I don’t know what’s more annoying, seeing Christmas merchandise and hearing Christmas music in stores before Thanksgiving or when radio stations no longer play Christmas music the very day after Christmas… No matter how much merchants stretch out the run up to Christmas, it still somehow seems to end abruptly at midnight on December 25th–no more music, trees recycled, Christmas items go on clearance and decorations are returned to storage. Christmas is over. Abruptly over.
Perhaps you have a similar experience: presents have been gifted and opened, leaving the tree skirt bare; a home once filled with the company of family and friends is now empty; the sweet smell of holiday cooking is now under plastic wrap in the refrigerator. What took months to arrive is now suddenly gone. Christmas is over. Abruptly over.
This isn’t too far from the experience of reading the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel. We have a beautiful picture of far-away travelers following a shining star, bringing expensive, exotic gifts to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child. Then, just as soon as the joy and beauty of that wondrous moment arrived, it vanished: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee as refugees to Egypt narrowly escaping a tyrant’s ruthless slaughter of children. Hope, Love, Joy, Peace–our Advent themes encircling us in the sanctuary–all this seems to shatter under the cruel orders of a power-mad king. The night sky is not filled with angelic hosts, it is pierced with screams of a massacre, the wailing of survivors grieving their dead. The image of Joseph and Mary leaning over the child Jesus with splendid gifts gives way to grief-stricken parents leaning over their dead children, holding their blood-stained bodies. Christmas is over. Abruptly over.
In seminary, preaching professors who want to make their students squirm assign a text a like this–it falls in the category of “hard texts.” These are passages of scripture rarely preached because their content is so unsettling–usually violent–and the questions they raise are so complicated to address.
For example, one of the difficult questions in this text has to do with the historical accuracy of Matthew’s story: why is there very little evidence of such a massacre in our historical records? Shouldn’t a gruesome act of this magnitude register somewhere on the historical Richter scale?
A great question, but I’m afraid I can’t give you a very thorough answer in the time we have remaining. Suffice it to say, the tyrannical, violent portrait of King Herod in this story is not out of step with the evidence we do have: we do know that when Herod suspected his wife was scheming against him, Herod had her put on trial and executed. Later, when Herod became suspicious that his sons might usurp his power, he had them summarily killed. King Herod wanted his position and his power, and nothing would get in the way of that.
If we can avoid the tangle of the historical question, we might notice something important: our gospel story parallels the birth of Moses in Exodus: just like Jesus, Moses escaped the slaughter of captive Hebrew children by the Egyptian King, the Pharaoh. That parallel becomes all the more pronounced when we read that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt. If we were hearing the gospel read to us in the first century, we would likely be very familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and the story of Moses, the one who confronted Pharaoh in order to win the Israelite’s release; we would immediately recognize the connection: Jesus is the New Moses, he can bring freedom and new life to a world enslaved in violence and death.
But just as quickly as we bypass the historical question and notice something of literary importance, we come face-to-face with a grim theological question: what kind of God orchestrates the massacre of children in order to fulfill scripture? Again, another great question, and I don’t know I can do it justice in a single sermon. Of course, there is a loophole to the question that I can duck through: in Matthew’s gospel, God did not orchestrate the massacre of children in order to fulfill scripture. Elsewhere in his gospel, Matthew uses the phrase “in order that” to show that these things happened to fulfill scripture. But here, Matthew does not do this.
Instead, Matthew is trying to take the chaotic mess of his time and make sense of it all. Surely, surely, all this violence, death, and oppression means something: indeed, for Matthew it does, it means that we are not without hope; it means that though it doesn’t seem like it, God is still at work delivering the world from its own torment, just as God has done before. Matthew links up scripture with his experience of who Jesus is–he reveals to us, the readers, that Jesus is God yet again doing the liberating work that stretches back into the deepest recesses of the Hebrew memory, to Moses.
