Hosea 11:1-9, Matthew 2:10-23
We read today a story that is thought of as being the “darker side of Christmas.” This is the part of the Christmas story we don’t like to hear. This is the story of a jealous and suspicious ruler, who was determined to put an end to one he saw as being a threat to his power.
He was Herod. And he was used to doing that! It was said of Herod that it was better to be his dog than his son. He was famous (or infamous) for doing away with members of his own family when he thought they were seeking his throne! There is perhaps no more cynical statement in all of scripture than when he told the wise men, “When you have found this newborn king, tell me, so that I may come and worship him, too!”
So the story today is of that same Herod and his power struggle with this most unlikely of people – an infant child. At the very least, this story shows that there was much at stake here. And whether we like it or not, whether we want it to be or not, this story of the slaughter of the innocent is directly associated with all the glory and wonder of the coming of the savior.
Now, as you think about this story, you might find yourself asking the obvious questions. You might be asking why God “allowed” this to happen. You might be wondering why an “all powerful God, didn’t “prevent” this terrible tragedy. And those are good questions! And, I’m afraid I can give you no answer. This is one of those things in life for which there may be no answer – at least no earthly answer. Ernie Campbell, long time pastor of the Riverside Church in New York, once suggested that we all have within us those questions we’re going to ask God when we see him face to face.
I remember John Lampe who was my pastor from Carmel Church when I was growing up. He used to say how he had a lot of questions for God when he got to heaven. So it was said at his memorial service a couple of years ago, that if you’re praying these days, and you seem to get no answer from God, just know that he’s going to be busy with John for a while!
Well, this is one thing I want to ask about. What about the suffering of the innocent? That seems to have happened way too much in this world. Well, as think about that, let me suggest a couple of things.
First of all, the one thing we do know about God is that he doesn’t often intervene in tragedies. We don’t know why, but that seems to be the case. Oh, certainly there are stories and incidents of God intervening with certain people and sometimes even leading them away from certain tragedies. When the bus taking my niece’s High School class to New York City was delayed on September 11th, 2001, I have to believe there was a divine purpose there. But that event still occurred. And there’s still a certain struggle within me about that. When my friends were in town in November, we visited ground zero. And we found the firefighter’s memorial from that day. And we saw all those faces and names.
I believe with all my heart that God is alive and working in the world. But still there are wars, and disasters, genocides. Still there are tragedies in people’s lives. Still there is conflict and brokenness in our world. Still there is hatred, and prejudice, and greed and avarice, and gluttony, and all those other “deadly sins.” And there will always be those who would be quick to tell us that those things are proof that there is no God! And there are times we are tempted to believe them!
The difference – and this is part of the big picture, I believe – is that we choose to believe, no matter what the circumstances. Our orientation is toward God. Our allegiance is to him. Did you know that the church used to have a “Pledge of Allegiance” as well? You can still find it in some old, old hymnals. And allegiance is something that is not (or should not be) contingent on our feelings at any given moment. We are loyal to our country, for example, but that doesn’t mean we always agree with her or condone her actions.
So we choose to believe in God, and to have our lives oriented toward him. We choose to give our allegiance to God’s kingdom. But that doesn’t mean with don’t struggle with God, or question God, or even at times find ourselves angry with God. I really believe we need to be honest about that. Because things happen in this world, and things are going to happen, that are upsetting to us. And we feel that way because we care. We feel that way because we love. We feel that way because we have sympathy and empathy with those who go through such struggles. And when we are in that state, we may find ourselves saying, “God I love you, and I worship you. But boy I’m angry because this just doesn’t seem right.” Do you see how different than someone who sees the tragedies of life and turns their back on God? I think that’s so important. We choose God.
Now, I don’t want this to be a downer. I don’t want to put a damper on the wonderful, joyful celebration of Christmas. Far from it. This is a glorious and wondrous time of the year. (And frankly with all the preparation that takes place before hand, this is the time of Christmas when we can really relax and think about it all – and enjoy it!) But we have this story that Matthew told us about. (It’s his fault!) And I believe we must deal with it. We must struggle with what happened. We must face God and tell him of our struggle. I’m grateful to Matthew because of that. He could easily have left this part out. And many people do! But this happened. And Joseph took Mary and the baby Jesus and “ran away” from this tragedy that sought them out.
To me, this speaks of the seriousness of what was at stake in the story of Jesus. To me, this story bodes of the struggle that was going on between the worldly powers and the spiritual powers. It gives us a vivid, although tragic picture of struggle that took place between Jesus and this empire into which he was born. And like Harry Potter who, as a baby, defeated the forces of evil, so Jesus is pitted against “the principalities and powers and world rulers of the present darkness.” (Ephesians 6:12) And if we stopped reading here, we wouldn’t know how this story comes out! If we “gave up on God” at this point because we didn’t want to deal with this tragedy, we would miss the incredible glory to which this whole “big picture” points!
That’s so important to me! So often we are quick to point out how becoming a Christian does not mean a person then lives a trouble free and happy life. In fact, if our scriptural memory is sharp, we will remember the words of Jesus when he said that if we are his followers, we will be persecuted. But we must also recognize that knowing that doesn’t make it any easier when difficult things happen in our lives. Sometimes following Christ means we have no answers. Sometimes the very best we can do is remember his words, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Sometimes people in the church are accused of giving easy answers to difficult questions. And, by the way, that’s another criticism that keeps them away from the Church. Well, if you think about it, that’s not always a bad thing. And it doesn’t meant that the difficult questions go away! But it is good to have one who says to us, “Come unto me and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you for my burden is easy and my yoke is light.” And remember that oxen are yoked in pairs. Jesus helps us to shoulder the burdens of this life.
And so we have this story of the Holy Family running away from this tragedy. But it doesn’t make Christmas any less glorious. In fact, I think it makes it more so. It deepens its meaning for us. It shows us what’s at stake. It shows God’s love more clearly. It tells us that he is indeed “Emmanuel” – “God with us.” The year that arrives on Thursday might be a good year, and it might be a bad year. But we know that God is with us in the New Year – good or bad. He is with us. Let us choose to be with him.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that you are with us always, even to the close of the age. We thank you for your promise to be with us, whether we realize it or not, whether we feel like you are, or not. We don’t always understand. We aren’t always accepting of circumstances. But we trust that you are still working in our world, and in our lives. Help us to know your presence this Christmas season. Help us in the New Year to know better the one who is the Prince of Peace. For we pray in his name, Amen.