A Voice is Heard in Ramah

We’re going to be in Matthew 2 again this week.

We’re in the season of Advent,and the last couple of weeks 
we’ve been reflecting God coming into the world in Jesus
and what that means for us.

Today we’re going to make another reflection on Matthew 2,
and that’s going to bring us to the table.

(2.7-15) Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Last week we reflected a little 
on that bit about Egypt last week

Today I want us to reflect a little on what Matthew says in verses 16-18:

(2.16-18) When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet 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.”

Matthew keeps telling us that the advent of Jesus is “fulfilling” Scripture.
We just heard him mentioned it twice: in verse 15 and verse 17.

In English the word “fulfill” has a very precise—almost technical—meaning:

If we put a missing puzzle piece into its spot 
then we “fulfill” a puzzle.

If we arrive at particular location
at a particular time for a particular meeting 
then we “fulfill” an item on our day-planner.

But the word that Matthew uses to describe Jesus is a little broader in meaning than that.
The word in Greek is the same word you would use 
to ask for a waiter to “fill up” your glass.

That’s what Matthew says the coming of Jesus—
the life of Jesus, the events surrounding Jesus—
is like.

Verse 17 is the third place where Matthew says 
the Advent of Jesus is described fills up and fills out and overflows Scripture.

This “filling up” takes place 
in an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

Herod the Great—as history remembers him—
did some crazy things in his time.

I mentioned in passing last week that Herod talked to his horse but I misspoke there—
Herod the Great didn’t talk to his horse. 

It was a delightful caesar named Caligula 
who was obsessed with his horse and appointed his horse to public office.

Apologies—that was Caligula not Herod.

Herod the Great was just the paranoid megalomaniac
who would sometimes murder a wife and their sons 
and most of her side of the family.

Herod probably saw himself as something like the rightful King of the Jews.

He had the right name 
and had done the right things.

He had married into THE prominent Jewish family (different wife),
and he now had Maccabean blood at the edges of his family tree.

He had the name.
He had renovated the Temple in Jerusalem into a marvel of architectural genius—
no one could have done better and no one could expect more.

He did what the king should do—
he established and rebuilt the temple

And so when Herod hears 
from foreign astrologers that there is a new star rising
and from his own advisors that the true king of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem,
he plans to nip this in the bud quickly.
“Come back and tell me about this child
so that I can go and honor him” (v8).

But these foreign astrologers are warned in a dream to do no such thing
and so they return to their own country by a another route (v12).

And so when Herod realizes that he has been outwitted by the Magi,
he follows cold, hard logic to its unthinkable end.

I don’t know who the baby is
but I do know where the baby is.

So he orders a holocaust.

Herod orders his soldiers—
maybe a small dispatch of his 2,000 personal bodyguards—
to go to Bethlehem (and the surrounding area) and kill the little boys.
Two-years old and younger based on what those Magi said (v16).

Scholars guess that this probably be around twenty children
based on what we know about that area’s population.

Maybe ten infants and ten toddlers.

Herod doesn’t know them.
They’re just statistics—just numbers.

Even if he did know them, Herod is the kind of person 
who will sacrifice even those closest to him
to get and to maintain what he wants.

Herod is willing to kill even his own family—
do you think he cares that much about the Smith family in Bethlehem?

Herod is willing to do whatever it takes
so that he can rule his world. 

Herod is willing to do whatever it takes
to stay on the throne.

Herod isn’t about all about killing children—
Herod is just all about protecting Herod’s throne.

If it takes executing some children then that’s what he’ll do.

I think it’s fair to talk about Bethlehem 
and Columbine and Aurora and San Bernardino 
in the same sentence.

A lot of times the season of Advent can feel like it’s something like an escape from real life.

Phrases like “peace on earth” get thrown around,
but they often feel like naive, fairy-tale phrases
with no grounding—no roots—in the real world.

From its very beginning, 
Christmas has been familiar with 
brutality and evil and horror.

The season of Advent—
the season where we celebrate the coming of God into the world—
this season is no stranger to people who want to rule the world through terror and force.

We often ache and hurt and weep 
when we read headlines—when we watch the news—
because of the evil we see out there in the world
Herod still exists in countless forms.

