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The High Cost of Christmas

December 30, 2013

“The High Cost of Christmas” Matthew 2:1-23 © 12/29/13 Christmas 1A 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 after being discovered by him in a bottle on an island. She is, of course, unfamiliar with modern consumer practices, such as credit cards. Her economy was based on coin and barter. So Jeannie buys and buys and buys—a whole houseful of stuff. When asked how she’ll pay for it all, she replies enthusiastically with a big smile: "Oh, we don’t have to pay for it; it’s charged!"

In a way, Jeannie’s fantasy of getting everything for free comes true when we listen to the classic Christmas story from Luke. He gives us heavenly hosts singing alleluias 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 screen. There are big differences between Luke and Matthew. Indeed, the only things they agree on are the names of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus; that Jesus was born in Bethlehem; and that he was conceived by the power of the Spirit. For Matthew, there are no shepherds abiding in the fields or angels singing praise to God. Jesus is born in a house like any other child, not in a borrowed stable where he is laid in a manger. Mary doesn’t speak, sing or treasure memories. Instead, Matthew’s world is populated by Joseph, struggling with a faithful response to difficult situations; Herod, the king who pretends to want to worship the baby, but really is planning murder; 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, which tradition wrongly turned into kings, 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 ruler.

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 and Internet news, watching accounts of school shootings and predators, somehow monitoring our most private and troubled thoughts. Reading this text makes all kinds of questions arise that centuries later 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? Was Joseph supposed to warn the other parents before he fled to Egypt with his family? Did our Lord’s parents suffer nightmares from knowing their son survived while so many others perished? 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 anyone who is vulnerable and dependent on others. We think, too, of those who are so desperate for financial security or merely survival that they will fall for any scam, any scheme, become prey for the unscrupulous and criminal. Or turn criminal themselves.

Among the people I have known in my ministry none was more innocent than Stephanie Gach, who insisted on being called “Kitty,” a nickname she gave herself. 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 reminded me of a hummingbird, the way she flitted about, moving so nervously. She 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 nevertheless 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 the parents whose children are the victims of school shootings or some other rampage? For the grieving spouses and parents of those killed or badly injured by that drunken rich kid who got off with therapy and probation in a $450,000 a year facility? For those here and abroad whose son or daughter is a casualty of the many wars that rage in our world? 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—can and does cause untold grief and pain, sometimes for no reason but sick pleasure. 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 children in Bethlehem suffer that day, was it really his hand on the swords of Herod’s soldiers? Is he withholding food from the hungry, shelter from the homeless, medical care from the sick, jobs from the unemployed, and help from the needy, all the while advising corrupt, conniving, and callous politicians? Does he cause all sorts of havoc with human lives by fire, flood, storms, and crime day after day? Does he make people have accidents or suffer hardship all for the sake of some sort of test of faith?

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 or paralleled in the life of his characters. 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 and through kind-hearted and generous people in the midst of hardship. 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 community 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 we keep buried in our hearts 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. These stories of Jesus’ birth and the suffering of the innocents are the overture to the grand drama that unfolds and finds it climax at Calvary. 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 reserved for the worst scumbags and bottom-feeders 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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