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For Her Children Are No More

Preacher: 
Rev. John M. Edgerton
Date: 
Dec 29 2013
Scripture: 

Transcript

In the days of Jesus’ birth, the man who ruled Israel was called “King Herod”, though he was no true king. In truth, Herod was a puppet of Rome. He had been put in power by the emperor of Rome and so he had to keep the emperor happy, lest he be stripped of his title. What’s more, the people of Israel did not accept Herod as a true king. They were not in open revolt but neither were they loyal to him.

Opposition from within, masters to appease abroad—heavy is the head that wears a golden crown—then came the very last thing that Herod needed. Some foreigners had shown up talking about portents in the stars, about a child who had been born king of the Jews in Bethlehem.

Herod wanted to put an end to any speculation that there was some kind of new king of Israel. So Herod decided he would kill the child and smother the threat in its cradle. But Herod had a problem: which was the right child? The foreigners who had first brought word to Herod were nowhere to be found. They were supposed to lead Herod to the child but they had disappeared completely, and there were many children in Bethlehem. So Herod sent armed men to Bethlehem—not soldiers but killers—who would not hesitate to rip a child from their mother’s arms. The only protectors that Jesus had were Mary and her husband Joseph. Mary would still be healing from childbirth and Joseph? He was no soldier. He was a carpenter. He had forgotten more about woodwork than he would ever know about swordplay. Death was marching toward Bethlehem, the young life of Jesus was about to be snuffed out.

But then, in the night, Joseph had a dream in which an angel appeared and warned him to flee the country because people were coming to kill the child Jesus. He awoke from the dream, took the child and his mother Mary, and fled into the night with whatever they could carry.

When the killers came to Bethlehem, they burst in to house after house after house, and these men without mercy meted out death in the service of King Herod’s fear. Yes, there was one house they found abandoned, pantry ransacked, with much of value left behind, but all in all they had accomplished what they set out to do. They brought word back to bloody Herod, they had killed all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two.

This is a story often called the slaughter of the innocents—and it is a terrible story. Why would God have allowed this to happen? An angel warned Joseph of what was coming, true, but that did not help the rest of Bethlehem. Why did God not similarly warn all of Bethlehem, so that Herod’s wrath would fall impotent upon a ghost town? Or why did God not soften Herod’s heart and turn him away from such a damnable act? Or why did God not strike Herod dead by a bolt of lightning? Why would God have allowed the deaths of so many innocent children? What is in service of some grand cosmic blood soaked plan? The Bible does not offer any easy answers, or neat explanations, in fact the last word the Bible offers about on the slaughter of the innocents is this:

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 Bible does not offer easy answers, so I will similarly try to avoid easy answers. But I will tell a story.

Five years ago, I was working as a hospital chaplain in Chicago. I was working an overnight shift and it was about one o’clock in the morning. A patient had requested a chaplain visit in the middle of the night but when I arrived in his room, he was still not back from whatever test or procedure had so concerned him. So I sat in the waiting room and waited.

Now, understand that a hospital waiting room at 1 in the morning is perhaps one of the most desolate places I can imagine. The TVs are all off, the magazines put away, newspapers long since recycled. There was not another soul anywhere wandering the halls, and the unceasing fluorescent lights of the hospital set against the night’s darkness transformed the floor to ceiling windows into a wall of mirrors so it appeared there was another identical lonely hospital just on the other side of the glass.

Half an hour passed of this waiting, forty five minutes, an hour. So out of sheer boredom I began to flip through the only reading material I had, a handbook that was issued to us as chaplains. I read through the maps and emergency procedures, through J-COM quiz cheat-sheets and telephone extensions, I cast a critical eye on the artfulness of a communion service, and then I stopped. There was a brief liturgy for baptism printed in English and Spanish on facing pages. I had taken Spanish in high-school and though it was rusty I could read what it said, helped along by English on the facing pace. Pronunciation was a different matter as I found my tongue was hesitant at first to switch into the cadences of another language. But I had time on my hands, so I practiced reading Spanish Baptism liturgy out loud, over and over again until I felt like it sounded as good as it was going to get, being squeezed as it was through my Midwesterner’s accent. It helped pass the time anyway. Then the patient I had been waiting for finally returned and we talked, and prayed, and he slept, and I went on my way.

