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The Horror Before The Blessing

Sermons On The Gospel Readings
Series II, Cycle A
A few years ago, a woman wrote in exasperation to the editor of her newspaper. She demanded to know why the media always publish negative and sad stories during the holiday season. As she pointed out, "Christmas is supposed to be a happy, joyous time."1 Her letter sounds almost as if she thinks that, even if bad news happens during the holiday season, the newspapers and television should simply ignore those things. Maybe we all wish Christmas time had a kind of protective bubble around it. Christmas could be the oasis we experience instead of the sorrow and tragedy of the rest of the year.

The events behind the bad news just won't have it that way. Rather than a break from bad news, the Christmas season almost seems to create its own kind of bad news. Perhaps we simply notice it more. Three years ago, just before Christmas, the nation read in horror about a woman who allegedly strangled a pregnant mother, then cut her fetus out of her lifeless body. The police used email to locate the suspect; they recovered the baby in time to save him. Besides the gruesome nature of the crime itself is the long-term effect. The child will someday have to learn the circumstances of his mother's death. Father and child will have to find some way to cope with what has happened. The picture of the suspect looked nothing like the monster we would suspect of committing a crime that turns our stomachs. She looked somewhat shy, holding a dog in her arms, smiling at the camera. What would we want the media to do, wait until the glow of Christmas has faded and then dump these kinds of stories on us? A couple of years ago, the tsunami hit right after Christmas. Whatever the Christmas season means to us, it doesn't mean that we can switch off the bad news. The forces of evil do not lay down their arms for a cease fire just because we've turned the calendar to December.

Not even the lectionary committee will give us a break. For the Sunday after Christmas, they assign us one of the most brutal stories in scripture. The birth of Jesus has been heralded in Joseph's dream. The baby "will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). The birth of Jesus is a time of hope, of rejoicing. Maybe a year, but certainly not more than two of relative tranquility follow. The visit from the Magi reveals Jesus to the wider world. The tranquility comes to a bitter end. Herod learns of the significance of Jesus' birth. With cold deception he discovers that Jesus is in Bethlehem. What Herod does next seems almost unthinkable. Herod considers Jesus a threat. He wants to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible, so he sends soldiers to Bethlehem to kill Jesus before he has a chance to grow up. With diabolical efficiency, Herod has the soldiers kill all of the children under two years of age in Bethlehem. Terrorism is nothing new. Matthew tells the story with dignified understatement. The scene itself and the immeasurable grief afterward might be almost more than we can bear to imagine.

Christians in our world today know of grief this heavy. In Latin America, people know what it is like for a family member who has challenged the government simply to disappear. In some cases, the family never knows what became of the "disappeared one." A Catholic priest, Ernesto Cardinal, went to the Archipelago of Solintename in Central America to teach the natives there about the Bible. When they heard this story, one local artist painted a picture of this scene, as though it had happened on his island. His rendering of this scene showed green-uniformed soldiers with AK-47s, shooting babies, and tying up the men. The background to the scene is the lush vegetation of the island. In the foreground are dead babies, cackling soldiers, and sobbing women. The beauty of the island contrasts sharply with the horror of the crime. We must not forget that at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, part of the backlash was the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four little girls on their way to Sunday school died in that blast.

How would we portray the grief of the women who watch the soldiers murder their children? Steven Spielberg portrays the grief of a woman who has lost her sons in World War II. In the movie, Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg directs a scene in which Ryan's mother watches the car carrying military officials to her house. Before the men even come in, she knows what they have come to say. She collapses in grief on her porch, sinking to her knees in sorrow. Matthew does not describe directly the grief in Bethlehem. He simply quotes Jeremiah, but those words tell us all we need to know. "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."

Herod joins a long line of brutal political leaders in scripture. Part of what Matthew wants us to know in his gospel is that Jesus is a new Moses. Pharaoh threatens Moses just after his birth. With a cold-hearted paranoia similar to Herod's, Pharaoh sets out to kill all of the male Hebrew children. The book of Exodus spares us any scenes in which children actually die, but Pharaoh's brutality is real. Pharaoh feels threatened by all of the Hebrews in his land.

Moses' mother saves him in a bold act. You know the story. She places him in a basket on the river and hopes for the best. In sweet irony, Pharaoh's own daughter finds Moses and defies her father's order, much like the Magi defy Herod's orders. Jesus' parents saved him when Joseph encountered an angel in a dream. Off they go to Egypt, where the people of Israel had once found salvation from a famine. Here is a sticking point in the story. Why does God send only one dream? Why not a dream for every parent? Why not a dream for the soldiers, so that they could sneak away like the Magi?

That sticking point in the story brings us back to today, to our own present day horrors, like the genocide in Sudan, or inner-city violence where too many stray bullets find a young target. Matthew does not answer the question of why God did not stop the slaughter in Bethlehem. Matthew does not help us understand why God does not stop the slaughter today. Even though Jesus was spared while he was an infant, he died later on the cross for us. If it seems as though Jesus gets away, leaving the other children to take the brutality, Jesus' escape is only temporary. As a man, Jesus faces the brutality, the senseless violence, the repression born of insecurity that marks this story and too many other stories.

We may long for a respite from the news reports that break our hearts, even if only for a few days this time of year. Matthew reminds us that we will not get such a break. The evil of the world keeps right on going. Christmas time even seems to make some of it worse, as we read of thieves making off with toys or money intended for charity. Some years, even Salvation Army bell ringers are not safe. For the families of the children who were killed in Bethlehem, the birth of the Savior made life worse in the short run. They experienced a grief that never would have happened if Jesus had been born in another time or place. Our faith does not always make life easier in the short run.

We are not promised an end to suffering, or an answer to the why of suffering. Matthew offers us something else. Jesus' title, according to the angel in one of Joseph's dreams is to be Emmanuel, God with us. When we hear of terrible violence, of unspeakable suffering, of tragic deaths, we should put away the idea that these things mean God is not at work. Even in the deepest of tragedies, even when evil is at its most mystifying, God's plan for salvation for the whole creation has not been diverted. God's ultimate joy and victory cannot be derailed. God is in the midst of the suffering, bringing strength, healing, and comfort. Whatever happens, God is with us. Now that Christmas is over some people really need to hear that. Whatever glow they received from Christmas, if any, has faded by now. The media will not report God's presence in the midst of suffering. Only people of faith know about this good news. That is why we must share it. Amen.


1. Jean Roberts, "Isn't There Good News?" Dallas Morning News, December 29, 2004, 22A.
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