There is a darkness coming. Though the astrologers are guided by an unknown star to worship an unknown King, even they know the danger they are in. They do not return to Herod to tell him where the Christ Child is, for they were warned in a dream from the Lord to flee. Joseph is also warned to flee with the child to Egypt. Because there is a clash coming. A darkness is rising. Tyranny is about to tear through the little town of Bethlehem. This Christmas pageant is about to turn into a funeral procession. For a clash is coming, between a man who thinks he is the “King of the Jews” and a child, a messiah, God Incarnate, who actually is the King of Jews, and Lord of All.
There is no historical record outside of the New Testament that this slaughter of the innocent in Bethlehem took place. This is not surprising. Records were spotty in the ancient world, and Bethlehem was a small town, so most scholars think that Herod probably executed 20-30 children. A tragedy yes, but because of its relatively small size not one that would be easily remembered by history. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Judging by Herod the “Great’s” reputation it is more than likely that it did happen. Herod was not a particularly nice guy. He was sort of the black sheep of the family. Except this black sheep was crowned by the Roman Senate in 40bc as “King of the Jews”, and given a Roman Army to keep the Jews in line. He did this with an Iron Fist. Herod was paranoid about keeping his power, because he knew at its heart his power was illegitimate. Not even his family was immune from his violence. Herod had his brother in law drowned when he was only 18. He also executed his second wife, and her three sons, because he suspected them of plotting to overthrow him. In 7 B.C he had three hundred military leaders executed along with a number of Pharisees who had prophesized that he would be overthrown. So killing 20-30 two year olds would not be out of character for Herod.
And though this event was not mentioned by most historians at the time, it was recorded by Matthew, and Matthew even tells us that this event is a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
Whenever the writers of the New Testament quote a passage from the Old Testament they are often assuming that this one quote will remind their readers of the entire passage. So it is good for us to know who Jeremiah was and what he is talking about in this passage.
Jeremiah is often known as the weeping prophet. He is known for his lament, the Greek and Hebrew means a ritual act of mourning. Not just shedding a tear, but tearing your clothes, wailing out loud, letting the world know that your heart is in anguish. In other words, He is sort of a Debbie Downer. He is sort of the guy at the dinner table who when you don’t eat your vegetables will tell you that children are starving in Africa. He ministered near the end of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, before the Babylonian Exile, where the big kid on the block invaded Judah and took the Jews away from their homeland. Jeremiah was known for his extreme symbolic acts to protests the sins of Judah, like wearing an actual oxen yoke ( Jeremiah 27-28). When a false prophet named Hananiah said that Judah would be free of Babylon within three years Jeremiah replied, “ Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles,. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent a prophet.” In other words Jeremiah is saying, “don’t hold your breath Hananiah.” And indeed Jeremiah prophesized that Hannaih would be dead within the year and sure enough he ended up dead as a doornail. (Jeremiah 28). Jeremiah’s name means, “Yahweh Hurls,” and certainly he is not afraid to throw the hard stuff at you. Here is how the Interpreter’s Bible Commentary describes Jeremiah;
“Jeremiah belongs with that class of man described by Unamuno as ,”men of flesh and bone.” He was, like these, an “agnostic” soul, one whose burden is wisdom rather than knowledge, and who, through compassion, suffering, and love, moves unflinchingly into the deepest defile of his time’s predicament. He looked into his time’s abyss and though there were moments when he recoiled from its terrors, he returned again and again to gaze more deeply until beyond and beneath every anguish of his age, he discovered a new transcendent ground of hope.” To put in laymen’s terms Jeremiah had grit, he had gumption. He would agree with Winston Churchill who famously said, “If you are going through Hell, keep going”.
Coming to the Old Testament passage at hand let’s hear it again;
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” You see Ramah is a place about five miles North of Jerusalem. According to Genesis 35:16-20 Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, died during childbirth and was buried somewhere between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Probably at the place Jeremiah calls Ramah. So what Jeremiah is saying, is things are getting so bad for Israel and Judah, that our mom is crying out from the grave. That even in death she cannot be comforted because of the suffering of her children.
I know it makes you uncomfortable. All this crying, all this weeping, all this death. We don’t like open casket funerals, we rather not listen to the news about Ebola, and children being massacred in Pakistan, beheadings in the middle east, parents getting strung out on meth in our own community, teenagers committing suicide in our own schools. We separate our hearts from the pain because it seems like too much to bear. Stiff upper lip, as the British say, be a tough guy, big girls don’t cry, sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, and all that other garbage we tell ourselves to protect ourselves. We say these things because we don’t want the world to see. To see the brokenness, the pain, the disappointment, inside of you, and inside of me.
Two weeks ago I attended the Calvin Worship Symposium in Grand Rapids Michigan. It was refreshing to worship and not have to plan worship. I thank the session and all of you for supporting my continuing education . It is truly a gift that many ministers do not have.
Calvin College, is one of the main colleges of the Christian Reformed Church, and is of course named after John Calvin, one of the Father’s of the Reformation, and the Patriarch of the Reformed brand of Christianity, which includes the Presbyterian church. Some of you who are visitors today may be saying, “I don’t have a tradition. I am not Baptist, or Methodist, or Presbyterian, I am just Christian.” And yes it is true, we should not be divided, we are One in Christ Jesus. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a tradition, it just means that no one has taught you what that tradition means.
