Preached 12/29 at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship
Merry Christmas! It is good to gather together in worship with all of you this Christmas morning. Perhaps it seems odd to speak of Christmas, as our Scripture passage today is in sharp contrast to the celebrations of the past week. On this fifth day of Christmas, we continue to sing of a Silent Night and the stillness in Bethlehem. As we wish for peace on Earth and goodwill to all, we imagine Joseph and Mary and Jesus settling in. New parents, far from home, sleep-deprived, and doing everything within their power to care for this incredibly tiny new person entrusted to their care.
But our text today reminds us that all was not silent. And while Mary might have had a moment to sigh and breathe in the scent of her newborn as she gathered him to her chest . . . that moment did not last long. After all, Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor wished to register everyone in order to tax them.
The roads are filled with travelers, the guest rooms are packed . . . but no one wants to be there. For many this is unpaid time off combined with costly travel . . . all for the purpose of another tax padding the coffers of a foreign empire.
There is a reason that the people have been waiting and praying for a Messiah to free them from Roman occupation. The New Testament is filled with quiet stories of centurions and legions—indications that the Roman military presence is commonplace, that violent acts of power are ways of life. The hope of a Messiah was couched in what seemed a hopeless situation.
Finally Jesus—God enfleshed—is born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger . . . While Matthew gives us no angels or shepherds, we find a group of astrologers who follow a star and read the signs that a King has been born. At some point during Jesus’s early years these strangers arrive, bearing expensive gifts. Of course, their very journey has stirred political trouble.
And as soon as the astrologers leave, the nightmare begins. Joseph has a dream, and the family runs. Some, likely in an effort to make this passage palatable, talk about this passage as a story of Herod’s fear and the family’s faith. I don’t think there is any level of faith that allows you to wake up from a dream about brutalized babies, pack up your belongings and two-year-old son for a three hundred mile walk and not experience sheer terror. The holy family has become political refugees, leaving everything they know in order to survive. They are making a difficult journey into an unfamiliar place with different customs and different language. They run picturing the sword at every turn.
Herod is certainly acting out of fear—he has a long history of brutal actions used to gain and defend his crown. But while Jesus is protected from slaughter, children back in Bethlehem are not. In Bethlehem, babies are ripped from their mothers and murdered. New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper estimates that somewhere around twenty children were killed that day.
“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.”
The Christmas story contains a pain so intense that even those beyond the grave cannot be comforted, because there is simply nothing—nothing—that makes this okay. It is a story of absolute hell thriving on earth. And this is a story that we cannot ignore—that we cannot skip over—because the hope of God is always, always mixed up with the desperate cries of a hurting people.
Rachel is still weeping today. She weeps in Nairobi, where poor parents dress their children as beautifully as they can, and place them in the street, hoping that someone with more resources will want them and take them in.
She weeps across the world as children are taken into slavery, stripped of their innocence, and used in the most vile ways imaginable.
She weeps as families are promised an education and dowry for their girls by factory owners who have no intention of keeping their promises, but merely want cheap labor for clothing sold to us here.
She weeps in Sudan and Gaza and Iraq and Jerusalem, in Myanmar, Thailand, and Guatemala. She weeps in St. Louis as a man named Richard sleeps outside in an alley on Christmas Eve.
She weeps as laws make it harder for the most vulnerable families to meet their basic needs. As guns and bombs and hate tear families and communities apart.
She weeps and cannot be consoled—and neither should we. Our voices should be joining with those experiencing pain and injustice in the world. We are surrounded by darkness—but today we lit the Christ candle, a symbol of God’s presence with us in full faith that the darkness did not and cannot overcome the light. We continue to speak the hope of the Gospel—that God broke into a hurting world and continues to break into the world of our hurt; that Christ came to announce freedom to the captive, release to the prisoner, sight to the blind, life to the lifeless.
A few weeks ago, in anticipation of this day, we shared this light with one another. In doing so, we proclaimed our role—to carry Christ’s light and illuminate the darkness, to join with God in the work of bringing the Kingdom of God here and now.
On this Christmas morning, we are invited to join with the pains of the world, to listen to the stories of anguish, to add our weeping.
At the same time, we are invited to sing—and I’ll admit that I wrestle with this tension. Because it IS tension, and who really wants that at any time of year, much less Christmas? But this is a passage without easy answers, without anything that lets us sigh too deeply with relief.
I believe we are called to sing, not in ignorance of a hurting world, but because the light of God, the love of God, is bursting forth. God wasn’t just in Egypt, but God was also in Bethlehem, holding mother and father and baby—and even soldier—in all of their brokenness. God is here today, entering into our world and our lives in new ways. God with us . . . God. Is. With. Us.