Click here to listen
Over the past week you’ve probably been seeing reviews of the past decade in the news. The 2010s began on a horrific note. In just a few days we’ll be upon the tenth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti where 230,000 people lost their lives. A photo I saw captures the horror of that event. A mother kneeling on the floor, her hands clutching her head, facing upwards with tears streaming from her closed eyes, surrounded by the bodies of children, among them her own. The verse we read from Matthew could serve as the caption of the photo: “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.”
When you read those reviews of the past decade, with wars, genocide, floods, and earthquake, it raises a hard question for those of us who just got through celebrating the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem: Where is God in this? It’s a question that’s asked daily somewhere by someone. It’s asked after a violent crime. It’s asked when there’s a diagnosis of cancer. It’s asked when a marriage falls apart and when a dream is shattered. When you look back over the years, there are tragedies of such magnitude that we have to ask as a community of faith Where is God in it all?
That’s when we have to hear the rest of the Christmas story, the part we leave out of our pageants and carols. The rest of the story tells how the well-meaning inquiry of the wise men led to the death of innocent children. The rest of the story tells what happened in the little town of Bethlehem after the wise men left, how its streets that lay so quiet on Christmas night ran with blood a few weeks later. And it tells the story of how God was present through it all, never going back on God’s promise to deliver God’s people in the face of disaster and death.
One of the biggest hits on Broadway last year was To Kill a Mockingbird. Not long ago, I rented the movie to watch it one more time. In one scene the hero, a small-town Southern lawyer named Atticus Finch, goes out to the country with his 10-year-old son Jem to meet with the family of Sam Robinson, the black man whom Atticus is defending against a trumped-up charge of raping a white woman. As he’s leaving the shack where Robinson’s family lives, one of the white men who wants to lynch Robinson confronts Atticus, calls him an obscene name, and spits in his face while Jem watches. When they return to their home in town, Atticus says to Jem, “I wish I could shield you from all the bad things in this world, son, but I can’t.”
And God doesn’t shield us. Christmas is a time of hope and joy and promise, but it doesn’t make the world a perfect place, at least not yet. Once Christmas was over in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph had to flee with the baby for their lives. The hope of Christmas isn’t that everything is perfect now. The hope of Christmas is that God is with us – Emmanuel.
Our Christmas celebrations focus on the baby in the manger, but the Bible sets the scene in the midst of a world with which we can identify, a world where powers collide and leave innocent victims in their wake. Remember how the beloved account in Luke begins: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration, and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” In Matthew’s story of the wise men, they stop in the capital city of Jerusalem to ask King Herod for directions to the child. The Bible stories want us to be clear that the Messiah was not born into some idyllic world far removed from the conflicts and controversies that are so real to us. The writers want us to remember that this child was born into a world that was wracked by political disputes and tormented by tyrants. Some scholars have wondered why there is no other historical record of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Wouldn’t another ancient historian in addition to Matthew have noted something so horrible? Probably not. Herod was such a tyrant that the slaughter of a few dozen innocent children might have gone unnoticed in light of his other atrocities. Just consider how many people have been killed by dictators in Syria or North Korea or Congo. We’ll never know their names because their individual stories are overshadowed by greater atrocities.
Jesus was born into a world that was much like ours, where the lives of innocent people were at the mercy of powers greater than themselves. The wise men had made the mistake of asking Herod where they could find the one who was born king of the Jews. Herod heard that as news of a rival, which is why he sent his soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem who were under two years old – just to be sure he didn’t miss the one who might threaten his power.
The Holy Family fled to Egypt. Like many refugees who come to this country to flee persecution, they may have had family or friends in that foreign land. Ever since the fall of Samaria in the 8th century BCE there had been a large contingent of Jews there. When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, another wave of refugees headed west. The prophet Jeremiah went Egypt when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem.
It’s likely Joseph and his family settled among fellow Jews and made a decent living. Perhaps they could have stayed in Egypt and the child could have grown to live a safe and relatively comfortable life. But that is not why the child was born. That is not why God sent his son into the world. After Herod died, an angel told Joseph to take Jesus back to Israel, back to the place they had fled. There he grew up to live among the poor and the outcast. He healed and taught and gave hope to those who had little hope. He threatened those powers that hold sway over us, and his witness led him to a cross, where he shared the fate of those children who died in Bethlehem – the death of an innocent one who did not deserve to die. He took on himself the pains and disappointments of the whole world. And just as God was faithful to him in infancy and delivered him from the sword of Herod, God remained faithful in death and delivered him from the grave. Except that Jesus’ suffering and death and victory were not for himself but for us, for you and for me and for all creation. Jesus suffered an unjust death, even felt the absence of God when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet even death could not separate him from God. Even death cannot separate us from God. In his death he conquered death to give us hope and courage. – not only to you and me and the rest of humanity, but to the earth itself. Romans 8 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…” Maybe the earthquake that shook Haiti or the fires that are ravishing Australia are the groaning of creation that waits for the redemption of Christ.
There are no simple answers to explain why someone like Herod had it in his power to murder the innocent. There are no simple answers to explain why floods and tsunamis kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people. In the face of questions like that we cannot do much better than look to Job and stand in awe of God whose ways are so much beyond our ways that we cannot begin to comprehend them. But when God came to us at Christmas, God showed us the divine character, and God’s character is love. God came to be with us, to live with us and to die with us and to deliver us into eternal life. God weeps with that mother surrounded by the bodies of her children. God comforts those who grieve. God upholds those who question and wonder why. And God gives strength and purpose to those who reach out in compassion in his name.
The rest of the Christmas story brings us back to the world where Herod reigns and floodwaters rage, but there is something fundamentally different. We know that God is with us, sharing our horror and our grief. God is with us working through our prayers and our gifts. God is with us giving us hope. That is the rest of the story.