Here’s Matthew’s gospel, telling what happened not long after Jesus was born:
Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”
When John was born, when Jesus was born, when the two cousins were young children, too young to know the details of what was happening, but old enough to absorb the fear and the anger and the grief of their elders, this outrage was happening in the heart of their nation, in the cradle of their society, and it was unimaginable, and it was cruel, and it flew in the face of the good news that the angels had just proclaimed, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all people.”
No wonder John’s version of the good news was so conflicted and uncompromising, so harsh and unyielding.
“You brood of vipers,” says John. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” With these and many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news.
Getting good news out of these and other exhortations; it’s like getting blood out of a stone. It makes about as much sense as the news that we hear, that while we live in one of the richest countries in the world, one in every seven people lives in poverty, one in five children does not know where his next meal is coming from. Living in the land of the free, where one person’s freedom to keep firearms may at any moment rob another person’s freedom to live safely and without fear, even a child’s, even a mother’s. Living in a city where healthcare is big business, where hospitals act as worldwide magnets for advanced treatments and technologies, and the poor and the middle income struggle to find adequate access to mental health services for themselves and their families. Where living in the land of the brave means celebrating with tears of anger and grief the courage of an elementary school teacher who lost her life trying to protect the children in her care.
But that’s just John’s point.
Being children of Abraham is not sufficient to guarantee righteousness. Being part of a nation that is called and blessed by God is a gift, not a self-fulfilling prophecy of doing the right things. Being part of a blessed society does not mean that it will not take work and discernment and hard decisions in order to do the right things. In fact, doing the right thing may be counter-cultural and go against the grain even in a blessed community, whether it means tax collectors resisting the tyranny of greed and the prevailing culture of corruption; whether it means sharing our food and our resources with those who have too little, rather than keeping what we claim as our own only for ourselves; whether we need to stand against our culture of either denying or criminalizing mental illness, and instead name our demons and help those who suffer; or whether it means giving up political expediency to do the difficult work of addressing our problem of gun addiction; we can find ourselves in John’s exhortations; his advice applies to us.
John lived in a nation called and chosen and blessed by God, which nevertheless had fallen prey to the oppression of the empire and had lost its way within itself. He lived under a king of the Jews, a leader of the chosen people, who could go so wrong, so far away from the paths of righteousness, as to order the killing of innocent children just because he was afraid of a rumour of good news.
We live in a country blessed with a fairly determined tradition of democracy, a pretty decent overall standard of living, judiciously applied laws and civilized expectations, universal education and an interest in the good of the commonwealth. Yet in weeks like this one we are lost and we are bewildered. Christmas carols jangling the supermarket aisles clash with the somber news on the car radio, and every crying child is a symbol of what we have lost.
“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”
There is a time to respect Rachel’s refusal to find consolation. There is a time to sit quietly beside her while she rages and rents her clothes and wails her grief. There is a time to let the good news wait, because for now it can hardly be heard over the loud lamentation, and it will, after all, still be there tomorrow.
John said, “One more powerful than I is coming.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.