“Longing for Hope, Waiting for Healing”
January 5, 2020
Invocational Prayer: Merciful God, in Christ you have come among us and we rejoice; yet still the world groans in hope of redemption. Open our hearts to hear you speaking today in and through some difficult texts. By your Spirit give us grace so that we deny neither the sufferings that remain nor the hope that you give us; through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
This past week is one of my least favorite weeks of the year. It’s the week after Christmas. The week after Christmas always feels to me like such a letdown after all the build-up and anticipation leading up to the big day. Christmas has always been a sentimental occasion for me and one of the best parts is the anticipation of it; I actually listen to Christmas music just about all year long, starting around May or so. Some of you are cringing in your seats; my poor wife – I’ve probably already shortened her lifetime enjoyment of Christmas music by 5-10 years! I love the anticipation of Christmas; I just like anticipating it earlier than most people.
There’s all this build up to it, and then it’s wonderful with the snow, the candle light church services, gifts, family, good food, then it’s shortly followed by New Years. And then January 2nd rolls around and it’s all over. In the week after Christmas, all of the holiday magic has evaporated, the Christmas decorations have come down, family have overstayed their welcome and all of the worries of everyday life start to creep back in after being gleefully ignored for a few days. It’s back to school, it’s back to work and now winter just seems a little greyer, a little darker without the holidays to look forward to. The hope, peace, joy and love that is preached during Advent seems to get overshadowed and forgotten now in the stark return back to “normal” life with all of its anxieties and struggles. The sentimentality of Christmas is shattered by what comes after.
Likewise, our Scripture passage today immediately follows the Christmas event, the birth of Jesus; and this passage from Matthew’s Gospel shatters any attempts we make to sentimentalize the Christmas story. Matthew’s account of the Christmas story does not involve twinkling lights or feel-good Christmas music, nor does it reflect the warmth and smell of freshly baked cookies and pie; in Matthew’s account, the Christmas event is immediately followed by tragedy.
Our passage is a stark contrast to the beautiful scene that has just taken place. The baby Jesus has been born. God has entered the world! The Messiah, God’s chosen Savior, whom Israel has been awaiting for hundreds of years, is finally here! It’s a beautiful scene as shepherds, Magi and angels give glory to God. It’s a quaint, picturesque scene.
But then, before we can get too excited and overjoyed at this incredible event that has taken place, we encounter one of the most disturbing stories in all of Scripture. Where we would most expect to find hope, peace, joy and love, after God has entered the world, we instead find brokenness, grief, and tragedy. Advent, the coming of God into the world, seems to get overshadowed by the brokenness and the evil of the world that he came into. Any sentimentality that is stirred up by the nativity scene is quickly shattered by what comes next.
The angels’ proclamation about a baby who will bring “Good news of great joy,” is interrupted by the disturbing events that we witness in this text. Herod, the self-proclaimed “King of the Jews” commits genocide, killing every innocent child in Bethlehem who is 2 years or younger. The birth of Jesus, which was supposed to signal the end of the reign of evil and the beginning of the reign of God on earth, ends in tears.
The question that this text begs us to ask is: why haven’t things changed? God has finally come down to humanity, after Israel had waited for hundreds of years; God is finally on the scene, in person, and yet we still witness one of the most disturbing events in Scripture. Mothers have their children ripped from their arms and likely killed in front of them; soldiers are forced to carry out atrocious orders that likely result in self-loathing and guilt; Joseph, Mary and Jesus are forced to flee their home country, becoming refugees in a foreign nation. God has come, but why haven’t things changed?
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she does not want to be comforted, because they are no more.” Matthew quotes this from the prophet Jeremiah. In the context Jeremiah is writing, some 600 years earlier, Rachel was known as the Matriarch of the nation of Israel because she was the mother of Jacob – and Rachel is depicted by Jeremiah as weeping because Israel is overrun and taken into exile. But in Jeremiah, Rachel’s weeping is met with words of comfort and hope from the Lord.
