Guiding angels and Rachel's tears
Reflections on Matthew 2:12-23 and Christmas from the days immediately followingby David A. Stevens
Do you know how many automobile accidents there were on Christmas Day, how many house fires, how many car bombings, how many children succumbed to preventable diseases?
All those things happened. But do we have to hear about them now? Doesn’t that sound more like the news than the Good News?
Frankly, that’s how this Scripture passage strikes many people. It’s about murder and refugees. Does that sound like the Good News or just the news?
Matthew 2:12-23 is a hard passage to hear, especially on the days right after Christmas. Can’t we bask just a little longer in the giving and goodwill and glory? Give us our reality check next week. Does the text have any Good News for us at all?
Well, to start with, there are angels all around. One of them says to Joseph, “Don’t be afraid.” So he gets over his fear and marries Mary. What he gets for his obedience and act of mercy is, first, a child not his own, and second, fleeing for his life. Joseph is a righteous man. But clearly being a righteous person serves us in life; it doesn’t save us from it.
The astronomy club from Iraq arrives bearing gifts—gifts that are king-friendly, not baby-friendly. Then the astronomers pack up their telescopes. And just like Joseph, they are warned in a dream and do not report back to Herod about where the child is. Herod is not amused with the guys from the east, just as Pharaoh was not amused with the midwives who saved the Hebrew boys in the days of baby Moses. It’s déjà vu all over again.
Then once more an angel appears to Joseph: Take the child and his mother to Egypt. Isn’t that interesting? Right after Jesus is born, the task of the angels changes from praising his birth to saving his life. The Savior isn’t safe. The Savior must first be saved. Matthew does not protect us from a Savior who needs protecting. But there are angels all around. In this world of death and displacement God is guiding his people. The light shines in the darkness.
So Joseph enacts the witness protection plan for Jesus and God’s own Son becomes a refugee; God’s own Son runs from Herod’s death squad like a Sudanese villager; God’s own Son wanders like the Amazon Indian on the streets of Rio; God’s own Son is homeless, like an abused woman in Moundridge. God’s own Son understands refugees; he’s one of them. Jesus is not God-with-us in some superficial way but all the way. That’s Good News.
What do you think? Was there a family down there along the Nile River that took Jesus and his parents in, that gave Joseph a job building decks and taught Mary Egyptian as a second language, and a little friend who showed Jesus how to balance a basket of onions on his head? God provides. Isn’t it true? Wherever there is a robbery, there is a Good Samaritan; wherever there is a Herod, there are magi; wherever there is a Pharaoh, there is a Pharaoh’s daughter who opens the basket and gives the crying baby a home. In the world of death and displacement, God gives us friends in unexpected places. That’s Good News.
While Jesus is away, Herod kills. Matthew says Herod kills out of fear: “He was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:1-3). I’ve wondered about that. How did Herod’s personal fear become everybody’s fear?
Is it possible that Herod turned fear into public policy, turned fear into a strategy for governing, a way to control the citizens? Is that how everyone came to be afraid? If so, Herod was not the last ruler to use fear as a strategy for governance. When the people are afraid they get compliant. It’s amazing what a citizen body will let a ruler get away with when they are afraid, and all because Herod had a personal score with those guys from the east. But friends, amazing things happen; we can’t count anyone out. Luke 8:3 says that the wife of an accountant who worked for Herod’s family became an important follower of Jesus. The light shines in the darkness.
Herod kills and Rachel weeps. Rachel is the ancestress of the endless lineage of grieving mothers. Her tears are never dried, not even on Christmas, because the Herods of history take no holiday. When I was little, I used to climb on a cannon in the town park, but where is the statue that honors Rachel? Matthew says the Christmas choir includes praising angels and grieving mothers.
Some time later, Jesus comes back from Egypt, but it’s not the same. Can you ever really go back? While he was away, Jesus’ preschool in Bethlehem fell victim to an early Columbine. Sixteen years later, at his graduation, there will be lots of empty seats and unwritten diplomas. Jesus comes back, but not really. He is David’s son, born in David’s city, but he can’t grow up in David’s city because he isn’t safe.
His family relocates to Nazareth—a tiny, insignificant village where everybody knows your name. Angel’s guidance notwithstanding, they relocate. What would it have been like for Mary and Joseph to stay in Bethlehem and face the other parents when yours is the kid that lived because you were out of town when the terrorists came? Can you imagine? That’s why some families left Littleton, Colo. That’s why the secretary in the North Tower who called in sick on Sept. 11 sits in the therapist’s office week after week and stares with nothing to say. It’s not easy being a survivor. Jesus understands. He’s one of them. That’s Good News. The light shines in the darkness.
Matthew says nothing more about Jesus’ childhood. After this passage, Matthew skips ahead 30 years. Christmas is over abruptly, even in the Bible. That’s reality; just like traffic accidents and Rachel’s tears and fear as public policy.
But friends, there is Good News for us, even after Christmas. In this world of death and displacement, we can’t count anyone out. Jesus knows. God gives friends in unexpected places. Jesus knows. Sometimes our biggest accomplishment is to grieve our losses, move on and simply survive. Jesus knows. The Bethlehem that should be your perfect fit, won’t always work out. But there is a Nazareth where you can start over. Jesus knows. And friends, God does guide us in this world. Jesus knows. He is the light that shines in the darkness.
David A. Stevens is pastor of Eden Mennonite Church, Moundridge, Kan.
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