Christmas 2 / A
Love Defeats Evil
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
On this Second Sunday after Christmas, Matthew recounts the narrow escape of the Holy Family when King Herod ordered the execution of all the male babies in and around Bethlehem, two years old and younger. At the same time, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee into Egypt with Mary and the infant Jesus. Shortly thereafter, there is unimaginable horror in Bethlehem, the ancient City of David, as an unknown number of innocent children are slaughtered. Only one is known to get away. Only one is known to have escaped.
If the king’s plan had worked, the joy of Christmas would have been snuffed out just as the light of Christ was coming into the world. And yet, while Herod could and did exercise his own evil will, he could not thwart the ultimate will of God.
This is an important biblical truth: that the will of God will always, in the end, ultimately prevail and triumph. And in this truth, there is great hope for us because what happened in Bethlehem, all those centuries ago, was not an isolated incident. Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is part of a pattern that is all too familiar. Pharaoh worried that the Hebrew slaves were growing too numerous, and so slaughtered innocent babies. And scripture records that only the infant Moses escaped by way of a floating basket that carried him into Pharaoh’s own household.
And sadly, throughout history, we have seen the continuation of this ongoing pattern in which tyrants can and do kill who they will. In recent memory, we have Stalin’s wholesale execution of political and ideological opponents in the Soviet Union, the gassing of millions of Jews and Poles and gypsies and homosexuals and disabled by the Nazis, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and so on, down through the decades, to the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, and Turkey’s systematic killing of the Kurds going on right now. And today, in South Sudan, the government is once more recruiting child soldiers to fill out their army ranks in a bloody civil war that has been going on for years. How do we make sense of a loving God looking over a world in which such senseless slaughter of the innocent is a repeating pattern?
In fleeing Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph and their infant son became refugees. And their flight from the power of a dictator has become all too familiar in all the killing fields of the world. Making sense out of the slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem means making sense out of the fallen world in which we live.
God is omnipotent, which means all-powerful, but even having all power cannot make two contradictory things happen at once. God cannot both give humans free will, and then take away that free will. After all, if God prevented our choices that can lead to pain and suffering in the world, then we would no longer be free. And freedom to act, to choose to love or choose to hate, is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, his children.
The limits of what God cannot do are set not by logic or some arbitrary boundary; the limits of what God can and cannot do are set by love. Love is the founding principle of all that is. To say, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” explains so much. It shows that first and foremost, God loves us – loves us totally and unreservedly and unconditionally. And total, unreserved, unconditional love demands freedom; indeed, requires it. True love must be freely given. True love can never be demanded or coerced or extracted. True love can only exist when and where there is total freedom. There is no other way. Force, demands, and oppression cannot create even the faintest spark of the fire of love.
Yes, one can coerce some sort of reaction that may, on the surface, look, and perhaps even feel for a time, like love. You can, perhaps, even force someone to act out the semblance of the symptoms of love. But you cannot force love, as what is arrived at without free choice is not love, regardless of the mask it may wear. Love must be freely given and freely accepted in order to be true. So, for God to love us means that God must give us free will and open, uncoerced choice. There is no other way. And this is exactly what God does. God allows us to choose. And through our choices, we can get hurt, and we can hurt – or even kill – others.
God has created a world in which the choice to love is possible. So, too, then, is the choice to hate, and humans can choose to bend their wills to do some very ungodly acts. The result includes death at the hands of murderers or drunk drivers or abusers or tyrants.
A universe where real love and real hate are options will always be a world in which pain and suffering are not only possible, but likely. And yet, this world of choice founded on love is also what makes all the noble acts of self-sacrifice possible. This world is not only a world of pain and suffering, but also a world of generosity, kindness, compassion and love.
God showed real love for creation, not by taking away the choice that made love possible. God showed real love by becoming weak and vulnerable. God entered into the creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to gently weave back together the torn and tattered tapestry of our world with a depth of love we can give thanks for, even as we cannot fully comprehend or understand it. And through the exercise of our free will, we can choose to respond to God’s love with our love, committing to follow Jesus in answer to that divine love made vulnerable in the form of an infant lying in a Bethlehem manger.
This week in our Gospel, we hear the painful truth that when Jesus was born, Herod struck out against innocent children in Bethlehem. And yet, we also learn more about our Creator, as we learn that God’s ultimate plan of salvation can never be thwarted. God loves us so much that he is willing to enter into the pain and suffering of this world to redeem it. Even as Herod could exercise his free will to do the unthinkable and end too many innocent lives in an attempt to secure his power, Herod still did not have the power to stop God’s love and the plan of salvation for all. Yes, the world is fallen. Yes, those who wish to do evil have the free will to act on their wrong desires, but the free will of those who commit evil in this world is powerless to stop the divine love of God. Evil exists for but a painful, tragic moment and cannot be compared or stand against the power and promise and hope of God’s eternal love.
What God did in Bethlehem during the tragedy of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents was to be present to those babes in life, and then to be with them always in eternal life when they died. For the parents, God remained with them in the tragedy and stayed with them always, never departing from those in pain, even in the darkest tragedy. Here, too, is another biblical truth: God does not abandon us to suffering, but remains with us in the midst of our pain and loss. Then, God works with and within all the terrible pain we humans cause, bringing good even out of unimaginable tragedy and loss.
The Bible does not hide the painful truth of the world as it is. Scripture does not try to whitewash the truth and pretend that all is well. Throughout the text, we see the painful truth of the world: that given the free choice to do good and to love others and act on that love, many will distort the image of God within them and do unspeakable and despicable and truly evil things. Yet, God does not let this stand unchallenged. Herod could not put out the light of God’s presence born in Bethlehem. Herod could not steal the gift of love that was Jesus.
In answer to all the evil humans do, God offers love. Real, enduring, eternal love. Love that in time will break the power of evil and death. Yes, we see that an evil tyrant could use the gift of free will to do evil. But we also see that evil could not and did not win a victory in Bethlehem - and it will never win an ultimate victory in the world. The power of love can and does – and always will - defeat evil.
Love will win out in the end. There, my friends, is the gift and the hope and the promise that is Christmas.
Love will win out in the end. There, my friends, is the heart of the Christian Gospel.
Love will win out in the end. There, my friends, is the wonder and the majesty and the awe that is the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Merry Christmas! Amen.