New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
God’s Mercy Remembered
7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
8 For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
9 in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Most pastors avoid this text I’m about to read you like the plague. It’s even called the Holy Innocents or Martyrs in the Lectionary. Most people don’t know it’s even part of the Christmas story, and Lord knows we wouldn’t want it depicted in any way. But my friend and colleague the Rev. Paul Shultz, had a way of wading into texts that still made you uncomfortable, still did not give you all the answers and didn’t tie up the loose ends. He would act like he relished making you uncomfortable, but he let slip one too many times, his care for people. He died from flu complications in January 2014. We texted on New Year’s when he first started coming down with something. He was only 50 years old and had three kids and a fiancé Jana. His life and example challenges me even now. He walked Micah 6:8 with a very crass sense of humor and we all loved him for it. He didn’t hesitate to expose the dark side of the Gospel because there is a dark side. A very twisty side. It’s not all sunshine and roses, otherwise we wouldn’t need a Savior that comes into the darkness of this world and bring light to it.
Hear now the word of God.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Escape to Egypt
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “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.”14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
The Massacre of the Infants
16 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, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
The Return from Egypt
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.
So how do you deal with the implications of an angel warning Mary and Joseph to flee with baby Jesus while hundreds of children, 2 years old and younger, were slaughtered? This is my attempt to not gloss over and fast forward the verses, but to deal with them, realizing that I have a limited understanding of what it’s like to lose a child.
This is the journal book of Divorah, daughter of Amos, of Beyt-Lechem.
Journal Entry 1
I am a young woman today, full of strength and life, and I’ve been blessed by God. I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one. I have a good name, something that, among my people, is priceless. The Lord led me to my love, my husband, Yoseph, and we have had three full years of joy together. We have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it. God even favored us enough to give us a child, a daughter, whom we’ve named Hannah. She has been the most precious thing I have ever known. Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it has been overwhelming the amount of unconditional love I feel. Her father and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could. That is how this journal came to be. Yesterday, on Hannah’s first birthday, we bought this book of memories, with as many blank pages as we could afford, to begin to record her life. And all of that, taken together, is an overflowing cup for any person.
But that was yesterday. And today let no talk pass my lips of the Lord’s favor. Let no one speak his name before me. May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips or those of anyone in my household as long as I live.
Yesterday morning my Hannah turned a year old, and yesterday evening a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders. Yoseph and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door. They didn’t ask for the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if my husband was a member of the latest insurrection. They demanded, of all things, our little girl.
And I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers. My husband was clubbed nearly to death, and these men murdered my Hannah. Yoseph couldn’t protect her. And no matter how loudly I screamed and scratched and hit, the soldiers just pushed me to the side. They killed my sweet, precious Hannah and they might as well have killed me as well. My husband keeps shaking me, asking me if I need anything, anything at all. Doesn’t he know I can’t bear to go on? Doesn’t he know that it’s all I can do to record every last thing I can remember in this journal? For her short and brief life. What made her smile and giggle, made her light up……I can’t bear it.
Journal Entry 2
Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages again. I’ll confess that I’ve read and re-read those last words many, many times since that day. No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back here to remember. On more than one occasion I even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old. But it seemed wrong to change this book. It seemed like moving on from her. I can’t bring her back, no matter how many mornings I’ve woken up thinking that it was a nightmare.
Nevertheless, I write today because new facts have come to light with regard to the history of Hannah’s life. My husband and I’ve met again a young man named Yohanan, John, son of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee. John’s mother is my cousin, and he spent some time here on the farm as a boy.
Anyway, in the city, John had been invited to teach. I thought it strange for the son of a fisherman, but the local Rabbi seemed to wish to almost interrogate him about the happenings of another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, or Jesus. So my husband and I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, and the “spirit” that was upon him. We greeted him afterwards and he invited us to lunch and started to open up his heart to us. And it was he who mentioned Hannah’s name to me.
He explained that this Jesus, whom he takes the foolish risk of calling “lord,” is none other than the Messiah. And I told him that I’d heard all of that talk before but that I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs. But he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village so many years ago, that it was this Jesus who threatened the evil rule of men like Herod, that it was this Jesus who is God’s great savior. He spoke of the boy’s birth to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents. He started to describe the kingdom of God coming, and an age where even grief like mine would be no more.
Now that I think of it I can still remember the Roman census that year, and the rumors that were circulating in town at the time – a king was to come from the city of David, after all. It was only a few months later that I became pregnant with Hannah, so we had taken it all as a good omen! Our daughter, growing up to see the reign of Israel’s great king!
But that is when I remembered myself. That is when I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night. I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they’ve grown up to see what life is like here and now, on earth. I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, had his son born to peasants in unsecured and unknown towns; or why this God speaks in fables and dreams while men like Herod give orders to armed legions? Or why was it only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone to die? And hundreds more with her? Why a God like that left hundreds of innocent people to suffer like me?
