S. Christmas 1.19 “Collateral Damage” Matt. 2:13-23
“Look what You did! I mean, nice of You, God, to send us a Savior cuter than Baby Yoda—we enjoyed Him almost as much as the Mandalorian—and the vacation, presents, travels and all (if only You could commercialize Christmas, mmm… You might have something, there 🙂 but was it worth it? I mean, look at the civilian casualties, the collateral damage! You got Herod all riled up by those Magi searching for a New King (I guess those three should feel pretty bad too—if only they’d followed instructions, waited for the star to guide them and not charged into Herod’s palace, all ‘we don’t need directions, we got this; hey! where’s the new king, baby?’ those holy innocents might have survived. Magicians? Wise men? More like typical men! But really it’s Your fault Mr. God, because You surely saw that coming, could have given better directions). Clearly, getting everyone wound up: ‘Oh, look! A New King, a Savior!’ led directly to the deaths of all those baby boys in Bethlehem and Judea. Why not just kill Herod instead of the kids? Merry Christmas?! Not for Bethlehem’s other baby boys it’s not!
That’s the way the world would see it, I think, if they considered our Gospel for today. Fortunately, not many of them show up for Christmas itself—to say nothing of the Sunday after, to say nothing of doing serious bible reading—that only attracts the hard-core like you all. If the world came to church today, got a load of this Gospel, the massacre of the innocents, they’d really be down on Christmas! The pain, I’m sure the world would judge, is not worth the gain.
But maybe even Christians get squirmy with this Gospel reading? It was a terrible thing, Greg. Nothing worse than little babies brutally murdered right in front of their mommas. And come to think of it, what do we think of this part of the Story, anyway? It takes an awful lot of the holly/jolly out of Christmas doesn’t it?
Someone in our Tuesday morning Bible study (thanks for coming early Christmas Eve, you stalwarts, to help with this sermon—the good parts are yours, the bad all mine) had a great question; he asked: “If the slaughter of the innocent bystanders fulfilled a prophecy from Jeremiah, why are we reading Isaiah for our Old Testament lesson? Wouldn’t Jeremiah help us understand better?” I kind of dismissed the question at the time, because I couldn’t think of a witty rejoinder and figured those Vatican II loving lectionary guys (like Paul Grime) knew what they were about. But, when I did go and do a close read of Jeremiah chapter 31, in the middle of which this prophecy occurs, I realized that was a great question! I think we do have the wrong Old Testament reading for this Gospel. Because the context (context is so important, don’t you agree?) of Jeremiah’s prophecy really does give an answer to the “what does this mean?” question so beloved of Lutherans.
So, detour with me from Bethlehem’s Ground Zero, all the smoke from the soldiers’ flash grenades, the broken in doors, the mothers wailing for the bayonetted babies littering the streets; from Joseph and Mary, heading West with Baby Jesus tucked under their arms, just a few klicks, a couple hills ahead of the soldiers, hurrying to cross the Egyptian border before they’re caught (Joseph’s like Jack Ryan 🙂 meanwhile, the Magi, to the East, are Jedi-mind tricking their way past Syrian border guards: “we are not the magicians you’re looking for. You’re happy to see us and glad to let us go…” much as I’d like to linger there, let’s go back in time 6 centuries to the Jerusalem of Jeremiah…
And…whoa! It’s a savage time here too! Worser, actually! Jerusalem is besieged by the Babylonian army of Nebuchadnezzar. People are starving, turning cannibal, eating babies (at no time in the ancient world is Jerusalem or environs a particularly safe place for cute babies—kinda like “The Mandalorian”). Jeremiah himself has just been tossed into a sewer to drown in the mire. Everybody’s losing their mind. The worst of times and uh, well… the worst of times.
It’s the end of their world as they know it, but Jeremiah feels fine, even in the dungeon, in the sh.… uh, mire. It could be worse, he figures. It could be raining. And this is what Jeremiah says to his Jerusalem, to Joseph’s, to ours: “Don’t worry! It’ll be fine! Jeremiah 31:2ff: ‘The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; there I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself… Then 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.’ Then comes Jeremiah’s prophecy of Rachel weeping for her children refusing to be comforted for they are no more (quoted for us today by Mathew).
And you know what God says to those mourning mothers in Ramah, in Jeremiah’s very next verses? He says: “Don’t cry!” Yes! Here is the Lord’s Word on this: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country.”
Seriously? Yes, seriously. That’s what God says of the massacre of the innocents (though Paul would remind us there are no real innocents or civilians. We’re all combatants in this war, all collaborators with the devil, all terrorists). God says, even so: “don’t worry, don’t fret, don’t let this take the holly or the jolly out of your Christmas. Yes, it’s bad and looks bad. Yes it was rough on those babies and their families. But it’s all going to work out fine if you will just believe and trust in Me…”!
Wow. It’s probably really good this is such a lightly attended Sunday, a little heard Gospel. Maybe Paul Grime did know what he was doing in avoiding the Jeremiah prophecy in favor of Isaiah? Because I’m thinking that answer might not go over well with grieving mommas or woke citizens of the 21st century…
How does it deal with you? A lot to take in, I grant you! But, what if God is right and we’re wrong? What if Christmas is not all about family, after all? What if it’s all about Jesus? What if we are all Stockholm Syndrome hostages brainwashed by our captors, thinking good is evil and evil good?
I mean, it’s an awful lot just to fulfill a prophecy! But what if God can raise the dead? What if no innocents are lost? What if they all come back to their own country—not the savage one, Jeremiah’s, or Herod’s terror state, but the Heavenly One—Aslan’s country, the Undiscovered Country of Christ? What if all the things we worry over so much, here, now: our health, wealth, earthly families are not ultimate at all, but just prologue, just preparing us for the Real Story, the Life of the World to come?
What if the only truly Ultimate, Important Things in this world are the things of God, the Body and Blood, the Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus? What if true Joy is found not in earthly victories but in being damaged ourselves (like Jacob at the Jabbok!) by ever greater things? Well, it is so! Like Gerhardt said “Thy heavenly riches all our loss retrieving” and if we can simply trust this, we too will know Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Jesus. A very, Merry Christmas! Amen.