13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “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 scripture has changed this week. There are weeks for a John the baptist-inspired “brood of vipers” type sermon, but this is not one of them. I’ve been spending my weekend in prayer over a different nativity scripture, the one from Matthew 2:18: “A voice heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more.”
I have heard the voice in Ramah. It is the voice of Newtown, the voice of mothers and fathers wailing for their children, the voice of teachers and students crying out from the blood-stained floors of Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is our collective voice as Americans as we cry out together, “how can this be?” It is our voice as a church as we cry out, “Lord, have mercy.” It is the voice of all parents gasping with the terror of empathy, wondering, “what if?…” It is my voice crying out with the psalmist, “how long, O Lord?”
King Herod had learned that the wise men did not return through Jerusalem to tell him the location of the reign-threatening, so-called “newborn king.” So instead of a targeted assassination, he sent his mercenaries to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old are younger. Meanwhile, Jesus escaped to Egypt with Joseph and his mother.
I think I’m supposed to be glad Jesus escaped Herod’s murderous tyranny, but all I can think of today is, “but what about Rachel’s children? What about those who did not escape? What about all those innocents slaughtered at the hands of a madman? What about all those whom the world laments and then forgets?” After all, when was the last time you heard Matthew 2:16-18 read before Christmas? It is not a pretty story. It doesn’t belong in our gilded, light-infested, ornament-covered, stocking-adorned houses. It does not belong with the manger and the angels and the shepherds and the wise men. We cannot cover it with poinsettias and hope that it goes away. It is a story that reminds us that the darkness persisted even after the light of life came into the world. The darkness persists today; and O how great is the darkness.
With most parents, I think, one of my first impulses was to wait expectantly for my children to get home from school on Friday and to hug them and hold them close. At least they were safe. I thank God. At least Jesus was safe too, according to the scripture. But my gratitude for their safety only reveals the vulnerability of those I love, of those God loves at the hands of the wicked. “It can’t happen here,” we tell ourselves. Of course that’s also what the people of Newtown said on Friday morning, and the people of Happy Valley, Oregon who went shopping on Tuesday, and the Sikh worshipers in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and the moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, and the town hall participants in Tucson, and the students at Virginia Tech and the children of Nickel Mines, and Columbine and Jonesboro and Paducah and Bethlehem.
The truth is Jesus, like us, was born into a world filled with murderous villains. He escaped them as an infant, but only for a while. The world he entered was dark and full of evil too. Then, as now, it is a world full of violence.
Violence is the corrupt fruit of the sinful human family tree. Cain slew Abel, his blood cried out from the ground. When God tried to stop the violence, Lamech took matters into his own hands, pledging death to those who dared touch him and seventy-seven fold vengeance on those who would harm him. God gave the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” law not to encourage retribution, but to limit it. The cause for the great flood named explicitly in Genesis 6:11 is violence. When the children of Israel entered the promised land, they made domination their god, and when that wasn’t enough, they demanded a king, so they could be like other nations, using organized violence to defend their way of life. Yet as they discovered, any kingdom built on human power will eventually fall, and great was their fall. Violence is the contagion that has infected the whole human race and corrupted creation.
Into this world of violence, God sent Jesus, to preach good news, to heal, restore and make new, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to announce the coming day of God. When asked how often we should forgive, Jesus countered Lamech’s twisted logic saying, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” When his disciples drew a sword to defend him in the garden, he stopped them saying, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he boldly proclaimed, “for they shall be called children of God.”
In our country, we have tried to regulate gun ownership by keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. Have you noticed, though, that in this latest string of gun violence, the perpetrators have not been diagnosed until after their murderous rampage? By then, of course, it is far too late. We never think so-and-so would do such a thing, until they do. Then, of course, it is described as an act of a madman, they are characterized as deranged. If only we had known. If only a doctor had diagnosed them. If only…
The problem is that the real mental illness is our addiction to violence, and we are all sick with it. We have all been infected by its contagion. We all bear fruits from that poisonous tree. We are entertained by movies that show us over and over the false promise of victory through violence. Our children are trained by video games that teach them how to kill. We believe so much in our military might that we choose war when other options are still available. Most Americans think torture is ok, as long as it is on a bad guy. Our president regularly orders assassinations rather than bringing terrorists to justice. We want vengeance so much that we execute criminals instead of seeking their redemption. We turn the other way from the unborn who never even have a chance to live. The cycle of violence has no end. It is not a game that can be won. As long as we believe violence solves problems, we bear in our bodies the mark of Lamech. We are complicit even in the evils we deplore.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. Jesus was not only born into this same world filled with evil and violence, he was sent by God to save it.
You know John 3:16. Say it with me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” Does anyone remember the next verse? “God did not send his son into the world to condemn it, but so that the world might, through him, be saved.”
The world threw its worst at Jesus, hunted him at birth, tried to throw him off a cliff as a young adult, tried to entrap him with mind games, condemned him and cursed him, handed him over to the Romans who tortured and crucified him. Jesus has seen the worst our world can do. Jesus has wept with us in our grief and cradled our little children in his arms. There is no pit of suffering he has not endured. And in the end, he rose triumphant over it all.
Yes, our world is worth condemning. Sin and violence oppress us at every turn. But God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but to redeem it. Jesus called his disciples and taught them his ways. They were ways of non-violence, bold vulnerability, mercy, forgiveness, and self-giving love. The way of Jesus is still the way of salvation, for us and for our world.
Following him on the way begins with a simple confession. I am a sinner. I carry the violence of the world in my heart. I have been shaped by it, my thinking twisted by it, my responses enflamed by it, my heart energized by it. Behind the violence is my fear, my vulnerability, my weakness, my smallness trying to be big. Yet when I stop trying to be big, when I stop trying to demonstrate my power or exert control over my world, I realize that there is a better way; it is the way of Jesus, the way of reconciliation in the face of conflict, the way of peace in the face of war, the way of forgiveness in the face of harm.
When we were in South Africa, a land even more rattled by gun violence than our own, we met a pastor and theologian by the name of Peter Grassow. In a conversation about the pain and violence of the post-Apartheid era, Peter remarked, “yeah, most Christians in our country look at the world around them and say, ‘gosh it’s dark,’ without ever realizing that Christ came not to comment on the darkness of the world but to be light in the darkness, and he is sending us out to let our light shine.”
I can hug my kids tighter this week and be grateful until the stark pain of the tragedy wears off and we all go back to the way things were, or I can look for ways to let my light shine in the darkness. You can let your light shine by getting involved in the lives of the children and youth in our church. You can let your light shine by supporting their parents and nurturing their faith. You can build a bridge with the children and families in the YMCA Early Learning Center. You can write a card or note to a principal or teacher in a local school and let them know you are thinking or praying for them. Or you could call your local principal and ask, “in what ways can I be involved in the education of children in our community? How can I support you in your work? How can I pray for you?” You can let your light shine by advocating alternatives to violence and sensible limits on weapons capable of wreaking havoc in ways that have become all too familiar. You can let your light shine by starving the entertainment industry of income from violent offerings, by tuning into media that promotes civility and tuning out the blow-hards. You can let your light shine by personally practicing forgiveness.
Friends, we live in a dark time, but it is no darker than the time of Jesus. We live in a day of pervasive violence, but it is no more violent than Jesus’ day. I invite you to the altar to light a candle, to pray for the lost and the mourning, to confess our own fear and vulnerability and to seek an assurance that is beyond our power. Jesus came to save us, yes, but even more to redeem the whole world. If Jesus has laid claim to your life, it is not to preserve you until heaven, it is to light you up and send you back into the darkness. I know it’s dark out there. Go, be the light.