Theodicy

Matthew 2:13-23

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

 

Before we get to our text for this morning, I want to draw your attention back to the second book of the Bible, the book of Exodus. Exodus chapter one tells us that the Israelites moved to Egypt to live on and work the fertile lands around the Nile River. Over the years the Israelites grew in number and the leader of the Egyptians, Pharaoh, got a little bit nervous. He was worried that the Israelites might rise up and overtake the Egyptians because the Israelites were great in number and in strength. So Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill any male Hebrew boys when they were born.

The midwives were defiant and did not do as Pharaoh had commanded them, and they came up with the excuse that the Hebrew women were too strong that the babies just popped out before the midwives could even get there.

Pharaoh was not happy about this. He did not like to be tricked, so he made a statement to all of Egypt. We find that statement in verse 22: “Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.’”

Chapter two of Exodus introduces us to a young Hebrew couple that gets pregnant and the woman gives birth to a healthy baby boy. And after three months, the mother did just what was commanded of her: she threw that baby boy into the Nile. Pharaoh never said that they couldn’t first put the child in a little boat made out of a basket. And in an ironic twist, that baby was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as a part of the royal family.

The baby was Moses. And he would grow to be the man who led the Israelite people out of slavery, out of captivity, and out of oppression in Egypt.

Even this power-hungry, blood-thirsty Pharaoh could not stop what God was doing through God’s people.

Moses recognized that God was not done working through his people as Moses was leading the Israelite people on their way to the Promised Land. God was not done. And we find Moses speaking this interesting little nugget in Deuteronomy 18:15, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.”

So why start this message on the Sunday after Christmas with the birth and life of Moses? What does Moses have to do with Jesus? I want you to notice the parallels between today’s text and the Moses narrative, so let’s dig a little deeper.

Our text from Matthew begins with the departure of the Wise Men. Next week, on Epiphany Sunday, we will return to the story of the Wise Men. If you recall the story, they first went to Jerusalem looking for the one born king of the Jews. And when the actual king, Herod, heard of this he asked the Wise Men to come and let him know if and where they found this new-born king so that he could worship the child, too. Of course we know that Herod did not wish to worship Jesus, he wanted to destroy the competition. Like Pharaoh so many years earlier, Herod was worried for his own throne and his own destiny.

We find in non-biblical sources that Herod was a ruthless ruler. He even had two of his own sons put to death because he suspected that they were interested in taking the throne from him. So if Herod was willing to kill his own sons to protect his role as king, it should come as no surprise that he would have put the son of two poor peasants to death as well.

If Herod had his way, Jesus would have died not only before he performed his first miracle, but before he took his first steps or said his first words. But Herod did not get his own way. God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream to tell him to take Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt where they could escape the actions of Herod. And they stayed there until Herod’s death, when like Moses, God called Jesus and his family to return to the Promised Land.

So there are some interesting parallels between Moses’s story and the story of Jesus. However, I’ve struggled with this passage of scripture for much of my adult life. Nobody likes to think of innocent children, boys under the age of two, being slaughtered by a power-driven king. That’s absolutely terrible; there are not words strong enough to reveal my level of disgust. But what I really struggle with is the question of why God would speak to just the one family and warn them of Herod’s plans while the other families experienced the loss of their child. I get it, God needed to deliver Jesus from harm’s way to protect him. But why not announce this to the entire city?

Many people have tried to reduce the discomfort felt by people like me by noting that Bethlehem was a very little town and the number of boys killed by Herod’s men probably only amounted to 5-10 children. But that doesn’t really help if you are the parent of one of the boys who just happened to be under the age of two in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

Others have gone so far as to say that this massacre never really took place. They cite the fact that there are no other sources that even mention this event and therefore Matthew was making it up. They claim that Matthew just invents this story to fulfill the prophesies about the messiah coming out of Egypt like a second Moses.

I understand why someone would want to believe that this never happened. Like I said, I struggle with questions of why God would allow any innocent child to perish or allow a young family to be displaced, forced to move to another country for their own safety. But I don’t think it is helpful to claim that this story never happened because this story is still happening today.

Just this week it was reported that 120,000 people are displaced in South Sudan, forced to leave their homes because of political unrest and violence. The total number of Syrian refugees now tops 2 million people who have fled their country and their homes since 2011. It isn’t just Mary and Joseph that need to flee for their own safety. Millions of people today are forced from their homes and their families because of power-hungry and violent leaders.

