2 Christmas: Jer 31:7-14; Ep 1:3-6, 15-19a; Ps 84:1-8; Mt 2:13-15, 19-23
A sermon preached on January 4, 2014 at St. John’s Episcopal Church
There are always those who would respond and react out of fear and greed. For some reason greed arouses a fear reaction. When we are afraid we are going to lose something we value, fear typically drives our response and directs the way forward in hope of not losing what it is we are so desperately clinging too. Herod is controlled by this greed-based fear. He is consumed with the acquisition of power and political equity. Though a great builder, he is a tyrant and terrorizes his people. Herod does not need or want a messiah. He is not interested in someone who will bring the peace and prosperity that the prophets of old have spoken of. He is concerned only with himself and consumed by his privilege and his power.
So when wise men from the East show up with an entourage and expensive gifts worthy of a new born prince, Herod gets anxious and his fear driven response is genocide”the mass killing of those under the age of two in Bethlehem.
Matthew 2: 16-17 (the part we didn’t read this morning):
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
Fortunately, the king-to-be, the Messiah, the baby Jesus is saved from this horrific act by God who sends an angel to Joseph to warn him in a dream.
We allow ourselves to get focused on that part of the story because it is easier than a story about how a bunch of innocent children under the age of two were killed simply because God entered in. Incarnation is the story of the inbreaking of light, but its beginning seems shrouded in darkness.
I can’t imagine what it means to lose a child. I can’t imagine the grief and sorrow of those Bethlehem parents. I can’t imagine the grief and sorrow of parents of the victims of Sandy Hook elementary school or of Afghanistan school victims of the Taliban or any other tragedy involving that sort of loss. But I do know that God can.
Jesus’s birth and circumstances at the beginning of his life will set the stage for the tragedy and sorrow that will end his life. It will define the purpose and intent of healing and good news that Jesus will proclaim during his life. The events described in Matthew’s infancy narrative reflect a deep and horrific truth that we would rather ignore and have never understood. That truth is known as theodicy or the problem of evil and suffering. If God is omnipotent, why does he allow evil and suffering to exist? I cannot begin to answer that question in any terms that might be considered satisfactory or acceptable. But there are ways to think about suffering and evil in the world that might help.
The Scriptures are full of suffering. They do not try to deny it, nor do they attempt to fix evil and suffering in the world. Instead, the Scriptures help us to see how God is working in the midst of evil and suffering. God does not take; God receives. Evil and suffer are never associated with fairness and always associated with pain, but suffering can bring about graces we might never have imagined. It can illuminate gifts we did not know we possessed and become a transformative experience. When we suffer, we become acutely aware of the sufferings of others. That realization changes us, it draws from a place of empathy deep within our souls and helps us to understand and live into our relationships more fully and more carefully causing us to be less self-focused and more considerate of another’s needs. We can know a deeper sense of God’s providence”that long arc of the Advent perspective that we are heading somewhere, heading toward the consummation of history”that we would not have known had we not known suffering, because that deep sense of providence cannot be learned when things are good.
There are creative and spiritual aspects within suffering that neither negate nor surpass the actual suffering. Take Beethoven. As Beethoven became increasingly deaf, he seemed to hear with an inner ear the deeper strains of melody that would lead to his greatness. His most impressive compositions were written after his deafness, a severe limitation for a composer. There is either a great irony in that or recognition that God works through us, even in our suffering, to find good. Maybe that is what divine providence is really all about.
Theodicy, the explanation of evil and suffering, is inappropriate in the actual presence of suffering. As Jewish thinker, Irving Greenberg said, No theological reasons for suffering should ever be made that are not credible in the presence of the burning children in Auschwitz. None of the parents who lost children to Herod’s fear-driven genocide would have been comforted in being told that their suffering was for the sake of a possible messiah who has just fled to Egypt. This evil event in the midst of our savior’s birth story is problematic. But I think Matthew was laying the groundwork for an important theological message that is summed up in Jesus’s death and resurrection”God does not become incarnate to end suffering but to redefine it and offer us a path through the suffering to salvation.
We all suffer, some of us more than others, all of us at differing degrees, and most of us undeservedly. Suffering exists. We know it to be as true as the air we breath or the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. We cannot rid ourselves of suffering; instead we must embrace it and find a way through it without allowing it to defeat us. It is never something that must be accepted. It is rarely something that should be ignored. But in naming and claiming our own individual suffering”naming and claiming the suffering in the world”we begin to know the power of the cross, the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Evil will always exist in the earthly realm”I’m pretty sure of that. But so will hope. Matthew uses this story of the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents to remind us of another slaughter and flight from Egypt”the story of Moses. By reminding us of Moses, Matthew connects Jesus to the type of Messiah we have been looking for: The one who will lead us out of exile into the Promised Land; The one who will save us from our oppressors; The one who will remind us that even when our hope cannot lie in this world, we can claim it for the next. Because that is who Jesus is, the Messiah, the one who comes amidst suffering and evil in this world to grant us everlasting life in the next. God suffers with us. We are not alone in our struggle and the promise God gives to us is that our struggle will not be the end but through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God rises victorious over this earthly suffering in eternity.
Just a few short weeks ago we sang hymns calling for Emmanuel to come, to ransom Israel, to save us, to bring the light that will shine in the darkness and not be overcome. That light has come and sometimes it glows dimly in our lives, casting shadows of fear and anxiety, grief and sorrow in the dark. At other times it glows brightly hiding the darkness or momentarily casting it away. But when Emmanuel came, he came to the darkness, the evil and suffering that marks and defines us and though he does not rid it, he shines through it casting his rays of hope and comfort that we might know the Way.