This verse that Matthew is quoting, is surrounded by hopeful language in its original context in Jeremiah; yet, Matthew decides only to quote the lament – he leaves out the words of hope and comfort from the Lord. Matthew makes no mention of hope or comfort, only mourning and weeping. Perhaps Matthew himself has given up on trying to add a hopeful spin on such a disturbing and heart-rending story. What hope for healing could ever possibly be found in a world where the egregious murder of young children exists?…
Where there was supposed to be healing and wholeness, there is only more suffering and brokenness. The hope that seemed so palpable in the nativity scene seems to have evaporated just as quickly as it came; the joy and peace experienced in the Christmas event seems to have dissolved as the story is pierced by the tragedy that follows it.
But if we’re honest, this tragedy/this story seems to ring more true to our experience of the world than the truth found in the quaint nativity scene. If we’re honest, the pain, mourning and death that this story tells is unfortunately more believable, more realistic to many of us than the hope, peace, joy and love proclaimed by the Christmas event. This tragedy that Matthew describes seems to characterize the world and the times we live in all too well. Jesus has come, and yet why haven’t things changed?
As we reflect back on the past year, 2019, we might have similar questions percolating in our minds. Another Advent season has come and gone, and yet why haven’t things changed? We believe that God entered into our world in order to redeem and renew all things, and yet we can’t help but notice the unredeemed state of the world we live in.
2019 has felt at times like another year of tragedy after tragedy, and it’s sad that some of us are no longer surprised when we hear news of another mass shooting because it feels almost so common place now. Just this past week our hearts were pierced by hearing of the stabbing at a Jewish Rabbi’s home in NY.
In 2019 we also mourned as hurricanes and fires raged and left land ravaged. 2019 has been another year which has revealed the inequalities still present in our nation; racialized policing, mass incarceration, and discrimination against people groups due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity continue to be problems. The political divide seems greater than ever. Acts of hatred and bigotry run rampant. Why haven’t things changed?
Perhaps 2019 has been a difficult year for you or your family. Perhaps Christmas was not sentimental this year because it was spent without a loved one who has passed away. For some of us, this year we’ve watched an illness get worse in ourselves or in someone we love. Some of us have suffered and continue to suffer from mental illness. Thoughts of anxiety and depression run through our heads tirelessly, as we’re subjected to a psychological torment that leaves us feeling isolated and misunderstood. Perhaps this year has been a difficult one for your marriage, your job, your financial situation. If God has really entered this world, then why haven’t things changed?
A voice is heard in the wilderness, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children. Why is something as atrocious as the murder of young children allowed to still happen!? Why do people still suffer everyday? Why do we still have to watch loved ones pass away? Why do we have to be subjected to brains and bodies that do not work properly? Why do we still feel lonely? Why are there still racist systems at work in our country? Why is there is still so much anger, hatred and evil in the world? Why God?
We want to know the answer to these “why” questions, and I think it is healthy for us as Christians to ask these questions, to come to God in prayer and to wrestle with him, sharing our anguish and our protests at what we witness in the world and at what we experience in our own lives. But as much as we want to know “why”, Matthew, in our text today, does not answer “why”. Matthew does not offer us answers to these questions. Matthew himself probably does not know “why”. But he is crystal clear on this one point: Jesus came to enter into the suffering of the world in order to redeem it. And these tragedies are a reminder of the state of the world that Jesus has entered into to redeem.
God, decided to step down from his heavenly throne, and to reach down into the broken shards of humanity, and to bloody his hands alongside us in order to piece it all back together. And for Matthew, along with every other New Testament writer, this is not instantaneous. God has entered the world, but this does not always bring instantaneous joy or instantaneous healing. Now, I’m sure everyone of us in this room could probably come with a better plan for salvation in which there is instantaneous healing, and we might have some choice words for God because his plan does not involve that; and yet, God is still God, and we are not, but we are asked to trust God’s plan for salvation, as backwards and as painful as it sometimes seems.
