Vicar Emily Beckering, First Sunday of Christmas, year A; texts: Matthew 13:13-23; Isaiah 63:7-9 (added Jeremiah 31:15-17 as well)
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How horrific it is that in the wake of the birth of our savior, so much evil and death follows.
And yet, it also makes sense. It makes sense because we know from our own lives that we live in a cruel and dangerous world. We know that atrocities like the death of the baby boys of Bethlehem continue to happen in our own time.
All we have to do to be reminded of this is to turn on the TV, open a newspaper, or log in and read our news feed. We live in a broken world where suffering is widespread and where evil still runs rampant.
The birth story of Jesus does not pretend that the world is any different.
It is not a magical story where God comes to us in the form of a baby and suddenly everything is sunshine and roses. That is not the story of the nativity because that story would in no way address the harsh realities of life lived in this world.
Instead, God comes to us and to the world by entering into the very worst that it has to offer: into a world that does not recognize him or relish in the goodness that he brings, but instead pursues him and attempts to wipe him from the face of the earth.
In Herod’s attempt to destroy his Messiah, he destroys the lives of the children of Bethlehem and their families. We need to be clear about one thing: the death of these children was not God’s will. God did not orchestrate their murder as a part of God’s plan. The slaughter of the innocents did not happen in order to fulfill God’s Word spoken to the prophets.
The fulfilled prophecies show us that in Jesus Christ, God is doing what God promised to Israel by coming as their Messiah to deliver them and give life. God the Father provides carefully for Jesus, the Son, so that this mission might be lived out.
God is at work in this story to bring life, not death, for God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.
The violent death of these children depicts the polar opposite of God. Their deaths result from evil, brought about by human fear and anger. Their deaths are Herod’s desperate and disturbing attempt to hold onto his power and position at all costs. These children are destroyed because they resemble Christ. They are persecuted because they match the description of the expected Messiah: a male child born within the time frame of the appearance of the star. The church has traditionally named these children as the first martyrs because they are murdered in Jesus’ name: they are sought out and destroyed because they reflect Christ.
Their martyrdom, however, is not to be celebrated. Those who are left behind in Bethlehem bring their grief in lament before God “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.” This is a direct quotation from Jeremiah 31:15, which voices the cries of Israel, exiled into Assyria.
These words from Jeremiah are our entrance into this story.
We may be left feeling like Israel, exiled to Assyria. We may look around us and see all the evil and suffering: the violence of wars, the destruction caused by hurricanes and tornadoes, the murder of children, or the horror of a slave industry that still holds millions captive and be left feeling like this depiction of Rachel: weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled.
We may find ourselves refusing to be consoled, refusing to be comforted by this birth of Jesus if it means that innocent babies will die, that the Herod’s of the world will still win, and that evil gets to go unchecked.
We hear the cry of Rachel, the cry of Israel in exile, but because Matthew takes this prophetic word out of Jeremiah without giving us the context, we do not hear God’s response to Israel’s refusal to be consoled. This is what follows the cry of Rachel in verses 16 and 17: “Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the LORD; your children shall come back to their own country.” God promises Israel that exile is not the end because God is still at work for them to bring them into a new future, a future filled with hope and the presence of their God.
This is also the promise that we find in the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. God says to Israel and to us: we do not need to remain inconsolable in our grief, in our suffering, or in response to the world’s condition because what we think is the end, is not in fact the final end.
Israel is told that they will return home because God will bring them home. And though all that the people of Bethlehem might have been able to feel at the terrifying, horrendous slaughter of their children was inconsolable loss and abandonment, they were not, in fact, abandoned! God was at work for them, in the very midst of their terror, bringing to them a savior, working out God’s plan to free them from such forces of evil.
There was hope yet for them, and hope yet for us.
The hope is this: that in the person of Jesus Christ, God experiences the depths of our fear and our suffering and we do not face them alone.
This is precisely why Jesus Christ came!
He came because we are broken people who live in a broken world: a world where kings are able to wipe out the offspring of an entire village in order to maintain power, a world where children are gunned down in elementary schools, bought and sold as slaves and starve to death, a world where neighbors kill neighbors with machetes and where 11 million people are systematically destroyed because of their ethnicity.
In this baby, God enters into the very midst of that brokenness, is born into the same terror, and lives under the same threats to which we are vulnerable.
On the cross, God does not send an army of angels to overpower the Romans and prevent the crucifixion. This is not God’s way. We see this not only at Jesus’ death, but from the very onset of his birth. God does not destroy evil with fire, use angels to overpower Herod, or retaliate Herod’s evil with punishment by death.
God is not like Herod.
In Jesus, we meet a very different kind of king.
Instead, our Lord Jesus Christ enters into the danger himself: into the heart of the evil and destruction and pain in order to heal us from the inside out. And in the face of such horror, God is carefully and intimately involved in order to fulfill the promises made and to bring about a new future.
So what shall our witness and our response to this story be? When we look at the world and see only death, and it seems that evil has the upper hand and is winning, our confession is that this is not the whole story. God is still at work in this world and in our own lives.
God is with us in the very midst of our pain and our suffering and our fear, working to bring life and healing on the other side of it.
We are to live knowing this is true. We are not to live as Herod, making decisions out of fear, or anger, or self-preservation. Because when we do, we wreak havoc and cause terrible suffering for those around us. Instead, we are to be the people who trust that God is at work. We are to be the people who look for where God is working and ask God how we can be a part of it.
We need not be paralyzed in the face of suffering, or attempt to take matters into our own hands because our hope is that our God is still at work.
Our hope is that though the children of God will experience suffering as a consequence for resembling Christ in the world, the most vicious plots of Herod or Pontius Pilate or even our own hearts cannot prevent God from reaching God’s children, healing us and bringing us new life.
Even when all we can see is darkness and all lights seem snuffed out, when we are surrounded by suffering and death and all seems lost, we confess in the presence of one another and of a hurting world that this darkness and suffering are not the ultimate realities and will not have the final word. God is still at work and God is still in our very midst, coming with healing in God’s wings, working to bring about a new future for all.
In the end, the story of the massacre of the Holy Innocents is the same story that we heard today in Isaiah: “God became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them.”
The children of Bethlehem were not saved by an angel or a messenger, but by God himself who came in full presence to save them and all of Israel, us and the entire world. God became our savior in all of our distress. It is God’s very presence that we are promised, and this presence by which we are saved.