Sunday, December 30, 2007

Rachel is weeping

When I began my preparations for preaching today: I thought “I have nothing more to say…..
Last week I preached three times on Sunday, twice on Monday, and again on Tuesday. I have said all that I am going to say about Christmas”.

Then I took a look at the New Testament passage set for today (Matthew 2: 13-23) and the more I read, and researched, and prayed – the more I discovered there was to learn. I thought that Herod killed all the babies in Bethlehem. I have always thought that this was a terrible way for God’s “Jesus project” to begin.

I have now discovered that there was no massacre – and that Matthew’s opening story is brilliant allegory, intended to introduce the purpose of Jesus’ coming. So here is the sermon I preached this morning: I have learned some new things: and will try to pass them on to you. Some of this is technical – please bear with me. Some of this might be new to you: it was new to me too. But all of this is good news: news that can help us as we prepare for 2008.

Today I have used two passages from scripture that use the same words: Jeremiah 31: 15-25 and Matthew 2: 13-23.

A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, because they are not

These words are first used by the prophet Jeremiah to speak of the children who were carried off into exile. Then Matthew picks up the words of Jeremiah and uses them again: this time to speak about the birth of Jesus. This is a difficult verse, because if taken literally - Matthew seems to suggest that Jeremiah has predicted that Herod would kill the children of Bethlehem. However:
• Archeologists have dug up the graves of Bethlehem, and cannot find a grave full of babies.
• And the Roman historian Josephus, who hated Herod and recorded all his atrocities in great detail, says nothing about this event. So what is going on here?

This is one of those moments when we discover that we are reading a document that is written within a completely different culture, using a completely different philosophy of history and education.
Here is a moment when Matthew tries to teach us something about the reason why Jesus came. And he uses a story telling method called allegory: he tells one story that points to another story.
Matthew tells a story of a king who kills all the male babies – but one is spared who becomes the leader who helps the people escape, and who helps them establish a covenant relationship with God.
While you and I hear this as King Herod and Jesus – Matthew is actually pointing to another story…..

Any clues?
A king who killed the boy babies?
A baby who escapes by hiding in the bull rushes?
And people who are saved?
People who enter a covenant with God?

Matthew uses allegory to say: Jesus is the new Moses.
Just as Moses brought the first Covenant – so Jesus comes to bring a New Covenant.

Matthew tells us that the story of Jesus begins just like many other stories in the Bible: with a mother weeping over her child’s safety.
This is a verse of great pain:
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

This is one of the great themes that runs throughout the Bible:
Rachael is the wife of Jacob – the grandson of Abraham.
She dies in childbirth: giving birth to Benjamin.
And so a mother dies weeping, because she has lost the opportunity to raise her child.

Then the descendents of Rachael weep: this time it is Pharaoh who decides to kill the baby boys of the Egyptian slaves. You will remember that Moses was hidden in the reeds to escape death: but many more did not escape. And their mothers wept.

Again, in the time of Jeremiah, the descendents of Rachael weep when the children of Israel are conquered and taken off as captives. More mothers are in tears because their children are carried off – and they will not see them again.

And now Matthew tells us that mothers are weeping in Bethlehem because Herod seeks to kill any baby boy who would be a threat to his throne.
And Mary weeps as she flees in the night to escape Herod’s soldiers.
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

This is truly the terrible story of human history:
Mothers weep for lost children:
This is a history that goes beyond the Bible… and into the modern era:
this is a history of mothers weeping in
Nazi Germany
And Rwanda
And Northern Ireland
And Palestine
And Iraq
And Zimbabwe
And our own beloved South Africa:
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

Mothers weep
• because their children are abused, and raped, and killed.
• because their children run away, and go missing, and are abducted.
• because their children get HIV/Aids, and TB and Malaria.
• because their children are hurt, and disabled, and
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

And perhaps there are some of us today who weep because our children have got lost:
• We might have lost the close relationship we wished to have with them
• We might have experienced the loss of the dreams we had for our children
• We might have lost children through drugs,
or through distance
or through death
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

and maybe some of us are grieving the loss of our own inner child:
• we lost the dreams of our childhood
• we have lost our capacity for wonder and curiosity in life
• and we have killed our childlike innocence
Rachael weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted

But Matthew says that there is good news: we do not have to weep forever.
He asks us to go to the words of the prophet Jeremiah: When the writers of the New Testament quote from the Old Testament they do not just refer to a single verse. They might quote a single verse, but the quotation is intended to point to an entire Old Testament passage. Therefore, when Matthew quotes Jeremiah about Rachel weeping in Ramah, he also has in mind the verses that follow
Jer 31:16 Stop your crying and wipe away your tears. All that you have done for your children will not go unrewarded; they will return from the enemy's land.
Jer 31:17 There is hope for your future; your children will come back home. I, the LORD, have spoken

Those who weep for their children’s future: the time has come to trust God. “Stop your crying and wipe away your tears”
And I hear a word for us today: Let us stop acting like God has no say in South Africa, or in our world. God’s prophet says: “There is hope for your future”

And for those who are afraid of the damage done in your life by the passing of the years:
Those who think that it is too late for new beginnings:
Those who say - “so gemaak, so gelaat staan”
Jer 31:31 The LORD says, "The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
Jer 31:32 It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. Although I was like a husband to them, they did not keep that covenant.
Jer 31:33 The new covenant that I will make with the people of Israel will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Jer 31:34 None of them will have to teach a neighbor to know the LORD, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs. I, the LORD, have spoken."

Those who weep because you are afraid of what you have lost: the time is here to renew your relationship with God.
This is the time to make New Year’s resolutions;
To dream new dreams
To dare to try to be a new person

I am pleading with you to resist the temptation to be cynical:
Dare to believe that God has forgiven all your sins:
And that you can have a new Covenant with God.


bugs said...

Psalms 91:15b says it best:"when they are in trouble, I will be with them".

We weep, but not without hope.

Gus said...

Thanks Pete,

I was also finished this week - I really like the way you handled the text.

I must say I felt a bit betrayed by Matthew (and my teachers in the past) as I thought of what I've been taught about this passage in the past - and tried to reconcile Matthew's use of the Old Testament with the ways that I have been taught to read it and interpret it. Either Matthew was squeezing something out of the OT that wasn't there - ie. the bit about the Nazarene? Or I (and those who taught me in the past got something horribly wrong.)

As I thought about it - Herod's actions made a bit of sense (in terms of his modus operandi) - he was a killer of a King, killing his own children in order to remain in power etc... Bethlehem was a bit of a backwater - maybe the killing of probably about 10-20 children would have gone unnoticed? It would be an horrible act of oppression - in the interest of Herod who had no ancestral claim to the throne to destroy the family of David (in Bethlehem).

Anyways I figured that Matthew shoe horned the prophecies from the Old Testament because of what happened in Bethlehem around the time of Jesus birth.

At about 1am on Sunday morning I finished my sermon and slopped and slurred my way through it at 9am... ugh.

I hope next week will be better. (Sorry for taking up all your comment space.)

The research and the reading intrigued me, I like your reading though... it seems true.

God Bless, and Happy New Year!

Unknown said...

Hi Pete, Thank you for the sermon - cannot agree more. We live in a lost and broken world in need of our Lord Jesus. I believe in 2008 we will indeed see what Joh 5:25says: "It's urgent that you get this right: The time has arrived--I mean right now!--when dead men and women will hear the voice of the Son of God and, hearing, will come alive. Be blessed my brother.