I am certain that some preachers can write in a vacuum – Bible open in front of them, whipping out an insightful and edifying exposition of Scripture without a thought for commentaries, scholarly discussions, or the insights and sermons of others.
I ain’t one of those preachers.
So each week, you’ll probably see me list online resources and shout outs to friends whose scholarship informs my work. I *might* even link a YouTube video that has nothing at all to do with anything. Yeah, it’s like that.
Your comments, suggestions, and constructive criticisms are welcome.
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.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
I don’t know if it’s quite fair – we’ve been enjoying the anticipation of Advent, we’ve sung lovely hymns and carols about the birth of Jesus Christ, we’ve celebrated his birth with candlelight and food and gifts and time with loved ones, and on top of it all, it’s New Year’s Day! Hey, nothing like kicking off a new year with a story about slaughtered babies! Come on, can’t we stay at the manger a bit longer? Can’t we reflect just one more week on John’s wonderful creation hymn, where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?
Yes, and no.
When we say “Immanuel” (“God is with us”), and when we say “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” we are not making conditional statements. If God is indeed with us, God is with us all the time. If the Word indeed became flesh and dwelt among us, that Word dwelt in all conditions and circumstances. God deals in reality. God deals in our reality. And while I can imagine that Mary and Joseph wanted to just raise Jesus in the relative peace and quiet of Bethlehem, the greed and paranoia that the corrupt powerful always feel against those they oppress reared its head.
Whatever Herod had told the magi, he’d never had any intention of worshiping the newborn King of the Jews. As far as he was concerned, there was only one King. After all, Herod the Great had been crowned the King of the Jews by the Roman senate over three decades before! He’d fought to consolidate and protect his power ever since, killing even his own children, even his wife, if he so much as suspected they might be plotting to overthrow him. Caesar himself supposedly once remarked that “You’d be better off as one of Herod’s pigs as one of his sons.”
So it would be a simple matter, once these foreigners told him where the child was, for Herod to send a few Roman soldiers to the house and solve the problem by killing the little king and his family.
And let’s be clear – when it became clear that the magi weren’t coming back to rat out Jesus, Herod the Great didn’t lose a moment’s sleep wondering what to do. Kill one child or kill a few dozen or kill hundreds, it meant nothing to Herod. There was a child who would someday take his throne from him, and that simply would not do.
Why must the world react to the advent of the Christ with violence? Then again, why not? Let’s admit that this is a horrible story. But let’s acknowledge that every day the news is filled with the same thing. Oh, maybe not in direct response to Jesus or the Gospel but the children of Aleppo have been dying for a long time now. So have children in and around Bethlehem; in Juba, South Sudan; in Darfur; in . . . well, you fill in the blank. It’s not difficult to do.
When we think of 2016, and think of places like Orlando, Dallas, Nice, Brussels, St. Paul, Berlin, and Chicago, it’s easy see it as just another bloody year of travail, murder, suffering, and sorrow. So, no, this account of Herod’s murder of children is not the exception to the rule in this fallen, broken world. It is the rule. The fact is that Jesus and his parents barely escaped with their lives, and the Christmas story cannot really be told in all its brutal fullness without acknowledging that even the very salvation of this world could not come without being surrounded by the very mayhem and evil that Jesus came to fix.
God deals in reality. God deals in our reality. Our reality is “A voice… heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Matthew brings her voice into the story of Jesus, quoting the prophet Jeremiah who remembered her grief as he wrote of the calamity that had befallen the Jewish people when they were overrun and deported into exile and slavery in a foreign land. Their Babylonian captors assembled the terrified deportees in the border town of Ramah, and it is there that Jeremiah hears her weeping down through the ages for her own child and for all the children of the Babylonian captivity. Weeping, and refusing to hear words of comfort, because they are no more.
Rachael is a witness to the things in human life that are so awful that they cannot be explained or repaired. She gives voice to all the keening mothers of Bethlehem’s babies, and to the un-voiceable anguish of every parent, family, clan, and nation from whom children have ever been torn away and destroyed by a police state, by Jim Crow or apartheid, by political greed and indifference, by war and the glorification of war, by gun violence, or by crushing poverty. Rachael will not be hushed about these things. She will not be pacified.
These days, it seems we are surrounded by hushing, pacifying voices: knowing voices that explain and justify the “unfortunate necessity” of innocent suffering, as if it happens all by itself without human complicity; voices that cover up or prettify what violence actually does, or paint a sanctified picture of the meaning of suffering. Pragmatic voices of tyrants. Pandering voices of politicians. Patriotic voices of presidents and generals. Blaming voices of the self-made. Aloof, removed, pious voices of the church.
