Mothers Weeping, Children Rejoicing

 

Genesis 35:16-20 (text); Jeremiah 31:10-17; Matthew 2:13-18
January 6, 2013 • Download PDF sermon

A few days before Christmas last year, we saw horrific images of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends of 20 little children and 6 other adults mourning and weeping. Their pain is shared not only in Newtown, Connecticut, but by people all over the world. Their lives will never be the same again after this tragic event. Their Christmases for the rest of their lives will always bring this sad remembrance.

Today, traditional Western Christianity commemorates the visitation by the wise men from the east after Jesus was born. This event is called the “Epiphany,” which means “appearing,” because the visitation symbolizes Jesus’ revelation of himself to Gentiles represented by the wise men. But our focus today will not be on the wise men who worshipped Jesus as God the Son, but on the horrible events after their visit.

Matthew 2:13-18 tells us about Herod’s wrath after he realized he was tricked by the wise men from the east. In his usual fury and fit of jealousy for his throne as “King of the Jews,” he ordered the massacre of infant boys two years and younger in Bethlehem. Scholars estimate that no more than 10-30 babies were killed since Bethlehem was a “little town.” Matthew tells us that even Herod’s wickedness was a fulfillment of a prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15:

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 comforted, because they are no more.”

Jeremiah’s prophecy alludes way back to the time of Jacob and his wife Rachel in Genesis 35:16-20. As they were traveling from Bethel to Bethlehem, Rachel gave birth to a son, but she died in her labor. Knowing that she was dying and will never raise her son, she died sorrowing.

But a few verses earlier in verse 13, Jeremiah prophesied that after this weeping and mourning, there will be occasion for rejoicing in Israel:

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

On this last sermon in our series, “Christmas in Genesis,” our theme is “Mothers Weeping, Children Rejoicing.” This theme also forms two of the three headings: first, Why Mothers Weep; second, Why Children Rejoice; and third, Weeping and Rejoicing with God’s People.

Why Mothers Weep
Was Jeremiah’s prophecy really about Herod’s massacre of infants? No, it was not. Jeremiah’s prophecy was referring to the invasion of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians and the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The great Temple of Solomon was in flames. Israel’s sons were killed, or taken captive, or exiled. From Jerusalem, the procession of the exiles went through a place called Ramah, five miles to the north. Ramah was a gathering point for them before they were marched towards Babylon (Jer 40:1).

"The Massacre of the Innocents" by François-Joseph Navez, 1824 (click to enlarge)

"The Massacre of the Innocents" by François-Joseph Navez, 1824 (click to enlarge)

Jeremiah used Rachel, the mother of two of Israel’s tribes, as a personification of Jewish mothers who mourned the loss of their sons and daughters to the invaders. They were “no more,” either dead or exiled. Rachel died in her hard labor when she was delivering her son whom she aptly named Benoni, the “son of my sorrow.” She and all of Jacob’s family were on their way from Bethel south to Bethlehem. Her burial place was in the vicinity of Ramah.

To understand why Rachel grieved when she was dying at the birth of her second son, we must turn back the clock of history. Jacob loved her more than her sister Leah, but their father Laban tricked Jacob into serving under him seven years for Leah. So Jacob served another seven years to marry Rachel. Years passed, but Rachel, proud of being Jacob’s first love, did not have children, while Leah had ten. Rachel’s life became a life of bitterness, jealousy and tears.

Finally, God gave her a son! Joseph was born! The bitterness, jealousy and tears stopped, but only for a time. Jacob’s family sojourned outside the Promised Land in Paddan-aram, when Joseph was born. Jacob wanted to live in the Promised Land, so they broke camp and journeyed towards Bethlehem (Ephrathah). Because she was again pregnant, Rachel must have been very happy, knowing that she will now raise her children in the Promised Land.

But alas! In Ramah, between Bethel and Bethlehem, she started having hard labor, and died as she gave birth to a son. She sorrowed with tears, knowing that she would never see her two sons—and possibly many more—grow up to be strong young men in the Promised Land. Even sadder, Jacob did not seem to share her sorrow, because he did not honor Rachel’s naming the newborn son “Benoni.” Instead, he renamed him “Benjamin,” which means “son of my right hand.”

