Melissa and I collect nativity scenes that we pull out each Advent. There’s the one I inherited from my parents with a handmade stable and hand-painted tall figurines. My aunt and uncle gave it to my parents over 40 years ago now. Melissa has one from the region of Provence in France with small figurines called “santons” which include local villagers along with the shepherds and magi as they come to worship the newborn king. We have a set originally crafted in Mexico that we found in a second hand shop in Quebec City. And there’s the one I bought in Tanzania after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro made primarily from sticks and corn husks. In addition to the ones with figurines, we have smaller items depicting scenes from the Christmas story, including this small one created from wooden puzzle pieces that Noah will put up on the screen. We got it from a fair trade shop in Boston.
A sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23.
It took me a number of years to realize what this beautiful piece is depicting. For the longest time, I thought it was Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem after the Emperor had forced everyone to be registered. But of course there’s that one extra detail: Mary is holding the baby Jesus wrapped in a blanket. This is a depiction of the flight into Egypt, the text we read this morning; it is one of the most difficult texts during the 12 Days of Christmas. Joseph and Mary leave under the cover of night to flee the wrath of Herod who has been duped by the magi. They do not return tell him where to find Jesus, and he flies into a rage, ordering for the death of all the boys aged two and under in Bethlehem.
Rob Bell wrote a book twelve years ago now about suffering, creativity, and art titled Drops Like Stars. It’s a gorgeous book with fabulous photographs along with the text, as Rob weaves his way through the stories of pain and what pain does to us, and how it is related to art. On one of the pages he writes, “Imagine being at a public event like a movie or game or play or religious service and before it starts, someone says to the crowd, ‘Please stand up if you’ve been affected by cancer.’ What would you feel? Compassion? Empathy? Solidarity? Connection? Love? A setting of strangers and yet you mention cancer—a specific suffering—and there’s instantly a bond. If someone said, ‘Please stand … if you’ve been to Hawaii’ or … ‘Please stand … if you drive an [SUV],’ it just wouldn’t have the same effect, would it? But suffering, suffering unites”
Our sufferings, our struggles, the difficulties we face, they can lead us to think about those things which are most important to us, and it can impact the way we live. And while you may be thinking, surely there has to be a better way, surely we don’t “need” to face struggles, I’ve discovered along the way that it consistently helps us become the people we have always desired to be. It helps us become the people God is calling us to be.
I know I’m on thin ice here, because we believe that God did not intend life to be like this, and I would agree to a certain extent. The Creation account describes what life could have been like. However due to the Fall, the trajectory of human history changed; suffering, illness, and death became a part of what it means to be human. In spite of this, I can hold together the seemingly contradictory statements that God did not intend for us to suffer and that suffering in this world is unavoidable.
The question becomes how can a loving God do this to people, especially those who are most innocent, like the children in our lesson this morning. You can spin out this story any number of ways, but it will always come back to the question of why did the God of the Universe allow this to happen?
There are no easy answers. I’ve met people who have faced unbelievably excruciating tragedies and experienced hope and life. I’ve met people who have met hardship and become hardened by all that life has tossed their way. I suspect in Bethlehem’s community, both happened. Some were able to make their way through the pain, and others became paralyzed for the rest of their days. We human beings are resilient, but sometimes life throws such a curveball at us that we are unable to recover.
“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.” These words taken from the prophet Jeremiah show the connection Matthew drew with Israel’s history when telling this story. These words were first written as a lament for the people taken into exile in 586 BC. Jerusalem had fallen and been utterly destroyed by the Babylonians, and the people were forced from their homes and taken off to a distant and foreign land. Rachel, the wife of the Patriarch Jacob, and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, died in childbirth and was buried in Bethlehem, not that far from Jerusalem. The exiled people would have passed by her tomb as they were led off. Rachel’s children were being taken from her.
The Jewish hearers of Matthew’s words—and scholars believe Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish—would have known the context of this lament, and certainly the words that follow. The very next verse is this: “Thus says the Lord, Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is 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.” Hope in the midst of suffering. A promise for life.
Which certainly came. The physical presence of the people of Israel back in Jerusalem and the surrounding area points toward the fulfillment of these promises—Jesus’ contemporaries are living back in the Promised Land. But we must also remember that at the time of Jesus’ birth they are still under Roman rule. In other words, Rachel’s children are still in exile. This slaughter of the innocents brought about by Herod recalls the events leading up to the exile, and it certainly outdoes it. However, we must also remember, as one commentator put it, that, “Jesus and his family will soon be exiled [to Egypt], and for them slaughter lies ahead too.”
I cannot even begin to imagine why bad things happen; I only know that they are part of our world, and they were also part of Jesus’ world. When even the Son of God could not escape pain, there is no reason to believe that we will either, as difficult as that is for us to hear.
Does a loving God just sit back and watch this happen? A close friend said that it depends on how you define love. Most people, he suggests, like to think that love means stopping people from having unpleasant things in their lives. But he soundly rejects that definition and offers this instead: “Love means never abandoning someone but always going with them through whatever happens.”
How do we respond to the difficult times in our own lives and in the lives of those around us? Are we able–in time–to see beyond our immense grief to what lies beyond? Can we make out the flicker of hope? Do we show love to one another, never abandoning those we care about, and sticking by them no matter what comes their way?
Toward the end of the time in exile, the prophet Isaiah receives this word from the Lord, “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her—that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom. For thus says the Lord: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Is. 66:10-13)
This is why Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He came so God could free us from sin and evil and death. We must remember, though, as one preacher put it, “when God works among us, when God comes among us [as] Emmanuel, we are confronted not only with bowing Magi and great gifts. From the beginning there is opposition; from the beginning the way to life lies through death.” We cannot see the manger without the cross, but with that cross comes resurrection. Through this means of death emerges hope and love. This is why he was born into this world, this babe for whom the angels sang and the Magi searched. He came to bring us life. So friends, come, let us adore him, for he is indeed Christ the Lord.
Photo by Phil LaBelle.