And while we always hope that a new year will bring peace and hope, we will almost certainly see some new atrocity, some new tragedy, in 2017. The stubborn wail of Rachael weeping for her children urges us to resist and refuse these voices of explanation, rationalization, justification, and obfuscation of all the things that are just not right and must not be condoned. Even our own voices that too often echo the hollow pieties of the world.
Rachael’s grief urges us to rip apart the greatest lie — that it just can’t be helped, that we have no choice but to stand by and accept the suffering of the innocent, the enslavement and destruction of the future, the murder of innocents – whether it be lives destroyed in office buildings in New York, in hospitals with inadequate supplies in Syria, famine in Ethiopia, orphanages in Rwanda, school buses in Tel Aviv, shot-up elementary schools in any quiet American town, or razed homes in the little town of modern Bethlehem.
Think of it! The God who came to save us needed to first be saved from Herod.
That part of us which is like Rickey Bobby from “Talladega Nights” might have wanted a “Chuck Norris Jesus” or a “GI Joe Jesus With the Kung-Fu Grip” to step in and take care of Herod, but God deals in reality. God deals in our reality, and the sad and stark reality is that this Jesus, this God-with-us, was a toddler, a child, and he needed protecting.
Like the children of Israel during the long-ago famine, Jesus had to seek refuge in Egypt, out of the jurisdiction and reach of Herod. And like Moses, Jesus had to come out of Egypt when the time was right.
He came out, but Herod Archelaus had taken Herod the Great’s place, and to no one’s surprise, he wasn’t any better.
The sad reality is that there is always another Herod.
The Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape one Herod, then settled in Nazareth to avoid another, and in the end it was another Herod, Antipas, who was complicit in the state-sanctioned murder-by-crucifixion of Jesus.
There’s always another Herod, always another bloodthirsty tyrant – Hitler or Pol Pot, Kim Jung-Il or Kim Jong-Un, Osama Bin Ladin or Khomeni or Sadaam Hussein, Hosney Mubarek or Bashar Al-Assad, or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, there is always another Herod.
Why, though? Why is there always another Herod, why is there still so much violence and greed and hatred in the world? It could be that it’s like the joke where an atheist said to a Christian, “If your God is so all-powerful, ask him why he allows killings, starvation and homelessness in the world?” And the Christian replied: “I would. But I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”
God deals in reality. God deals in our reality. God’s ultimate answer to our reality, to pain and violence and injustice and the inconsolable weeping of Rachel is Jesus Christ, who faced violence and hatred and danger and death with love. With healing. With hope. With resurrection.
In Jesus Christ, God has chosen a whole new way of living to win us salvation. This new way does not run away from the violence but faces it. Neither does God resort to the old way of doing things, which is to fight force with force. God will not stop the madness by getting caught up in the same madness. God neither runs away from the madness, nor gets caught up in it, but stands there in the face of it and continues to love. Love. God came into the midst of the madness, and did so with a suffering love.
Why is there still violence? Because love refuses to violently snuff it out. Love only knows love.
Love affirms that God is with us! Honestly, I don’t think that God-with-us, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, would mean all that much if the Word was only dwelling among us during the tender moments, during times of celebration, during the Christmas Eve services of our lives. Yes, those moments of joy are gifts from God and it’s right to give God thanks for them. But if we’re glad that God is with us in times of rejoicing, we’re desperate to know that God is also with us in times of grief, loss, and fear.
Yes, this reading is tough to hear a week after Christmas, on New Year’s Day, but it’s important, because we must remember – we must proclaim to a world which suffers under the reign of Herod after Herod – that God is not only with us, God is also for us, promising to bring us through difficult times to the other side, if not unscathed, nevertheless still victorious.
I think that Matthew structures this account around prophecies – the calling out of Egypt, Rachel weeping, Jesus being called a Nazorean, to demonstrate that even the darkest portions of Jesus’ story turn within a larger narrative of God’s providence and protection. This is not to say that all these events are simply part of some larger, dark “plan” – God did not kill those children, Herod did! – but rather to remind us that nothing that happens to Jesus – or, by extension, to us – is beyond the bounds of God’s love and activity.
God deals in our reality, and God is with us, even in the darkest times. Above all, God is also for us, promising not only to accompany us through difficult times but also to bring us to the other side so that, in time, we might know the fullness of joy that is life in Christ.
Not a bad message to hear on this first day of the New Year after all, huh?