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Known Only to GodAlan Wisdom January 04, 2011
The following sermon was preached at Truro Church in Fairfax, VA. You can listen to the complete audio version here.
The following sermon was preached at Truro Church in Fairfax, VA. You can listen to the complete audio version here.
Scripture texts: Jeremiah 31:7-17, Matthew 2:13-23
Sometimes when tragedy strikes, people say, “How or why that happened is known only to God.” Only God knows what possessed the suicide bomber who blew up the worshipers coming out of New Year’s mass yesterday in Egypt. Only God knows the names of the unidentified soldiers buried on Civil War battlefields here in Virginia. Only God sees all the sad things that happen in the abortion clinic a half-mile from my house in Falls Church.
We often say these phrases with a shrug of the shoulders. The tragedy is all too horrible for us to contemplate. We give up counting the lives that have been lost, because it’s beyond our capacity to comprehend. We turn our thoughts toward other matters that we can understand, that we can control. And we leave these tragedies, at least figuratively, in the hands of God. Maybe that’s not a bad place to leave them, if we really mean what we say.
Our Gospel passage today tells of this very kind of tragedy. It is a hard story to hear. This passage comes at the end of Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus. It is not usually included in the Christmas pageants that our children perform. Those typically end with the magi presenting their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the sweet child in the manger.
It would be easier on us if Matthew’s story stopped at that point of undiluted joy. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead it goes on to confront us with a scene of unspeakable horror—the death cries of the innocent children of Bethlehem. Only one child escapes the slaughter, and his escape is only temporary. Matthew will later tell how that child—the Son of God—goes to an agonizing death on a Roman cross. In the gospel narrative, there is no quick and easy happy ending. The way to lasting joy passes through deep sorrow and mourning.
There are two human sides to this story of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. One perspective is King Herod’s; the other belongs to the mothers of Bethlehem. Each perspective is perfectly understandable in human terms, and the two perspectives are irreconcilable.
King Herod—called “Herod the Great”—wanted what most people want. He wanted power. He wanted respect. He wanted security. He wanted to control his own destiny. He wanted to make his own choices, rather than be subject to the choices of others. In pursuing these goals, Herod had great success. He navigated his way through tumultuous political changes to reach the throne of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, and he held that throne for 33 years.
Herod knew how to court the powerful. He was first aligned with Brutus and Cassius, the murderers of Julius Caesar. Then he switched his loyalty to the Roman general Mark Antony, and then when Antony lost out, Herod ingratiated himself to his rival Octavian. Although always dependent upon his Roman overlords, Herod gained considerable latitude to pursue his own endeavors. He carried out spectacular building projects, such as expanding the temple in Jerusalem and constructing the fortress at Masada, for which he is famous to this day.
Herod had worked hard to win his power, and he was willing to do anything to preserve it. He was not going to let lesser men or women—or children—stand in his way. Herod was brutal toward those who were less powerful, less intelligent, less able than he was. He acted ruthlessly to eliminate any perceived rivals. At various times Herod ordered the executions of his favorite wife, his brother, his mother-in-law, two of his brothers-in-law, and three of his own sons. Compassion was not in his vocabulary. Herod the Great was all about power, respect, security, control.
In Herod’s mind, the massacre in Bethlehem must have made perfect sense. He had heard from eastern astrologers a rumor about a new “King of the Jews” who was to be born. His religious advisers told him that the birthplace was likely to be Bethlehem. The Scripture says that Herod was “frightened” by these developments that were beyond his control. He couldn’t allow God to interfere with his dynastic plans, even if God’s intervention had been foretold in ancient prophecies.
Herod didn’t want any “Kings of the Jews” besides himself and his descendants. He couldn’t tolerate even an infant who might one day rise to challenge the House of Herod. So he resolved not to take any chances with this disturbing prophecy. Herod would have his soldiers kill every male infant in Bethlehem. Just to be sure, he set a broad age range: Any boy two years old and under would die. And just to be double-sure, Herod decreed that the killing field should extend beyond the town of Bethlehem to include all the surrounding vicinity.
