Rachel Weeping for Her Children: Sermon on Matthew 2:13-18
by Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on January 23, 2005
"Rachel Weeping for Her Children"
I The Wages of Sin ...
(A) Angels came the first night. "Glory to God in the highest," they sang. Shepherds quaked in fright when they saw and heard these heavenly beings. Yet, they went to Bethlehem to see for themselves what they had been told about. What did they see? A baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. But not just any baby. A Savior Who is Christ the Lord, the Messiah. When they returned to their flocks they were also singing "Glory to God in the highest."
Soldiers came the second night. No angel choruses that evening. No "Glory to God in the highest." The sounds of wailing and lamentation, sobs and tears, filled the air. The soldiers were simply following orders – the orders of a paranoid and ruthless king by the name of Herod. They went through Bethlehem looking for baby boys two years old and younger. Mothers clung desperately to their little boys when they heard the soldiers marching down the street going from door-to-door. Fathers tried to hide their sons in secret hiding places. But all to no avail. When the soldiers were done with their bloody work wailing mothers were holding their dead babies and powerless fathers sobbed in rage, clenched their fists, and silently vowed to get even. But Jesus, the Savior of Israel, escaped the edge of the sword by the providential care of God.
There is an old story to the effect that when Herod's soldiers arrived in the vicinity of Bethlehem to kill all the boys two years and under, there weren't any. According to this story God had seen to it that Jesus was the only boy born in Bethlehem during that time. A lovely story! An attempt to keep the Christmas story nice. But, unfortunately, it has no basis in fact. Herod did send his soldiers to Bethlehem. And they did kill all the boys two years old and under.
Poets, painters, and theologians call this story "the slaughter of the innocents." And yes, they were innocent – innocent of being any threat to Herod, innocent of any crime against the Roman powers. Yet they still died by the sword and the spear. Children, little children, innocent children, killed by a blood-thirsty and paranoid dictator. This is the worst part of the entire Christmas story. It ranks up there with one of the worst stories in the Bible. Babies slaughtered and killed. Why, we ask, why?
(B) We all know the answer to this question – or, at least we should. "The wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). "For as in Adam all die" (1 Cor 15:22). "Death came to all men, because all sinned" (Rom 5:12). This is true even for little children, infants, babies. They sinned in Adam and in Adam all die. Everyone in Adam faces death. So, the babes of Bethlehem died because they were sinners.
Was Bethlehem's slaughter a slaughter of the innocents? Not really! They were not innocent of Adam's fall. They were not innocent of original sin. They were not innocent of offending the majesty and holiness of God by sinning in Adam. God has declared that the soul that sins is the soul that shall die. In other words, innocents do not die. God does not execute the penalty of sin against the pure and holy. It is the guilty who are punished and die.
But look at how they died! By the sword and the spear. Torn from their mother's breasts. But is infant death by any other means easier to explain: crib death or SIDS, drowning, household accident, SBS or shaken baby syndrome, pneumonia? The death of any baby raises questions, doesn't it? Lots of questions.
(C) Matthew's story brings us face-to-face with these questions. He forces us to ask why as we think about those dead babies of Bethlehem. He forces us to think about the sovereignty of God.
Underlying Matthew's account is the sovereignty of God. We see God's design, God's plan, and God's direction of events. In verses 13, 19, and 22 an angel of the Lord directs Joseph to act and each of those acts is anchored to an Old Testament prophecy. Did God foreordain the flight to Egypt, the departure or exodus from Egypt, the move to Nazareth? All these things happened that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. And, Matthew tells us that the death of Bethlehem's babes is no less a part of God's plan. Listen to what Matthew writes:(Mt 2:17-18) Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: (18) "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."In the death of Bethlehem's baby boys we are to see the fulfilment of "Rachel weeping for her children."
I led a CVC Christmas chapel in December and showed the children the pictures of Christmas. I put famous paintings on the screen and asked the children to identify the person or scene of the Christmas story that was in front of them. They had no problems identifying the shepherds, the angels, the wisemen, Simeon and Anna, Zechariah, the visit of Mary with Elizabeth, the birth of John the Baptist, the murder of Bethlehem's babies. Our children know the Christmas story.
