“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
This is one of the Christmas stories that is rarely told. This was the fulfillment of the prophecies from the prophet Jeremiah, somewhere between 600 years before the Christ Child’s Birth in Bethlehem. If you look at the prophecy in Jeremiah 31, it seems like a very odd combination of promises and tears. The chapter is called “The Lord Will Turn Mourning to Joy” and in this passage are some beautiful promises from God about how he will restore his people.
“I will turn their mourning into joy;
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance,
and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness,
declares the Lord.”
But it is in the middle of these passages of turning mourning into joy that you have this heart wrenching prophecy of Rachel weeping for her children. Then immediately following this passage is the promises once again.
“There is hope for your future, declares the Lord.” (vs.17)
When Jeremiah first spoke these prophecies it was to the people of Judah whose children were led off to captivity in the Babylonian conquest. This passage is about God’s promise of restoration to his disobedient children, even though it was this disobedience that led to their captivity in the first place. God was still faithful to his covenant promises and promised to them restoration and “hope for your future.” During Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry it was the constant rebellion against God and a sinful wrongheadedness that led to divine judgment. But God remained faithful, even after His people had suffered the consequences of their own and other’s actions. The Gospel writer Matthew finds the ultimate fulfillment of this passage in the Christmas story and the birth of Jesus.
During the Christmas birth the land of Israel suffered under bitter Roman Rule and were governed by a vicious and paranoid King Herod; the people of Israel again in a time of conquest and occupation. But the prophecies from of old still spoke to the people, that God was faithful to his covenant promises to His people and would bring redemption and hope, not only for their future but for all of creation in the birth of the Savior. When the savior was born, the wise men following the star, unknowingly went to King Herod assuming that he would know where this King was being born whose birth was heralded by a cosmic event. Herod, not knowing, sent the wise men to find the King so Herod could have the child secretly murdered. But being warned in a dream the wise men travel home by another route and Herod in his jealous fury orders his soldiers to Massacre the Innocents of Bethlehem, all male children two years of age and younger were systematically killed by Roman soldiers.
Jesus Christ, the savior of the World, was born in the midst of “Rachel weeping for her children,” inconsolable heartache, bloodshed, tyranny, oppression, grief and the deepest kinds of loss.
I can’t emphasize enough the reality that when Jesus was born, it was not into a sanitized and plastic nativity scene, where all was peaceful and quiet that not even the animals made a sound except a gentle lullaby; no Jesus was born into the murk and mire of our reality and everyday lives. We see this in the Jeremiah prophecy. God’s promises for his people have never changed, he has created us and loves us, given us hope and blessing in this life and promise for the future. But because of our own sinful wrongheadedness we take these good and wonderful blessings of God and distort them, twist them in our own angers and jealousies and then we suffer the consequences both of our own sinful actions and of the sinful actions of the people around us. God’s promises never change but what we do with God’s promises leads us to places of heartache and loss.
The good news of this is that God’s promises and His grace are not only for sanitized, plastic people who never mess up and live perfect lives. No. God’s promises are all the more powerful and true when everything comes crashing down; Jesus Christ is still born in the midst of “Rachel weeping for her children,” our own pain today, so God can give to us hope for our future as well.
It’s important for us to allow this Christmas season to be what it really is: God who comes to be with us in the midst of our suffering. Be careful of anything that will sterilize and plasticize Christmas to the point that it’s not about real people and real life anymore. Be careful in your own celebrations that you don’t turn Christmas into a time of grand and high gestures that have the feel of jewelry store commercials or your own expectations for meals and events that are closer to a Hallmark tear jerker made for TV special. There is a contemporary picture that displays the need for this caution in an extraordinary way.
A few nights ago on TV, the verdict to not indict the police officer involved in the Michael Brown shooting was aired live. Outside of the courthouse, where crowds gathered in front of barricades, officers lined up in full riot gear, black masks, full body shields, tear gas and nightsticks, everyone waited for violence to erupt, which it did igniting a night of fire. Above these officers in the parking lot of the courthouse, dressed in their full riot gear, waiting for violence to strike, there hung a huge green and red plastic tinsel banner declaring “Season’s Greetings!” The two images held in start contrast, the police in full riot gear below the plastic tinsel “Season’s Greetings” above. It was the kind of ironic image that will one day be in the history books but it also reminds us this holiday season what it is that we really need for Christmas. Our everyday reality can be really hard with all that life throws at us, some days we feel like we need the riot gear ourselves! But what we don’t need is a plastic tinsel “Season’s Greetings” in the midst of our real life that is of no help at all. What we so desperately need is the very real Savior of the World, born in the midst of Rachel weeping and our weeping as well, to give us hope for our future. The Lord will turn mourning into joy, He is faithful and he will keep His promises.