Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is a complicated human story that is still tragically relevant in our context. The incarnated God is, and always has been, deeply present in the broken places of our world, and God grieves with us every instance of violence and suffering.
Vicar Bristol Reading
First Sunday of Christmas, Year A
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
Matthew’s Gospel is missing all the familiar, sentimental elements of the Christmas story. In Matthew’s narrative about Jesus’ birth, there are no cattle lowing at the manger-side, no surprised shepherds cuddling their sheep, no glorious angels singing alleluia.
Instead there’s a family of scared refugees and a man driven mad by power.
That man was Herod, a Roman-appointed ruler of Judea, the region where Jesus was born. Herod feared the loss of his authority so much that he was willing to do anything in order to eliminate potential rivals. He’d been told there was a new “king,” born in Bethlehem. But, deceived by the visiting magi, he was unable to clearly identify the newborn Messiah, so Herod ordered the execution of all male babies in Bethlehem who were near Jesus’ age. This may have meant the death of some twenty children, an unnecessary and horrifying tragedy.
The holy family, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, were warned by God of this coming violence, and fled in the night. They ended up in Egypt, of all places, the land where their ancestors had once been enslaved. And they lived there for a few years, until Herod’s death allowed them to return to their homeland. Even then, it wasn’t safe for them to go back to Judea, so they settled in Galilee, a few days’ travel north.
This is the Christmas story in Matthew: a tyrannical ruler, a traumatized community, and a displaced family. Like so many stories in the Bible, it’s a sad and scary story, and it’s a really human story.
From the perspective of the people experiencing all this, it must have been hard to see the bigger picture, to understand how all of their lives were intertwined, to understand why this was the way God’s salvation came into the world.
Mary and Joseph were just starting figure out how to be a family together, when they were called to follow God’s lead into the unknown. Their fates were caught up with the decisions of the Magi, those foreign strangers who decided to defy Herod, at great risk to themselves, in order to protect the holy family. Jesus did survive Herod’s wrath, but many in the Bethlehem community did not. So the fate of those grieving families, too, was caught up in the events of Jesus’ birth.
And the Gospel writer makes it clear that all of these people were part of the longer arc of Israel’s history. In Matthew’s account, we hear echoes of Rachel, the great Matriarch from whom Jesus is descended, and of Pharaoh and Moses. We hear the voices of the Hebrew prophets who longed for the peace and justice a Messiah would bring – a Messiah who has at last been born in Bethlehem.
Matthew evokes these sacred stories, then weaves them together with the narrative of these first century people. The result is a tangle of human stories and relationships.
And at the center of this complicated mess is God, born as a tiny, vulnerable baby, the light in all the darkness. Jesus, God incarnate, is caught up in all this humanness.
From his birth, Jesus’ life is under threat. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Jesus’ human existence is marked by suffering, rejection, and violence, start to finish. This is not a savior who shrinks away from the gritty realities of what it means to be human. Christ will embody divine love as a human person. Throughout his ministry Jesus will be a presence of healing, mercy, and compassion among the people he encounters. He will declare that all people, even enemies, are worthy of love.
That commitment to love will eventually get him killed. Although Jesus escapes death as an infant, he accepts death as an adult. He goes to the cross out of love for all creation, and even as he faces death, his words and actions speak forgiveness in response to violence.
God is in the midst of the whole story of human history, not as the cause of suffering but as one who suffers. This means that you don’t have to wonder whether or not the Creator of the universe understands or cares about your suffering because God has suffered – for you and with you. None of the violence in this human story is God’s intention. God’s dream for creation is one of peace; Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.
Perhaps the hardest part about Matthew’s Christmas narrative is how timeless it is. The horrors of this ancient story are painfully familiar to all chapters of history: tyrannical leaders imposing violent rule on poor people, families becoming refugees to protect their children’s future, the senseless death of innocent people. We know these stories in our time, too.
We are closing out a decade during which authoritarian leaders across the world stage enacted oppressive policies, millions of people became refugees fleeing from violence, and, in our own nation, hundreds of children were shot in their own schools.
Our wailing and lamentation joins that of Rachel, just as the tears of the Bethlehem community did following Herod’s actions. We grieve every instance of suffering, displacement, and violence.
And we know that God grieves them, too. If our hearts break for these things, we can only imagine how much more God’s heart breaks. God doesn’t look away from the cruelties of our world, but comes to be with us in the most broken of places, and to overcome the greatest darkness with the light of love.
When Matthew says that Rachel is weeping for the children she has lost, he is quoting from the book of Jeremiah. And in the book of Jeremiah, Rachel’s cries do not go unanswered: God hears her and God responds with a word of comfort. “There is hope for your future,” says the Lord (Jeremiah 31:17).
There is hope. God’s reminder is that the grief is not the end of the story: there is a future. When the night seems impossibly dark, there is a dawn of tomorrow yet to come. That doesn’t mean there isn’t incredible pain today; it means that, through God, there is hope to hold on to, always. Loss and death are not the end: that truth is part of the incarnation story, too, because resurrection is part of the incarnation story.
The “why” questions of human suffering, loss, and injustice are still with us, as they have been for generations and generations.
All our human stories – past, present, and future – are tangled up with one another, in ways beyond what we can see from our perspective. And as we see in the incarnated Christ, God is not distant from any of it, but deeply present in all of it.
God’s presence is not an answer to all your questions; God’s presence is a constant in the midst of your questioning. In all the complexities and tragedies of the human story, God is there. Matthew’s story begins with Emmanuel, God become human to be with us, and the Gospel ends with these words, spoken by Jesus: “Remember, I am with you always…”