12/29/2019 – Contrast, Power. and Compassion

Contrast, Power, and Compassion

December 29, 2019
1st Sunday of Christmas
Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
Elder Alan Willadsen


For the record, I am not a die-hard football fan.  However, if there’s a game on and I feel like watching television, I will watch a game.  I’ve noticed near the end of big games when a season is on the line, the camera starts to focus on and follow the coach of the team about to emerge the victor.  A couple of big burly linemen will grab a cooler of ice and Gatorade and dump the contents on the coach.  The shock is palpable!  Today’s Gospel passage has the same impact on us.  After the preparatory season of Advent and the joyful celebration of Christmas, we hear about children being slaughtered and a family fleeing a tyrant.

Yet still we sing Christmas carols.  Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Is there a contrast between who we are in worship and who we are in the world?  Will we live any differently the next six days this week, as a result of something we learn today in this community gathering?  Or will we come back next week only to have cold water thrown on us as we think back on what we could have done better last week?  Is it any wonder restaurant staff gets anxious about the after-church crowd, upon whom worship has had no apparent effect, whose demeanor and generosity resemble Ebenezer Scrooge at noon on December 24, before the spirits visit him?

Yet still, we sing Christmas carols.  It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

We sing songs of joy.  We gather to worship and celebrate Christ as Lord.  With Isaiah, we

recount the gracious deeds of the LORD,

the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, . . .

that he has shown . . . according to his mercy,

according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”

Yes, still we sing Christmas carols.  Angels from the Realms of Glory

We celebrate Christmas, God with us, Emmanuel, even amidst life’s continuous challenges, to come to grips with the stark contrasts we encounter.  How is it possible that there is so much poverty, so much human suffering, in the midst of so much plenty?  We lavished gifts on family and close friends, possibly putting some spare change in the red kettle or sacrificing an hour or two to help at the mission, knowing we soon would return to our comfortable home.  The contrast we experience is really no different from the contrast between Herod and Christmas or that between any earthly empire and God’s ultimate reign.

Earthly empires seek to gain, maintain, and wield power for their own sake.  Their moral compass (if they have one) guides them to power and influence rather than to justice and compassion.  Earthly leaders’ focus is inward, on themselves, and on how great they are.  Such a focus leads to a lack of compassion for others, like William Shirer observed about Adolph Hitler when he wrote, “The misery of the German people, their lives still scarred by disastrous experience of the collapse of the mark less than ten years before, did not arouse his (Hitler’s) compassion. . . The suffering of his fellow Germans was not something to waste time sympathizing with, but rather to transform, cold-bloodedly and immediately, into political support for his own ambitions.”[*]  Imagine John 3:16 as if God led an earthly empire:  “For God so loved himself. . .”  Earthly leaders and their empires bear no resemblance to divinity.

Herod was an earthly leader whose ambitions had been upset—disturbed—when the Magi came to him in Jerusalem seeking to worship some other king.  In what was very clearly a quid pro quo, Herod directed the Magi to Bethlehem.  In return, they provided the new king’s birthdate to Herod, which he then used to try to destroy this perceived threat, as he ordered his men to kill all children two years old or less.

It’s easy to understand how Herod felt threatened and why he acted the way he did.  His behavior showed him to be a morally bankrupt sociopath, bereft of any ideological framework.  Someone outside his kingdom had heard about another king—even one within his very territory—and sought to recognize that other king.  How he reacted to that discovery betrayed his self-absorbed lack of compassion.  Bullies always lash out their insecurities on the weak and vulnerable. What was it about an unknown baby he found threatening?

The story of Joseph and his family fleeing a powerful tyrant is not—or should not be—unfamiliar to us today.  Remember the 300,000 Jews who fled German-occupied Poland between 1939 and 1941.  Think of the 235,000 people who fled bombing in Syria earlier this month.  These large groups are made up of a lot of individual families like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.  “The good news of Christmas does not insulate us from the ubiquitous violence and fears of tyrants.  It frees us to do what is right in spite of them.”[†]  Where do we encounter such compassionless power today, and what do we do about it?  How do we offer hope and compassion to the victims of oppressive empires?

In contrast to Herod, we have Joseph.  He was open to God’s guidance and relied on it to determine what actions to take.  Unlike his son, he was not perfect.  But like his son, he had compassion, even if only for his family.  We more readily relate to Joseph, can take our lead from him, and act to protect the vulnerable child.  We are told in Matthew of Joseph’s multiple dreams where he gets divine messages and heeds them. How does God communicate with you? How do you listen for and discern God’s will?

“Mary and Joseph and their family had to flee their homeland because King Herod strong-handedly used his power to squash out what he saw as a threat to his power. I can guarantee you two things; one, in the house where Jesus grew up, the narrative of why they had to flee to Egypt and of the senseless deaths imposed on other families by the powerful was a story that was told time and time again. Two, the focus on the abuse of power in Jesus’ teaching and his constant willingness to confront it was no accident. Christmas should cause Christians to recommit to confronting those who abuse power.”[‡]

Matthew’s use of a passage from Jeremiah is intriguing.  If we adhere to the theory Matthew’s Gospel targeted a Jewish audience, then we should try to understand what this passage is doing here.  Remember Rachel was Jacob’s wife, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin.  She died while giving birth to Benjamin and was buried at Ramah.  Jacob and his entourage had been traveling toward Bethlehem when she died.  Death happens in the midst of a new life.

Jeremiah prophesied immediately before the destruction of Jerusalem and came to understand Babylon would ultimately exile Judah.  Such an exile journey would take the people out of Jerusalem and past Rachel’s grave at Ramah.  The Jews no longer possessed or controlled the Promised Land.  Exile and absence from Jerusalem paralleled the exile of Jesus and his parents.

We mourn the death, especially the death of innocent children, who have gone the way of Rachel.  We grieve displacement from the community.  But, as people living in a post-resurrection world, we understand how Jeremiah’s prophesy has been fulfilled:

Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.

The exiles return—which Matthew tells us about after reporting Herod’s death.  Matthew, Jeremiah, and Rachel remind us God is with us in and through grief and exile.

“But the story also seems to contain more universal lessons.  Human beings, even the wisest and most learned among them, we are reminded, assume that power lies in palaces, but that kind of power produces violence and horror.  Stars and dreams and Scriptures point in a different direction—in this case, improbably enough, to a baby in a stable. . .  Here at its beginning, Matthew’s story anticipates monarchy and divinity, yet of such an odd sort that they come to glory only on the other side of death.  Showing us what it means to be truly God and truly human, Jesus will show the power of vulnerable love, and the servanthood that is the most perfect kind of rule.”[§]  His monarchy, power, and rule are like no other.

How do you experience and express power?  Earthly power seeks to save itself and is self-focused.  Godly power saves the world and is other-focused.  Clothe, feed, heal, and visit other people.  Earthly power knows no compassion.  Godly power is compassion.  Be generous with your lovingkindness.

Amen and Amen.



© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2019, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church  |  1420 W. Moss Avenue  |  Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org   |   309.673.8501


[*] Shirer, William.  The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1959.  p. 136.

[†] Gaboury, Jason.  Cited by Scott Harris on Facebook, December 28, 2019.

[‡] https://sojo.net/articles/advent-reflections/ten-things-you-cant-do-christmas-while-following-jesus?fbclid=IwAR1FGiLC0ldSOmRZwvhrqeL7BjyKYG0kJcIR8DXTw6h-ikByTsYi9FyBJew

[§] Placher, William C.  Jesus the Savior:  The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2001.  p. 55.