Rachel the weeping mother. Jeremiah the weeping prophet. Jeremiah uses Rachel’s tears for his prophesies. He is a prophet of tears. Consider just a few passages:

For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded; I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me (Jer 8:21).

Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! (Jer 9:1)

But if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive (Jer 13:17).

In fact, Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, a book of sorrows. And in one of his songs, he curses the day he was born! (Jer 20:14) Why must Jeremiah weep? He grieves over the slaughter and captivity of God’s people because of their multitude of sins.

Matthew then takes Rachel’s and Jeremiah’s weeping and mourning to tell us that these Old Testament stories are but foreshadows of another event to come at the birth of Jesus. Not an event of joy and songs and merrymaking, but a tragic event that no one wants to talk about at Christmastime: the so-called “slaughter of the innocents” by the madman King Herod. The daughters of Judah mourned, but later, their children rejoiced and celebrated in their restoration.

Why Children Rejoice
Jeremiah’s tears are only part of a bigger and more significant story. We know that the latter part of Jeremiah 31 is a prophecy about God’s new covenant with his people. The old covenant with Israel was passing away, and a new covenant was dawning.

This new covenant is the reason why God’s people will turn from mourning into joy. Rachel and all of Judah’s mothers will finally receive comfort from God:

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jer 31:13).

"Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem" by Rembrandt, 1630 (click to enlarge)

"Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem" by Rembrandt, 1630 (click to enlarge)

Why will Rachel stop weeping for her children? Because in this new covenant, the Lord swears this promise to his people near the end of the chapter, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34). After they are forgiven of their sin, they will be restored back to their land from exile, “there is a reward for your work … there is hope for your future… and they shall come back from the land of the enemy” (Jer 31:16, 17).

God fulfilled this promise of a new covenant by bringing a remnant of Israel back from the Babylonian exile. This remnant brought forth a Child, the Son of God, who would lead his people out of slavery of sin. Like Moses, this newborn Child was preserved by God by sending him back to Egypt, the ancient house of slavery.

But as God brought a remnant of Israel out of slavery in foreign exile, today God is still continuing to bring a remnant of his people out of slavery to sin. From out of Pharaoh’s wicked scheme to destroy all Hebrew babies came Moses, the redeemer of Israel. Out of the remnant from Babylon, God brought Joseph and Mary to be the earthly parents of the Messiah. Out of Herod’s wicked plan, the baby Savior-Child and his family went down to Egypt. And after Herod died, God said, “out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt 2:15).

So in contrast to Rachel, Mary, the mother of Jesus was comforted when her Son, the only true “Innocent,” died on the cross at the hands of wicked people. She found comfort in the house of John the beloved disciple. After her Son rose from the grave, she found comfort in the truth of her song at the annunciation of Jesus’ birth, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). Finally, she found comfort in the company of disciples in Jerusalem, waiting for the Spirit, the Comforter, promised by his Son who had ascended into heaven.

Like Mary, we too are to find comfort in our Savior and Redeemer, because “our hard labor is ended, our iniquity is pardoned” (Isa 40:1-2), and we have been freed from slavery to sin. We too are to find comfort in the assembly of the saints who weep with us and comfort us in our afflictions, so that we may overflow with joy (2 Cor 7:4, 6-7). Jesus himself calls blessed those who mourn because of their sin, for they will be comforted (Matt 5:14).

When you hear of the massacre of “innocents,” mourn and weep, but do not mourn without hope. In contrast to Rachel who refused to be comforted, be comforted! Because through the evil done on “innocent” children, God preserved Jesus, who was born to save you from your sin.

When sorrows, afflictions and persecutions come to you, mourn and weep, but also rejoice! Because through the exodus of your Redeemer, you too can persevere through your own journey in this barren wilderness of life.

