The Gospel lesson for the First Sunday after Christmas in Year A is filled with pain, and so are many people’s hearts this Christmas. Here is a sermon I preached on this text in January of 2002. Circumstances made it necessary to delay this sermon until Baptism of the Lord, which was also a communion Sunday for us.
A Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 with allusions to Isaiah 25:6-9 and Revelation 21:1-4
One person can cause unbelievable amounts of pain, especially if a few people cooperate and a lot of people look the other way. No wonder all Jerusalem was disturbed when the Wise Men brought the news of a baby King of the Jews. All Jerusalem knew what King Herod was capable of if he felt there was the least threat to his position. Already he had ordered the execution of one of his wives, her mother, several of his sons, three hundred of his court officials, and countless others. Later, shortly before his death, Herod ordered the imprisonment of a number of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem. At the moment of his death, all these innocents were killed, so that there would be weeping and wailing in Judea. Herod was well aware that no one would mourn his passing.
What did the lives of the children of Bethlehem matter to Herod? Compared to the rivers of blood he had already spilled, what did he care about the blood of the twenty or so infants and toddlers that lived in the village? When the Wise Men failed to return with the intelligence Herod needed to zero in on Jesus, he ordered his soldiers to search out and destroy every child in Bethlehem age two and under. Jesus would surely be among them.
In a dream, Joseph received a warning about this evil plan. In a flash he was up, waking Mary, and hurrying to pack a few essentials. There was no time for more. In the dead of night they slipped away as quietly and as quickly as they could, leaving everything behind. Now they were refugees. Now they would have to find a way to survive in a strange land. Joseph would have to start all over again: find food, find shelter, find work. Jesus’ earliest memories would be not of home, but of Egypt.
Soon there was weeping and wailing all over Bethlehem.
The pain was beyond description. It was mother Rachel weeping for her lost children, says Matthew. Mother Rachel was one of the mothers of the children of Israel. She died giving birth to Israel’s son, Benjamin. Tradition had it that she was buried in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Weeping Rachel was the image of inconsolable grief. And years later, when the children of Israel were being killed or carried off into exile, first by Assyria and then by Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah said, “A sound is heard in Ramah, says the Lord, the sound of bitter weeping. Rachel is crying for her children; they are gone, and she refuses to be comforted.”
That’s what happened in Bethlehem. A voice was heard in the land. It was Mother Rachel weeping and wailing because her children are no more. On September 11 a voice was heard in this land, crying out for the thousands of mothers’ children who are no more, because of the likes of Herod now—joining the cries around the world for millions of refugees and millions of mothers’ children who are no more, because of the likes of Herod now. In the Sudan. In Kosovo. In Rwanda. In Palestine. In Israel. In Afghanistan.
Let no one minimize this pain. It is very great. After her son was killed, Presbyterian poet Ann Weems wrote out her anguished prayers, her cries of Rachel. Here is a selection from one of them:
I followed [you, God]
And then they killed him
Whom I loved
More than my life
O God, why did you name me Rachel?
A cry goes up out of Ramah,
And it is my cry!
Rachel will not be comforted!
Don’t you hear me,
You whose name is Emmanuel?
(Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament, Westminster/John Knox, 1995, pp. 1-2. Do read the whole poem.)
Rachel is weeping for her children. How many more tears, Lord, how many more? Is there any word to comfort Rachel, any word strong enough to touch her pain?
There is a word for Rachel: the living Word. He will come back from exile in Egypt, Rachel. He will grow up. He will answer your tears.
And so Christ Jesus did. He took his place in the waters of baptism with sinners, with all of us who know the pain, the brokenness, the estrangement that are spawned by our sin. He welcomed sinners to his side, and instead of throwing rocks at them, he called them to be disciples. He gave them the power to change. He laid his hands on the sick. He cried over the stubborn waywardness of humanity. He wept with the grieving. He lifted the dead to new life. On the cross Christ Jesus embraced all the pain of humanity and took up the cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” It seemed that Herod had at last succeeded in destroying the child.
But no. No! In a wonderful, unfathomable mystery, in pain, Christ overcame pain. In dying, he overcame death. And he rose again, the promise for all of us. The living Word answers Rachel’s cry with his life, death and resurrection. And he still carries the wounds, see?
One image of Jesus in particular helps Ann Weems to survive: Jesus weeping. She writes,
And in his weeping,
He joined himself forever
to those who mourn.
He stands now throughout all time,
This Jesus weeping,
With his arms about the weeping ones;
“Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.”
He stands with the mourners,
For his name is God-with-us.
Jesus wept. (Weems, p. xvi.)
Christ Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 25: On this mountain the LORD almighty will prepare a banquet for all the nations of the world, a banquet of the richest food and the finest wine. He will take away the cloud of sorrow hanging over all people. He will destroy death forever. He will wipe away the tears from everyone’s eyes.
Just before he was betrayed, Christ Jesus set a meal for his disciples: he broke the bread and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” He poured the cup and served it, saying, “This cup is my blood shed for you.” Everyone eat this and drink this. This is the food for life. Through me you will be safely bound to God forever and ever.
Christ Jesus laid this table for all who mourn, all the brokenhearted, all the suffering. He invites us to the table, and in turn, we must invite others.
While we were on the Island of Iona in Scotland, I learned a quiet and beautiful hymn, and the refrain is this: “To the lost Christ shows his face, to the unloved he gives his embrace, to those who cry in pain or disgrace, Christ makes with his friends a touching place.” (“A Touching Place,” text by John L. Bell and Graham Maule. ©1989 Iona Community. GIA Publications is the American agent for resources from Iona.)
Christ Jesus takes up the cry, he embraces Rachel’s tears, he says “NO!” to Herod, whatever the face Herod wears. He calls Rachel to his table now, looking forward to his table in eternity. Christ touches our tears, and in his name, we touch the tears of others.
Christ makes a touching place, where he touches the pain, where heaven and earth touch. Heaven and earth touch right here at this table. Here is where Jesus wipes away our tears. Here is where he heals us.
Rachel, come to this table and be nourished, until the day when God will wipe the tears from every weeping eye; no death, no pain, no mourning cry, every tear made dry at last. Come to the Savior, Rachel. AMEN.