Desperately looking to secure his vision of the world—
the way he thinks things should be.

Herod is still desperately looking for victory at any cost.
And he’ll trample down anyone or anything that gets in his way.

And this includes killing children—
destroying the innocent.

This season isn’t about denying evil within the world.

That’s why Matthew invokes the passage from Jeremiah that he does.

Even though Joseph and Mary and Jesus escape to Egypt,
but Bethlehem is buckling under the weight of the evil 
being afflicted on to it.

There’s no denying evil within the world
because Rachel is weeping.

And Rachel—the symbolic mother of the nation of Israel—
weeps over what is happening.

Those are words that come from a rather famous chapter in Jeremiah—Jeremiah 31.

And those words are the third time that Matthew says 
that Scripture is being filled up, overflowed, filled out.

That once again Jesus is giving new meaning and new significance and new depth
to words that were already familiar to the people of God.

I think a little context about sheds some light
on why Matthew is invoking them.
We know more about the life of Jeremiah 
than any other prophet in Hebrew Scriptures.

Jeremiah lived in the late 7th century and early 6th century BCE.

He watched the world end.
(At least that’s how it felt.)

The overall message of Jeremiah was this:

“People of God, you have been willfully and continually living in disobedience to God
for so long that a foreign empire—the Babylonians—is going to come and conquer us.”

“God is going to bring his wrath against us,
because that’s the only way to get our collective attention.”
“Our pride is going to be popped like a bubble,
our nation is going to be conquered,
the Temple itself is going to be destroyed,
and we and our families are going to be deported.

“Allowing this tragedy is the only way 
that we’re going to turn back to God.”

And then it happens.

Babylon arrives 
and the great tragedy unfolds.

The nation is conquered, the Temple destroyed, and the people taken captive 
and forced to begin the 500 mile trail of tears to Babylon.

Jeremiah is caught up with everyone else in chains,
but before they can really leave the region, 
Jeremiah gets set free.

The commander of the Babylonian army sets him free—
allows him to go back to his home and his land.
And this commander sets him free at a place called Ramah (cf. 40.1).

Rama also happens to be fairly close to where Rachel—
Jacob’s beloved wife, the matriarch of the nation—
was buried.

And so there stands Jeremiah at Ramah
not far from the tomb of his renowned ancestor Rachel,
and Jeremiah watches as his friends, his neighbors, his people, 
march by him into the distance.

Those are the events out of which 
these words of Jeremiah are growing.

(Jer 31.15-17)
This is what the Lord says:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

Jeremiah wept over the end of his world
and he envisions his great matriarch weeping with him.

Jeremiah sees such evil in the world 
and he imagines his ancestor rolling in her grave—
weeping at her tomb as she sees the tragedy that’s befallen her children.

If Rachel could somehow see beyond her years,
she would be unconsolable—she would refuse to be comforted.

But then notice what immediately follows:

This is what the Lord says:

So this is what God speaks to those who despair evil in the world:

“Restrain your voice from weeping
and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the Lord.

“They will return from the land of the enemy.
So there is hope for your descendants,”
declares the Lord.
“Your children will return to their own land.

It’s like God is saying: 
“I can see further than you.”

“There is hope.
“My people will return from the land of the enemy.
In the end, the story I’m telling is not a tragedy—it’s a comedy. 
There’s a delightful ending.

“It just may take longer than you think, Rachel,
but comfort, comfort—my daughter,
these are my children before they are yours.

“You think they are no more,
but they will return.

“There is hope.”

Hope in the midst of your own evil choices—
those choices that has led you into exile, into Babylon, 
away from everything as it was supposed to be.

Take comfort. There is hope.
I can see further than you.

The journey may be long, 
but God can see further than you.

When Matthew invokes this same passage 
as being filled up—as being filled out—
when Herod arrives in Bethlehem,
I think he’s he’s hinting at the same thing.

“There is hope.”

Hope in the presence of horror—in the presence of Herod.
Even when we see evil that destroys the innocent, 
even when brutality and violence and power games
dominate headlines and world news;

even when brutality and violence and power games 
quietly dominate office politics and strained relationships;

Matthew doesn’t deny the way the world is.
Advent doesn’t deny the way the world is.

