Great horror erupts in the heart of this text from Matthew 2:13-23. In the middle of the Christmas story, the advent of the birth of Jesus as has been told by the prophets and by angels, comes great tragedy, brought to our attention and into our imagination; and the familiar story of violence and despair is washed over us all. I am inviting you to stop and sit and reflect on this part of the great story we have been enjoying over the last few days to this point.
Joseph, the dreamer, the new father and husband, is told by God to take his small family and flee to Egypt because Herod was seeking to destroy the child. Trusting once again in God, Joseph does as he is told
Matthew goes on to tell us (2:16):
“When Herod saw 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.”
Herod has used the information provided by the unwitting Magi to calculate the slaughter of children, within a specific age range. Herod was infuriated by the wise men’s behaviour who didn’t return to tell him where Jesus had been born. We are told Herod was frightened (2:3) by the prophecies of this newborn child and as a powerful man he was able to take steps without any political consequences to remove the cause of his fear.
A dream warned the wise men to go home a different way, and Herod is enraged and the result is a murderous rampage.
The Bible tells us frequently about the dangers of giving in to such a rage and the inability to control our own emotions and temper are unacceptable; and those who act deceptively to themselves and those around them is evil and hypocritical.
The Wisdom teachers of Israel warn against this lack of control. This repulsive behaviour has catastrophic consequences for many families and the community. Herod, in refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah, makes his action become an attempt to disrupt and go against God’s plans.
As we unpick our own responses to God, we know the uncovering of hypocrisy brings embarrassment which finds easy expression in violence. Such behaviour and the desire to put our shame from us still finds us doing things that are appalling today, both ourselves and our leaders.
Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15:
“Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
We need to honour and understand in our hearts, that Rachel’s inconsolable weeping is necessary and real. Rachel does not want to be consoled. When we lose someone, our mourning honours them. To cease mourning feels like we have ceased honouring them. Her children are no more; she has nothing left to give but her tears over them which makes them real. If she gives up her tears, all seems lost.
The impact of such a witness to this horror is also clear; this time of mourning is a time of God’s presence. God has been present and still is present in Rachel’s mourning and in ours as we weep for what has been lost and taken from us.
Whether it was in the second world war with the Jews, in Kosovo, Rwanda, Myanmar, and China with the Uighars, or here in Australia with our First Nation peoples and with our refugees and asylum seekers in our modern times, such horrific acts of violence are borne out of an inability to accept our God of love, and instead, we focus on the desire to offer worship to the idols of hatred, violence, exclusion and despair. We do like Herod and we act out of fear and seek to destroy that which God loves.
In Ephesians 4:26-28, we hear a word offered to a particular community about anger with three clear instructions: ‘Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.’
Scripture acknowledges anger as normal but calls the angry person to account for the anger. It is important to recognise the difference between our anger arising out of rejection, shame and fear, and the anger of righteousness that can lead to mighty acts of justice.
Matthew uses Jeremiah’s imagery of Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob / Israel weeping loudly for the children of Israel because they are no more. The original setting of this prophecy refers to the conquering and dispersal of the nation of Israel in the 8th Century BCE.
Jeremiah places Rachel’s mourning in a context of consolation, emphasising the hope to come as he goes on to say (Jer. 31:16-17):
“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.”
Jeremiah offers hope when hope seems impossible.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ (Matt. 5:4).
The act of mourning allows those who mourn to provide clear witness to what has happened, all that has gone before and all that is being done today.
As Christians we stand in solidarity with those who mourn, to provide testimony to what has been done as it cannot be wiped out of history, and out of mind, in spite of what our modern day ‘Herods’ would have us believe. We can shine a light on what has been done and is being done and we can provide an account of what is happening.
Vaclav Havel, the first President of Czechoslovakia, elected in 1989 at the fall of the Communist era, said: “Hope always comes, as it were, from elsewhere”.
For Joseph, hope comes from God. The angel told Joseph to take his family to safety ahead of the actions of Herod; the angel told Joseph to start heading for home after years spent living as refugees in Egypt, the land from which God freed the Jewish people, who led them out of the land of slavery; but this time, Joseph heads there for safety. The small family wait for Herod to die and end his vicious killing reign, and it is a time for listening to and remembering God’s promises.
When Archelaus takes over following Herod’s death, with a similar style of authority and rule to Herod, how hard it would have been to hold onto God’s promises in such darkness and cold and despair. Would they ever be able to come home? Nonetheless, it is still a time of promise.
We too frequently imagine all has gone to ruin; in the small hours of the night we wonder what we have done, could we have done it differently, where was God in the decision-making processes and in the consequences, why was God not present in the catastrophe and death preventing it from happening? Where has hope gone?
Perhaps we are being asked to commit to something we may no longer believe in, it may be in our work, our volunteering, our family relationships, our friendships and our commitments.
It is at this point I remember with relief and with great clarity, it is only Christ who can change our trajectory of death and despair into a shout of joy and hope; our fears can turn to love and openness for others, as we know Jesus Christ has gone ahead and is with us on the way loving us back to life.
We need not give up. We need not think the light has gone out for the people in Ramah for all time, or for people today, nor for you and I in our moments of despair. For our hope lies in God who goes ahead of us to make a place for us in the dark and cold with love and compassion and certainty.
The Lord be with you.