I can’t get his image out of my mind. Try as I might, he keeps coming back. Haunting me really. His jet-black hair, his even blacker eyes. His hands pulling his jacket open. A bomb strapped to his chest. A fourteen-year-old boy sent by one group of warring people to blow up another group’s place of worship. A young boy caught in the barbed wires of war. A child. Just a little boy who wants to be a doctor when he grows up.
Instead of pulling the fuse on the bomb he was wearing, he walks up to soldiers, opens his jacket and says, “I don’t want to die.”
Young girls taken from their school in Northern Nigeria. Young girls hoping for a different life. Young girls–pawns in another war in another part of the world.
Boys clad in neat blue blazers, boys seated at their desks, boys shot because their fathers were soldiers in yet another war in a distant part of the globe.
Here, on our southern border, children, some with their mothers, some all alone, barracked in hot tinder-brick buildings as they await rulings on their immigration status. Children, risking everything so that they might have a chance at life here in this country. Children whose prospects in their home countries dim by the day.
Harder to see. Harder to notice. Kids in our country. Kids from our country, our state, our city. Kids failed by the schools that promised to teach them what they need to survive in the world they will one day inherit. Kids who can’t add. Kids who can’t read. Kids whose only hope is a dead-end job.
Again tonight we hear the story of a baby born in Bethlehem. We hear the story of Magi coming from afar to catch a glimpse of this most special child. Magi bringing gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. And we hear of their departure. Then the story takes a darker hue. The child’s life is threatened. His parents rise in the middle of the night and take flight. They head to Egypt where the child will be safe.
And yet the blood thirst of the one who threatens the child will not be quenched. Herod the Great orders that all boy children under the age of two living in Bethlehem be killed. Children sacrificed on altars of fear; children killed at the whim of a despot.
There are those who say these stories are not true. There are those who say they never happened. There are those who claim that Mary and Joseph never fled to Egypt with Jesus, their new-born son. There are those who loudly deny that Herod the Great ever killed any children born in Bethlehem. Likely the scoffers are right. There is no historical evidence supporting either the sacrifice of the innocents or the flight to Egypt.
Is there not some truth to the scripture stories we just heard? Do they not point to truths deeper than the warrants of history? The truth that the powerful often serve their own needs at the expense of the powerless. The truth that children are often counted last. The truth that compassion is a rare and rarely valued currency in the realms of those who wield worldly power.
And yet there’s another truth imbedded in these stories we hear tonight. The truth of the child born in Bethlehem to a couple bedded down in a stable. The truth of a child known as Emanuel—God with us. The truth of a child who knows our suffering and who is acquainted with our grief. The truth of the stable. The truth of the Cross. The truth of the empty tomb.
The philosopher and theologian Alfred North Whitehead once said that all good theology includes three elements: vision, promise and practice.
The child born in Bethlehem offers us the vision of a world in which children count and thieves matter, and the poor do not go away hungry.
The child born in Bethlehem meets those who follow him with a promise—a promise to be with them always—even until the end of the age.
A child born in Bethlehem inviting us into a practice of remembering the children and shaping our lives and the world in which we live around their needs and their future.