For some reason unknown to us, God’s plan for redemption involved becoming a vulnerable, helpless baby in our world. In the midst of this awful tragedy that Matthew has written down, the thread of hope that he offers us, is a baby, who has now become a refugee, on the run, dependent on his parents to take care of him. Matthew, in this passage, does not tell us about what hope is, but instead, he shows us what hope is.
And our Gospel hope, our Christmas hope, has skin on it – hope is embodied in a vulnerable baby. Sometimes hope comes in the form of a whisper, rather than a shout. If we read this passage too quickly, or if we get lost in the “why” questions, then we will miss this hope. Hope for Matthew, is not an idea, but a person. And in this person, God has promised to redeem and to renew all things, in heaven and on earth…all things. And as believers, we take this promise seriously; because we trust that God’s redemption and healing will not stop short of everything, we know that God’s redemption is not finished.
God has entered the world and is at work redeeming it, and if we look closely enough, we can catch glimpses of it. Healing takes place through efforts like Feed Cheney and Cheney Outreach. Healing takes place when first responders act quickly and put their lives in danger to save as many people and homes as they can after fires and hurricanes. Healing takes place in the countless organizations and movements that seek to end racism, poverty and world hunger.
Healing takes place every time one of you decides to sit and listen to the struggles of another. Healing takes place every time your heart breaks for someone or something you see, leading you to pray. Healing happens every time we look at the unredeemed state of the world and we long for God to finish his redemption.
Healing is not the absence of pain and suffering, but healing is the presence of God’s redeeming love. Chances are, we will not see God’s finished work of redemption in our lifetimes, but that does not mean that healing does not take place. Just because we still observe and experience suffering everyday does not mean that God is not at work in our lives and in our world, putting the pieces back together. And so even as we long for the redemption that has been promised to us, the redemption that was guaranteed by Jesus’ coming into the world, even as we wait and look expectantly towards the horizon, we still move towards healing now.
In our Scripture passage, Israel’s hope for healing, in the form of a vulnerable baby, seemed insignificant compared to the magnitude of the suffering witnessed in Bethlehem. But we know that that baby grew into a man, who died on the cross and rose again to guarantee the end of the reign of sin, death and suffering. God’s promise to redeem all things is guaranteed for us. In the midst of Rachel’s weeping and mourning, the prophet Jeremiah writes down God’s promises: “I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow…There is hope for your future.” (Jer. 31:13b, 17).
God has promised us that suffering will not have the final word, but joy will; God has promised us that death will not have the final word, but life will; God has promised that the story will not end in mourning, but in laughter. Jesus is the guarantee that God has come to redeem our broken world; the Christmas story that we celebrate each year reminds us that our suffering has become the object of God’s redeeming love.
Our hope for healing has skin on it, in the form of Jesus, and Jesus has sent us out into a broken world in order to work towards its healing.
Jesus continues his redemption and healing of the world through us. We do not proclaim empty hope for healing; we embody hope and we enact healing. We are commissioned hope-bringers and healers. Every one of us is called by Jesus to sit with those who are suffering, who are marginalized and who are hopeless – we are called to sit with them, to listen to their stories, and to suffer alongside them, so they do not have to suffer alone. This is healing. Healing does not take place in isolation, but in community.
Hope for healing in this broken world may seem to many of us as innocuous and insignificant as a vulnerable baby lying in a manger. But just as we know this baby is nothing to be overlooked, so too our hope for the coming redemption is not to be overlooked. Just as the Great Herod could not overcome this baby, so too, the present suffering will not overcome the redemption and glory to come. And yet we do not need to wait for the healing to begin, because healing is not the absence of pain and suffering, healing is the presence of God’s redeeming love with us here and now. God’s redeeming love is surely present with us here. He has not left us alone; Rachel does not weep alone.
And so we continue to cling to hope, looking towards the horizon where we know God’s promises will be fulfilled; and while we cling to hope, we are continually called out into this world, to be sources of healing for those around us, proclaiming and embodying the presence of God’s redeeming love.
Friends, we are called to carry this hope with us into the world as we eagerly anticipate God’s redemption and healing in our lives and in the world around us. God has promised to redeem all things. Let us cling to this promise. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.