“Christmas Joy – Christmas Weeping”
It's not even a week after Christmas and already I suspect somewhere, someone is putting up a Valentines' Day display. But in the church we have really just begun to celebrate our Lord's birth. Today is the first Sunday in the short “Christmas Season” and soon it will give way to Epiphany – a season with a Christmas “feel”, in which we recall not only the visit of the Magi, but along with Advent, the season that book-ends our Christmas celebration.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves, for as I said, today is the first Sunday in the church's Christmas season, and while the secular world has already moved on, we get to keep singing Christmas songs, celebrating joyfully, and hanging on to that warm fuzzy Christmas feeling, right? Not exactly. Our lectionary smacks us out of any Christmas schmalziness this morning with a terrible story about the slaughter of the innocents.
Herod, that wicked king, in his lust to preserve power at all costs, had a whole village-full of children 2 years and younger killed. Just to be sure he would have no competition for his throne. He had heard, via the wise men from the East, you see, that a king had been born. But they tricked him and returned home without telling him exactly who was the threat. So he did what all evil tyrants tend to do – he killed.
Yes into the season of Christmas cheer the reading comes and ruins it all with the thought of babies dying – innocent babies – at the hand of an evil man. This is how the church celebrates Christmas?
But it happened. The Gospels are not concerned with making us feel good, as much as telling the truth. Matthew is not worried about offending our sense of holiday cheer as much as he is about showing us Christ – and all that that means for us.
So what of it? Why the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, as they are called? Well, one thing we can say is that they weren't truly innocent. Just as all of us, those children of Bethlehem were born into sin. They deserved death just as all of us do. Hard words to swallow, from a human perspective. We look at children, compared to ourselves, and they seem so innocent and pure (and compared to us they are). But God's law doesn't compare us to each other, it only compares us to its own perfect standard. All children of Adam are born sinful and unclean. All are born into a living death, of which physical death is the only foreseeable outcome. Herod just brought their death a little sooner.
But were those children lost? Perhaps not. For these were children of Israel, God's chosen people. And just as we baptize babies today, so did those ancient Jews circumcise their sons. So did they raise all their children in the shadow of God's temple, and under the protection of his promises. They relied on his words of promise which foretold of a Messiah – a Savior from sin and death. And just as sinful David their father before them, and sinful Abraham before him, and yes even sinful Adam himself – they clung to those promises of God's grace and mercy. And so do we.
Those promises were fulfilled in the child Herod was really looking for. The whole point of Christmas is to give hope to tragedies like this. To say to those suffering, in pain, and mourning, “fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy – a Savior is born!”
And the world, like Herod, will try to silence this Word. They will try to distract and make you doubt. The devil will try to make you suffer so much that the pain overwhelms your faith. The world will bring stress and trouble of all fashion and flavor – you know yours as I know mine.
But rather than turn us away from Christ, let us rely on Christ as the Savior from all this. For the promise of his birth, now fulfilled, shows God's faithfulness in all his promises of forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, and heaven.
And though Rachel was heard weeping in Ramah, in Revelation God himself wipes every tear form his people's eyes. Though in this world, even babies can and do die in sin, also in this world, we are given the rebirth into newness of life that comes from the one who was born for us.
And if you want to talk about joy turned into pain turned into joy again – look to the last week of our Lord's life. There, as he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, the fanfare rivaled any of our Christmas festivals. Then Thursday night began the suffering – with a betrayal, an arrest, torture and sentencing. All seemed lost when they nailed him to a cross, and all his people could do was flee or stand there in tears, watching him die. And when they laid his cold body on the cold slab, no one was joyful but the Herods of the world who thought they had destroyed the King once again. But then the joy came once again, the true triumph, the ultimate glory of resurrection.
Yes, as we consider the Holy Innocents, we must also recall the promise of resurrection. That all who die in Christ will rise to newness of life. There will be an end to Rachel's weeping, when she sees her sons and daughters rise at the last with Christ and all his people.
And that may seem afar off, but it is not. Consider that many of those Bethelehem families were still expecting the Messiah. They didn't know he had arrived! Though perhaps some had heard the rumors of those crazy shepherds not too long ago. It may have seemed a distant future, but for them, he was right there – present among them.
He is present among us today, too. It may seem like his promises are far off, but they are here for us today. His forgiveness and salvation and life are here, just as surely as his body and blood are here, under bread and wine. In humble form, just as he came in humble form to Bethlehem. Whatever tragedy you have faced, whatever cause for weeping and mourning, whatever great sadness or guilt or pain your bring here today – find hope in the Christ. Find forgiveness and blessing. Look forward in faith and trust in a God who always keeps his promises.
God preserved his Son, and kept him from the slaughter, only to give him over to bitter death, later, when the time was right, to a different Herod. God brought his Son, like his ancient people, to Egypt. He recapitulates their journey, for he is the greater Moses who comes to lead all people out of bondage – to sin and death – and to the promised land. And in delivering his Son, he delivers us all. From death as a child, and from the cold dark grave – Jesus was delivered, and so are we.
May your Christmas weeping, whatever it may be, give way to Christmas joy, as you find hope and comfort in the Christ who was born for you.