Worship 12/27/20

Call to Worship/Jeremiah 31:10-17 (NRSV)

10Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”  11For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.  12They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.  13Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.  14I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.  15Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.  16Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; 17there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.

Opening Prayer

Holy God of Love, there is light in our lives because of the abundance of your steadfast love.  A love so vast, so deep, so real, that you became one of us.  May we live within the power of this love.  And may we share its light with a world where too many dwell in darkness.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Matthew 2:13-23 (NRSV)

13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod.  This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“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.”

19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”  21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.  And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Message/Not a Hallmark Moment

Professor Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University once observed that “sentimentality is one of the greatest enemies of understanding the gospel.”  Perhaps there’s no time when we’re more susceptible to this danger than at Christmas with the stories about the birth of Jesus.  What parent hasn’t gushed with pride watching his child play a shepherd in a bathrobe or an angel with a coat hanger halo?  It’s difficult to read words like “they wrapped him in swaddling clothes” and not melt into a puddle of sentimentality.

Our gospel lesson for this morning deprives us of all such Hallmark readings of the Bible.  Matthew yanks us back into the violent political realities when he writes: “during the time of king Herod.”  The story of the pagan magi worshipping Jesus ends abruptly when the jealous Herod slaughters innocent children to solidify his own rule by ridding himself of a potential rival With Christmas carols echoing in our ears, the church annually observes the most unlikely of feast days—”the slaughter of the innocents,” remembering the toddlers of Bethlehem as the first martyrs of the gospel.  By the late fifth century the “slaughter of the innocents” was the subject not only of church liturgy, art, and literature, but also in the larger culture.

One of the carols that is often shared at this time of year, the Coventry Carol, originated in 16th-century England and was part of a group of Medieval plays that told stories from the New Testament Stories, including that of the Nativity.  The Coventry Carol’s haunting words offer a lullaby in remembrance of Herod’s atrocities found in the second chapter of Matthew:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay?”

Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”

What part does this dark episode have to play in the bright and joyous tale of Christmas?  It’s a discordant note, struck in the closing measures of a beautiful melody.  Until now, everything has been sweetness and light.  But then, the fists of Herod’s soldiers are pounding on Bethlehem’s doors.  The mothers of the City of David weep their bitter tears and cradle their lifeless babes in their arms.

At this point Herod is a bitter old man and likely in the final year of his forty-one-year reign – and was more than capable of ordering such atrocities.  You see, Herod was king in name only, installed on the throne as a Roman lackey to do the imperial dirty work, subduing a rebellious colony on behalf of the emperor.  It was a task he performed with relish.  During his reign, Herod had at least nine wives and fourteen children.  There were probably more, but daughters’ births were not always recorded, so we can’t know for sure.  He put one of his wives, Mariamne, on trial for adultery.  The chief witness for the prosecution was Mariamne’s own mother — who, it was said, testified against her daughter only because she feared for her own life.  Herod executed his wife, which led her mother to declare herself queen, charging that Herod was mentally unfit to rule, so Herod put her to death without a trial.

But wait, there’s more.  There were two young sons remaining from Herod’s marriage to Mariamne.  As they grew older, Herod considered them to be threats to his power.  He tried to put them on trial for treason, but Emperor Augustus put a stop to that by ordering the sons and the father to reconcile.  A few years later, however, Herod outmaneuvered the emperor.  He sent a huge financial donation to revive the Olympic Games, something Augustus very much wanted.  In exchange, the emperor allowed Herod to execute his two sons.  Regarding Herod, Augustus would later comment: “I would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”  Given Herod’s observance of Jewish food laws, he would more likely allow a pig to live.

But that’s still not all.  After murdering his wife and his two sons, Herod named his eldest son, Antipater—a child of a different mother—the exclusive heir to the throne.  But Herod never could tolerate a rival.  He grew jealous of his latest crown prince, put him on trial for treason like the others and had him executed.  The emperor was so appalled that he refused to allow any of Herod’s remaining sons to claim the title of king—although three of them would eventually rule as “tetrarchs,” each governing one-third of his father’s realm.

