Date: January 1, 2017
Text – Matthew 2:13-23
It is the New Year. 2016 is no more. 2017 has arrived. I am sure that people gathered for celebration yesterday. No more Christmas tree. No more Christmas caroling. People might say, “It is a time to move on.” For those who still have Christmas decoration and tree in their house, let me share with you good news. For Christians, the season of Christmas is not over yet. Christmas actually ends with Epiphany which is January 6. So, if you tell me that you still have Christmas tree and wreath on your door, I believe that you are not procrastinating at all. You are just faithful Christians who understand how Christian calendar works.
So, before the season of Christmas ends next week with the story of how Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, I want to invite you again to the story of how our Savior came to this world and what happened at that time that still speaks the truth to our world today. The three wise men from the East came to pay the homage to the baby Jesus. After worshiping him, they were warned in their dream not to go back to King Herod since he asked them to tell him where he could find the baby Jesus when he actually wanted to kill him. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in the same way in his dream and told him, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Joseph got up in the dark midnight and brought his family to Egypt. And here comes the trouble. When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. And the Gospel of Matthew says, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children.” The lamentation of Rachel.
Some of us might think that Christmas is a season to be happy and celebrate. Lamentation does not fit in with the mood of the holiday. As a matter of fact, when we come to the church, we should not hear any negative message. We only want some encouraging and positive messages. Bishop William Willimon is a retried bishop who ministered in Northern Alabama Conference. He tells when he was pastoring a church in Atlanta Georgia, being approached by a woman in his church after the worship service. She said, “You know, Will? I quite like the message from this pastor in Houston, TX, whose sermon is aired on TV. He always preaches some positive message unlike you.” Bishop Willimon paused for second and responded, “Of course, he can preach a positive message unlike me because he does not know you.”
In Christianity today, it seems that the message that preaches prosperity seems to prevail in many churches. A distorted message that if you just put your trust in God, you will be greatly rewarded with wealth and good health. All you need to do is just to be positive about yourself then God will do all the magical works. Such message does not share any moral challenges in our society. Such message does not recognize that there are unjust suffering and pain in this world especially for those who are vulnerable and oppressed. Such message does not preach the full gospel because it does not include the lamentation. It is not willing to share the pain and burden of mothers like Rachel who lose their children in hunger, famine, war, and illness. But tell them, “If you just switch the mode of your mind, all will work out in God’s plan.” It neglects the pain and cry of the poor and marginalized.
And yet, the wailing and lamentation of Rachel are still here persistently drawing our attentions because they indicate the reality of our broken world today. In the story from Matthew, the lamentation of Rachel is caused by King Herod also known as Herod the Great. I can tell you that King Herod was a vulnerable person who was not supposed to be the king so he exercised violence and manipulation to keep his kingship. He was not born as a Jewish origin. His family was the offspring of Edomite, a foreign country, that later converted to Judaism. In growing up in the Jewish community, Herod was probably mocked by his friends and neighbors that he was not a Jew, but a foreigner who did not belong there. He was treated like an outsider but determined that he would alter the course of his life by becoming a leader of this country.
Later, Herod was initially appointed governor of Galilee because of his loyalty to the Roman Empire in his support for Hyrcanus. However, when Antigonus, Hyrcanus’ nephew took the throne from his uncle, he went to Rome to plead with the Roman council. I guess he was successful in his persuasion because he was appointed as the king of the Jews by the Roman Senate. A foreigner who was mocked and finger pointed by others now came the ruler and king. But he wanted to secure his position not just by the decree of the Roman government but also by the family and blood. So, he abandoned his wife, Doris, and his young son, Antipater, and chose to marry the granddaughter of Hyrcanus. He not only left them for another marriage but also banished them. So, when he heard from the three wise men that a king of Jew was born in Bethlehem, he felt vulnerable and challenged in his kingship. He was determined to do anything to find this baby Jesus and kill him.
The story of Herod tells us that we need to watch out when the people in leadership care more about their privilege and position than the well-being of people they are entrusted to serve. When they are vulnerable and insecure, they are often willing to harm the innocent and weak to cover their weakness. At least, that is what is happening with South Korea today. President Park was recently impeached by the parliament because of her corruption. In the meantime, she was not supposed to become the president of Korea in the first place because she is a daughter of dictator who arrested, tortured, and executed anyone who challenged the government in 1970s. On April 16 2014, a ferry that carried over 500 passengers sunk in the middle of the ocean. And the speculation today is that President Park actually permitted this to happen in order to cover for the rigged election. It is still mysterious what she did for 7 hours after 300 high school students were drowning in the ferry. But the wailings and lamentation of the mothers and fathers who lost their children still continue on today.