Even so, this massacre was a minor atrocity by Herod’s standards. It is not recorded anywhere other than Matthew’s Gospel. Historians would have overlooked the event because the death toll was low and the victims were of no social significance. Bethlehem was a very small town, and most authorities estimate that there could not have been more than a couple dozen boys killed by Herod’s soldiers.
In any case, these were peasant children who would never have made a name for themselves. They were infants and toddlers who had not yet developed any notable abilities. They could not take care of themselves. They could not speak for themselves. From Herod’s perspective, they did not matter.
But these slain boys did matter to a few people: their fathers, and especially their mothers. These boys were flesh of their own flesh. Their mothers had borne them for nine months inside their bodies. They had risked their lives and undergone travail to bring these precious children into the world. They had sacrificed to nurture and protect them. There is a powerful bond between mother and child that we now know even has a chemical element.
So Matthew tells us, quoting from the prophet Jeremiah: “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.” Ramah was a village near Bethlehem. The Hebrew matriarch Rachel was associated with Bethlehem because it was believed that her grave was nearby. She represented all the grieving mothers who had lost their baby boys. How could they do anything else but mourn bitterly?
But did those murdered children matter to anyone else besides their mothers and fathers? Here the Scriptures give us a clue. Those children of Bethlehem mattered to God. Under God’s inspiration, Matthew included them in the story of God’s own Son, Jesus. Just as Jesus later died for them, and for us all, so these little boys died for Jesus. They suffered the wrath that the arrogant king had aimed at God’s Messiah.
God delivered Jesus from Herod’s threat, because Christ’s time to die had not yet come. Mary and Joseph and Jesus were guided safely to Egypt, where the Savior could grow and then return to Galilee, where his ministry started. But God also remembered the boys back in Bethlehem who did not escape Herod’s sword. God honored them by linking them forever to his Son, in this page of Scripture that we read today.
There are a host of later Christian martyrs who died for the sake of Jesus. But the Church recognizes these Holy Innocents as the very first martyrs for Christ. The names of these little ones are not known to us. They are known only to God. God knows every one of them. And that is enough. The name of Jesus is the name that we know. And that is enough. In the name of Jesus, the nameless boys of Bethlehem are known to God. In the name of Jesus, every one of us is known to God. And that is enough.
When we turn to the passage in Jeremiah from which Matthew drew the quote about Rachel weeping, we find that her lamentation is not the final word. In Jeremiah’s context, the children for whom Rachel is weeping are the children of Israel whom the Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors have carried off into exile. Yet God through Jeremiah counsels the grieving Rachel to “[k]eep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears.” There is “hope for your future,” the Lord declares, “and your children shall come back to their own country.”
The Almighty God does not identify with the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Herods of this world—those who value only power, intelligence, ability; who would crush the powerless into oblivion. God instead identifies with the conquered Israelites, the bereaved mothers of Bethlehem. He claims their children as his children.
“I am a father to Israel,” God says through Jeremiah, “and Ephraim is my firstborn.” Like a good father, God does not forget his children—even when they may have forgotten him. God does not forsake his children, even when they have forsaken him. Even when they seem to have disappeared into a far country, God still has a home for his children. Ultimately, their home is with him and in him. God will restore them to that home and “turn their mourning into joy.” He will “comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow,” Jeremiah promises.
The prophet also compares God to a shepherd who will gather his scattered flock. Of course, Jesus used the same image for himself. In John, chapter 14, he calls himself “the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep.” He “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” in safety. “I know my own and my own know me,” Jesus assures us. And he knows even those who do not yet know him.
Jeremiah prophesies that the children God is gathering will include more than just the strong, the healthy, the capable, the self-sufficient—those who count for something in the eyes of the world. God’s redeemed will also include those who count for little in the eyes of the world: the weak, the sick, the dependent, the disabled. “Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,” God announces, “among them the blind and the lame, the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.” Among that great company of the redeemed brought home to God are the slain children of Bethlehem—and many others like them, not known to us, but known to God.