Let Mount Zion be glad! Let the daughters of Judah rejoice because of your judgments!” (Psa 48:11) The people of God rejoices in their worship services because of the Lord’s steadfast love and righteousness (Psa 48:9-10).

Again, the psalmist says, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” (Psa 30:11-12) He promises that after the dark nights of mourning, God will send days of gladness and dancing. What then must your response be? Words and songs of praise and thanksgiving. But more importantly: faithful and obedient lives!

Who knows what comfort God has in mind in the aftermath of Newtown? Who knows what good he has for you in the troubles and afflictions that he will send your way in this new year 2013?

And pray with hope, “Come soon, Lord Jesus, and ransom captives that mourn in lonely exile in this broken, wicked world!” When that day comes, our night of mourning and weeping will turn into an eternity of “dancing and rejoicing”.

Weeping and Rejoicing with God’s People
But God’s people do not weep and rejoice alone. We weep and rejoice together as one family and nation.

Before China came into the scene, the Philippines reigned as Asia’s basketball king. Every time the Philippines won an Asian basketball championship, the whole country celebrated and rejoiced, “We won!” Although only twelve players actually won, all Filipinos identified with the winners.

In the last several years, Filipinos also celebrated together in Manny Pacquiao’s greatest victories in boxing. But in his last two fights, Filipinos mourned together with him in his losses, especially in his last terrible defeat.

In the same way, Paul commands the church, ““Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).

In Paul’s ministry, many Jews and pagans repented and believed. Many were healed of their sickness and delivered from demons. Paul and the other apostles were delivered from prison, beatings and even a shipwreck. But James and many other believers were martyred. Because of these things, the church rejoiced and wept together with them.

So Paul says in connection with the use of spiritual gifts, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). Every Christian has a gift given by the Spirit for the purpose of building up, caring, and encouraging one another. So if a member of the church suffers and does not use his spiritual gifts, the whole church suffers.

The body of Christ is united in one faith, one hope, one God, one Savior, one Spirit. When one of the members is healed of sickness, or gets a job or a promotion, or is reconciled with his husband or wife, or his children are baptized or profess faith in Christ, we all rejoice with our brother or sister. We are not to be jealous of his or her success or blessing. Instead, we are to praise and thank the Lord for giving his blessings on our brethren.

The reverse is true. If one of you or your loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness, or gets laid off from work, or breaks up with the spouse, or the child becomes rebellious, we all mourn and weep with our brother or sister. We are to pray for him, that God will right the situation, that he may find comfort in the Spirit and in his brothers and sisters in Christ.

We are to sympathize with our brethren, whether in suffering or joy.

"Jesus Wept" by James Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)

"Jesus Wept" by James Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)

Jesus is the pre-eminent example of one who wept and rejoiced with his friends. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus, not only because of the unbelief of the people, but also because he felt the sorrow of Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha. He asked his Father in heaven to forgive those who crucified him, because they did not know what they were doing. He gave hope to the dying thief on the cross with the promise of paradise.

Of Christ’s weeping and rejoicing with us, the prophet Zephaniah says, “The Lord your God … will rejoice over you with gladness … I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival” (Zeph 3:17-18). This is why the writer of Hebrews could write,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).

In his life and death, Jesus was like us in every way, having gone through all the temptations and sufferings that all human beings like us experience, yet without sinning. This is what the word “sympathize” means for him: he suffers, mourns and rejoices with you his people.

 

Our new year has begun with a time of mourning, even weeping, because of the events in this last week. One of our beloved well-respected elders has left us for many reasons, both personal and doctrinal.

But rejoice and be glad! God promises that he will turn this dark night of mourning into days of rejoicing. Many of you have expressed disappointment, but are also hopeful and encouraged by the prayers of God’s people here at Pasig Covenant Reformed Church.

In this new year 2013, let us take our eyes off of our differences and pride. Rather, have these words of Paul in mind:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:1-4).

Comfort one another. Pray for one another. Encourage one another. Be of the same mind with one another. Have the same love for one another. Mourn and weep with everyone. And finally, rejoice and be glad with everyone.

 

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