But then I displayed the picture of a woman by herself, hands lifted up, tears streaming down her face, face filled with pain and anguish. This is part of the Christmas story, I said. This is the most difficult picture to identify in my whole presentation, I said. None of the kids knew. None of the teachers knew. When everyone gave up I read the title, "Rachel weeping for her children." And explained Jeremiah's prophecy.
II Rachel and Ramah
Listen again to Matthew's quote from the prophecy of Jeremiah:(Mt 2:18) "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."Bethlehem is on the road to Rachel's grave in Ramah. Rachel, if you remember, was the favorite wife of Jacob. She died right after giving birth to Benjamin. Imagine her grief as she realized she would not be around to raise her sons. Imagine the pain of her delivery as with her last gasp she gave birth and then died.
Jeremiah has Rachel's pain and sorrow in mind as he looks at the misery of the Exile. Ramah is where the captives, the survivors, from Judah and Jerusalem were taken on the way to Babylon. Like Rachel, their lives were filled with sorrow and death. Their families were dead. Their city was in ruins. Their country was captive. All seems lost and destroyed. You can imagine that these captives were tired, blood-stained, beaten, and depleted. Physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally they were exhausted. Jeremiah looks at all of this and thinks of Israel's mother sobbing at the tragedy of her children. Jeremiah realizes that they, like Rachel, had nothing more to give.
The death of Bethlehem's babies reminds Matthew of Jeremiah's prophecy. Rachel is again weeping over her children. Mothers again will not see their children grow and mature. God's people again find themselves surrounded by the death and destruction of the enemy.
III Hatred for Christ
(A) "Rachel weeping for her children." Historians tell us that what Herod did in Bethlehem was one of his minor crimes, at least in terms of numbers. We are told that there could have been no more than 20 children total, so we need not think of heaps of corpses. Even so, every baby who was killed had parents who mourned and wailed.
When we look at the Bethlehem of the angels and shepherds and wisemen, it is easy to conclude everyone loves the Christ of Christmas. When we look at the Bethlehem of the soldiers and dead babies and wailing mothers, we come to realize not everyone loves the Christ of Christmas.
In Matthew 2 we are shown the true face of those who hate Christ. The horrendous truth for today is that there are people in the world like Herod the Great. Herod was a demented man, corrupted by an overwhelming desire for power. His own family had to take second place to his desire and ambition. He killed his own son. He murdered entire households of those whom he suspected of opposing him. He was paranoid to the extreme. He had no regard for any other man, woman, or child. He continually canvassed his own court to discover who might possibly be involved in a plot to overthrow him. When he found such a person, he usually had them killed on the spot. Such a person could be as innocent as a newborn baby and yet be executed simply because King Herod considered that person a threat.
When the Magi came to Jerusalem asking "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" everyone in Jerusalem knew what was about to happen. They knew Herod would start one of his witch-hunts again. They knew blood would be spilled. They knew Herod did not tolerate any rivals to his throne – whether real or imagined. And, when blood started to flow in Bethlehem no one should have been surprised or shocked – they knew that is where Herod would send his soldiers after he heard from the wiseman. Baby Jesus – the king of the Jews, the Messiah – was a threat to King Herod and needed to be eliminated.
(B) We should not forget that people like King Herod exist today as well. The baby born in Bethlehem is a threat to anyone who has set themselves up as king of their own life. The baby born in Bethlehem is a threat to every selfish and self-centered person. The Savior, Who is Christ the Lord, is a threat to any worldly ruler or power that does not acknowledge Him.
I receive a newsletter from "Voice of the Martyrs." This newsletter reminds us that all around the world there are powers and rulers that feel threatened by Jesus. Let me highlight items from their latest mailing:
In AZERBAIJAN authorities refused to give a birth certificate to 18-month-old Luka Eyvazov. They had refused to register him because his parents gave him a Christian name. Though the government has since changed its stance, these are the kinds of roadblocks that Christians face all the time.
