Lifelong Lament of the Man of Sorrows for Bethlehem, His Birthplace
Some Sad Thoughts on the Manchester Atrocity
How are we to go on living, day after day? How many more times are we to hear, yet again, of yet another atrocity designed to tell us that we are simply those who are on the long list of those who have not yet been murdered? I am appalled to put it this way but this relentless anarchic campaign invites us to imagine ourselves and our local community wrecked – in a few hours or tomorrow – by such arbitrary cruelty, blasphemously labelling its terror with the pious fraud of Inshallah. It is as if a magic appeal to the heavens will transform practical hatred into righteousness, suicidal self-destruction into blessedness.
This is satanic evil and we are called to confront it by our prayer and, such is the seriousness of our times, even by our fasting.
Matthew begins his record of Jesus the Messiah by telling us the genealogy of Joseph. The story of that side of Joseph’s family history would have been an important part of the Son of God’s education. Look carefully at the list. Notice the reference to Judah; notice the reference to Solomon, David’s son, the child of Uriah’s wife! Matthew’s record is deep Good News. The Lord God so loved his own specially chosen people despite their gross sins. King David is here listed as an adulterer and a murder. And yet, Joseph, who cannot escape his membership in this dysfunctional familial line is called into service. Did the Lord care for Abraham, Jacob and David? Will the Lord look after him as husband of Mary now that she is pregnant?
Matthew not only tells us how Joseph came to be part of the story but also how Joseph and Mary told that story to Mary’s oldest son. The strange and gruelling events that they endured were explained in terms framed by what the prophets had announced long ago. And so, Matthew is telling us, Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah, lived out his days with an awareness that His heavenly father, the one he could utterly rely upon, was faithful to his promises. God is with us despite the terrifying nightmare visited upon Jesus’ own age cohort in Bethlehem, where he had been born. This young man is being prepared by wise parents to be the man of sorrows, intimately acquainted with grief.
So we can conclude that this part of the family story hung over Jesus during His earthly life. Just as Joseph could not get away from the scandals in his lineage, so Jesus had to deal with the knowledge of a most awful and brutal “cleansing” that took place some time after his parents fled with him from Bethlehem to a safe haven. Yes, indeed the prophet Isaiah had dubbed him :
One despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief! (Isaiah 53:3)
And this family lived to tell the story of God, Immanuel, coming to live in the midst of his tragically forever backsliding people; it may be a story of a great fulfilment but Joseph, along with his already pregnant wife, had to get used to telling that story to Mary’s first-born:
This is what is to happen: the young chaste woman shall be with child and give birth to a son, and the name they shall give him will be Immanuel – which is “God with us”(Isaiah 7:14 and 8:8,10).
Scripture fulfilled! But such a tragic story as well, a story that could not be told without tears welling up in one’s eyes, without sickness taking a grip on one’s stomach. A young displaced family fleeing the murderous reach of the psychotic monarch of Judaea. Herod showed himself to be skilled in the arts of practical, cowardly hatred.
Joseph and Mary would tell this lad how he came to be born, how they were surprisingly found at Bethlehem by three naïve, star-gazing magicians from the east who had petitioned the King and thereby fed his psychotic jealousy. The Messiah of Israel, the promised Prince of all princes could only be a threat to this madman, as much as he is still a threat today by his life and his teaching that even goes out to those committed to such appalling Islamic terror:
You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:43-45).
These star-gazing magicians had asked Herod the whereabouts of the new-born King of the Jews that had been revealed to them as they stared at the stars. But it was a dream that awakened these naïve visitors to the danger in which they had placed this young, innocent family and so they departed without reporting back to Herod. And the result? A campaign of shock and awe was visited upon those families of Bethlehem who had recently been granted sons. No sons born in David’s city were going to challenge this maniac’s rule!
Reading through the New Testament we notice that this famous city of King David, the city of Jesus’ birth, is only mentioned in connection with his birth. Did Jesus visit Bethlehem in his ministry and on his way up to Jerusalem? We are not told.
King Herod’s brutal murder of all boys under two years of age is also told to us by reference Jeremiah 31:15:
Thus says the Lord: “A voice has been heard in Ramah;
there has been wailing and great lamentation.
It was Rachel is weeping over her children;
and refusing to be comforted because these her children, are no longer.”
Yes, his coming, his first coming, would be with tears and weeping. But Israel’s Messiah, the Anointed, the Son of God, has come near and bodily shared it all, our human griefs and pains. And despite Herod’s action, Bethlehem retains its place in Jesus’ story, the place in Jesus’ story that provoked inconsolable lamentation. And yet despite such life-long tears, such life-long weeping, Matthew is compelled to tell this story. It is so strange this chapter that tells us of Jesus’ birth and family life, but it is Matthew’s opening announcement that Immanuel has come to fulfil God’s promises by being by our side.