Whereas the pagan magi of the east worshipped the baby Jesus, Herod tried to kill him.  We don’t normally associate the birth of a baby with the demise of political power, but Matthew does.  His political parody is transparent.  And at least we can give credit where it’s due; Herod sensed a threat to his power and took brutal action against it

Matthew contrasts two rival kings who rule not only over one people but over all the world.  One king must give way.  The subplot of king Herod almost overshadows the main plot of the adoration of the magi.  The magi came to worship Jesus, and that’s what they did.  Upon seeing Jesus and Mary, “they bowed down and worshipped Him,” offering him gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. Herod tells his confidants that he too wants to worship Jesus, but that’s a lie. 

After worshiping Jesus, the magi set out to return to their country.  But God warned them in a dream not to return to Herod, who had demanded that they come back with military intelligence, so to speak.  They disobeyed Herod and returned home “by another route.”  When he learned that the magi had tricked him, Herod erupted in a furious rage and murdered all the male children two years old and younger who lived in Bethlehem and its vicinity.

Meanwhile, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus flee to pagan Egypt where they find asylum.  The political ironies in the flight to Egypt are remarkable.  The infant Son of God fled as a displaced refugee to a foreign country, Egypt, Israel’s sworn and symbolic enemy that had oppressed the Hebrews for 430 years.  The place where the Pharaoh had unleashed his own infanticide against the firstborn Israelite children became a refuge for Jesus.

There are, in fact, five Herods in the New Testament, and to a person they all persecuted Jesus and the early church.  In addition to Herod the Great, there is his older son Archelaus born of his wife Malthace (Matthew 2:22), who reigned only a few years and was deposed in 6 AD.  Then there’s Herod’s younger son by Malthace, Herod the tetrarch (Luke 3:19), who is famous for murdering John the Baptist on a dinner party dare because John denounced his affair with his brother’s wife (Mark 6:14–29), and for his encounter with Jesus at his trial (Luke 23:7).  Fourth, there’s Herod King Agrippa (Acts 12:1), the grandson of Herod the Great, who murdered James and attempted to murder Peter (Acts 12:1ff).  Finally, there’s King Agrippa’s son, also named Agrippa, who bantered with Paul amidst great pomp and exclaimed that Paul was trying to convert him (Acts 25:13–26:32).

All these Herods do the opposite of the magi; they work hard to make the subversive kingdom of Jesus subservient to the political power of the state.  But these Herods, whether ancient or modern, are right about one thing; if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is decidedly not!  In a reflection on this text, Lutheran pastor Pam Fickenscher observes: “You could make a good argument that we should save this story for another day—Lent, maybe, or some late-night adults-only occasion.  But our songs of peace and public displays of charity have not erased the headlines of child poverty, gun violence, and even genocide. This is a brutal world.  Today the victims are statistically less likely to be Jewish and more likely to be from Darfur, or Syria, or Venezuela, but the sounds of Rachel weeping for her children are not uncommon.  If we could hear them, they would drown out our cheerful, tinny carols every 20 seconds or so.”

But there is another memory Matthew wishes to stir up here, though, one with hope.  Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15, which called to mind the matriarch Rachel as the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and marched families off into exile.  Rachel’s weeping occupies a key turning point in Jeremiah when the prophet shifts from declaring God’s judgment to promises of hope. “Keep your voice from weeping . . . there is hope for your future . . . your children shall come back.”

Why Rachel?  The ancient rabbis tell a story of God’s response to this pivotal tragedy in Judah’s history.  Jeremiah, they say, called up Moses from his grave, who in turn called the patriarchs to bear witness as the exiles left for Babylon.  Each of them responds with indignation.  “Lord of the world,” Isaac cries out, “I did not protest but willingly let myself be bound on the altar and even stretched out my neck beneath the knife.  Will you not remember this on my behalf and have mercy on my children?”  God is not moved, not by Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or Moses himself, until finally Rachel stands before God, and her words alone turn the tide.  Although Rachel is a biological ancestor for only two of the original twelve tribes, she is recognized in Jeremiah as mother of all, and even God must respond to her insistent plea for mercy.  Fairness has nothing to do with it; it is the promise of one parent to another: your children will come back.

