Weeping with Rachel

Jesus escapes while other babies are murdered.  What can we do but weep?

Full Text: 

Weeping with Rachel

January 4, 2015 – Matthew 2:13-23

 

            The year 2014 is in the books.  As with past years, there have been triumphs and tragedies.  2014 had its share of wars, disasters, and even its own pandemic.  But the most troubling to me has been two separate attacks on school-aged children, atrocities that still have me shaking my head in disbelief.

            The Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, has been waging a campaign of violence in Nigeria.  Their ultimate goal is the overthrow of the current government and the establishing of an Islamist state.  But along with that, they want to stop western education of children.  In fact, their name, “Boko Haram,” means, ‘Western education is sin,’ in the local Hausa language.  So, in April, they kidnapped 220 girls from a boarding school in Nigeria.  A few were able to escape.

            Then, this December, in Pakistan, Taliban gunman entered a school and killed 145 people, most of them children.  In fact, they sought out children, encouraged them to come out from hiding and told them they would not shoot them, but shot them all the same.  They had the same motivation as Boko Haram – to discourage and eliminate Western education.

            Obviously, I don’t share their views on the value of Western education.  But the wholesale killing of children – for whatever reason – is unconscionable to me, as I am sure it is to you.

            Yet it is not the first time that this has ever happened.  This is the world that Jesus was born into, because this is the world that God so desperately wants to save.

 

            Although the magi come from a great distance to seek out the child born king of the Jews, not everyone is overjoyed.  In fact, we are told, that when Herod hears why the magi have arrived at his doorstep, he is “frightened and all Jerusalem with him.”  He feigns interest in also offering the child homage, but of course we know that Herod is a tyrant, and tyrants do not think twice about subjecting their people to the cruelest exercise of their power when they are afraid of losing that power.

            So, when Herod discovers that the magi have subverted his plan to find the child, he goes nuts.  But just as the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, Joseph is similarly warned in a dream to get out of town as quickly as possible.  So it is that Jesus escapes the rage of Herod and the mass murder of the children of Bethlehem. 

            Now Matthew seems to have a greater interest than the other gospel writers in the connections between the story of Jesus and the story of Israel.  And this is especially true in the story of Jesus’ birth.  Here Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah: “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.”

            Matthew introduces this quote with the words: “Thus was fulfilled…”  We should not, however, think of fulfillment as a kind of prediction come true.  We should not think that in the time of Jeremiah, God already knew that children were going to be massacred in the time of Jesus and that God caused this to happen because God had been planning it all along.  No, scriptural fulfillment is not about prediction.  Rather it is about meaning.  The prophecy of Jeremiah discloses the meaning of what is happening.

            You may remember that Rachel is the wife of Jacob – Jacob’s favorite wife – and she had two sons – Joseph and Benjamin.  Joseph had two sons – Ephraim and Manasseh.  Ephraim was the tribe that made up most of the northern kingdom of Israel (also called, “Israel”).  The northern kingdom – or Ephraim – was destroyed by Assyria.  The people were exiled to Assyria.  We talk more about the later exile of the southern kingdom – including Jerusalem – to Babylon. And that is crucial to the story of Israel.  But, whereas the people of the southern kingdom are eventually freed from exile and return to Jerusalem, the people of the northern kingdom – Ephraim – are never freed.  They never return.  They are no more.  They are never heard from again. 

            That is why Rachel weeps, according to Jeremiah.  Her children are no more.  And we weep as well for those children, the children who died when Jesus was only a child, the who died at the hands of a tyrant.

 

            I got two surprises last Saturday when I got back from a quick trip to Iowa.  The first was that I had a cold.  When I’d gotten into the car that morning, I’d felt just fine.  But, slowly throughout the day, my chest felt more and more congested.  By the end of the day, I felt miserable.

            The other surprise I got – even bigger! – was that, when I checked my work e-mail after getting home, there was a message from a friend asking me to preach at his ordination service in January.  I had gotten to know Craig a little bit on CPE at Meriter.  But then he went back to seminary in Chicago and then off to internship in Nebraska.  He just finished his seminary work and has gotten a call to serve Grace Lutheran Church in Darlington. 

            I was very happy for him and was planning on going to his ordination in Dodgeville, but I was stunned when he asked me to preach.  He said he had actually asked two other people and they were not able to attend the service.  He said he had never heard me preach.  He also acknowledged that we really don’t know each other all that well, but that we seemed to be of a kindred spirit.   And I think he is right.

            In thinking about Craig, I went back this week through some of my CPE writings.  I found something that I had included in my final evaluation.

            I wrote:           

“What has had the biggest impact on my theology is the understanding/experience of God being in the mess of our lives.  God is there even without a miracle.  God is there even without knowing ‘it will all work out for the best.’  God is there even without being in charge of it all.  God is there without holding all the cards.  God is simply there.  And that is what we are called to.”

Then I included this:

            During a recent Thursday morning group meeting, we listened to a radio interview of Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen (author of “Kitchen Table Wisdom” and “My Grandfather’s Blessings”).  In the discussion that followed, one of the residents (Craig) recast a quote of hers in God-terms: “[God] includes all of our wounds. [God] includes all of our vulnerabilities. [God] is our authentic self…[God] doesn't sit in judgment on our wounds or our vulnerabilities.  [God] simply says, 'This is the way we connect to one another.'

 

            Ours is not to turn away from human pain when we witness it.  It is to turn toward it.  Even when there is nothing we can do, even when there is nothing we can say, it is to remain connected with the people who suffer.  It is to remain, even to weep, as Rachel weeping for her children.

            If there is any good news in this story, it is that Jesus escapes.  Yet neither is he spared.  He does not go on to live a long and contented life.  He does not live out his years, drinking wine under the fig tree, surrounded by grandchildren.  He dies on a cross.  He dies alone, but he does not die without meaning.  He dies for us.  He offers the great heart of his love for us.   So, that we might know that he is Emmanuel, so that we might know, that even in the midst of death, God does not abandon us.  God is with us.