It’s a strange time, isn’t it — these “Twelve Days of Christmas” which lead to Epiphany. Let’s see, today I should be able to expect seven swans to be a swimming from my true love when I get home. Given the disappointing Christmas shopping season, I’m sure you could get a great deal on them in some of the clearance sales. They might even throw a few left over French hens into the bargain.
It’s a strange time, only a week since Christmas Eve, since we lit the candles and sang the carols. But already, if you neighbor keeps his lights on at night it looks a little odd. There may be some folks who leave their decorations up until Epiphany, but at our house, about the second or third day after Christmas and it’s clean-up time. Have you noticed that after the decorations are taken down the house seems much emptier, much larger, than it did before we brought mat stuff in?
Strange time, this week after Christmas. The weather today contributes to the mysterious, murky time. The gospel lesson for this Sunday is even stranger.
When it comes to the Christmas stories, you can’t beat the Gospel of Luke. That’s what we read on Christmas Eve. It’s so warm, so beautiful, so full of love, joy and human tenderness. I love hearing the children read it on Christmas Eve. Luke’s account is like a Norman Rockwell painting on the “Saturday Evening Post.”
But we’re reading
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 he had learned from the wise men.
That’s almost as violent as the Saturday morning cartoons! Brutal, strange story; the nightmare after Christmas. And it’s loaded with textual and historical problems.
The major problem is that there is no external evidence that it ever happened. Matthew’s gospel is the only place we find it. That’s enough to cause Biblical scholars to ask if this is literal history, history of the Wil Durant variety, or whether it is a figurative account, inspired for a theological purpose, sort of a sanctified Oliver Stone, I guess.
I can’t resolve that one for you. I can hear it both ways, but I choose to believe that it actually happened because it sounds so much like something Herod would do. This whole, ghastly business fits Herod like a glove…a glove that actually fits, that is!
Herod was insanely jealous. He was a suspicious, insecure autocrat who never hesitated to eliminate anyone who was a potential threat to his power. He wiped out his wife, her mother, and three of his sons. The Roman Emperor, Augustus, joked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.
When Herod first hears from the wise men, Matthew says he was frightened. And when they trick him and go home another way, Matthew records that Herod was infuriated, and he sent his storm troopers down to the tiny village of Bethlehem and slaughtered all the children under two years old.
The holocaust at Bethlehem is a ghastly picture of just how far evil power will go to protect itself from the intrusion of goodness. And the ghost of Herod still does its ghastly work today.
In 1945, the American poet, Robert Lowell wrote a poem entitled “The Holy Innocents” in which he looked back on the horrors of World War II through the prism of the slaughter at Bethlehem. In a fascinating phrase, he said, “The world out-Herods Herod.” And he’s probably correct.
If you saw the movie, Schindler’s List (and I hope you did), do you remember the little girl in the red coat? She became, in the movie, the symbol of all the Jewish children who died in the Holocaust.
Do you remember Sharpsville? March 21, 1960. The white South African police opened fire on a crowd made up mostly of black school children. Sixty-nine were killed in what historians called “The Shot Heard Round the World” in the struggle against apartheid.
Do you remember Birmingham, September 19, 1963? A bomb exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and four little Sunday School girls lost their lives in the struggle against racism and hate.
And do you remember — who could forget? — the seventeen families who lost children in the rubble of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City?
Sometimes “the world out-Herods Herod.” The nightmare after Christmas is the symbol of the ghastly power of evil which contradicts the goodness, and love, and life of God. And if you listen, you can still hear it:
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.
Matthew is quoting, as he often does, the Old Testament, in this case, Jeremiah who pictures Rachel, the symbolic mother of all the Hebrew children, weeping over those who were taken into bondage in Babylon in the 6th Century B.C. Her voice is the voice of all the mothers and all of the fathers of Bethlehem, and all the mothers and all the fathers in every place and every time who weep over the loss, the hurt, the pain of their children.
Maya Angelou caught it in her poem entitled “Tears.”
The crystal rags
of a worn-through soul
Deep swan song
of a dying dream.
We can almost handle it when we lose our parents. We can deal with it when it comes at the end of a long, productive life. But we are not put together to be able to cope with the loss of our children. When we lose our parents we lose our past; when we lose our children, we lose our future. And our whole being cries out in protest against this contradiction of God’s gift of life.
But that’s just how true the Bible is. The Biblical writers never cop out on the hurt, the pain, the innocent suffering of people in this world because of the power of evil in this world. Not just evil in the sense of the choice of an evil person as Herod does in this story, but just the general brokenness, the hurt, the shattered nature of our creation wrecks its havoc on innocent lives like the children of Bethlehem.
