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Rachel Weeping

Inconsolable weeping meets Christ's unfathomable comfort.

The story behind the sermon (by Ken Langley)

Pastors struggle to find a fresh word at Christmas. We also struggle with expressing authentic sermonic lament ("celebration" is more popular in both pulpit and pew). An old article I found buried in my file helped me with both of these homiletical challenges.

Wendy Zoba, in "Mary Rejoicing, Rachel Weeping" (Christianity Today, December 8, 1997), wrote honestly about the dark side of Christmas, the slaughter of the innocents, and linked that horrific episode with the sorrows of mothers throughout history and down to the present.

Although no mothers in my congregation (as far as I know) have lost children in a massacre, many (and not just mothers) are burdened with numerous griefs which are especially keen around the holidays. They may wonder whether God is present in the midst of their pain, as the bereaved of Bethlehem may have wondered what was going on when Emmanuel was born.

The theme of Rachel weeping gave me something unfamiliar to preach about the Sunday after Christmas and an opportunity to address pain in the pew. An additional benefit was educating the congregation on the textual connections between Genesis, Jeremiah, and Matthew.

It shouldn't be difficult for preachers to flesh out this sermon with contemporary news items and recent sorrows from their own church families. Zoba's article is located here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1997/december8/7te024.html. And the Rachel Foundation, referenced in my sermon, has a good story about how they chose their name: http://www.rachelfoundation.org/images/270715_Rachel_Brochure.pdf

Introduction

A three-year-old boy discovered that there's a dark side to Christmas. His mother was reading him a book illustrated with Giotto's paintings of the life of Christ. She turned a page, and there was a painting entitled, "The Massacre of the Innocents." In it, Herod's soldiers search for the Christ child, slaying as they go. Their grisly work lies at the bottom of the page—a naked jumble of little bodies. "What are those from, Mommy?"

Rachel weeping.

Every year in October our church office shops for Christmas bulletin covers. We see a lot of poinsettias and candles, stars and angels, wise men and shepherds, twilit portraits of Bethlehem ("how still we see thee lie"). We've never seen a bulletin with Giotto's painting. We never expect to see a bulletin portraying Matthew 2:18.

Rachel weeping.

We like the bright side of Christmas, the tidings of comfort and joy. But the Bible is realistic in portraying the darkness as well. And we better not close our eyes to it. In a world where mothers still lose their sons, a world where peace on earth is more hope than reality, we dare not gloss over this episode in the Christmas story.

The Rachels of the world will write us off as hopelessly out of touch. They'll conclude that our Christmas gospel is pretty hollow if we pretend that lowing cattle and angel voices tell the whole story.

No. Listen. Can you hear Rachel weeping?

Christmas grief

Remember Rachel? Wife of Jacob, one of the mothers of the Jewish people. On the road to Bethlehem she died in childbirth. With her dying breath she named her baby Ben-oni, "Son of my sorrow." Jacob ignored her last wish and named the boy Benjamin, "Son of my right hand," better, no doubt, for Benjamin, but it did silence the dying mother's voice. She was buried alongside the road near Bethlehem.

A thousand years later Jeremiah watched Rachel's offspring trudging into exile down that same road. After a siege in which many had starved and an assault when many more fell to the sword, the victorious Babylonian army now dragged Jews off to Ramah, a holding camp where they were chained for the long march north to Babylon. What a grim place that must have been. The prophet wrote, "A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping inconsolably for her lost children."

Rachel Weeping.

Christian author Wendy Zoba writes, "A mother weeping for her lost children is as bad as it gets in this life. It is God's metaphor for the apogee of anguish."

  • Think of the mother of two teenagers shot to death in Colorado a few weeks ago.
  • Think of mothers of soldiers and sailors killed serving their country.
  • Think of mothers in Sudan who risk their all trying to locate their kidnapped, enslaved sons.
  • Think of mothers who wander dangerous streets looking for wayward children.
  • Think …

Think of a mother bereaved by senseless tragedy. A woman named Vickilynn Haycraft wrote a prayer/poem after her three-year-old son Benjamin died suddenly on a playground from a genetic disorder.

How can I say
all that's in my heart?
Did you turn away?
You let my boy die.
You could have healed.
I never said good-bye.

She speaks for all the Rachels of this world.

God enters our grief

Seven hundred years after Jeremiah invoked Rachel as the quintessential mourner, Herod gave another generation reason to mourn. This paranoid king had already killed wives, sons, and others he feared as potential threats. So when the Magi came with news of a newborn king, he killed a bunch more.

