual – is not the most important thing, but the truth is.

The truth about righteousness and wickedness, and how God’s Righteousness-Loving Servant is exalted!

And speaking of the truth, the Babe in the Manger of course would eventually go on to describe Himself as the Truth!

And what of love? Righteousness and love go hand-in-hand. And God is love and so Christ is love.

And we also know that love rejoices in the truth.

As the Father rejoices in the Son and the Son rejoices in the Father, we must say that love rejoices in the truth about what is righteous and good and about how this sets us free….


[7] St. Irenaeus of Lyons

This excerpt from St. Irenaeus shows that the Blessed Virgin Mary is truly a new Eve, just as her son Jesus Christ is a new Adam.  He contrasts Eve’s disobedience with Mary’s obedience.

The Lord, coming into his own creation in visible form, was sustained by his own creation which he himself sustains in being. His obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary, a virgin subject to a husband, undid the evil lie that seduced Eve, a virgin espoused to a husband.


As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve.

Christ gathered all things into one, by gathering them into himself. He declared war against our enemy, crushed him who at the beginning had taken us captive in Adam, and trampled on his head, in accordance with God’s words to the serpent in Genesis: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall lie in wait for your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel [Genesis 3:15].

The one lying in wait for the serpent’s head is the one who was born in the likeness of Adam from the woman, the Virgin. This is the seed spoken of by Paul in the letter to the Galatians: The law of works was in force until the seed should come to whom the- promise was made. [Gal. 3:19]


He shows this even more clearly in the same letter when he says: When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman. The enemy would not have been defeated fairly if his vanquisher had not been born of a woman, because it was through a woman that he had gained mastery over man in the beginning, and set himself up as man’s adversary.

That is why the Lord proclaims himself the Son of Man, the one who renews in himself that first man from whom the race born of woman was formed; as by a man’s defeat our race fell into the bondage of death, so by a man’s victory we were to rise again to life.

[8] Eve was called Adam’s helper in Genesis (“‘ezer in the Hebrew, from where we get “Ebenezer”, or “stone of help”)

The theologian Peter Leithart is well to honor Mary as the “second Eve” when he says this:

“Mary fulfills the promise of woman. She’s the ‘ezer who helps mankind by putting her power of procreation in service to the head-crushing Seed. Jesus saves, but He doesn’t save without Mary’s help.

For the Last Adam too, it’s not good to be alone…”

[9] Cut ending:

In Acts 17, you know that the Apostle Paul proclaims that “[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” This goes hand in hand with the God-Man sitting down at the right hand of God after offering His purification for our sins at the cross.

And in John 16, this Word made flesh, just prior to his death and resurrection, will say:

“When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned…”

And that Holy Spirit does all of this for our salvation, that the work of the cross and resurrection would have its way with us this Christmas day, so that, as we read:

“…to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God…”

Martin Luther said that both God’s law, which orders creation, and His Gospel, “belong to all”. That said, not all have the “perception” of these. Both must be continually taught.

The Gospel must be taught or “traditioned,” i.e. “passed down”: “Divine revelation” – such as the Gen. 3:15 promise concerning the Seed of the woman who defeats the serpent and his work – is given in particular circumstances but is for all and hence should be in all through the activity of believers in history. “[E]ver since the beginning of the world has been [culpable] unbelief and ignorance of Christ, since the promise concerning the Seed of the woman was given right after the fall of Adam.”

The same holds true for the law, even as it also remains in human beings by nature such that they are culpable of sin due to whatever knowledge they have.

We need to fight against this always.

So “Merry Christmas!”

Be happy warriors as you face your Bethlehem Warzones and go to spiritual war!

So that those Grinches who would steal Christmas and more away from you will never succeed in their endeavors.

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Posted by on December 25, 2022 in Uncategorized


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