[Sermon audio here.]
If there is one thing that people can agree on, it is that children should be protected at all costs. When infants or children are killed on purpose, by accident or neglect, there is understandable outrage. Children cannot defend themselves. They are vulnerable and dependent. So what then do we make of Herod’s slaughter of all children under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem when he realised he had been tricked by the three wise men? How could God let such an atrocity happen? Especially when we read that Jesus escaped unscathed? Why does God spare Jesus and not the other infants? Is God perhaps not in control after all? Is he unjust?
The passage that we have before us this morning is not an easy one. It is a terrible thing to consider what Herod did in the first-century Roman world. And yet there is something wonderfully surprising going on here that wells up from the recesses of the OT. What Matthew reveals to us is that God does indeed have a plan in the midst of unconscionable suffering and death. In fact, God is pleased to work through suffering and death to redeem his people. At the proper time, God sent his Son into the world to identify with sinners in their cries of suffering. By his life and death, Jesus has restored his people, including you and I, from our exile of pain, sorrow and death. Jesus has overcome our sin through the New Exodus at the cross as the New Moses and the New Jeremiah, by proclaiming final victory and leading us to freedom.
The cry of Rachel
To have lived under the rule of king Herod in Bethlehem was a horrible experience for the Jews. Here is a man who was willing to do the unthinkable in order to protect his throne. Any threat to his rule and his ego was quickly extinguished, whether from his wife, his sons or a newborn king called Jesus.
So it was really quite in keeping with Herod’s ruthless character to respond the way he does in Matt. 2:16-18. If you remember from earlier on his Matt. 2, Herod asks the magi (or wise men) to find out the whereabouts of Jesus. However, before the magi are deceived into thinking that Herod truly wants to worship Messiah, God intervenes and tells them not to return to Herod, but rather return to their own country instead.
In Matt. 2:16 we read that Herod is livid. You can just imagine him sitting in his palace for days anxiously waiting to hear word from the magi about his rival Jesus. But little did he know that the magi have gone home and Jesus has taken flight with his parents to Egypt. However, now Herod realises that he has “been tricked by the wise men.” They have not come back to the king with a report as expected, and therefore Herod is still in the dark as to where Jesus is. So what does he do? In a furious rage he has his men kill all the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who are two years old and younger. The solution is simple for Herod. Just wipe out all the infants around the age of Jesus and the problem of this up-start king goes away.
The cry of humanity
But while Herod’s henchmen indiscriminately slaughtered little defenseless children as their parents watched and heard their screams, Jesus lived safely with his parents in Egypt. Herod has no clue that his vicious and despicable act against the dignity of human life is all part of God’s plan of salvation.
For we read in Matt. 2:17 that even this unimaginable evil was to fulfill what “was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Here Matthew quotes directly from Jeremiah 31:15. Now, on first blush this OT reference can seem to have little more than surface relevance to the events unfolding in the gospel so far. However, a closer inspection reveals that Matthew’s choice of Jeremiah’s words is very much in keeping with the OT themes we have already seen: which serve to prove that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah set forth in the law and the prophets.
Lying behind Jeremiah’s words is the Babylonian destruction of Judah in 587/586 BC. Remember how the story goes. Israel once lived in the promised land of Canaan, with Jerusalem as its capital. The nation of Israel was God’s prized possession separated and protected from the pagan peoples of the Ancient Near East. However, because of the disobedience and unbelief of the Israelites, God judged them by sending their enemies, Assyria and Babylon, against them.
By the time that Babylon was raping and pillaging Israel, a small town called Ramah, north of Jerusalem, had become one of the staging points for their ruthless captors as they deported the Israelites back to Babylonia (which is the region of Iraq today.)
But who is this person, Rachel, who is weeping in Ramah? And what is her mourning all about? Well, Rachel is one of the wives of Jacob as well as a mother of Israel. While she was blessed with two healthy boys, Joseph and Benjamin, she also nevertheless dealt with the pain and sorrow of losing other children at birth. She never forgot the children she lost. In the end, Rachel died in the midst of the distress of childbirth. And she died as someone who was on the way to Bethlehem in the Promised Land, but never got there (cf. Gn. 35:19). In Gn. 35, we are told that she was buried in a tomb close to Ramah – known as the city of sadness.
It is with this picture of Rachel in mind, which makes it fitting that Jeremiah used her to personify the grief that Israel experienced at the hands of the Babylonians. You can just imagine the Jewish mothers crying uncontrollably as they watched their Israelite sons go off to battle against the invaders from the north, knowing that some would die and others be carried off into exile. In other words, Rachel is the symbolic mother of the butchered, defeated and displaced nation of Israel.
And yet, verse 15 of Jeremiah 31 is really the only note of gloom in the entire chapter! Yes, it is true that Israel suffered terribly for her sins at the barbaric hands of the Babylonians in exile. The prophet Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet” because he had the unenviable calling to proclaim God’s judgment against the people. However, arising out of this doom and gloom is the hope of reversal and restoration, which shines likes a huge uncut diamond in the rough in Chapter 31 of Jeremiah.