And Matthew sees this as prophecy fulfilled. Matthew has learned to read his Bible (our Old Testament) through new lenses. Everything in Israel's story is now seen in light of the Jesus story. Not only are there explicit predictions of Messiah, there are foreshadowings of Messiah, allusions to Messiah. Repeatedly in his version of the Christmas story, Matthew writes, "This happened to fulfill what the Scriptures had said."

Here in Matthew 2:18 Bethlehem's grief echoes the weeping of Jeremiah's generation. In the region of Bethlehem and Ramah, Rachel is weeping again.

Has anyone else besides me ever wondered why, if God could send an angel to warn Mary and Joseph to flee, why didn't he send angels to the other parents of Bethlehem? If Jesus escaped, why did all those other babies have to die? For that matter, if God ever intervenes to deliver, why doesn't he deliver my loved ones?

We can wonder why God does what he does and doesn't do what he doesn't do, but it's worth noting in Matthew 2 that God didn't really spare his Son. Jesus was rescued from Herod only to be crucified under Pontius Pilate. In Bethlehem God's Son had a narrow escape, but on Golgotha he died that the rest of us might escape. No angel came that afternoon. God turned his back. And Jesus was, in the end, the only one who was not delivered from evil.

And in that there is comfort for Rachel.

Christ comforts the grievers

If you read the verse in Jeremiah that Matthew quotes, you'll see that it's the only sad note in an otherwise hope-filled sermon. "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more." But, Jeremiah says, God hears Rachel. God cares about her grief. And God intends to do something about it—tidings of comfort and joy!

God will come to the rescue of his people. "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes form tears." Not, "There, there, everything will turn out all right," but "I, the Sovereign One, will make things right."

Matthew knows that the time foretold by Jeremiah has come. Remember, Matthew writes in light of Christ's death and resurrection. He knows not only Christmas but Good Friday and Easter, too. He knows that in the Babe of Bethlehem God is working for the salvation of all the babes of Bethlehem—and for everyone else. This is good news, the only good news, really, that can console the Rachels of the world.

The only boy to escape Herod is the only one who can comfort Rachel.

Jesus lived through that brutal night to be brutalized on the cross. There he suffered the worst the world can do to us, redeeming suffering, assuring us that even in the darkest moment God is working for our good. There he suffered his Father's wrath against sin, suffering what we should have suffered. By dealing decisively with our sin, he began an age-long reversal of the curse, undoing sin and death and weeping.

Grief is real, but it is not ultimate. Rachel will be comforted. Loss is keen, but it will not have the last word. Weeping will turn to joy. Matthew is honest about the dark side of Christmas, but the dark side is not the whole story or the most important part of the story.

The only boy to escape Herod is the only one who can comfort Rachel.

He'll do that fully and finally when he comes again. But he does not wait till the end of history to comfort his people. He comes to us and assures us of his love and care—just as he came to a woman named Pamela.

Pamela is part of a ministry called "The Rachel Foundation for Family Reintegration." They provide help for families whose bonds of love have been damaged or destroyed by addiction or alienation. People wonder sometimes about the name of this foundation. They assume it was named after a daughter of the founder. Not so.

Years ago Pamela was struggling to keep her children. They had been severely alienated from her. She'd been through a prolonged court battle. A psychologist advised her that her situation was hopeless, that she'd be better off forgetting them and getting on with her life.

She was devastated. She tried to imagine life without her children, but couldn't. She reached for her Bible hoping to find some indication that God had not abandoned her. The Bible fell open to Jeremiah 31:15, "A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted." She tossed the Bible aside and collapsed on the floor in tears. But a quiet insistent vice urged her to read on. "I can't. I've had it. And anyway, I've closed the Bible and could never find those words again."

But she picked herself up, let the Bible fall open again, and, incredibly, it opened to the same passage. Amazed, she read on: "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes form tears, for the Lord is pleased with the work you will do. Your children will return …."

She made that promise her own. Energized by renewed hope, she resolved never to give up loving her children.

Conclusion

Maybe God knows someone here needs to hear Jeremiah's words—and Matthew's use of those words. Maybe many of us need the reminder that while this age lasts, there will always be a dark side to Christmas, but ….

The only boy to escape Herod is the only one who can comfort Rachel.

Ken Langley is pastor of Christ Community Church in Zion, Illinois.

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David Brett

February 21, 2015  8:05am

Well done. Thank you.

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Audio Sample:

Sermon Outline:

Introduction

I. Christmas grief

II. God enters our grief

III. Christ comforts the grievers

Conclusion