Sunday, December 30, 2012

What Now?

Texts:  Isaiah 51:9-16; Matthew 2:13-23

THE PRESENTS ARE OPENED, THE DINNER is eaten, the relatives are on their way home.  You may be thinking about taking down the Christmas tree-- if you haven't already.  For all intents and purposes, Christmas 2012 has come and gone.  But has it made any difference?  What now?

In our Christmastide Scripture readings, Mary has brought forth her Child, the angels have sung, and the shepherds have come and gone.  Even in our Matthew account, today's reading comes after the visit of the Magi.  They've worshipped the holy Babe and returned to their own country by another route.  Christ is born, and what now?

Even in our own time, we ask what difference does Christmas make?  It's a little over two weeks since the atrocious slaughter of twenty innocent children and six brave teachers and staff at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the emotional wounds are still open and raw.  What difference did Christmas make for them?  What about the dozens of innocent children that are victims of random gang violence in cities like Chicago and Boston and even our own Hill District and Homewood?  Not to mention the depredations of cruel rulers like the president of Syria, killing his own people for his political ends.  Shouldn't the birth of the Son of God have changed all that?  He was the newborn King, wasn't He?  He sits in glory at the right hand of God the Father Almighty right now, doesn't He?  So why do we have to put up with evil any longer?  Why are crimes still committed?  Why aren't vicious people restrained?  The night of the Connecticut massacre, I heard a radio commentator insist that atrocities like that have to make you question God and His goodness.  Why didn't God stop that shooter?  Couldn't He stop him?  Christ is born: shouldn't things be all better and different now?

Questions like these have been asked around this country the past two weeks, and they're asked every time a war, a plague, or a crime wreaks its destruction in this weary world.  But I hope and trust that you, my Christian brothers and sisters, know that despair and disbelief are not the answer.  The Apostle Matthew knew they were not the answer.  In the very passage where he recounts the disasters and woes that followed the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, he also assures us that our heavenly Father was working out His gracious plan even as the powers of Hell were trying to do their worst.  None of these events caught God unawares, and none of them diminishes God's goodness and glory.  To show this, Matthew accompanies each of them-- the Flight into Egypt, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and the retreat to Galilee-- with a citation from the prophets.  The guilt of King Herod and his sons remains on their own heads, but the King of kings in His providence worked through these events, so the mission of His Son could be fulfilled and mankind could be saved.

Mary and Joseph were forced to take Jesus and flee to Egypt.  What a disastrous end to the beautiful scene of royal adoration!  To help us understand, Matthew cites Hosea 11:1.  It says, "Out of Egypt I called my son."  In Hosea the son is God's people Israel, chosen to inherit all the divine blessings and benefits and to be a light to the Gentiles.  But Hosea and the other prophets tell us that Israel failed at being God's son.  They rebelled against Him and broke His covenant.  God cannot go back on His promise, for He has sworn an unbreakable oath to father Abraham.  But He cannot bless a disobedient people.  What can God do?

He elected His own eternal Son, Jesus Christ, to be born into the world to be the holy Israel that Israel could never be.  That's who this Child is, and Matthew wants us to see that from the start.   In Jesus God recapitulates Israel's history, including the sojourn in Egypt, but this time, Jesus as God's human Son gets it right.  And because Jesus gets it right as the New Israel, we who believe in Him can share in all the blessings of divine sonship, too.   It was necessary for the Son of God to be led into Egypt and be called out from there again, so He could identify wholly with God's covenant people.  Our heavenly Father used the threats and paranoia of King Herod to accomplish His goal, though Herod knew it not.

But what of the Slaughter of the Innocents?  Historically, this was only one more of King Herod's tally of atrocities.  It was said it was safer to be Herod's pig than his son, because as a half-Jew he wouldn't eat pork, but he had no compunction about assassinating his wives and children if he thought they might be plotting against his throne.  So the extermination of maybe seven to twenty Bethlehemite infants and toddlers wouldn't give him a second thought.

But the deaths of these innocents gave their parents and families more than second thoughts.  And St. Matthew wants us to grieve with them, even as we continue in hope.  He quotes Jeremiah 31:15, where the prophet writes,

  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.

Six hundred years before Christ, the Babylonians overran Judah. They slaughtered most of the Jews, and took a bare remnant into captivity in Babylon. Ramah, a town about five miles north of Jerusalem, was where the exiles, including Jeremiah, were assembled for deportation.  Jeremiah in his day used Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife, as a symbol for the entire grieving nation.  All of its dead and deported children were like Joseph and Benjamin, who you'll remember both spent time in captivity in Egypt and were both given up for dead.   Rachel was also identified with Bethlehem, because Jewish tradition said she was buried near there.  Matthew sees the fate of the little boys of Bethlehem and the lamenting of their mothers as a latter-day echo of what happened to the Jewish children during the Babylonian invasion.  But now it is worse.  In Jeremiah's time, the nation was being judged by God for their sin.  But the children of Bethlehem by any human standard were truly innocent, they had done no wrong.