BUT… I’m a youth minister, and our youth don’t settle for loopholes. No, they ask me straight up what is in the background of this text: “Why does God allow some people to suffer and die and protects others?” Yikes… that’s not an easy answer. Which is why I say “Ask David Emery.” I think he gets back from Texas soon.
In all seriousness, I don’t think God works like that–I don’t think God brings about hurt and suffering, even if some good comes from it. I don’t think God works in our world to save some by way of a dream and then indirectly condemns others to suffer the fate of ignorance. And that’s because I don’t believe God is a cosmic version of the worst boss ever: a micro-manager who pulls all the earthly strings. I believe human creatures have a significant degree of freedom, and that natural disasters are not properly “acts of God” but acts of climate, weather, and plate tectonics. I don’t believe God is directly responsible for the evil of our human hands or the hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes of nature.
I believe whenever God acts, God acts to save, to heal, to comfort, to bring about new life–and not just for some, but for ALL. So when we come face to face with evil, hate, pain, suffering; when we read of children massacred in the Hebrew scriptures or in Newtown, Connecticut or killed by an explosive in the streets of Iraq or conscripted into armies in the Congo, what that reveals is not a capricious God but the kind of world God is willing to save, to heal, to comfort, to love anyway, to love into new life.
One of the most difficult questions we can ask in this story is simply: where are you? Where do you find yourself?
This holiday season, that wasn’t difficult for me: Just before Christmas my voice joined with the voice heard in Ramah, I joined the weeping and great mourning, I felt the pain of Rachel refusing to be comforted because her children were no more.
My wife, Rebecca, and I want nothing more than to have children of our own, and to this day we have been unable to do so. We have had two miscarriages, and it is a special hurt, a lonely sadness that visits us this time of year–a time of year which celebrates family and is especially geared toward children. With her permission I can share with you that we have cried, deep sobs, and we have felt a pain so deep we cannot fathom being comforted.
We know this experience is not unique to us. We know many people and families go through this difficulty and this pain, some of you have shown us the grace of God by sharing your story of childlessness and miscarriage. We know there are doctors we can visit and strategies we can employ. We know there are other, equally beautiful ways to experience the joy and challenge of children.
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.
The beauty of this story is that it is NOT a cheap kind of sympathy, a soothing cliché that all will work out in the end. Children still die. And mothers still wail, daily. All across the world. In our own community. And even during the holidays. Especially during the holidays.
Many of you know just how difficult the holidays can be–the death of loved ones are felt more intensely, not being able to visit family we love casts a shadow, dealing with the finances and stress of gifts and parties and holiday cards and in-laws and…
The good news in this tragic Christmas story is that God is born into THIS world, not the cheery, shiny world of wrapping paper and fruit cake. This story depicts the truth of Christmas in a way magi, shining stars, angelic hosts, and our nativity scenes cannot…
The good news is that our cries and lamentations cannot push God away; God was born into that grief, into that pain, into that despair. The good news is that in frustration, loneliness, sadness, and grief, even though it might not seem like it, we can expect to find God. That truth gives us the courage as people of faith to sit with those who mourn, to hold those who hurt, to suffer with those who suffer. Too often people want to run from pain, suffering, and grief; but we can bear to listen to the cries of sorrow and pleas for justice of our time. Indeed, we do not turn away from them, our faith calls us toward them.
Friends, Christmas is not over. It is not interrupted and put to a quick end by our empty houses or the switch-over to every-day music on the radio. Christmas doesn’t get interrupted by tyrants or miscarriages, or grief, or pain, or despair. No, Christmas doesn’t get interrupted, it IS an interruption. Christmas is the interruption of God into our world, our lonely, hurting, grieving world. It is the interruption of hope, peace, joy, and love that will not be thwarted by tyrants or miscarriages. Christmas is the interruption into our loneliness by the speechless hug of someone who is not afraid of our pain or suffering. Christmas is the interruption of Emmanuel, God-with-us.