“When Will Rachel Stop Weeping?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 1, 2017
Isaiah 63:7-9 & Matthew 2:13-23
Too soon. This reading, I mean. We have, after all, just celebrated Christmas. It was a wonderful season. The weeks leading up to Christmas helped us to prepare for Christ and make room for his arrival; these weeks gave us time to tidy our physical and spiritual homes for the coming of God. We feasted together and gave many gifts; we helped our children understand the meaning of Christmas and we reached out to those who find Christmas to be a difficult season. All the preparation and prayer and waiting culminated in the largest and most beautiful Christmas Eve service this church has seen in five years. That night we heard the story of a young mother giving birth to her son, surrounded by angels and shepherds and words of peace on Earth. It was a beautiful night of hope and celebration.
Which is why this reading seems to come too soon. After such beauty and splendor and mystery and peace, Matthew’s story of the holy family escaping to Egypt is jarring. If I had been asked to put together the schedule of readings for the year, I would have spent a little more time in the manger in Bethlehem. I would have at least spent more time with the first part of this story, the part we know well of the Magi making their way to Bethlehem to present their gifts to the baby Jesus. This would have extended the Christmas feeling just a bit longer and given us a chance to sing a few more Christmas carols. (With quotations from The Rev. Dr. David Lose)
But not so. Instead, today we skip the more familiar and enjoyable part of the story to get to the scene we would rather forget: a mother and father escaping to Egypt while a tyrant slaughters children.
It begins with another angel coming to Joseph in a dream. This time, though, the angel does not have good news; the angels tells him that he must get his family out of town. They are about to be displaced because they are in danger. The angel points Jospeh and his family to Egypt, because some powerful people fear the newborn Jewish baby. Some, including Herod the king, want him dead, eradicated. So Joseph and Mary gather their meager belongings and their infant son, and they rush off to Egypt.
When Herod finds out that he has been tricked by the Magi, and now has no idea where to find Jesus, he flies into a rage. In his rage, he orders the murder of all children in and around Bethlehem two years old or younger. In Herod’s mind, this will certainly eliminate the one who was already being hailed as Savior of the World. Matthew quotes the words of the weeping prophet Jeremiah, who witnesses so powerfully to all generations the injustice and evil of Herod’s jealous rage. A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children—she refuses to be consoled, because they are no more. Jesus is safe for the time being, but other children, innocent children, die and Rachel continues to weep.
In another dream, an angel tells Jospeh that it is safe to go home. Herod has died. Jospeh again gathers his wife and son, and together they make the journey back to the land of Israel. But their harrowing journey is not over. Joseph learns that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is ruling over the kingdom in place of his father, and Jospeh is afraid to go there. In a third dream, an angel reroutes the family one final time to the district of Galilee. It is there that Jospeh and Mary make their home with their son, in a town called Nazareth.
This story is abrupt, jarring, and disturbing. The murder of children cuts us to the core. It is disturbing whenever a life is taken before it has even had a chance to begin. It is disturbing because there was so much potential in all of those young souls. This story also hints at an anti-Semitism that we cannot ignore. Herod is not the first biblical ruler who planned to exterminate the Jewish race. After the time of Joseph, a king came to power in Egypt who was afraid of how the Israelite nation was growing. This king decided then and there to enslave the Israelites, using their forced labor to build monuments and supply cities. When the king saw that the Israelites were still growing in number, he assembled the midwives of Egypt and ordered them to kill any boy born to a Jewish family. If you want to erase a nation, kill the children so that the nation eventually becomes extinct—Herod and the king of Egypt acted on this in terrible ways.