But the passage in Jeremiah goes on to say,

This is what the LORD says: 
"Restrain your voice from weeping 
and your eyes from tears, 
for your work will be rewarded," 
declares the LORD. 
"They will return from the land of the enemy.
So there is hope for your future," 
declares the LORD. 
"Your children will return to their own land."

The innocents of Bethlehem were dead, but they were not removed or exiled from the care of Almighty God.  In Jesus' infancy they died for Him, but in His manhood He gave His life for them and for all whom God has chosen, whether they lived before Him or after, that they might have eternal life in the kingdom of God.

We're naturally appalled at the death of the innocent.  But shall we not be even more outraged at the cruel and unjust death of the only human being who was ever truly and wholly innocent, the sinless Son of God?  Yet He willingly suffered crucifixion for us, the guilty, the rebellious, the condemned, that we might be made innocent in Him.  We question God when young lives are cut off by crime, accident,  and disease, but how much more should we be afraid for those who are heading for eternal death in Hell because they do not know or believe in the Son of God?  Physical death is not the worst that can happen to us, and the souls of the holy innocents of Bethlehem are in the loving hands of God.  And so are the souls of the children of Newtown, Connecticut, and all other innocent victims of human cruelty and injustice.  For God Himself was born on this earth to share our pain.  On His cross He bore all our griefs, even the worst, and His resurrection proves that He is able to bring us through all suffering into the joy and blessing of God.

Jesus shared not only the crises of our lives, He also shared the drudgery and obscurity.  It's hard for us to understand how much the average Judean looked down on people from the north, on Galileans.  Matthew doesn't mention that Mary and Joseph were from Galilee in the first place, because he wants us to understand how God in His wisdom made sure that His Christ would be raised in a place like that.

For if it hadn't been for Herod, Jesus might have grown up in Bethlehem, just a few miles from Jerusalem.  From a human point of view, that could have been the ideal environment for an up-and-coming young rabbi!  Think of all the great teachers He would have had, and how much He could have learned!  Going from the age of the children Herod slaughters, and from the fact that the Magi visit Jesus in a house and not in the stable, we can conclude that the Holy Family remained in Bethlehem for quite awhile after Jesus was born.  Joseph was of the lineage of David, he probably found relatives there once the confusion of the census was over, and as a skilled, industrious man he would logically set up shop there.  But then the Holy Family had to flee.  And even when it was safe to come back to the land of Israel, they didn't dare resettle in Bethlehem because of Archelaus, who apparently was as bad as his father Herod.  So goodbye to being in the center of things near the capital, and hello again to little old remote Nazareth.

About this Matthew says, "So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.'" This saying is harder to trace than the ones from Hosea and Jeremiah.  But it's very possible that he may have in mind a couple of places in Isaiah.  In Isaiah chapter 9 the prophet writes,

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan--
  The people walking in darkness 
have seen a great light; 
on those living in the land of the shadow of death 
a light has dawned.

Thus beyond all expectation, the prophet predicts that remote and humbled Galilee of the Gentiles will be where the light of God's Messiah will first have its dawn.  And in Isaiah 53:3 it is written,

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.

We read in John's gospel that "Nazarene" was a byword for one who was despised.  And so Jesus was underrated, rejected, and persecuted in His lifetime by the religious and secular authorities, and at last even the people called for His crucifixion.  Jesus knew humiliation and scorn so He could become our sympathetic and gentle high priest.  As it says in Hebrews, He has been tempted in every way just as we are-- yet was without sin.  In His humanity Jesus experienced the everyday trials of human existence, so He can identify with us in all our griefs and bring meaning to all our sufferings.

But the question still cries out for an answer: Why do we have to go through suffering in the first place?  Especially why do the innocent suffer?  Couldn't God just stop it?  Couldn't God have stopped Herod, or the shooter in Connecticut, or any of the innumerable human monsters down through history?

We can ask that, but then we'd have to ask why God doesn't stop all evil-- including the evil we do every day.  Why didn't God stop you the time you punched your brother in the face as a kid?  Why didn't He stop you from passing on that cruel gossip against your best friend?  Why didn't He stop me the other day when I screamed at my dog for pulling food off the counter?  Why, oh why, didn't He stop Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?  Brothers and sisters, whether we understand it or not, God made this a world where our actions have consequences.  Rarely, our Lord intervenes with a miracle, but most of the time the laws of physics keep on working and causes have their effects, even when the effects are bad.  To stop it all would mean stopping the whole show.  One day our Lord will come in judgment and all transgression will cease, but until then it's inevitable that so much of what goes on in this fallen and broken world will be tragic and full of pain.

But the Son of God has been born into the world to redeem the world.  He came to experience our humanity and carry our griefs.  Jesus is God's beloved Son, the New Israel, who invites us to join Him in eternal sonship towards God the Father.  Jesus is the ultimate Holy Innocent, slain by evil but rising from the tomb in triumph over sin, death, and hell.  Jesus was obscure, despised, and rejected, and see, He sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high, glorified forever more.

All this He did for us, by God's eternal pleasure and good will. Christian friends, what now? What now!  Oh, give God glory, live in faith, rejoice in hope, and serve in love, for Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.  This is the difference Christmas makes, and nothing will ever be the same.