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The High Cost of Christmas

December 27, 2010

“The High Cost of Christmas” Matthew 2:1-23 © 12/26/10 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

An episode of that old sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie" has Jeannie going shopping for the first time in the modern world. You may recall that Jeannie hailed from ancient Baghdad, but now found herself in the company and service of Tony Nelson, an Air Force officer. She is, of course, unfamiliar with modern consumer practices, such as credit cards. Jeannie buys and buys and buys—a whole houseful of stuff. When asked how she will pay for all of it, she replies with a big smile: "Oh, we don’t have to pay for it; it’s charged!"

In a way, Jeannie’s fantasy comes true when we listen to the classic Christmas story from Luke. He gives us heavenly hosts singing alleluia to the newborn king; shepherds filled with fear at the sight, then hurrying to Bethlehem to worship the babe; a mother treasuring memories of the birth of her first child. It’s all so very beautiful; no wonder it’s so beloved. We want to linger at the manger, gazing at the sleeping face of baby Jesus. The gospel writer lets us put aside for a time the unpleasantness of human life like a shopper who buys that special gift for a loved one, leaving till tomorrow questions of payment and high interest. We focus on joy and comfort, on the great good news of God with us, forgetting for a while that most of the time life is not particularly peaceful or happy for many or most.

So when we come to Matthew we almost wonder if he’s telling the same story as his fellow evangelist. His tales of Christmas are like the shock of that holiday credit card bill when finally it arrives, and we stare in disbelief at how it all added up so quickly to the staggering figure on the page or the computer screen. For Matthew, there are no shepherds or angels, no manger or treasured memories. His world is populated by Joseph, struggling with a faithful response to a difficult situation; Herod, the king who pretends to want to worship the baby, but really is planning violence; scribes so incredibly naive that they trust this monarch or so co-opted by the system that they go along willingly. The sages from the east are the only touch of romance, if you will, as they come bearing their rich gifts. But even they must beware, lest they be used by a wicked king.

I wish Matthew would let us have Luke’s Christmas, and not this terrible tale of political intrigue; flight from danger; and, yes, slaughter of innocent children. It sounds as if he has been reading our papers, watching our news, somehow monitoring our most private and troubled thoughts. Reading this text makes all kinds of questions arise that still go begging for an answer. Why would God protect Jesus and not those other children in Bethlehem? Did they not deserve a chance at life as well? Did not mothers and fathers other than Mary and Joseph have a right to enjoy their little ones? Why is it always the innocent who pay the price for the evil of others? Why?

Someone once said that in a conflict or a crisis, it’s always the children who suffer first. But we might also mention the very old or those of any age with diminished mental capacity. We think, too, of those who are so desperate in these troubled times that they will fall for any scam, prey for the unscrupulous and criminal.

Among the people I have known in my ministry none was more innocent than Kitty Gach. She was a student at the University of Montevallo for a while and a member of our campus fellowship group before she became a Roman Catholic. She wanted to be on her own, truly to be an adult, so she moved to an apartment in Birmingham and enrolled at Jefferson State Community College. Kitty was naive, anxious, overly cautious, and easily frightened, all of which made her a perfect target for a stalker named Jack Trawick. At his trial, he claimed he only wanted to scare Kitty. But he did not stop with striking terror into her heart; he murdered her.

I’ll never forget the call from Sister Deborah Kennedy, the Catholic campus minister at Montevallo, telling me that Kitty had been the victim of a homicide. I had never received such news before about someone I knew. Nor had anyone in the student group. We grieved together, and we sent a note to Kitty’s mother. In response, Mary Kate Gach wondered why God allows the innocent to suffer. She noted angrily how untrue is the notion that God protects the innocent. For Ms. Gach, there was only darkness, but she said she continued to pray.

I believe the most honest answer to the question of the suffering of the innocent is one I have given more than once: "I don’t know." But having said that, is there some solace in the text for the weeping Rachels, for a Mary Kate Gach or our friends and neighbors? For some parent in a housing project whose child is the victim of a drive-by shooting or in some far-off land whose son or daughter is a casualty of war, a man or woman whose name we do not know? Is there a clue for us? Can Matthew help at all?

