Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, July 09, 2020
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Suffering and Redemption

Matthew 2:13-23 and Hebrews 2:10-18

            In the year of Matthew’s Gospel, this year, the Sunday after Christmas features this text.  It serves as a rather tragic counterpoint to the joy of Christmas.  Frankly, it’s a real downer.

            When the magi visited Jerusalem, searching for the birth of the “king of the Jews,” they tipped off Herod the Great, king of Judea, Galilee, Samaria, and some neighboring provinces.  And Herod was none too pleased. 

            Just as the magi were warned not to return to Herod, so Joseph was warned to flee to Egypt.  Egypt had been a place of refuge and safety for the Hebrew people in the past.  That’s where they went during the famine in the time of Jacob.  Refugees from Jerusalem also fled to Egypt after the Babylonians captured the city.  And there was a large Jewish population in first century Egypt, so they would find a place of refuge and community. 

            Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem to murder every male child two years old and younger.  This event is only recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.  Matthew mentions it because it fits with his portrayal of Jesus as a “new Moses,” and the leader of a “new exodus.”  His message was aimed at fellow Jews, so this portrayal of Jesus would resonate with them.  Jesus escapes the slaughter of male babies, just like Moses did.  Jesus comes out of Egypt, just like Moses, and all of Israel, did. 

            But the fact that this event is only mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel has led some to doubt the historicity of it.  Wouldn’t such a massacre be recorded elsewhere in some Jewish history?  Well, not necessarily.  Unfortunately, this kind of event was all too common during the time of Herod the Great.  Herod the Great murdered at least one of his own wives, maybe two.  He murdered at least three of his own sons, and maybe a fourth.  Would a man who murdered at least four members of his own family be unwilling to murder children he didn’t know?  When Herod was close to death, he had hundreds of prominent members of the Jerusalem aristocracy arrested with orders that they were to be murdered at his death so that people would not celebrate.  Fortunately, the orders were not carried out.  This sounds like the kind of guy who would murder children.  And in the grand scope of his atrocities, the murder of maybe a dozen or so male children in one small town might not even have drawn much attention.  This was small potatoes for Herod the “Great.” 

            After Herod’s death, Joseph returns with his family, but they go back to Nazareth instead of Bethlehem.  No doubt Bethlehem was an easier place to live when Jesus was first born, since the people there wouldn’t know the circumstances of his birth.  But Judea was now under the rule of Herod’s son, Archelaus.  Archelaus started his reign by murdering 3000 people he considered to be political rivals.  He wanted to send a message.  He was so bad that Rome removed him from power after only a few years, and that’s why Judea was a Roman province at the time of Jesus’ ministry.

            This was certainly a terrible story of suffering.  But Jesus was saved through miraculous intervention.  It begs the question to some:  If God could save one child through miraculous intervention, then why not save all of them?  Why didn’t every parent in Bethlehem get a dream warning them to flee?  For that matter, why doesn’t God intervene to stop every tragedy from happening? 

It would seem that, for the most part, we live with the results of human rebellion and sin.  God does intervene from time to time, in his own purposes, but not always. 

            Suffering is a sticking point for some people.  Some view suffering as a grounds for atheism, or at least for rejecting the idea of a good and all-powerful God.  The argument runs like this:  Suffering proves that there is no good and all-powerful God.  If God is good, he should stop suffering.  So either he is not all powerful because he doesn’t stop it, or he is not good.  There’s more to that argument, but that’s the general idea. 

            But I think there’s another possibility:  God is good, and God is all-powerful, but God chooses not to remove suffering.  Why not?  For one thing, God is allowing us to live with the results of our rebellion.  The Bible teaches that God created a world of goodness but because human beings, the creatures God made in his own image to reflect his goodness to the world, rebelled and sinned, the goodness of the world is fallen into, well, this mess. 

            But more than that, I think the Bible also witnesses to a redemptive purpose to suffering.  Hebrews chapter two says, “Through suffering, God made Christ a perfect leader, one fit to bring many into salvation.” 

            The word “leader” is the Greek word ARCHEGOS, a very important word in Hebrews.  Leader isn’t a bad translation, but there are other options.  It could also be translated as “pioneer, author, founder, originator.”  It’s the idea of one who goes into new territory to open up the way for others to follow.  Think Daniel Boone opening up the Kentucky territory.  I think pioneer might be the best translation.

            “Perfect” translates the Greek word TELEIOS.  The idea is not so much absolute perfection as the sense of completeness, maturity, fully grown, initiated.  Something is TELEIOS if it is able to carry out its designated purpose. 

            Jesus came into this role through suffering.  He knew suffering.  He became fully human, and to be human is to suffer.  He knew what it was to be tired, cold, hungry, sick, weak, ill, in pain, and to die.  Now Jesus had no need to suffer, since he himself was without sin.  But only by suffering could he die for others, to be a pioneer of salvation and eternal life. 

            We know Jesus has compassion and sympathy for us in our troubles and suffering because he himself suffered.  Suffering helps us to gain compassion and sympathy for the suffering of others.  Christ became complete as a pioneer of salvation through suffering. 

            Suffering is a difficult thing for us to wrap our minds around.  No one wants to suffer.  We are all tempted to blame God when we do suffer, or when someone we care about suffers.  We might say, “God, why didn’t you spare me or them from this?” 

            I think we should view suffering through the lens of Christ.  Suffering can have a redemptive purpose.  Good can come out of suffering.  And suffering is temporary.  When we enter into Christ, we don’t escape from suffering.  If anything, we enter into suffering.  Jesus suffered, why should we think that those who belong to him will escape it?  But if Jesus entered into glory through suffering, then the promise is for us, too.  Suffering is inevitable.  Suffering is temporary.  But the end of the journey is glory, and glory is eternal.  

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