Monday, December 30, 2013

The Dark Side of Christmas (Matthew 2:13-23)

     Paul Harvey used to have a popular radio show in which he would tell “the rest of the story.”    This morning I would like to tell you the rest of the story about Christmas . . . the part of the story no one really likes telling or hearing.  It is a story that begins long before that first Christmas . . . it is a story that begins with Jacob and his wives. 

     If you remember Jacob and how he fell in love with Rachel . . . how he agreed to work for seven years for the privilege of having her hand in marriage from her father and was tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah, and then working another seven years to finally marry Rachel.  Rachel was the love of his life, but she had a difficult time conceiving, while on the other hand, all of his other wives had no trouble.  Eventually she gave birth to two sons—Joseph and Benjamin . . . dying during his birth—according to Jewish tradition she was 36 years old at the time of her death.  Of the four wives, she is the only one not buried burial cave of the family . . . instead she was buried on the way to Bethlehem.

     According to the Jewish legend, Rachel was not buried in the cave because Jacob had prophetically foresaw that the Jews would pass by her burial place as they were being exiled to Babylon.  As the legend continues its story, as the captives passed by, Rachel would tearfully plead to God on their behalf: “Will you cause my children to be exiled on this account?”    The prophet Jeremiah, who foretold this terrible saga in the history of the Jewish people . . . who foretold the destruction of the Temple and the eventual exile to Babylon, might have alluded to this legend when he prophesied: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

     In the Old Testament whenever God made a covenant between an individual and God’s self, God would mark the covenant with a name change for the individual.  Thus God fulfilled the promise of a great nation to both Abraham and Jacob through the sons of Jacob.  Remember what name God gave to Jacob?  Israel.  For those of you who enjoy biblical genealogy, Jacob had twelve sons . .. of which two of them were Joseph and Benjamin . . . these sons become the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel . . . they are a homeless people, refugees in a strange land, when God calls them out of exile in Egypt to claim their own land . . . which they eventually do and the land is named Israel.  All this taking place long after the death of Rachel, but the thread is woven through the story . . . generations later, she would weep for her children . . . the children of Israel . . . as they are hauled off to captivity in Babylon.

     Which brings us to that reference once again in the Christmas story.  A part of the Christmas story that we did not hear on Christmas Eve was the part about the Magi . . . or what we commonly call the story of the three wise men or three kings.  These were those foreigners who had stopped by the palace of Herod to inquire about the birth of the new king of the Jews.  Surprised by their inquiry, Herod is a little perplexed because he was the king of the Jews . . . in his mind he is wondering if this was the signal that he reign as the king was soon to be over . . . but, nonetheless, he helped the Magi . . . gave them directions . . . and then, explicitly told them to come back, tell him where this newborn king was, and then he would go and pay homage to the child.  What we all know is that Herod had no plans to pay homage to the newborn king . . . he planned on killing his competition.

     As the story goes, the Magi were informed by heavenly messengers not to go back and tell Herod anything.  Joseph was also told by heavenly messengers that he was to take his little family and hightail it to Egypt . . . Herod was going to kill the child.  And, everyone does as they are told.  The Magi head back to their own homelands, they avoid going back to see Herod . . . Joseph takes his family to Egypt . . . and, well Herod, is a little peeved when he learns that no one did what he told them to do.  Angry he figures the only way to solve the problem is to kill all the male children, two years and younger, in Bethlehem and its vicinity . . . to massacre the children.

     The writer of Matthew’s Gospel then proclaims that the prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

     Light casts shadows, and the light of God’s gracious gift of Christmas casts shadows upon the story as we know it.  It is in the shadows that the darkness lurks . . . it is in the darkness that bad things seem to happen . . . and, so it is with the Christmas story.  As we are reveling in the great joy of the Christmas story . . . the birth of a Savior, there are plots being conceived to kill the child . . . families are exiled to foreign lands . . . children are massacred . . . and, even when the threat is gone, fear still clings to the situation making the young family return—not to their homeland of Bethlehem, but instead to another district . . . the district of Galilee where they make their new home in the town of Nazareth.

     The truth about the rest of the story about Christmas is that it has a dark side . . . a dark side that we usually ignore or hurriedly skip over.  That seems to be a part of human nature . . . we do not gather to hear stories of death and suffering . . . no, we gather to hear the good stuff . . . the nice stuff.  But, remember, light casts shadow . . . even the light that breaks forth for all the world to see in the story of Christmas.  Life nor faith is as easy as it is often portrayed . . . it is not all black and white . . . there are always areas of gray as we journey the spectrum of life and faith.  Innocents die . . . people are exiled . . . plots are sprung . . . and, there is lamenting for the children.

     No one wants to throw cold water on the celebration of Christmas, but we would do well to heed the words of the past as they are shared in our reading this morning . . . the past of that first Christmas . . . the past of God’s story in the history of faith.  There is a dark side that must be considered, and maybe, just maybe, this is the gospel writer’s way of forewarning us and future readers that the joy of the Christmas story is shadowed by hard times yet to come.  The cross is still to come . . .

     . . . and there is hope.  There is hope despite the darkness of the story.  With perfect 20/20 vision we know how the story ends . . . we know of the triumph over the cross . . . we know of the fulfilled promises . . . and, we have hope.  Life and faith are adventures in which we never quite know exactly how we will get to the destination, but we know what and where that destination is.  We need to acknowledge that there will be days in which we will walk in the sunshine, and days when the gray clouds block out the light and darkness seems to be our constant companion.  Yet, there is hope . . . hope because we know the promise . . . we know the gift . . . we are not alone.  Immanuel . . . God with us!  God is with us, even as we pause in the darkness of the Christmas story . . . even as we encounter the darkness of life and faith . . . God is with us!  Amen!

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