Jesus has come to save God’s people, but if this passage is to be taken seriously, that salvation will occur in the midst of the struggle between good and evil in the world, not in the creation of a utopia that does not match our experience of reality. — O Wesley Allen, Matthew (Fortress Commentary)
Hope takes root as the ability to express compassion for others develops. It blossoms when people grow in their capacity to take concrete steps to make things different. And where real hope lives, there is also a constant invitation to broader and deeper meaning. As we learn to talk about our own suffering and grief, we become sensitive to the often greater suffering of others. Because hope emerges from processing grief and suffering in community, it draws its practitioners to consider matters from a much wider field of vision. As we grow in our ability to imagine a different world, hope emerges among us. It all begins by talking about it. — Daniel Schultz, ‘Living by the Word’, Christian Century, 18 December 2019
We know how Matthew’s Christmas story continues, once Jesus is born: in time the magi come, wise ones from the east. They come to honour the new king whose birth was foretold by a new star.
These magi may be wise in the ways of stars and other heavenly bodies, but politically they are naive. They assume the new king is in the palace of Herod. Ok, fair enough; but they don’t see that Herod is playing them, trying to find out where this new king is so that he can kill him.
The magi are warned in a dream to avoid Herod on the way home, and so we come to today’s story: the horrific slaughter of all children two years old or less in Bethlehem.
If you were here last Sunday, you may remember we spoke of Matthew’s theme. Let me repeat what I said then:
Jesus had fulfilled the story of the Old Testament. Jesus was the promised Messiah, greater than Moses or Elijah, he was the son of David who is greater yet than David. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus fulfils the story of Israel, in fact he fills it to overflowing. Matthew’s aim wasn’t to inform his readers about history; his aim was to convince us.
Matthew wants to show that Jesus fulfils the story of Israel. So, Jesus fulfils Isaiah 60, which in part says:
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.…
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. Isaiah 60.3, 6b
Matthew ransacked our Old Testament to find ways to show how Jesus fulfils the scriptures. So it is to the light of Jesus the nations come to; they bring him gold and frankincense.
Matthew adds something to the mix: myrrh. Myrrh was a spice used in burials, and it foreshadows the death Jesus would die.
And there’s death aplenty in the story now. When he has told the tragic story of Bethlehem’s tiny children, Matthew tells us:
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah [31.15]:
‘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.’
Ramah was a town north of Jerusalem; Rachel was one of Israel’s matriarchs, as Abraham was a patriarch. In the Book of Jeremiah, Rachel is weeping for the people of Israel carried off to Babylon in the Exile. Matthew sees this given new meaning in the grief of the mothers of Bethlehem.
But wait, there’s more. Do you remember another Old Testament story in which Israel’s baby boys were to be killed, and only one survived?
Yes, it’s Moses. Matthew is presenting Jesus as a new and greater Moses. Just as Moses was saved from being drowned in the Nile, so Jesus is saved from the sword in Bethlehem. And Herod’s heart is hardened, like Pharaoh’s of old.
Jesus is saved by going down into Egypt, like another patriarchal hero: Rachel’s son Joseph (you know, the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat Joseph?). And Jesus is called out of Egypt, again like Moses.
All this is beginning to suggest that these stories didn’t actually happen. But neither are they made up. These carefully crafted stories convey central truths to us about God and God’s ways with the world. If you like, they are parables in story form.
If today’s story is a parable, it’s a rather grisly one.
I started writing this sermon on Christmas Eve. I have to say it wasn’t easy. My mind and heart would rather have been on the joy of Christmas as 25th approached, rather than the horrific story we are given today. It was hard to reposition my mind.
It didn’t matter that it is most likely a kind of parable in story form. What it is telling us is horrific.
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…
It is heartbreaking to read of the killing of children. Yet it’s there in the Christmas story that Matthew tells.
One thing I notice about this story is that there’s no miraculous deliverance for the children of Bethlehem. There’s a dream, an angelic visitation. Faithful Joseph listens to the dream and spirits Mary and Jesus away.
Egypt offers them hospitality, which is better than what Australia would do in the current political climate.
But there’s no miracle. The soldiers’ swords don’t vanish or become wooden sticks. There’s nothing like the parting of the Red Sea to stop these armed men ending the lives of those we have come to know as the Holy Innocents.
This is a story that in many ways is anchored in the realities, the often grim realities, of life.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus are refugees in this story, going from almost-certain death for Jesus to safety in Egypt, Israel’s ancient enemy.
By the middle of 2019, there were 70.8 million refugees across the globe. 37000 people were forced to leave their homes every day. Photos like this went viral overnight:
Here’s another of a mother and child in a refugee camp. It could be Mary and Jesus on the way to Egypt:
We live in a beautiful world, which we have filled with horror and violence. For Matthew, Jesus became Emmanuel, God with us, right in the middle of this uncertain and dangerous world.
Can we say this?:
- Horrific things are done in our world. Emmanuel, God is with us.
- People are kept in indefinite detention. Emmanuel, God is with us.
- The Australian Government ignores the call for justice from the First Peoples of the land. Emmanuel, God is with us.
- The land burns, and its creatures die needlessly. Emmanuel, God is with us.
Can we say it? Can we say Emmanuel, God with us?
Whoever and wherever we are, we can say Emmanuel, God with us.
We can say it because Jesus is with us, and Jesus is true to his word. Jesus is with the refugee, the beaten woman, the abused child, the homeless. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He will never leave us not forsake us.
For some of us though, the more important question is not Can we say Emmanuel, God with us? The more important question, the question we need to ask, is Can we say we are with God?
Are we with the asylum seeker? Do we help those in need? Do we offer food to the hungry? Are we seeking to heal the Earth?
If the answer to those questions is No, then God is still with us. But God is with us to lead us to repentance, to that change of mind and heart that will show us that Jesus is with us precisely in the neighbour in need. God is with us to lead us to be with God.
The rulers of this world will do whatever they can to resist the reign of God in the world. Where God reigns, Mary’s song is realised:
[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
[God] has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1.52–53)
The world operates differently. The gap between rich and poor widens, and there are more billionaires than ever before. Do we really need billionaires?
The Earth deteriorates to feed economic growth. Can we keep on growing with finite resources? Are we destroying our home?
We spend more keeping asylum seekers in detention and leaving the homeless on the streets than we would spend by housing them. Does that make sense?
These are questions we can ask because God is with everyone, not just those at the top of the heap. In fact, we can say first and foremost that God works for justice for those on the bottom.
I’ve titled this sermon Weeping with Rachel. (This morning, I saw that my friend Avril Hannah-Jones titled hers Putting Herod back into Christmas. I wish I’d thought of that first!) I said earlier that Rachel was a matriarch of the people of Israel. She was the mother of Benjamin and Joseph, Jacob’s favourite sons. Jeremiah shows her weeping for the exile of her people into Babylon.
Sometimes, we don’t know what to do to help someone in need. Perhaps all we can do is sit with them. Maybe weep with them. If you’ve ever had someone sit with you, maybe hold your hand, you know how wonderfully helpful it can be. Words aren’t always needed.
The day came when Jesus would come alongside everyone in the world. He came alongside us all on the cross. He may not have been killed as a toddler, but his time was to come. On the cross, he was Emmanuel for all of us. He was God with everyone. In his resurrection, he is shown to be God with everyone. One day, Rachel’s tears will be dried.
Jesus is with us. Are we with Jesus?