Along with these—the murder of children, the extermination of a nation, the lost potential—this story is abrupt, jarring, and disturbing for another reason: it rings oddly familiar to our time and place. The biblical story of children being murdered and a family narrowly escaping persecution corresponds very closely to the world we live in right now. Today is the first day of 2017, and in looking back on 2016, it was one of the darker and more difficult years in recent memory. So many shootings. So much terror. So much unrest and division and tension. Orlando, Dallas, Nice, Brussels, St. Paul, Aleppo, Berlin, Chicago—these are just a few places that call to mind some of the violence and terror of the past year. Of all the stories in the Bible, this may be the one that is most tangible for us, most real, most terrifying. The horrors that the people of Bethlehem and Judea experienced under the reign of Herod are the same horrors they are experiencing this very day; the horrors that Mary and Jospeh experienced as refugees away from home are the same horrors many families are experiencing this very day. Just as Rachel wept in the biblical era when her children were taken from her, she weeps today as her children are stripped away or sent away.
The horrors we are experiencing in our days are not new. But in this, believe it or not, I think we can find abundant hope today. As abrupt as it may be, there is a deeply theological reason why Matthew tells the story as he does. You see, it is earlier in Matthew’s gospel where we learn that Jesus will be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’ This comes from an angel appearing, again, to Jospeh to soothe his fear about Mary. The angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus, and then quotes the prophet Isaiah: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’ So Matthew’s point is clear: not only is Jesus God-with-us when the baby is in the manger, surrounded by angels and shepherds and star light; Jesus is also God-with-us when children are being hunted and families are fleeing. Jesus is God-with-us when the nights are silent and holy, and Jesus is God-with-us when the nights are full of weeping and fear.
Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, and the God we meet in Jesus is not exempt from the tension, fear, violence, and horror of our fallen world. When you think of it, Emmanuel—God with us—wouldn’t really mean all that much if God was with us only during the tender moments. God-with-us wouldn’t really mean all that much during times of celebration, during the Christmas Eve services of our lives. God-with-us wouldn’t really mean all that much if God is there only when the nights are calm and bright. But this is not the true nature of our God, the true nature of the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. No, this God is not just interested in our good days and our triumphs and our peaceful moments. This God knows the terror and fear and tension of our lived experience; God knows because God lived it in Jesus Christ. God is with us when we weep, when we fail, when we are filled with fear, when we suffer at the hands of violence, and when horror fills our days and nights.
This is our hope today, and in all days to come. God is with us in good times and in bad; this is the message of Christmas, this is the heart of Jesus’s birth. And this hope gives us courage to ask a very pointed question today: When will Rachel stop weeping?
Rachel will stop weeping when we realize that God is with us, and not only with us, but with all people in all times and places. Jesus, and his love, is not our property, but a gift that must be shared without reservation.
Rachel will stop weeping when we stop turning a blind eye to oppressive and dark forces that either physically or spiritually murder God’s people.
Rachel will stop weeping when we stop trying to shelter the church from the world and the world from the church. We must stop being afraid that religion and politics will mix, because religion and politics have a lot of beautiful truths to speak to one another. As hard as it is to admit, people of faith don’t have the corner market on truth and neither do our elected officials and political parties; we need each other if we truly wish for a more peaceful and just world.
Rachel will stop weeping when we double down on the ministries we do in Jesus’s name. There are the popular ones like feeding the hungry and educating children, but there is also companionship for the widow, healing prayers for the sick, and spiritual formation. These bring life into the world, and Jesus came that all might have life, and have it abundantly.
Rachel will stop weeping when we forgive one another just as we have been forgiven by God.
Rachel will stop weeping when we put away our need for vengeance, our thirst for blood, and our need to get even.
Rachel will stop weeping when we recognize the refugee in our midst, the holy family that is running for its life, and we give them shelter, food, comfort, and protection.
Rachel will stop weeping when we begin to live Christmas as a year-long thing and not just as a season that comes and goes.
African-American theologian and civil-rights leader, Howard Thurman, penned a poem the year I was born that I come back to each year after Christmas. He wrote: “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the real work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart.”
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, God is with us. God is with us when we are gathered in Bethlehem and when we are escaping to Egypt. God is with us when we rejoice and when we weep. God is with us. God is with us, and now the work begins. Go and find the lost. Go and heal the broken. Feed the hungry and release the prisoner. Rebuild the nations and bring peace among people. Make music in the heart. And Rachel’s weeping will stop, and it will never start again. It is up to you and me. Amen.