I cannot even remember John’s reply, but my husband Yoseph had a few choice words for John that he had the audacity to bring up that terrible night as if this Jesus could EVER be enough to…… As Yoseph regained his temper, he thanked him for the lunch and sent him on his way without another word. He wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar or the Chief Priest, for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation. There’s no way this Jesus being born could justify my Hannah being taken from me. Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me. I no longer know who I am or how to live. I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story.
Journal Entry 3
Today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close. Very briefly I’ll say that, through John, in the past year I’ve been able to meet Jesus in person. To follow him in the crowds, very suspiciously at first. Then, to eat with him and speak with him intimately a few times. And the same wisdom and Spirit that I saw in John in that synagogue, I’ve felt in Jesus – as the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I first even entertained the idea that he could really be our Messiah. It was gradual, as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones. But something in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me. He would occasionally speak of death, and of his own suffering. He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again. He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.
And I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, they rang true in my heart. While the crowds asked him not to say such things, but foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies, it sounded to me like something deeper was at work. So, yes, just weeks ago during the Passover when he was arrested, I was stirred to draw near to Jesus like never before. What did I have left to lose? What could the soldiers take from me now that they haven’t already ripped from me?
As some of his crowd fled in fear or others shouted out in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal, I prayed for him. As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured, as he suffered, and felt unspeakable pain, at no fault of his own, in spite of his innocence, I thought of the innocence of my 1 year old, Hannah. And I ached for his mother Mary, to witness the unspeakable ways they were treating him. It was this final thought that confirmed in me that this was my Lord and my God.
I, who wasn’t one to look for a Messiah, who felt like no one on this earth knew my tragedy or could possibly feel my pain – I understood the injustice and cruelty, tyranny and evil, that was upon Jesus. And I knew for certain that this was not God’s doing, but it was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do, that day and since the beginning. It was sick and twisted men, like Herod, who were threatened by a baby. Then I remembered Jesus’ words about freedom. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” It convicted me that, in all of the many ways that I’d hardened my heart these decades, some of his suffering was my own doing. But Jesus’s way was to come and submit to such a thing, in order to finally set things right. In his own words, he had become the Passover lamb for my sake and for the sake of his children, and for the sake of the man next to me that day shouting curses at him, and for the sake of his own weeping mother, and even for the sake of Pilate and Herod and Caesar.
I stayed that day until the end; I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, and watched him pass into death. I grieved and mourned. I wondered what could be next. And then I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers: “the grave could not hold him.” And today I remember his words: “Because I live, you shall live also.” And though, more than 30 years ago, while his innocents were slaughtered in Bethlehem, God did not intervene in that moment to spare Hannah’s earthly life, I trust that, today, she lives also. And I will. So, as I said, today her story in this book comes to a close, because it continues elsewhere.
John 3:16-18 —
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
I know many people that have lost children or other loved ones and I want you to know that God didn’t cause the cancer, the car accident, whatever tragic event happened. God mourns with you. Jesus knows your suffering. The Holy Spirit intercedes for you in your shouts, in your tears, in your moans. We believe in a God that came to be one with us, so that God would know suffering and then bring about redemption. I also believe and trust that God works things together for good. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be standing up here.
Let us pray….
It’s also Epiphany this Sunday, when we celebrate the gifts of the magi. When you come forward to receive communion, you will have the opportunity to pick out of a basket a cardboard star. It’s your Epiphany Star Gift. The star will have a word on it, naming a gift from God; visually, nothing special, as God’s gifts are not always flashy. Sometimes the gift is known by all to be one that you already evidence or experience in abundance. Sometimes you will feel that it is something you’ve needed, a challenge to work on. Often it’s something you don’t understand, or could learn more about. It will provide you an opportunity to ponder and pray in the coming year. Put it where you can see it. On your bedside table, on your refrigerator, on your bathroom mirror, on the visor in your car.
No matter what word you receive, you’re invited to receive whatever comes, with the assumption that the Spirit of God has a hand in the process. Accept the gift for what it is, a gift freely given. Many have discovered that the gift that seemed daunting, disappointing or confusing at first turned out to be the most meaningful in actual experience. Perhaps God has something in store that is beyond our planning and imagining. That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about. In remembering that night long ago when God used a star to reveal the newborn Christ to the world, to the Magi and to all of us, we each grab a hold of our own stars. Each of us will journey with that star, with that word all year long- to see where the word moves us in prayer, pushes or pulls us in faith, and how it opens our hearts to God’s call on our lives. We listen and look for them in our community. And we keep looking to the stars, all the stars, all the light, that God sends to pull us closer to Christ, at Epiphany and ALL YEAR LONG. Remember, we don’t just follow the baby in the manger, we follow the Word in flesh that came to live among us offering the world abundant and transformative life. Whatever our New Year’s Resolutions are or are not, may the Spirit move us where we need to be moved, may the Spirit give us courage to articulate our hopes and dreams, and may the Spirit give us the strength and perseverance to make them a REALITY.