Matthew, in turn, invokes Rachel during this story of God-with-us, the birth of a child whose name is a verb: save.  God’s salvation may seem far off and seemingly inadequate to the mothers who mourn, but the promise is deeper than this moment in time.  The threat of this Herod passes for a time.  But when this child of Rachel returns to Jerusalem as an adult, God enters the fate of every doomed child and every bereft parent.

The birth of the baby Jesus, then, is the antidote to all sentimentality and every form of cheap comfort.  Rather, the events surrounding his birth remind us how the savior of the world “shared in our humanity” and was “made like us in every respect.”  Because he himself suffered our every pain and sorrow, beginning from an infanticide at his birth and lasting to his death as a criminal, “he is able to help those who suffer.” 

For Christians, the birth of Christ can and must remind us that there can be no cheap comfort for those who mourn their children.  Christmas pageants and pious carols do little to stop the devastation of those who have lost a child.  Toys for Tots and even our best legislation for child health don’t seem to make that big of a dent either.  Only something deeper, God’s entering into this world of sorrows, will accomplish the depth of healing, the salvation we need.

Affirmation of Faith for Christmas

We believe in God, the creator and giver of life, who brought all creation to birth, who mothers us and fathers us, protecting, nurturing, and cherishing.

We believe in Jesus Christ: God born among us as a fragile baby, embodying both love and the need for love, and calling us to rest in God as trustingly as a tiny child.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, breathed into us at our birth, always drawing us on to be born again, encouraging, challenging, comforting, nourishing our growth, and inspiring our living.

We believe in the reconciliation of the world to God, through Christ.

Hunted at birth and humiliated at death, Christ entered our fearful darkness so that we might enter his glorious light and share the life of his resurrection.

And we believe that each new child is a glimpse of the face of God, a sign of the life to come, and a call to live in peace and celebrate our lives together.

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.  Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious Lord, we dream of a world free of poverty and oppression, and we yearn for a world free of vengeance and violence.   We pray for your peace.

When our hearts ache for the victims of war and subjugation, help us to remember that you healed people simply by touching them.  Give us the empathy to reach out our hands and hearts to comfort and heal bodies and minds and spirits that have been broken by violence.

When the injustice of this world seems too much for us to handle, help us to remember that you fed five thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish…and twelve baskets leftover!  Give us hope that what we have to offer will turn out to be enough, too.

When fear of the power and opinions of others tempts us to refrain from our prophetic calling to speak up for the most vulnerable among us, help us to remember that you dared to turn over the tables of money changers.  Give us the courage to risk following you without counting the cost.

When we feel ourselves fill with anger at those who are violent and oppressive,
help us remember that you prayed for those who killed you.  Give us compassion for our enemies, too.

When we tell ourselves that we have given all we can to bring peace to this world,
help us to remember your sacrificial love and help us to emulate your self-giving that we might give more of ourselves in serving you and our neighbors.

Walk with us, Lord, as we answer your call to be peacemakers.  Increase our compassion, our generosity, and our hospitality for the least of your children.  Give us the courage, the patience, the serenity, the honesty of self, and the gentleness of spirit that are needed in a world filled with turmoil and terror.

We offer you our prayers, O God, in the name of the One who taught us these bold words:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Benediction

Go now and give praise for all the Lord has done.
Put your trust in Christ; weep over the world’s grief and suffering,
and with Christ, offer yourselves to God for the healing of the world.

And may God give you strength and glory;
May Christ Jesus be proud to call you his brothers and sisters;
And may the Holy Spirit lift you up and carry you onward.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.