Matthew stares into the abyss of a holocaust
and says, “This is awful. Rachel’s weeping is fill up—it’s overflowing—right here.”

But then he keeps telling a story:
the story of the Child born to us.

The story of Jesus.

And with the of Jesus, 
Matthew answers Rachel’s weeping:

“There is hope.”

Even for the families and babies of Bethlehem—
Matthew is ultimately telling us the story of resurrection from the dead.

The season of Advent isn’t about denying the work of evil in the world.
It’s not about denying Herod.

It’s about recognizing that there is something else at work in the world.

Something deeper than Herod.
Something older than evil.

Born to us is a different kind of king,
but we barely recognize him as a king.

We’re so familiar with the kingdom of Herod, 
that we can’t even recognize this new kingdom.

His arrival is quiet, unimposing, foolish, easy-to-miss.

If Bethlehem is any clue, evidently God isn’t obsessed with power 
or getting his own way or protecting himself.

That sounds more like us.

Immanuel—God with us—is interested in protecting others, 
interested in serving others, interested in loving others.

That’s what the entire shape of Jesus’ life looks like. 
That’s what his kingdom looks like.

Jesus is a king who protects the vulnerable—who welcomes children—
and warns of millstones around the neck for those who would cause them harm.

Jesus serves those around him—
even at the cost of giving up his life.

Jesus loves people, Jesus loves us—
the beginning of Matthew says 
that he’s come to save us from our sins.

He’s come to bring us hope.

But here’s the rub—for people like Herod,
being saved from sins means being saved from his throne.

His throne is what’s killing him—
what’s driving him mad.

The best thing that could happen to King Herod
would be him no longer being king.
That’s what Jesus saving Herod would look like
(or at least that would be a big part of it).

But Herod can’t bear the thought of that.

A Child has been born king,
but Herod can’t bear the thought of someone else as king.

So of course he doesn’t welcome the Child—
he hates the Child.

This Child threatens his throne. 
This Child threatens all of our thrones.

The question for people like Herod—for people like us—
is whether we’ll enthrone the Child or hate the Child.
But this story should be a warning to us.

In the words of one scholar, Dale Bruner:
“those who begin by hating the child will end by killing children.”

Maybe not physically.

He’s not saying if you reject Jesus then you automatically 
mow down the children of Bethlehem with a sword
or mow down the children of Denver with a rifle.

As if Christians aren’t capable of horrors or atrocities.
(As if we’re immune to the way of Herod.)

But I do think Bruner is on to something.

If we refuse the way of Immanuel—
the quiet life of love that undermines all the world’s hate,
the life where we give grace to those who do not deserve it,
the life of learning patience and forgiveness and tenderness and love,

if we reject the way of Immanuel,
the only way left is the way of Herod.

If we refuse to abandon the throne 
then we’ve got to protect it.

And this is what I’m learning—
I’m least equipped to love others 
when my primary concern is protecting my throne.

When my chief concern is 
my security, my reputation, my position, my standing,
then it becomes really easy to justify 
talking about that person, ignoring that person, hurting that person.

But those blessed moments when I finally abandon the throne—
when I just come with the Magi to the Child 
and make him and his kingdom my primary concern—
suddenly I’m free of the burden of protecting my own throne.

And those are the blessed moments 
when I’m set free to truly love other people.

Those are the blessed moments
when I can recognize the beauty and goodness of life.

Those are the blessed moments 
when I’m set free to live in hope.

During this season of Advent,
God speaks the same message to us 
that he spoke through Jeremiah:
“There is hope.”
But us living in hope means us getting off the throne.

Let’s bow our heads and prepare our hearts for communion:

On the night in which he gave himself up for us,
Our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks to you, Father, broke the bread
gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”

Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Drink from this, all of you,
this is my blood of the new covenant,
poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And, Father, it’s in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.

Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ,
redeemed by his blood.

In just a moment you’ll be invited to come and receive from this table—
to receive a bit of bread, to dip it in the cup, and return to your seat.

As we come this morning,
may we trust God in the midst of our weeping
with the knowledge that our Father can see further than us,

may we learn to live in hope by abandoning your throne
and find ourselves set free to love,

and may we face the world with confidence 
because a love deeper than Herod’s hate is at work in the world.