Throughout the Bible, again and again, we hear God calling to his scattered children. He calls even to those who think they have been forgotten, who think they have no value. They are surprised to discover that God knows them by name. He calls out to a wandering, childless Aramean: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” From a burning bush he calls out to a fugitive in the Sinai: “Moses! Moses!.. I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, and the God of Jacob.”
Through the high priest Eli, God comforts the barren and despised Hannah: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” Later, after Hannah has the promised child, God calls out in the night to her young son: “Samuel! Samuel!” and gives him a prophecy to declare. God speaks to the young Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” God knew Jeremiah, and knew who he was to be, before Jeremiah knew himself.
Likewise, Jesus knew his disciples before they knew him. He greets Nathanael: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asks in wonderment, “Where did you get to know me?” Then the amazed new disciple confesses Christ as “the Son of God” and “the King of Israel.” Jesus sees a reviled tax collector up in a tree and calls out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Later, Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to Zacchaeus’s house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” After his ascension, Jesus appears to a man on the road to Damascus and calls out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was not seeking to know Jesus, but Jesus already knew Saul.
So it is in our lives as well. Like the scattered Israelites, like the martyred children of Bethlehem, we are known to God. He claims us as his children, his sheep. He calls us by name. “Alan! Alan!” he calls to me. He knows your name too.
The world esteems confident people like Herod, who know who they are and where they’re going and who have the ability to get where they’re going. But God knows us and claims us even when we don’t know who we are, even when we have no idea where we’re going, even when we have no ability to get anywhere. Most of us were nameless before our births, with no consciousness of ourselves, but God knew us nonetheless. “You knit me together in my mother’s womb,” the psalmist exclaims. God knew John the Baptist and Jesus when they were yet unborn, and he named them then.
While we were infants, we could not yet say our names, but God knew us. We demanded much of others and gave little in return, but God valued us all the same.
As we move from childhood to adulthood, many of us become uncertain who we are. We experiment with different names and nicknames, to see which fit. I have a cousin who was, successively, Chuck, Charles, and Charlie within the span of a few years. He was an anti-war demonstrator, and then he joined the Army Special Forces. But God, who has a sense of humor, knew who Charlie was through all those changes, and he patiently drew my cousin to himself.
If we become ill and disabled, we may no longer be able to do the things that gave us our standing in the eyes of others. People may say that our “quality of life” is low. We aren’t very useful to the powerful of this world. But God still knows our worth. And that is enough.
If we suffer a devastating blow that destroys the life we have known—a divorce, for example—we wonder whether we are still the same person. The woman who has seen her marriage fall apart asks what he name should now be. Shall she keep the name that was hers in a marriage that is no more? Or shall she take up her maiden name again? Can she go back to being that earlier person? Or is there some new person that she must become? She is no longer sure who she is. But God knows her through and through. And that is enough.
When we leave a career behind, we no longer have a ready answer to the ubiquitous question, “What do you do?” We no longer have the same official title in front of our name. We wonder who we will be now. But God still knows us. And that is enough.
And if the day comes when dementia grips me tight, and I can no longer remember who I am, what my name is or who my loved ones are, even then God will know me. And that will be enough.
It is in Jesus, supremely, that we are known to God. Because of Jesus, God remembered those nameless slain children of Bethlehem—who died for Jesus, and for whom Jesus died. Those Holy Innocents are not forgotten. We remember them here today.
Our own situation is the very same. “If we live, we live to the Lord,” says the Apostle Paul, “and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” That is our comfort—our only comfort—when we are weeping like Rachel.
There is no lasting comfort in the things of which Herod boasted: the powerful position, the coerced respect, the false security, the imagined control of his destiny. That way leads to the fear and paranoia that consumed Herod down to his last day.
No, our comfort is not in what we know or what we can do or how much others may value us. Our comfort is in the God who knows us, who values us so much that he sent his only Son to bring us back to himself. That surpassing love is the only thing that can turn mourning into joy.
“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” May it be so in my life. May it be so in your life. May it be so in all the lives that the Lord has given, and that he is calling back to himself. We belong to the Lord. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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