There are many things that characterize the Reformed tradition but perhaps the heart of tradition can be found in 1 Corinthians 14:40, where Paul tells the Corinthian church that all things should be done, “decently and in order.” The Reformed tradition has sort of taken this verse and run with it. One of strong focuses of the Reformed tradition is the idea of the Sovereignty of God, the idea that while things may look out of control, God is working together all things for good for those who love God and are ordained to his purposes. In extreme forms this can promote determinism and fatalism within the Reformed Faith. If God has already preordained everything then why pray? This also means that our worship tends to be more structured and formal than other traditions, and that our church has rules, processes, and guidelines that we live by, processes that I have come to love and respect. The first part of our church constitution is called the “Book of Order.” We run our Elder meetings by a secular book of parliamentary procedure called, “Robert’s Rules of Order.” (no relation to me.) Order is a big thing, perhaps the defining thing, in the Reformed Tradition.
Calvin College, in a way is a personification of this verse in Corinthians, about everything being in “good and decent order.” Now I am not an architect, in fact I almost failed geometry in high school, but I am a practical theologian. And it just seemed like every building on that campus and many of the worship services, were the most “Reformed” buildings and services one could have. How were the buildings Reformed? They were all ordered, designed so everything fit together, with intricately defined shapes. The spacing of the chairs, the hanging of the banners, the art on the walls, it all just gave off the sense that nothing was left to chance, that everything was intricately planned. The main chapel and auditorium at Calvin College have two of the biggest pipe organs I have seen in my life. Organs that shake your bones when they play. The services were well thought out, and intricately planned. The hymns were theologically rich. I have used some hymns I learned in the service today. But by Friday I was so exhausted from worship. And I didn’t even know why. It was as if this massive spiritual temple had been built up around me but there were no stairs, and nothing to lift me up to higher levels. It was the second day of a three day worship conference and I didn’t have it in me to worship anymore and I didn’t know why.
Friday afternoon, I was looking for a vespers, which is just a Latin word for “evening” service to go to and I saw this service entitled, “The Beauty of Christ.” Led by Miranda Dodson. Here is the description of the service, “Together we will gaze upon the beauty of the glory of Christ-the Son of God, our Savior, and King. By grace of God, our hearts will be humbled by his majesty and our belief and devotion will be stirred by his glory and grace.” And I thought to myself;
“I don’t know what the world that means but I really need that.” I walked into the auditorium. A contemporary worship band was setting up. And this short woman wearing small leather cowboy boots and flannel was leading the service. I didn’t know what to expect. But as soon as they started playing, all my order, all my respectability, just feel away, and I started to weep publicly. I didn’t even know why at the time but I wept for most of the hour.
Now I know that I was partly weeping for myself. You don’t need to know all the details, you just need to know that the four years before I came here was hell for me. Proverbs 13:12 declares, “A hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” And I guess my hope had been deferred for so long that there were times that I thought the seed of hope would die before the tree could sprout. And I guess I have never really wept for that time in my life. I hadn’t come to terms with it.
And I also wept for you, as your shepherd. I know many of your stories, and I have to say that this congregation has been through more than its fair share of pain and sorrow during the years. Matthew tells us in Matthew 9:36 that Jesus, “went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” We may pay pastors part time but I am convinced that there is no such thing as a part time pastor, as a part time shepherd. Shepherding is your life and you have to be willing to lay down your life for your sheep. And when I came here I saw, as Judy told me, that she had been doing everything on her own for so long, you all had been doing it on your own. You had been getting by to get by. We’ve built this big house but we are not letting the Spirit flow in it and bind us together, though we may disagree. Mostly, we are not mourning what we have lost, so we can’t let go of the way things have been before. The ink is dry and we need tears to help us write the next chapter in our story.
Richard Foster, author of “Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, “ calls this process of lamenting “the prayer of tears. “ To quote Foster, “Penthos is the Greek word for it. There is simply no good English equivalent. It is frequent experience for those who walked across the pages of the Bible, and a recurring theme in the works of the great devotional writers. Penthos means a broken and contrite heart. Penthos means inward godly sorrow. Penthos means blessed, holy mourning. Penthos means deep, heartfelt compunction. Above all, penthos means the Prayer of Tears. “
My friends, my family. It’s okay. It’s okay to cry, to weep, to mourn. To weep for loved ones we have lost, to weep for good people taken from us by Alzheimer’s, to cry out for bodies destroyed by chronic pain and disease, to break open our hearts for our broken dreams. For when we weep it washes clean the soul and we see through our tears the beauty of Christ. He knows we are helpless and harassed. He knows that our burdens are too heavy to bear and he says to us, come to me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for unlike Jeremiah’s yoke, my yoke is easy and my burden is light and in me you will find rest for your souls. Hope deferred makes the heart sick but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. The tree of life is coming, she is sprouting up, she is extending her branches to the Son who is the lamb who was slain, but she shall be watered through our tears.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.