Each Christmas we celebrate with lights, songs, and feasts. And, each Christmas our songs of praise are interrupted by the cries of those who suffer from violence, sickness, and death. This brings us to the story of the slaughter of the innocent boys in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18). It’s part the Christmas story that we don’t often tell, or sing about. The words of the prophet are haunting and familiar.
“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she refused to be comforted, because they were no more” (Matthew 2:18).
Our suffering provokes a familiar question: “Where is God?” For many, this is a question for atheists and agnostics. Actually, this is a question most often poised by people of faith. As we read the Bible we find this question asked in various ways.
The Psalmist cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; and by night, but I have no rest” (Psalm 22:1). The words were quoted by Jesus on the cross. The sense of abandonment and hopelessness is palpable. There is the sense that God has turned away from the plight of humanity; that God refuses to hear our cries for help.
The returning Jewish exiles marched into the ruins of Jerusalem with hope, only to be severely disillusioned. Their waning confidence in God’s provision is expressed in their question to Malachi: “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17). It seemed to them (and to us) that God is unconcerned with the plight of the helpless. Evil prevails and it seems that God is culpable or powerless.
As the first century of the Christian era came to a close many believers began to ask, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Peter 3:4). After diverse tribulations many believers grew weary. The expectations of the return of Christ within the first generation gave way to an eschatological hope that focused on the long-suffering of God (2 Peter 3:8-9). A weary faith cries out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10).
So, again we are provoked to ask “Where is God?” The apostle Matthew quoted the words of Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The miracle of the Incarnation is that God with us means that God shares in our suffering. We prefer protection from evil. Instead of a legion of angels armed with flaming swords, the Father sent the Son conceived by the Spirit in the womb of the Virgin. In the face of an onslaught of evil, God sends a baby whose name is God-with-us. This child is God’s answer to evil.
The advent of the Christ-child is the fulfillment of God’s promise of life and peace for all creation. At his birth, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace among men with whom He is well pleased!” (Luke 2:14). The birth of Christ caused wise men to rejoice and wonder at the mysteries of God (Matthew 2:1-12). And, the child born in Bethlehem provoked evil to fear and conspire, seeking the child’s destruction.
Herod ordered the slaughter of all male children in the environs of Bethlehem two years old and under. The sounds of joyful singing gave way to the “weeping and great mourning” of young mothers. Again, we must ask the question, “Where is God?” God-with-us is running for his life. Joseph, warned in a dream of Herod’s conspiracy, fled with Mary and the Child to Egypt. Is the Father unconcerned for the life of God-with-us? Is the Father powerless in the face of evil? Does the Father care for the lives of the male children of Bethlehem? Does God care about the innocent children of Newtown, Connecticut? For the children of Israel, Gaza, or Syria who die each day? Does God care for the children throughout the world who are sold into sex slavery? Any thinking person must ask these questions.
An early Christian preacher declared that because Christ is God-with-us, he has been “tempted in all things as we are” and he has sympathy for our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15; 2:17). Mary and Joseph suffered the fear and distress of any parent who has despaired for the safety of their child. As a child in exile, God-with-us suffered the alienation of every child who lives in a war zone. The Incarnation forever dispels the notion that “God is watching us from a distance.” Instead, God is sharing in human suffering, fear, and oppression. God’s answer to the problem of evil is to suffer at the hands of evil. God-with-us suffered the ignominy of a public trial with lying accusers, torture, and death upon a cross. The Innocent One was slaughtered by the hands of evil humanity (Acts 2:23).
Even so, evil is not victorious. God-with-us has defeated the powers of evil through the resurrection. Peter proclaimed, “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24). The risen Christ declared, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18). This is the living and blessed hope of the Christian faith.
God-with-us provokes hope in the midst of despair. This hope is expressed in the words of Isaiah: “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise among you; and His glory will be seen upon you” (Isaiah 60:2). Many tragedies have cast a thick, dark shadow in the midst of a season of lights. The melodies of “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” have given way to “weeping and great mourning.” The lament is expressed throughout the cosmos; “the whole creation groans and suffers” (Romans 8:22). The hope of Advent is that in the midst of darkness, even as mothers weep, “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5 NRSV). Even as our hearts are shattered and our eyes are wet with tears, the hope of Advent compels us to sing in expectation of a new heaven and a new earth where God-with-us will “wipe away every tear …and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain…” (Revelation 21:4).
Come, Lord Jesus!
Previously published on 18 Dec 2012 and 29 Dec 2015.