Just over a year ago 20 innocent children ages 6 and 7 were murdered in Newtown, CN along with six teachers. And it seems like school shootings are becoming more and more common. But this is just a drop in the bucket. Some estimate that 21,000 children die every day; that’s one ever four seconds.

People are still displaced by violent and power-hungry leaders today. Innocent children continue to be killed for power, glory, attention, and out of greed. People may try to make this story less confusing and less challenging by relegating it to the realm of mythology, but we know this story to be all too true, even to this day.

Evil exists. This is just as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. Jesus has come into this world, but evil still exists. The angels have announced his coming, the shepherds and wise men have gathered to worship the one born king of the Jews. But not everyone bends a knee before the King of kings. We make bad decisions, each and every one of us. Some seem minor, others seem atrocious.

The question of why evil exists is indeed a troubling one for many people today. If God is as powerful as we claim he is and if Jesus came into the world to set the captives free, then why is there still so much pain and suffering in the world today? Theologians like to give a name to this question, and we call it “theodicy.” But just giving something a big name does not answer the questions that we have.

The best reason that I have for why bad things happen comes back to the gift that we have been given in free will. We have been given the option to follow God or not, to do good or to do bad, or something in between. I believe that God is all powerful, but God chooses to self-limit his own power so that we can freely choose to follow him. And unfortunately people like Herod and Adam Lanza chose to seek power or glory or something other than what is good. And we will never have the answers to satisfy our desire to know why God intervenes sometimes and not others.

Yet I believe that Rachel Hackenburg puts it about as well as anyone can when she says, “Emmanuel has come, and we celebrate his birth not because we need more presents and holiday meals in our lives, but because we need God With Us in our lives desperately.”

I am thankful to have the opportunity to use some continuing education funds this past fall at Union Presbyterian Seminary studying contemporary theological ethics. And when you get a bunch of nerds together to talk about theology, things often turn to issues like theodicy. We were reading a book by an African American theologian and he was writing about suffering. This theologian said something that caught my attention. He noted that the suffering of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement was made easier to bear by knowing that God himself, through Jesus Christ, has also suffered.

I have said this from time to time as well, but I had to admit to my professor and fellow students that I didn’t understand how this really helped. And I confessed that perhaps the reason that I didn’t understand how Jesus’s suffering helped us in our suffering was likely because I have never really known what it means to suffer.

I am a straight, white, middle-class male. That alone means that life is going to be easier for me than for many other people. My professor, however, was an African American man of retirement age. He was a college student through the Civil Rights Movement and worked alongside Dr. King. He has known persecution, abuse, and oppression. One of the other students was from Myanmar. Myanmar has the unfortunate distinction of being the country in the Asia Pacific most prone to natural disasters: floods, cyclones, and earthquakes abound. He also shared stories of being a Christian in a country where Christians were not permitted to hold public office. He had lost friends through disasters, he knew oppression through his fellow citizens.

Both of these men who had known much more suffering than I had ever experienced assured me that they found some sense of comfort in knowing that our God is not some distant deity, but is a God who has suffered every pain we can experience. God suffers with us.

Finally, even though the Bible does not tell us why God allows evil or bad things to happen, we are told what we must do in the face of evil. We stand together.

In our basement there are a number of donut-shaped pieces of metal and some steel rods that slide right into the holes of the metal disks. These are dumbbells. I can hold one of these dumbbells for a while, but eventually I get tired and need to set them down or just drop them. Some of the dumbbells are heavier than others. I can hold the lighter ones longer than I can hold the heavy ones. And if we went through the congregation today, we would find that we can all hold the dumbbells for a different amount of time before we would have to set them down or drop them.

But imagine if we were to share the weight of these dumbbells. There is a nice handle on each side of these weights, which would allow two people to share the weight. Or perhaps we could just pass it back and forth and allow one another to share the weight while someone else rests.

The apostle Paul writes in Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

I may not know why God allows bad things to happen to good people, or why God allows evil to exist at all. But I know things don’t always go as we would like for them to go. And I know that as followers of Jesus that we are called to carry one another’s burdens, lightening the load for each other as needed.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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