Dear children of the Lord,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In a message preceding Christmas, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, mentioned today’s Gospel of the Christ Child fleeing with His parents to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23) and called upon us to remember the countless many Christians today who endure terrible persecution or are forced to flee their homes, especially those in Syria and Iran and other lands of the Bible. In these places the Christian communities have been reduced by up to 90%, both from violent and fatal attacks, and by the subsequent fleeing of Christian refugees.
Our Introit today is not taken from the Psalms as usual, but from the Book of the prophet Jeremiah. “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). Rachel was the wife of Jacob, the mother of the children of Israel. The LORD told Jeremiah that her voice was heard weeping near the location of her tomb, just like Abel’s blood cried out to the Lord from the ground when his brother Cain had killed him (Genesis 4:10). The LORD heard Rachel’s voice weeping for her children, the children of Israel, because they were taken away captive to Babylon.
You can imagine a mother’s grief as her children are torn away from her. That’s the kind of thing that continues to happen as Christian parents, living in lands of persecution today, send their children off with relatives in order to save them from the violence in their homeland. It is heartbreaking when children are taken away through war, death, colonization, even when they are sent away for their own safety.
Where is God in the midst of this? That is what the prophet Isaiah asked in today’s Old Testament reading. “Where is He who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of His flock? Where is He who put in the midst of them His Holy Spirit?” (Isaiah 63:11). Where is God, their God? Where is the one who rescued them from Egypt and victoriously and miraculously brought them through the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh? Where is the one who gave to Moses and Aaron and Miriam and the elders His Spirit to guide and direct them and give them God’s grace and remind them of all the good that God had given to them?
Likely the parents in Bethlehem had the same questions. Where was God when the boys two years old and under were slaughtered by King Herod? Where were the shepherds with the good news that they were so recently spreading about a Saviour being born, who is Christ the Lord? (Luke 2:8-20). Where were the angels that they had seen? Where was the Saviour Himself?
You see, your questions are not new in any sense. These are your questions in the midst of your loss, your grief, your fear. Where is He who baptized you and called you to be His child? Where is He who put His name upon you and brought you into His Church? Where is He while all of this tragedy is going on in Syria and Iran and Nigeria, and in your very own life, in your home, in your kitchen and living room? Where is He?
In Isaiah’s prophecy, He noted that the LORD said, “’Surely they are my people’… And He became their Savior. In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them” (Isaiah 63:8, 9). Isaiah was remembering how the LORD had made the children of Israel His own children. And that when they suffered in bondage in Egypt, they did not suffer alone. “In all their affliction He was afflicted.” The LORD suffered the sufferings of His people, just like parents suffer when their children suffer. He was not gone away from them, but suffering with them.
“And He became their Savior.” The one who suffered with them, saved them. He sent out His own presence to bring them out of Egypt and take them to a promised land. The LORD Himself was present with them, to work His wonders upon their enemies, to lead them in a pillar of cloud and fire, to stretch out His Almighty arm as Moses lifted up the staff over the waters of the Red Sea, and to lead His people through, to put His Holy Spirit upon Moses and Aaron to declare God’s grace and favour to His children. Where was God? He was right there to suffer with them and to be their Saviour.
And so, in Jeremiah’s prophecy of Rachel weeping for her children, he said there would be an end to the weeping, that there was hope, and that the children of Israel would come back from the land of the enemy to their own country (Jeremiah 31:16-17). And so they did return from exile.
The evangelist Matthew, said that this prophesy was fulfilled in Jesus’ very own life. When Herod had the babies killed in Bethlehem, Rachel’s voice cried out to the LORD again. The voices of the mothers of those babies reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. “Where are you? Where is the one who saves His children?” He was right there suffering their affliction with them.
It was against the Lord Jesus Himself that Herod’s attack was directed. And as Mary and Joseph had to take Jesus and flee from their ancestral home, He suffered the affliction of His people. He suffered all that they suffered, and not only them. He suffered along with His people of old who went down to Egypt to flee from hunger and famine and death. He suffered along with His people who lived in bondage and exile from their homeland. He suffered with His people under the murderous rage of pharaohs and kings.
And although the baby Jesus was not killed then and there with the boys of Bethlehem, He was brutally executed through crucifixion as a young man, nailed to a cross after being brutally beaten and persecuted (Matthew 27:27-50). His mother wept at the foot of His cross, just as the mothers in Bethlehem wept at the cradles of their boys.
And where was God? He was right there suffering with them and being their Saviour. Jesus came as the angel of God’s presence had come to save the children of Israel. Jesus came to save the babies of Bethlehem and to save us and our children too. He came to suffer with us and to be our Saviour.
Don’t ever fool yourself to think that God is some impassionate force out in space somewhere. He is right with you in the midst of all of your grief and fear and woe. He has called us to be His children and He regards us as His children, with love and compassion, and all the pain that comes with it. You know that loving your children comes with pain. When they suffer, you suffer. That is exactly the way that is with God.
We have a God who is both almighty and who suffers. That means that you are never alone in your sorrow and grief and pain and fear. It also means that the one who is with you is the one who saves you from these things. I can’t explain it to you logically. Our brains think that being almighty and suffering cannot go together. All I can do is point you to Jesus and say that is your God. That is the God who suffers and is almighty, and He is your God.
That is the God who baptized you and called you to be His child. As He stretched out His almighty arm alongside of Moses to part the Red Sea and save the children of Israel, so He stretched out His almighty arm alongside of the pastor who baptized you and your children. As He put His Spirit upon Moses and Aaron and the elders of Israel to be in the midst of His people, so He has placed you in the midst of His Church where His Spirit is active in His Word. As He appeared hidden in cloud and fire, so He appears to you hidden in Word and Sacrament, but is surely present in them to be your Saviour.
This is the God who brought you up out of the sea of Baptism with the shepherds of His flock. This is He who put in the midst of you His Holy Spirit. He is right here with you, afflicted in your affliction, and His presence saves you. In His love and pity He has redeemed you. He lifts you up and carries you all of your days. He forgives you all your sins of doubt and despair. He cries with you as Jesus did outside of the tomb of Lazarus and then called Him out of the grave (John 11:35-44).
Yes, He is not only a God afflicted in our affliction, but He is a God in whose victory we are victorious. That is why Jeremiah’s prophecy calls for Rachel to stop weeping. “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country” (Jeremiah 31:16-17).
The exiles came back from Babylon. The LORD brought Rachel’s children back home. The LORD brought the children of Israel back from Egypt to the promised land. The LORD brought Jesus back from His flight into Egypt to grow up in Nazareth to be our Saviour. He brought Lazarus back from the dead and put an end to the weeping of Mary and Martha and of Himself. He put an end to His own mother’s tears, when He rose from the dead on Easter Day. And He has promised to do the same for you. He will bring back those who have been taken from you in a glorious resurrection when He comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
And even now, He brings you back, back from your grief and pain and fear. His Holy Gospel, His promises and the good news of what He has already accomplished through the death and resurrection of His own dear Son, put grief to flight. The God who is afflicted in our affliction, gives us hope and joy as we are victorious in His victory.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.