Christmas has a certain feel to it, certain emotions attached to it; joy, peace, love, welcome, friendliness and so on. So I wonder if you thought our reading was a bit out of place this morning? Normally at Christmas we read about angels, shepherds and stables. But a verse about weeping and mourning and then the story about Herod executing all the boy toddlers in Bethlehem, that doesn’t fit with Christmas does it? It seems as out of place as snow or a Christmas meal in June.
We live in what some have termed the airbrushed society. It’s not just pictures of models or celebrities that are airbrushed, we do it with all sorts of things death is airbrushed out if sight, the homeless or destitute are similarly often airbrushed out of view, we do it with our retelling of history too. It’s fascinating that in our retelling of the facts around Jesus birth, we often airbrush this part of the story out too, treating it just like any other wrinkle or blemish.
But if you look at Matthew’s account of the nativity you’ll see he puts this front and centre. He starts with Jesus family tree, then records the angel speaking to reassure pre-wedding jitters Joseph, and the rest of the nativity story is compressed into two verse(1:24-25). And then his focus is on the Magi’s visit (eighteen months or so later), Herod’s murderous attempt to secure his dynasty and Jesus flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth. No long journey, donkey, shepherds, heavenly choir, or Gabriel visiting Mary.
And what’s even stranger is that Matthew says Herod’s actions and the mothers mourning fulfil Jeremiah the prophet’s words written hundreds of years before. One of the things that Matthew is keen for us to understand is that Jesus birth isn’t just another birth. It isn’t just a royal birth, like this year will see when Kate gives birth to the next heir to the throne, with all the excitement that attends that. Jesus birth of is of a different order, a different magnitude, altogether because this baby, Jesus, has been promised for thousands of years. He is the fulfilment of not just a short term plan but of God Father, Son and Spirits eternal plan. There has never been and will never be a more important birth.
I want to think about what Matthew is telling us under two simple headings: 1. Finding our Story, 2. Finding our Saviour
Finding our Story
I love Christmas morning, when the children open their presents and unwrap everything all over the bed or floor, or several floors. But when it comes to tidying up have you noticed something? It’s almost impossible to get things back in their box, there just seems to have been too much packed in the box and you find yourself struggling to stuff it back in. An Old Testament quotation is a bit like that. Matthew isn’t just referring to the verse but to the whole chapter around it. Turn back to Jeremiah 31 (p750).
(15)Is an island of sorrow in the midst of a sea of joy. But we want to focus on the sorrow first and then we’ll move onto the joy. In the verse the prophet is speaking about the mums in Israel, that’s who Rachel stands for, weeping because they have lost their children. Israel were at war with Babylon and some of their sons died in battle while others were taken captive into exile to live in Babylon. Now I’m told some mums weep on their children’s first day at school, their first day at secondary school, and definitely when they leave them at university for the first time, and in some cases every subsequent time. There is something innate that makes a mother sad at being parted from her children. But here it’s even worse; they are carried off miles away into exile by a hostile enemy never to be seen again. You can understand why the prophet says the mums will refuse to be comforted.
It is a tragedy, a foreign king taking God’s people into exile and some dying at his hand. Being taken away from God’s kingdom, having relationships fractured and destroyed.
That idea of exile and the mourning that comes with it is one of the Bible’s big themes. It becomes a repeated pattern. In fact the bible says that exile is the big story not just of Israel or the bible but of our lives as humanity and as individuals. It is our story:
We are made to know God and enjoy him forever as our loving heavenly father who we trust.
But we choose exile from God because we doubt he loves us and wants what is best for us and instead choose to find meaning in other things. We spend our lives pouring different things into our life trying to recapture what we were made for, trying to fill up the empty space.
But in deciding to live life apart from God, we choose exile. Just like Israel did by deciding to love everything other than God. They reject the loving living relationship with God that is theirs because they doubt his love and think they can find satisfaction elsewhere. But it leads to exile and weeping. It’s the same for us if we choose to reject the offer of relationship with God, God will ultimate respect that decision, he gives us what we want, exile. We will get an eternity without knowing and enjoying God and all his love and goodness.
Have you ever stopped and thought; what should God do about that?
Imagine for a minute that one of my children at 18 turns round and says, Dad I wish you were dead. I want what you give me what’s mine, I want your stuff but not relationship with you. How should I react? What should I do?
Can you discipline someone into having relationship with you? No.
What would love do? Love would lead me to be broken hearted but say ok. But it would also lead me to be always waiting ready for the phone call or the knock on the door, arms and heart open ready to forgive and welcome back my child. I would hope that the experience of a broken relationship, what they miss, would make them want eventually to reconcile when they came to their senses and I’d be ready to do that, because I love them.
God is the same – a loving father who hears, and is broken hearted by our rejection of him but never gives up loving us and waiting to welcome us home, to end the exile. In fact he uses the exile with Israel to show them what they are missing. It’s the same with us the brokenness of the world around us that search for meaning and fulfilment we feel is God in love calling us to realise what we are missing and turn back to him. And he goes further than just waiting passively.
2. Finding our Saviour
Look at (3)we see God’s character there “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness...” God hasn’t given up on Israel or us if we are far from him. But we, just like Israel, can’t get back ourselves. So God acts, did you see that here, God loved, God draws, God builds, God brings them back, God gathers, God delivers, God redeems, God turns mourning into comfort. Look at v16 God says stop weeping, why? Because God responds to repentance, to their recognition that they are missing him and were wrong to try to live life without God, by ending exile, by bringing Israel back. God stands ready, willing and able to bring back.
And this goes even further, God promises an end to exile forever. Look at(33-34), God will make a new covenant, a covenant whereby everyone will know God, he does so in Jesus, who doesn’t just come as a baby but lives forgiving and bringing people back to God, who dies to pay the price to seal those reconciled relationships, and makes a new covenant, a new relationship between us and God where we are viewed by God as his perfect children.
As Matthew quotes this verse he has this whole chapter waiting to jump out of the box. Jesus the baby born in Bethlehem is the one who comes to end exile forever, who comes to enable us to know God. Because God is not just waiting for us to turn back to him but God in Jesus shows his love by coming to find exiles and end exile and enable us to know God.
Jesus is called “Immanuel” God with us, God in love made man to seek and lovingly bring us back to God, to restore a broken relationship with God.
This weeping is the last weeping for exile, Jesus is the Exile Ender. From now on in Jesus everyone can know God by trusting in Jesus. He comes to secure our forgiveness for rejecting God but also to save us for relationship with God.
Do you want to know God? Do you want an end to life without God? Matthew says you can through trusting in Jesus. That God is not distant and cold and unloving. That he is not waiting for you to pull your socks up and work your way back to him, no he comes to find us in Jesus, to end our exile from him, to repair the broken relationship and bring reconciliation. That is brilliant news. It is joyful news, it’s why Christmas is such good news. The exile is ended, we don’t need to live life fearful of God, apart from God, seeking to fill the God shaped whole in our lives. We can know God ourselves.
That ought to make Christmas the most joyful time of the year, our exile is ended if we turn and trust in Jesus.