Immanuel In Distress

December 29, 2013
Matthew 2:13-23; Isaiah 63:7-9

The Lord be with you. (and also with you.)

God is with us in this season and every season. But in these short days and long nights, it is especially good to remember that God is with us, as we gather for worship, as we gather with friends and family, as we sit alone and forget the frenzy, as we wonder at the mystery of how the simple story of a baby being born two thousand years ago could become such an occasion for gifts and food and parties and excess.

Yet the story of this particular baby is not so simple.

Last year, we concentrated on the gospel of Luke, which gives us the birth story from Mary’s point of view. Mary sees the angel, Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth. Mary has no place to lay the baby but in a manger. In Luke it is the local shepherds who visit after receiving instruction from the angels. It is Mary who treasures their words and ponders these things in her heart.

This liturgical year, which started with Advent, we are reading Matthew. It is the gospel account of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view. The genealogy in Matthew 1 is of Joseph. It is Joseph who is visited by the angel in dreams, Joseph who makes the decision to stay with Mary.  It is curious though that when the wise ones, who have traveled many miles, arrive at the house it is Mary they see with Jesus; Joseph is not mentioned.  In the text today, Joseph has three dreams, the first telling him to take Mary and the now toddler Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod and his deadly plans.

Like Luke and Matthew we tell the story in our time and place. We add even more details, which may have less theological significance. Does it matter that the shepherds watch over a panda and a frog along with their sheep? Who cares if the wise ones wear bathrobes, carry binoculars and follow a star that seems to have GPS? The important part of the story is the baby, a baby so significant he gets two different birth stories in the bible. It is the baby that we want our children to know, the baby we want to learn to treasure and ponder in our hearts, just as Mary does.

Which is perhaps why the text today is so troubling, this attempt to do away with the baby. This gruesome episode is found only in Matthew’s gospel and is listed in the Sunday lectionary only every 3rd year. We certainly don’t include this part of the story in the synthesized Christmas mash-ups that we have our children recreate each year.

Matthew gives us Herod the Jewish King, a fearful and desperate ruler propped up by the Romans. Herod is willing to do anything to hold onto his power. This is an all too familiar description of many who grab and hold tightly to control. The view is pretty good from the top of the heap and there is no hurry to step down.

If the story sounds familiar that is no accident; Matthew intentionally evokes another powerful ruler, in the book of Exodus. The Egyptian Pharaoh was also feeling threatened – by the growing population of Israelite slaves. In order to hold onto power, to prevent an eventual insurrection, Pharaoh and Herod both resort to infanticide. While we are told they are tragically successful in decimating the population, they both miss their intended specific targets.

Unfortunately the story is not only history, it is all too contemporary. Whenever people seek power over others, someone gets trampled. Thankfully children are not usually the target, as in these two biblical texts, but they can get caught in the struggle for power and recognition.

Think of the mothers in Syria. It is almost impossible to imagine the thousands of children who have lost their lives in Syria in the past three years of civil war. Estimates are that between 11,000 and 33,000 children “are no more.”

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,

Think of the mothers in Congo where boy children were drugged and forced to be soldiers and went on to commit unspeakable atrocities.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

Think on the 194 children aged 12 years and younger who were killed this year in the United States by gun violence.

“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 grief is so deep and so wide, so intense, how can a mother ever be consoled? What can one begin to say to a parent who loses a child, whether through violence, illness or accident? How can there be consolation for the parent that has planned for a life together and now faces a life alone?

1. Lully lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

2. O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

3. Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

4. Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.                    (Robert Croo, 1534)

What can one begin to say? How can there be consolation? This text, from 16th century Coventry England, gives a hint. It allows us to hear the voices of the mothers as they sing to their children who are no more.   Perhaps there is no consolation but shared tears, shared sorrow and the presence of another of God’s creatures, God with us.

Recall the earlier text from Matthew as it quotes Jeremiah: “The child will be called Immanuel, God with us.” Or the text from Isaiah that we heard today – “In all their distress, O God, you were distressed…you lifted them up and carried them…”

As followers of Jesus, this “God with us,” we are called to be with those who need that presence, that Immanuel, in times of joy and in times of deep sorrow.

I know, I know, you are squirming in your seat, as am I. Can’t we just go back to the manger, to the smelly shepherds and regal magi? Do we really have to hear the whole story? Why do we have to talk about death during a season of new life, when we are celebrating the birth of Jesus, not to mention our own new babies – Simon, Kezzie and Ella? Can’t we just pray from a distance that God will be there?

As bleak and depressing as the news is this week in the gospel, the Good News is that God is Immanuel, God with us, even in distress, even in lament, even in grief.

The Good News is that we, who are created in God’s image, can be a sign of God’s presence for others: through the money we give for Mennonite Central Committee’s work in The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan; through the food we make for Community Place Café; through the work we do to prevent violence in the first place.

And we can take the risk to listen to the wails and laments, to open ourselves to the pain of another. Each week we attempt to hear each other into prayer, hear each other into the presence of God, as we share joys and concerns.  It is one concrete way that each Sunday we attempt to bring “God with us” into the world, here in Hyattsville. We pray that wherever there is wailing and lament, where mothers and fathers cannot be consoled, they will also have someone made in God’s image to sit with them, to be Immanuel for them.

We know the story doesn’t end with Jesus and his family in Egypt. Joseph has more dreams and like Moses, Jesus is called out of Egypt. Though many parents wept for their sons in Israel in those years, Mary’s tears would be shed many years later. Mary would weep not for a baby but for a man, whom she would follow all the way to Jerusalem. Matthew tells us that many women were there with her as she wept; they were Immanuel for each other.

In this season of darkness and light, of life and death, of joy and sorrow, of mystery and wonder, may we open ourselves to Immanuel. May we be given the heart to risk being with those who need Immanuel, God with us.