How amazing is the scene from the night of Jesus’ birth we all know so well: angels singing lullabies with the sweet mother Mary, poor shepherds gazing upon the manger in wonder and awe, wise men appearing from afar with strange and ominous gifts, and the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes. What wonder our sweet and sanitary nativity scenes give to us this time of year. With the coming of this sweet, innocent, tearless child, what other joyful surprises could be on the horizon? What blessings must be coming upon Bethlehem? What’s next after the shepherds return home, and the wise men follow their angel-filled dreams?
“Weeping and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt 2:18).
The Scriptures, it would seem, are not all that impressed by our sweet Christmas dreams. They deliver to us, not a romantic Victorian winter escape, but an account of a miraculous birth amid suffering. So much of our Christmas preparations smack of sentimentality and escapism. They couch the coming of Christ in a narrative driven by the pursuit of peace and serenity, celestial bliss, and an escape from the pain and suffering of this world. But, the Scriptures don’t paint such a picture. They don’t paint a picture at all. They simply recount for us the truth of the matter: Jesus came into a world full of suffering.
No event around the coming of our Lord exemplifies this better than the martyrdom of the holy innocents (Matt 2:16-18). Jesus comes to a world full of suffering. And not just suffering, but suffering as a result of evil; suffering that flows from hearts hateful and disobedient to God. Jesus comes to a world that suffers under evil.
In the tears of those Bethlehem mothers, St. Matthew heard the weeping of Israel’s matriarch Rachel. The prophet Jeremiah heard her inconsolable cries while Jacob’s descendants were taken into captivity by the tyrannical Babylon (Jer 31:15). God’s people suffered exile in Babylon for 70 years because of their sins. Though the mothers in Bethlehem were not facing punishment for their sins, the sins of that wicked despot Herod left them crushed and in tears. Rachel’s cries echoed throughout the ages as God’s people suffer because of sin.
Jesus comes into a world where, to maintain control, those who believe they are in charge of their own lives and seek to rule themselves will slaughter children. Whether its Pharaoh in Egypt calling for the death of all male Jewish babies (Exod 1:16) or Herod slaughtering all the two-year-old boys of Bethlehem (Matt 2:16), those who seek power go for the children first. Such practices are not far from us today. In the same way that we see the effects of abortion plague people with guilt and shame, we see Rachel weep for her children and refuse to be comforted.
It’s the very thing we want God to prevent, to stop from happening, or to at least let us escape, even if it’s just for one holiday season. But suffering carries on.
I have always had trouble with this account in Matthew. What is God doing? Why does he allow this to happen? Such evil is unconscionable. It’s the very thing we want God to prevent, to stop from happening, or to at least let us escape, even if it’s just for one holiday season. But suffering carries on. And no matter what sort of jingle bell band-aid we put on it, the cancer of evil only seems to persist and grow. And so we continue to weep.
God is ominously silent at such times. We cry out and hear nothing. God’s silence doesn’t seem right, especially when he has spoken and promised blessings on his people. He promises, “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you” (Ps 50:15). But what about when he doesn’t? Weeping and lamentation seem to be our only option. We know God’s promises; we’ve encountered his blessings. “The Lord gives!” declares Job, “And the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). But Job doesn’t stop there. He then laments and cries with Rachel, for his children are gone as well.
Lamentation is the closest that faith ever gets to despair (“Rachel refused to be comforted…”), and yet, it must be stated emphatically, lamentation is anything but despair. As Oswald Bayer notes,
The stronger the promise and expectation, the deeper and more passionate the lament, the question of Psalm 22:1, ‘Why?’ Faced with what daily contradicts that God’s promises of life are valid for all creatures, the pressing question arises: Is God keeping his promises? God has promised to hear us, but in confronting this promise, the distress is particularly painful—the distress of injustice, of innocent suffering, of hunger, murder, and death. Lament is only possible because of the promise that it will be heard. Without promise, there is no cause for lamentation (Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith, 69).
Rachel weeps and will not be comforted, but Rachel has a Lord who refuses to hold back comfort. And his Son will ultimately wipe all the tears from Rachel’s eyes. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country’” (Jer 31:16-17) sings our God into the mourning ears of Rachel.
And, in this promise, God turns our lament of “why” into the hopeful, but agonizing, “how long?” How long until those children who died for Christ’s sake will be raised? How long until weeping turns to dancing? How long until the shame and the guilt stop haunting me? How long until this is all made right? How long?
While we do not have an answer, we do have a promise. A promise given to us by a God whose one and only Son was himself slaughtered by those terrified of losing their power. He, however, took that death willingly. He who was born into our suffering world, took our suffering world upon himself, lamented from the cross, and died at the hands of evil, has promised to make all this right, to give justice to the innocent children. He’s already started in his rising from the dead and as he reigns over this world, he does so for the sake of Rachel. And, sooner than you think, he will come again and wipe every tear from her eyes. And yours too.
While we do not have an answer, we do have a promise. A promise given to us by a God whose one and only Son was himself slaughtered by those terrified of losing their power.
Jesus does not come to sanitize our world nor to give us a season of escape. He’s come to wipe the tears from your eyes eternally. You who weep over the evil of this world, lift up your eyes, and hope. Your redemption draws near. God has heard your cries, he has come down, and you will be lifted up. Weeping will tarry for the night, but have no fear, joy will come in the morning when, once and for all, we will rejoice at the sound of children’s laughter and the songs of the angels. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.