Then it was 5 am, and I was being paged to the 6th floor: labor and delivery. When a chaplain is called to labor and delivery, it does not portend anything good. Quick steps and a few extra unnecessary pushes on the elevator buttons found me standing and speaking with a doctor. His age and the length of his white coat told me he was the attending physician, as did the flat staccato of his voice that doctors sometimes fall into when they are speaking to only hospital staff. Four week old male, born 26 weeks, medical interventions removed, family has requested baptism, “oh, and they don’t speak any English” and then he was off.

The parents were young, very young, though the father was trying to look a bit older with a dark mustache. Their clothes were deeply wrinkled as if they’d been sleeping in them, and from the look of their eyes they had both been crying. The boy was small, and his breathing fast and shallow. And his skin was brown and translucent and soft. I reached back in my mind for nouns, verbs, anything that would allow me to ask simple questions, and I spoke with all the grace of a wobbly bicycle. I would have been embarrassed had not such concerns been vastly meaningless in such a moment.

Habla Espanol?

Si.

Quieres bautismo?

Si.

Que es el nombre?

Mateo.

I turned to the Spanish baptism liturgy, the one I had been practicing just hours before and began to read. And then words flowed smoothly, confidently, the words of eternal life spoken as they have been generation after generation. The water flowed across his skin, dampened the filaments of his hair, ran down his softly heaving chest, soaked into the bed sheets. We stood together: father, mother, child, stranger, word, water, and God as witness in the midst of us.

When I think of that night in the hospital, my mind spins in circles. I do not pretend to understand how God works in the world. My question is simple: why? Why had I been practicing Spanish language baptism liturgy for the very first time ever on that very night, just hours before? Any supernatural explanation falls flat in the face of the fact that this child died shortly afterwards. Any supernatural explanation is completely unacceptable to me, because why would God see to it that the child’s baptism would go smoothly, but that the medical interventions would not? I do not understand and there are no easy answers.

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 story that we read today from the gospel of Matthew, the slaughter of the innocents, it matters so much. It matters not because the story of bloody king Herod and the massacre of the innocents is uplifting—quite the opposite—it matters because it is true. A terrible and preventable tragedy strikes without warning and the question streaks in as unstoppable as lighting: Why? Why would God allow this to happen?

And though this question is one that so readily leaps into my mind, it is not a question that the gospels answer. If anything, the gospels make it far more mysterious why God does anything that God does. Because as mysterious as it seems to me, the gospels begin with the idea that God does not sit in Heaven above orchestrating the world like a puppet master. That is not what God is like. In fact the very heart of the mystery of Christmas is that God would give up control, God would give up power, God would become weak instead of almighty. That is not what I would choose to do were I God. If I were the Lord of Hosts, commander of angel armies, I would not choose to be born as an infant. Were I immortal, I would not choose to become flesh and blood, weak and helpless, poor and vulnerable.

Christ is born on Christmas and no more is God separated from the pain of the world by the impenetrable dome of heaven. Christ is born on Christmas and no more can God rely on angel armies for protection, there is only Joseph and his dreams that keep them a step ahead of killers. Christ is born on Christmas and no more is God the font of life by which all the world is nourished, instead there is only Mary and her mother’s milk that can keep God Almighty from wasting away and perishing of hunger. Christmas is a celebration of a God I do not understand: a God who gives up control and wades into the mess and violence and uncertainty of the world, simply to be with us. Christmas is a celebration of the God suffered alongside us, and experienced all of what it means to be a human.

It is a strange thing to think this way. It feels almost blasphemous to talk about God as being helpless and subject to pain and death. But indeed that is one of the names by which we call the Lord Jesus, we call Him Emmanuel—God with us. The world is full of pain, and tragedy, and I do not understand why God allows these things to happen. There are no easy answers, and I will not try to give them. I do not understand God. But at Christmas we see revealed something else, an answer to a question I did not know to ask. I do not understand what it means to be God, but God understands what it means to be human.