Perhaps the best we can manage is a tentative "yes." Obviously, Matthew does not deny the reality and power of evil. Someone like Herod–and there have been and are all too many of such people–someone like Herod can cause untold grief and pain. But the evangelist insists that there is also another reality. Evil does not have the last word.

Before we ask Matthew to tell us something of that other reality, we need to pose a nagging question to him. We often hear people say it is somehow God’s will that the innocent suffer, and by and by it will all be made plain. What about it, Matthew? Did God make all those little boys in Bethlehem suffer that day, was it really his hand on the swords of Herod’s soldiers? Is he withholding food from the hungry and help from the needy, causing all sorts of havoc with human lives by fire, storms, and crime day after day? Does he make people have accidents or suffer hardship?

The only hint in the text of what the writer’s response might be is the very subtle wording of what are known as "citation formulas." A citation formula is the characteristic way in which an author introduces a quotation from Scripture. In other words, how Matthew leads into his Bible texts tells us something of his theology at this point. Usually he says that such and such an event happened "in order that" the word of the prophets might be fulfilled. There is the sense of an unseen hand guiding events. But with the slaying of the children in Bethlehem, we find none of that. Matthew reports that a saying of Jeremiah came true, but there is a careful avoidance of any notion that there was some divine purpose in it. He will not make God the author of this evil. The suffering of the innocent is not God’s will. The God we know in Jesus Christ, who cared for the small and the weak, the outcast and the marginalized, does not inflict pain for some mysterious purpose, like a test of faith, and certainly not for his pleasure. There is no doubt more that could be said, but for now, that’s all Matthew has to offer.

So, then, if God does not will suffering, what is he doing about it? Or is he too weak to be of any assistance? Matthew’s story gives some clues about how he might answer such questions.

In the first place, though Herod is on the throne and can command the allegiance of an army or the counsel of scribes, he is threatened by a toddler! He is so obsessed with getting rid of this child that he will commit the worst sort of atrocities to destroy him. Herod is afraid. Something inside tells him that for all the trappings of his power, won by force or intrigue and maintained by terror, there is one who is more powerful still, who will ultimately hold him accountable. As much as he may deny it, he is threatened and worried about his future. Imagine, a two-year old, so dominating the scene that he fills every thought of a king! Even on the floor playing with his toys, Jesus is Lord.

Next, Matthew reminds us that those who perpetrate evil do not last forever. They, too, share the fate of all humankind, which is death. And quite often their end is like their lives; they who live by the sword die by it. As the author of Ecclesiastes might say, everything Herod had then belonged to someone else. His kingdom was divided up among his sons; he no longer had control. Archelaus was cruel as well, but he too would die. And God would have the last word with him as with his father and with every generation of human being that had ever lived.

Third, the author of this gospel urges us to look for the deliverance of God in unexpected places, the presence of God in the most unlikely of situations. Though God does not cause or send suffering and pain, Matthew might remind us that he can and does work through them. He reveals himself in our trouble and hurt in ways we never before imagined. God can indeed be present in the darkness with us. He can and does work in a broken and corrupt world, with and through imperfect and even evil people. He can call his Son out of Egypt, once a land of slavery, but for Jesus and his family a land of refuge and protection. A Savior can grow up in a little place like Nazareth, a town so ill-regarded it was an example of a place that could produce nothing good. He can be nurtured in a village synagogue and work with his hands. The Messiah can come from outside the centers of power, from the boondocks and the backwoods, as we might say. If that’s so, God can also speak a word of hope at the funeral of a murder victim or on the battlefield or in the place where you and I know deep despair.

But the final answer Matthew gives can only be known if we were to read the entire gospel. God also has experienced the grief of a parent whose child is lost to the actions of violent, cruel, and threatened people. Mary’s son was born to die. Over the cradle is the shadow of a cross. It was Jesus’ destiny to be executed. And it is to the cross that the evangelist points those weeping mothers, to the cross he directs our gaze. Why do the innocent suffer? Again, I don’t know. But I do know the God whose Son was innocent of any crime, free of any sin, yet died a cruel death deserved for the worst scumbags of society. And in that suffering, God entered the pain of us all, indeed the pain of all creation, and took it on himself. If we could have seen the face of God the day Jesus died, it would have been wet with tears.

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