In PAKISTAN, Masih, a Christian laborer, was arrested and charged with blasphemy in November 2003 after a heated discussion with an acquaintance who had converted to Islam. When the acquaintance told other neighbors about the discussion, they gathered a mob and attacked Masih's home, pelting it with stones. When police arrived, they arrested Masih, ignoring the attack on his home.
In NIGERIA more violence broke out in the state of Plateau on December 29th, when Muslim militants attacked a village, killing Christian community leader Davou Bulle and critically injuring his wife and son. Assailants shot Bulle in the chest as he and his family were returning from their farm. Police arrested eight suspects in the attack, all Muslims.
In VIETNAM the People's Supreme Court in Ho Chi Minh City will hear the appeals of a pastor and evangelist of the Mennonite Church on February 2. The two pastors received prison sentences on November 12th on the charges of "resisting persons doing official duty." The stated objective of the police raids that arrested them was to put an end to all "illegal religious activity."
In UNITED STATES - Hossam Armanious, his wife, and their two children were found ritually slaughtered this week in their home in Jersey City. Mr. Armanious, a Coptic Christian, received death threats as a result of anti-Islamic comments he made on an internet website. Several weeks later he and his entire family were tortured and murdered in just the fashion dictated by the Koran. Voice of the Martyrs, and other groups, believe the Armanious family were killed by Muslim extremists.
Oh how they hate the Lord. And how they hate His church. Matthew reminds us this morning that this hatred goes way back in history. It goes way back to Herod, and the Babylon Exile, and even to the bondage of Egypt.
(C) There is a common thread when it comes to the weeping of Rachel. Yes, God's people are hated – as is God Himself. Yes, the enemy comes in a human face like Herod, or Babylon, or Pharaoh. But underlying all this hatred is a demonic element. Underlying all this hatred and bloodshed and murder is Satan and his hosts. The Apostle John reminds us that one of the reasons Jesus came "was to destroy the devil's work" (1 Jn 3:8). Because this was the purpose of Christ's coming, all the power of darkness rose up to meet Him. In reality, the hatred of Herod and Pharaoh and Communist and Muslim powers today show them all to be but Satan's tool; Satan tries to use them all to destroy the Son of God.
It is the Apostle John who gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of this in his revelation on the isle of Patmos. What really happened in Bethlehem? This is how John envisioned this:(Rev 12:1-6) A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. (2) She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. (3) Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. (4) His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. (5) She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (6) The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.The language and images of this passage are confusing and stunning and mysterious. Yet this much is clear: Satan, the dragon, wants to devour the Christ. He hates the Savior. It was only because of the intervention of God, His divine providence, that he did not succeed.
There is a war going on congregation. That much is clear. It is a war between light and darkness, between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan, between good and evil. It is a cosmic war, a world-wide and universe-wide war. It is a war in which Satan uses anyone and anything to get at the Christ and His people.
And you know what? Satan is not going to win. He did not win in Egypt. He did not win in Ramah. He did not win in Bethlehem. He keeps trying and he keeps losing.
Satan, the great dragon, tried to kill the Christ-child. He was waiting to devour the baby. But God's angel warned Joseph in a dream. So, when Herod – and Satan – vents their fury against the Son of God, God preserves His Son by sending Him into Egypt. And, when Satan vents His fury against the church today we know He might win the battle but he will never win the war. He, the serpent or dragon, might strike the heel, but it is his head that will someday be stepped upon and crushed.
"Rachel weeping for her children." How sad. How awful. Whether it happened during Jacob's day, Jeremiah's day, or Herod's day. How heart-rending! But the tears and sobs do not have the last word. They never have the last word.
You see, the tears and sobs should remind us of another day when the daughters of Jerusalem – the daughters of Rachel – wept. They wept and mourned for a lone figure – whipped and bleeding, crowned and mocked – as He walked up Golgotha hill. That day too Satan did not win. That day, above all days, the heavens were filled with "Glory to God in the highest." Because that day, for Satan, was the beginning of the end. On that day the war was won though the individual battles continue to the present time.
Rev. Adrian Dieleman is Minister at Trinity United Reformed Church and can be e-mail at: Pastor, T.U.R.C.
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