This past week we have been bombarded with images of grief and mourning as our nation begins to process the shock of repeated acts of senseless violence. Our community experienced shock as a man opened fire in the mall, this was compounded by the additional shock of the slaughter of children in Connecticut, one year ago this church lost its pastor Kevin Gilbert, and some of you are experiencing your first Christmas without someone. Sometimes, as the people of Ramah in our scripture today, we weep because of those who are no more.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
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.”
The more I read this story, the more I see parallels between the wise men and the computer nerds I am friends with. They are super intelligent and can figure out what is going to happen and when, but their people skills and political understanding is lacking at best. These star watchers spent a lot of time with their charts and prophecies, staying up late to track the movements of the stars and planets. These men could not have conceived of the lengths to which someone like Herod would go when told that someone had come to supplant him. To be fair, I am not sure any of us could conceive of that kind of evil in another person. And yet we get reminders of the evil that lurks within. When people commit acts of completely senseless violence, we begin to ask hard questions. Our nation is groping for answers to the question of where God was during the events that took place at Sandy Hook, and I am sure that some of you are as well. While there is nothing that can be said to assuage our grief, I can say that God was present in that school. I will not pretend to know why God did not intervene, but I know God was there. God’s presence is not something that can be legislated against or hid from. Beyond that I know that God mourns with all of us as we try to process what happened. I know this because of what we are going to celebrate this week, God incarnated into human life experiencing the hopes, fears, trials, and eventually a brutal death at the hands of the Romans instigated by the very people God was born into. God knows the pain of betrayal, and the pain that we inflict on each other on a daily basis. God chose to be killed in order to begin a process of redemption and transformation. Jesus died to initiate the new covenant of peace; he rose again to initiate our transformation. I will be honest here and say that I believe that God will redeem this horrible tragedy. I have no idea how, but God’s redeeming work through Jesus will have an effect on the outcomes. We see once again how humanity has made this world a hard place, but as we participate in God’s redeeming work we can help soften the hardness.
Getting back to Jesus’ hard situation, the wise men were wealthy and their gifts provided for Jesus’ family as they fled to become political refugees in Egypt. For two years, they lived off of what the wise men brought and whatever Joseph could earn. They returned to Israel when Herod died, but still avoided the area that Herod’s son ruled. I sometimes wonder what Mary and Joseph might have felt when they heard about what happened to the children in the area. Did they feel a sense of guilt, grief, relief, or maybe some mixture of them all? Maybe there was more than fear of Herod to contend with, maybe they couldn’t bear to face their old neighbors. We often forget just how much turmoil the survivors of tragedies experience. Survivors often wonder why they or their loved ones lived when others didn’t. I heard an interview with a police officer in Connecticut and he described how the officers that were n duty kept trying to figure out what would have happened if they took this turn instead of that and got there 30 seconds earlier. Jesus got to see his parents struggle with knowing that the people they had been living among suffered the loss of their children because they were there. Jesus eventually learned that those children were killed by a crazy dictator because of him. I wonder if Jesus ever felt a sense of loss or guilt about those children who were slaughtered merely because he had been born in the same area. When God chose to experience our lives he truly chose to experience the hardest parts. We can truly tell our friends and neighbors that our Jesus has experienced the same sorrows and trials that we are going through now, and is ready to help us through them. Jesus is ready to help our friends and neighbors walk through these things, are we?
Like the Wise Men we all have gifts to bear to help our neighbors and friends through tough times. Some of us have the gift of bringing the comforting myrrh of mourning, being present and working alongside those who mourn. This gift is not in providing answers to impossible questions, but in loving service; service that affirms their value and dignity while truthfully admitting the sorrow of the situation. Some of us have the intercessory gift of frankincense bearing the trials and grief of our neighbors into the presence of God. Frankincense is what has been burned as prayer offerings in that part of the world for over 3000 years. Those with this gift know that bringing people into God’s presence is what brings healing. When we carry those that can’t face God and tenderly hold them in God’s love through prayer we open doors for redemption and healing. Others of us have the gift of gold, bringing resources to bear that help people make it through tough times. These resources are more than monetary, but are the skills and talents that we can use to make someone who is deeply grieved have a bit more space to make it through another day. Each of these gifts is important, but when we bring these three gifts of service, prayer, and generosity together we can begin to confront the darkness and be agents of God’s redemption.
We have had stark reminders of how much humanity needs a savior, about how desperately we need the peace of Jesus to come into our hearts and lives. This Christmas take the time to welcome Jesus, for he has come to bind up your wounds, heal you, mourn with you, rejoice with you and give you his peace that passes all understanding. Friends, don’t only welcome him though, carry him with you and seek his counsel wherever you go and whatever you do. Hold him up in your life so that others might see him in you and that you might carry his peace to others who so desperately need it. Christ has come and Christ is here, ready to guide you in his way of being and doing what is right. He will redeem the suffering of this world, and as we follow that lead others can experience redemption through the Christ we carry within us.