The Bible never denies that sometimes the carols of Christmas are mingled with songs of sorrow. The angel promise of peace and goodwill is announced in the middle of a world filled with conflict and violence. The hope of the coming of this child is caught in the web of our human suffering and pain. Somewhere deep in our souls, we can hear the weeping of Bethlehem.
Now, I ask you, what’s a preacher supposed to do with a story like that? I’ll tell you what I’ve done: I’ve done a very good job avoiding it! But somehow, this year, I couldn’t escape it. In fact, I was drawn to it. I’ve been listening to those voices. As I’ve lived with it, brooded over it, I found help in dealing with it in the epistle lesson for today. These words from the letter to the Hebrews, chapter two.
“As it is, we do not see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone…It was fitting that God…should make the pioneer of [our] salvation perfect through sufferings…Since therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death…Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
As it is we don’t see everything in subjection to the control of God’s goodness and love. Evil is very real, very present in this world, and not everything that happens in this world is under the control of God’s perfect will and love. Don’t tell the parents of the children of Bethlehem that God has some purpose for this. Matthew makes it clear that this was Herod’s action going on here, not God’s. Who would dare to tell the parents of the children of Oklahoma City that God had some reason for this. What kind of masochistic fatalist would you have to be to say that? What kind of God would you believe in?
We live in a world where God doesn’t always get His perfect will and way. We are caught in the struggle of God’s ultimate subjection of evil to the control of his goodness and love. As it is, we don’t see everything in subjection to him.
But, he says, we do see Jesus. So, where is Jesus in this story?
And 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.
Jesus is weak and vulnerable. This child honored by kings, just barely escapes by the skin of his teeth in the protection of his human parents, running into the darkness of the night. Jesus comes to us just as vulnerable, weak and human as any one of us. And when he came back, he described all of us as children of the Kingdom of God, and he shared our flesh and blood all the way through death. He knew all of the pain and suffering of everyone one of us.
The Hebrew writer uses a fascinating phrase here when he describes Jesus as “the pioneer” who brings many children to glory. It’s a hard word to translate into English. It doesn’t mean pioneer in the sense of one who goes out west and leaves the rest of us back east. It means one who goes before, but brings all the rest of us along with him.
This Jesus is the Pioneer of Salvation who brings all of his children to glory. In some way that I can’t fully understand, God in Jesus comes and goes through suffering with us as the pioneer who brings us all to glory. I can’t explain that to you, but I can’t help but believe it.
We see Jesus: the one who brings all of his children through suffering to glory.
There is a great word of hope in Matthew. Here it is “When Herod died.” Herod had his day and inflicted all of his suffering and pain upon innocent people, but Herod died. And the ghost of Herod will have his day in your life and mine. We will all be effected by the real suffering and hurt of evil in this world. But when Herod died, Jesus came back, just the way he came back on that first resurrection morning.
In that word is the word of hope that God in Christ will reconcile all the brokenness of our lives, and all the brokenness of our world, and everything will be made right and whole in the power of his resurrection.
One of my best friends in Orlando died at 39 with cancer. He had four sons, the youngest of which was three at the time. During the long weeks and months after his death, I learned a lot of lessons I would have rather not learned, but I’m better for having learned them.
One day his wife asked me a question. “Jim,” she asked, “if Heaven is such a great place, and if John is supposed to know what’s going on down here, then how can he be happy if he can see how much pain his death as caused his children?”
Wow! I had never been asked that before. I took a deep breath, thought for a minute, and then said, “I don’t know. The closest I can get is that I know that John knows and shares our pain. But if Heaven is all we say it is — the fulfillment of God’s life and love, the fulfillment of God’s perfect will for all the creation, the healing of all brokenness — and if Heaven is timeless, and we are still caught in time, then perhaps John can already feel and know the wholeness that we are going to have to wait a long time to know.” I remembered that old song, “Will the circle be unbroken?” It’s broken right now, sure enough. But it will be unbroken by and by in the perfect fulfillment of God’s love.
As it is, we do not see everything under subjection to God’s perfect rule of life and love. Herod will have his day. The power of evil sometimes contradicts the purpose of God and wrecks awful suffering upon us.
But we do see Jesus: the one who shares the human weakness and suffering of all of us.
And Herod died. And Jesus came back. And somehow, in the fullness of God’s redemptive purpose, the brokenness of our lives will be healed, too.
It’s a strange story. Not exactly a story which sends us out in jubilation, but perhaps a story which sends us out with hope.