Christmas 2, January 5, 2020
On this Second Sunday after Christmas, we hear of the narrow escape of the Holy Family. King Herod heard that a baby was born who was destined to become the King of the Jews. So to avoid competition he order the killing of all the babies in and around Bethlehem, two years old and younger. Joseph is warned in a dream. He picks up his family and flees to Egypt. It is a terrible day for the people in Bethlehem. The estimate is that thirty innocent children are killed. Only one got away.
What happened in Bethlehem was not an isolated incident. Herod's slaughter of the babies is part of a familiar patter. Earlier in Jewish history, Pharaoh worried that the Hebrew slaves were growing too numerous and so he slaughtered the innocent babies. Only the infant Moses escaped that time floating in a basket that carried him into Pharaoh's own household.
And through history, we have seen the ongoing pattern in which tyrants kill who they will. in recent memory, we have Stalin's wholesale execution in the Soviet Union, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. In South Sudan, the government is recruiting child soldiers to fill out their army to fight their civil war. How do we make sense of a loving God looking over a world in which so much senseless slaughter of children is taking place?
God is omnipotent, which means all-powerful, but even having all power doesn't make two contradictory things happen at once. God cannot both give us humans free will and at the same time take away that free will. If God prevented our choices that lead to pain and suffering in the world, then we would no longer be free.
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 basic principle of all that is. To say "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son," explains so much. Love demands freedom, in fact it requires it. True love can never be demanded or coerced. There is no other way. Force demands, and oppression cannot create even the faintest spark of the fire of love.
Yes, one can force some sort of reaction from people. But you cannot force love. Whatever you get without free choice is not love. Love must be freely given and freely accepted in order to be love. For God to love us means that God must give us free will. There is no other way. And this is exactly what God did. God gave us a choice. And through our choices, we can get hurt and we can cause hurt--or even kill --others.
God has created a world in which love is possible and humans do some very ugly things to each other. We have death at the hands of murderers or drunk drivers. It also means that birth defects can occur from a mother taking drugs while pregnant. Every day we take steps closer to make drugs legal. Now it looks like Vapor is going to wipe out our lungs.
A universe where real love is an option 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 usffering, but also a world of generosity, kindness, and love.
God showed real love for creation, not by taking away the choice that made love possible. God showed love by becoming weak and vulnerable. God entered into our creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to gently put back the broken pieces of our world with love. And through our free will, we can choose to respond to God's love, by committing ourselves to follow Jesus in answer to God's love.
This week in our Gospel, we hear the painful truth that when Jesus was born, Herod killed the innocent children in Bethlehem. But 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 end so many innocent lives to secure his power, Herod still did not have the power to stop God's love and the plan of salvation for all of us.
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 is powerless to stop the love of God. Evil exists for a painful, tragic moment when compared to God's eternal love.
The Bible does not hide the painful truth of the world as it is. Scripture does not try to 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 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 which was Jesus.
In answer to 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. The power of love can and does defeat evil. Love will win out in the end.