Yes, Jerusalem has been sacked and the people of God are being herded off like animals by the Babylonians to a distant land far from home… But God promises through his prophet that one day his people will come home. In the very next verse, verse 16, Jeremiah prophesies “Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country.” And later in verse 31: ““Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Beloved, the promise of future restoration that Jeremiah prophesies here is nothing less than the New Covenant, which will be established by Messiah. Israel will one day return from exile and the threat of judgment will be over. The New Covenant will be far better than the Old Covenant. It will be a new Exodus for God’s people, and will be accomplished by someone greater than Moses and Jeremiah: someone who will return Israel’s land, forgive their sins and bless them with peace and prosperity.
One theme that is unmistakable in Matt. 2 so far is that of the OT Exodus: in which God delivered his people by Moses from slavery in Egypt. We have already seen a number of striking parallels between the early part of the life of Jesus and the events that led to God’s deliverance of his people from the wicked king, Pharaoh. Remember where we are in the story. Jesus is taking refuge in Egypt from a horrid king who wants to kill him. Once upon a time Moses was whisked away in a basket so that he escaped death at the hands of Pharaoh.
But notice how the reversal of the order of events in Matthew signals that God is doing something different now.
In the OT, God delivered Israel out of Egypt, which is symbolic of sin, death and hell, and they eventually ended up in the Promised Land of Canaan. Now, Jesus is delivered from danger in the Promised Land, where the church is, into Egypt. And it is in Egypt that Jesus remains while Herod goes on a murderous rampage until he dies.
But why this reversal, in which the life of Jesus is preserved while so-called innocent children are slaughtered? What is the point and where is the justice in it all?
Brothers and sisters, children, the cries of the Rachel in our passage are the harrowing cries of mothers in distress as they have their sons snatched away and murdered in cold blood. But this is only a surface reading. For, like Jeremiah using Rachel’s lamentation in Genesis to echo the cries of OT Jews being carted off to exile, so Matthew amplifies Rachel’s cry even further, so that it resonates with all humanity caught in the sufferings of this life.
All of humankind is in a similar predicament to Israel, when she was first in Egypt and then later in exile in Babylon. How? We are all naturally in bondage to sin. None of us can escape physical death. And all of us are subject to the atrocities of suffering in this world, which give us a foretaste of hell – things like the rape and murder of infants; the hijacking of loved ones; cancer; and clinical depression.
But God has heard our cries. And he has responded by sending his only begotten Son into this world to take on human flesh and enter into the frailty of our fallen human existence. Right at the beginning his life, God sends Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s sword. It was not yet Christ’s time to die, along with the other Hebrew boys in Bethlehem. Why? Because: for Jesus to be Messiah he had to live a life of pain and sorrow under the law. So, as the gospel of Matthew unfolds, we find that Jesus returns from Egypt to the land of Judah where he undertakes a life of suffering, like ours. But one that was far worse than anything anyone has ever endured, whether it be in Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or Cape Town.
In his life on earth, Jesus entered into our skin as it were to identify with us in our pain and sorrow; and in our yearning for deliverance and restoration. Jesus entered into our bondage and exile to overcome it, so that we might truly have life after death.
The cry of John the Baptist and God’s confirmation from heaven
In Matt. 3 we hear another cry: “a voice crying in the wilderness.” This time it is John the Baptist, the last of the OT prophets. But now we don’t hear mourning and lamentation. Rather we hear the proclamation of good news that the kingdom of God has arrived with the coming of Jesus. Repent and believe! Here, we find that the cry of John the Baptist is God’s response to Rachel’s cry and to our cry. The restoration that Israel yearned for, John now proclaims with his baptism of repentance.
In John’s baptism of Jesus, which follows, Jesus identifies explicitly with sinners in the midst of their sufferings.
And then, when Jesus comes up from the waters baptism, there is yet another voice. This time it is God who speaks from heaven. He declares in Matt. 3:17, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” With these words, God confirms that Jesus is indeed his answer to the cry of Rachel, Israel, grieving mothers in Bethlehem and us.
The cry of Jesus
Jesus is the anointed Son of God who will eventually make his way to a mound of dirt in Jerusalem, covered in wooden stakes. And on his way, over and over again, he will withdraw from danger and the threat of death, because it is not yet his time. For, he must first have opportunity to keep the Law of Moses for his people. And he must be humiliated and he must suffer for the sins of his people. He must endure a life of agony and exile – which will finally culminate with his cry of dereliction at the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But then his last words are: “It is finished” (John 19:30). His mission is accomplished.
Beloved, do you now see God’s purpose in preserving Jesus in Egypt while those “innocent” Hebrews boys were put to death by Herod? He was not out of control. In fact, God is willing to permit terrible suffering in this world in order to accomplish his plan of salvation. The death wish of Herod was indeed shocking, but the most heinous evil in all of his history is the slaughtering of the only truly innocent man to have ever lived in this fallen world, Jesus Christ. And yet through the butchering of his only begotten Son, God has reversed the curse of sin: thereby putting an end to the evil that rapes, hijacks, robs and murders us.
Yes, we still weep and we are still exiles in this world, but only for a little while longer. For our comfort in the midst of the sufferings of this life is the certainty that we will one day go home to our Father’s house: a place where sorrow will be no more and every tear will be wiped away. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, 2 June 2013