When things are most grim
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.”
Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future, declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
(Jeremiah 31:15-17 ESV)
Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless. (Revelation 14:1-5 ESV)
Now when [the Magi] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because
they are no more.” (Matthew 2:13-18 ESV)
There is just no easy way to face this commemoration in the church year – to hear our texts – like the wicked witch in the fairytale Sleeping Beauty who ruins what was supposed to be a lovely time, today seems out of place and in poor taste. The liturgical calendar between Christmas and the first Sunday after the Epiphany – or 2,3 weeks in real time covers 30 years of Jesus’ life and the three days after 25th December reminds us that life goes on in unbidden harshness. The hymnal lists 26th December for St Stephen, the first martyr; 27th December for St John, who was willing to die for Christ; and 28th December for the Innocents slaughtered by Herod who are remembered by the Church as martyrs against their will. These festivals were in place by the fifth century and have been observed or ignored ever since.
My guess about how we deal with these days after Christmas depends on when the tears start to flow; when the toy breaks; when the Christmas truce in the family ends and the pot shots and warfare resumes; and maybe the tears never really left if Christmas itself has only heightened grief and loss.
This artificial bubble of peace and good will to all people bursts at some stage, what then? Personal sins return, addictions take over, life resumes and I’m not sure being in Australia with summer and many people actually away on their summer holidays at Christmas time delays, masks, or exacerbates the return to reality after Christmas.
With all high points, all mountain tops, you’ve got to come down onto the plain – to what? As I said, how your life is faring plays a big part in our how you react and respond to God and the Church. It is one thing to say we live by faith alone when we are safe, fed, and warm and it can be another thing all together when the basic necessities of life are not given but are an unknown and a struggle. The Church didn’t establish and commemorate this day to be a kill joy or a spoil sport or sour or miserable but rather to comfort, support and give hope. That is what lies behind the readings today – messages from God – the darkness will end with a dawn.
Our first reading in Jeremiah comes just prior to the promise of God of a new covenant that God will make with his people. The people of Jeremiah’s time in Jerusalem faced God’s judgement for their disobedience, their rebellion, their running after other gods and there was already people in exile – families separated – destruction looming – and God promises that grief and mourning with turn to relief and joy. God will act to rescue – the exiles will return one day – a new covenant with the law written on hearts – not stone – will be cut by God.
At the moment there are numerous reports on the anniversary of the tsunami that hit Indonesia and Thailand 10 years ago and one recurring feature seems to me reports of loved ones being reunited months afterwards and how today they are bonded in a special way often because they are the only members of their family left. Invariably the unbelievable and overwhelming moment of the discovery that a loved one is alive or has come home is mentioned many times. It is like being back from the dead.
The people of Israel were scattered away from the home God had established – the temple of his presence he had given to them – and they were to be strangers in a strange land. But there’s no place like home. It is interesting that God often told people he sent on journeys or who were exiled, to make their home in the new land for it seems that there is a wanderer or refugee component to being God’s people here on earth. This world is not our home but where ever we are we want loved ones around us and God to be with us. And this God promised he would be.
Our second reading from Revelation is the same ending in picture language. It is not meant to be taken literally – that heaven is for 144,000 virgin men. Revelation is a message from Jesus to his followers – to the early church – who often were getting it in the neck by the world around them. Jesus’ message through John is that this world will not win and all those who are saved by God will sing a new song – a song of salvation and life – and the warming up, the rehearsals, the tuning up happens now. The 144,000 means completeness – no child of God will miss out – and God will protect his people from false gods so that they follow the Lamb. Remember lambs are slaughtered and that is what the world will seek to do to the Lamb’s followers. But take heart for God has redeemed us – paid the price for our sins – by the Lamb’s blood and the forgiveness of sins.
And then we hear the account of Herod tricked – of Jesus himself a refugee – and of the response of the state when it’s survival is threatened. Life is always cheap when it is not your own and especially when it is defenceless. There is no historical corroboration for the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem but it is historically accurate that Herod was very suspicious of rivals so that during his long reign – nearly 40 years – he had executed at least one wife and three sons for the threat either real or imagined they posed to him. In other words the events at Bethlehem were not surprising. Matthew records this event as part of his prologue almost – his presenting Jesus as the Messiah – as the true Israel – and hence his references to the Old Testament where we hear Jeremiah again and Rachel’s lament is now definitely because of death rather than exile.
We are saddened by this event over 2,000 years ago but not surprised. Our screens seem to spew forth similar horrors and worse. We long for an end to such evil – we long for justice – but my guess is that we’re not sure what that should look like for justice is truly in the eye of the beholder and the one with power and that is true between countries, siblings, spouses. What we are sure of is that where justice is lacking, where capriciousness rules, then life and society is a lot more dangerous and becomes one of making alliances, treaties, and hoping not to be stabbed in the back.
Did the toy break? Is it worth trying to get a refund?
Did the heart break? Is it worth forgiving or it is time to move on?
Did death come close? That’s always God’s fault – he’s such a big target – easy to hit – but what happens next?
In each of the readings we are faced with life and the promise of God. Each reading talks about God’s action in response to this world’s actions. How we understand things depends on our perspective. If humanity should do its own thing, then God is viewed as interfering and judgemental. If Jesus hadn’t arrived the boys would have lived. However if humanity has gone astray then God’s actions are that of rescue and help. But not for the boys of Bethlehem and their families we mutter. Can’t God help without making it worse?
We have gathered here this morning because it is our confession – our belief – that the evil in the world is fundamentally us – we can’t blame Satan or our parents or the person who gets us mad – and we live in a world of ‘trying to get by’ as best we can with winners and losers, breaking toys, and sometimes breaking hearts and deep down we know that no one gets out of this world alive. We are gathered here despite broken toys or stressful relationship or shattered dreams or grieving hearts because the Babe of Bethlehem is our crucified Saviour who has taken our sins to the cross so that we can go home alive. Through Jesus we can see broken toys and shattered dreams and death as part of our lives but not our whole life. There is a bigger picture – it is secure – because God has done it.
And God doesn’t leave us desolate and abandoned for he sends us back into our lives with faith, hope, and love. They’re not magic wands that wipe away all our problems but they are perspectives and power that Jesus gives to us that we can bring to each moment of our life – each interaction – each conversation – each laughter and tear – where we can say to the world a real bottom line – God is good. Our God is good. That is a confession of faith. It isn’t grounded in us – it can seem absurd, even insulting, and hurtful – but when people ask for evidence we point to the manger and then to the cross and then to an empty tomb and words, water, bread and wine – and confess that no matter how bad things are, this isn’t the end – not even when death itself comes – for God has rescued his people through Jesus Christ.
How we live this rescue out in our homes and hearts, in our communities and countries, in our piety and our politics is part of that Christian freedom we have as we follow the Lamb, ready to serve, but still aware and prepared to be slaughtered for our confession.
- Matthew 2:13 - 8
- Jeremiah 31:15 - 17
- Revelation 14:1 - 5