Matthew says that when Rachel was weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled. There is a saying in Korea that when you lose your parents, you bury them in the grave. But when you lost your children, you bury them in your heart. Many of us were shocked to hear the death of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds this week. “Singing in the Rain” was the first Hollywood I watched as a kid. I fell in love with Debbie Reynolds – her beauty and her singing and acting. In growing up as her daughter, Carrie Fisher shared that it was not easy to live as her daughter. In her memoir, she says, “I think it was when I was ten that I realized with profound certainty that I would not be, and was in no way now the beauty that my mother was.” Fisher had started smoking marijuana at 13, and became out of control with her drug use in hear early 20s. When her daughter tried to estrange herself, Reynolds never gave up on her daughter. Only one day after Fisher died from heart attack, Reynolds passed away. Her son, Todd Fisher said, “She didn’t die of a broken heart. She just left to be with Carrie.”
Even as I speak at the pulpit this morning, I would never understand the tragedy of mother who loses her child. When we lose our child, there is nothing that could possibly compensate. There are no words to comfort. But people come and tell you, “It is a time to move on. It is not good for your health.” You often wonder if it is because they really care about your health, or because they are not comfortable with the situation in which they do not know what to say. Sometimes, it is better not to say anything but just be present in the midst of tragedy and loss. But because people are uncomfortable not being able to say the right words, they say the wrong thing. But Matthew says that Rachel refused to be consoled because they are no more.
When we share the sorrow and sit with those who grieve and suffer today, we sing the song of lamentation. We may not be able to answer why something like happened to the innocent children in Bethlehem. But when we sing the song of lamentation together, we come to realize that we are not alone but surrounded by the presence of God who surely does not abandon us alone but walks with us in this journey. In the midst of the tragedy, we witness how God works in this world in God’s grace. God warns the three wise men, the foreigners who had a different religion, different ethnicity, and different culture not to return to King Herod. God warns Joseph, the step father of the baby Jesus, in his dream not to go home but live as refugees. God chose the most unlikely people to protect the life of this new born baby who would redeem the world from its sins later.
The lamentation of Rachel wound become the lamentation of Mary, as she would watch the death of her son on the cross bearing the sins of the world. But in the midst of tragedy and despair, we find the hope arising in God. Singing the song of lamentation is not an act of distrust in God. Rather, it is deeply grounded in the faithfulness of God who would surely step in and help us in times of trouble. Someone said that the opposite of love is not anger, but indifference. When we completely lose our love for someone, we suddenly realize that we are not even angry with that person anymore because there is no more hope. There is no more expectation. But when we still have hope for amendment, we express our anger with those in relationship. Walter Brueggemann, Hebrew Bible scholar, says, “The laments are refusals to settle for the way things are. They are acts of relentless hope that believes no situation falls outside of Yahweh’s capacity for transformation.” The song of lamentation is a sign of our hope in God.
If you still wonder why we speak of the song of lamentation on this first day of New Year, I believe that God calls us to sing the song and pray the prayer of lamentation because that is where we will find the grace of God at work today. Still, there are hundreds of children in Aleppo, Syria, being bombed watching their parents and siblings die. Instead of avoiding the cries of their mothers, we sing the song of lamentation with hope that we will indeed lay down the weapons and live side by side together. Still, there are over 14,000 death every year in this country who die from gun violence. Among the casualty is over 3,000 children and teenagers who are victimized by the gun policy. As children of God, we should not avoid the lamentation of their mothers but sing with them together.
There is an all-time favorite hymn for many people. Great Is Thy Faithfulness. The hymn is actually based on the song of Lamentation – Lamentation 3:22-24. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great if your faithfulness.” It was written by Thomas Chisholm. Born in a log cabin in Franklin, Kentucky, Chisholm became a Christian when he was twenty seven and entered the ministry when he was thirty six. However, his poor health forced him to retired only after one year. While working as a life insurance agent, Chisholm still wanted to find a way to praise God’s goodness. He says, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me nay wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”
If you are able, would you please stand with me and sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”?
 Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, 29