Monday, December 30, 2013

When Christmas is Over (A Sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23)

Someone said that nothing is as over as Christmas when it’s over. The themes that run through Advent are the themes of hope, peace, love, and joy and we always emphasize these in one way or another through prayers, songs, Scriptures, litanies, and in the sermons. But ask anyone who is going through a difficult time, anyone who is in grief from the passing of a loved one, or one who is unemployed without any prospects soon of finding a job, or someone who is struggling with a physical or mental illness – ask them and they will tell you that it is easier to sing or talk about hope, peace, love, and joy than nurture these in our lives.

Our Scripture text today is an after Christmas text, but it is still part of the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. When we are trying to get into the Christmas spirit this is a part of the Christmas story we would just as soon forget. The joyful news brought by the angel is now replaced by the loud weeping of the parents whose babies were killed in the wake of King Herod's rage. Matthew's Christmas pageant ends not with tinsel covered angels proclaiming peace on earth and goodwill toward all, but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered babies. 

We sing on Christmas "Oh little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie" but we don't have any songs for this part of the story. It's not still anymore. The days after Christmas return us to the real world - a world where there is danger and risk and hurt and evil, a world where children die senselessly, a world where parents like those in Bethlehem live in fear and oppression, a world that can erupt in holocaust and genocide, as well as in massive storms and earthquakes and tsunamis that devastate lands and lives.  

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Matthew tells us that what took place in Bethlehem “fulfilled” what Jeremiah had prophesied: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Two other times in the same passage Matthew tells us that the events he narrates "fulfilled" what was spoken by the prophets.

What Matthew means by the word “fulfillment” is not what we usually mean when we use the word today. The Gospel writer is not saying that God planned all of this to happen, he is simply telling us that the story of Jesus parallels and in some sense completes the story of Israel, that there is continuity between the old and the new, and that the God who was engaged in the life of Israel is engaged in the life of Jesus to bring redemption and hope to our world. Matthew is reminding us that even when evil people do evil things and terrible tragedy results, this does not take God by surprise and God is still at work.

This part of the story gets real messy, but Matthew wants us to know that none of this is outside of God’s involvement. Exactly how God is involved in all of this has been the subject of much discussion over the years. And some explanations are simply ridiculous.

After the tragic earthquake in Haiti where tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were left without food, shelter, and running water Pat Robertson of the 700 club explained that the people of Haiti had made a pact with the Devil and brought this on themselves. Robertson’s God is a monster, unless of course you belong to his group or support his work.

There are some things we never get over. We get though, but we never get over. The pain becomes less painful in time, but the pain never goes away.

A pastor, writing in The Christian Century, tells about the first time her mother visited the church she is pastor of. During the passing of the peace, what we would call the welcome, a woman who greeted here and realized that she was speaking to the pastor’s mother, asked, “Just how many children do you have?”

“Six,” her mother responded. Then she corrected herself. “Well, five who are living.” As she turned to greet the next person her eyes filled with tears. Her firstborn had drowned more than 50 years ago when he was a small child. And yet the pain of that loss is still so raw and real, that the most benign of questions can cause her to relive it at random moments – like during the passing of the peace at her daughter’s church. There are some tragedies we never get over.

When it comes to the tragedies of life and the amount of evil in the world that inflicts great suffering, I do not find any consolation or hope in theological explanations which attempt to answer “why” questions.” No explanation is adequate. No explanation is without problems. No answer is satisfactory.

I first began to wrestle with the theological implications of my “why” questions in a doctrinal seminar. I have, sense then, struggled with this on a number of occasions. Then, at some point in my spiritual journey, I decided it was a waste of time.

There is no good answer to the question of why there is such unjust suffering in the world. Every so-called answer creates its own set of problems, which ignites more questions.

There are some folks who would like to think that some of us are exceptional, that God gives some of us special provision and protection, that the chosen are exempt somehow. But that is not true. The gospel does not make us immune to random acts of violence or to common human suffering. There is no special promise of immunity or protection given to a particular group. 

Our granddaughters like the story: Going on a Bear Hunt. There are any number of versions of the story in print and on You Tube. Whatever the challenge, whether it is a forest or muddy swamp or snowstorm, there is no going over it, or under it, or around it, you have to go through it. Maybe that is a lesson in preparation for life.

Author and spiritual teacher Joan Chittister says, “There is no way to comprehend how to go through grief other than by going through it. There is no way to practice foregoing a hot rage that comes with feeling ignored or dismissed or found to be ‘essentially disordered’ – for any reason. There is no way to plan for the sense of abandonment you feel in a society that thinks differently from you; because your child is gay, maybe, or because you’re a woman and so automatically considered deficient for the work, perhaps, or because you’re not white in a white world, or because the person you thought was an eternal friend abandoned you.” She writes, “Those things we need to figure out for ourselves, one situation at a time.”  In other words, there is no avoiding them, so we have to deal with them as they come. 

There are things that can only be learned by going through them. And there are things that we would rather not learn. Sometimes the events and experiences of life shatter us, and there is no putting the pieces back again, at least, not in the same way. We may just have to do the best we can with what pieces still work. 

So, I am at a place where I don’t ask “why” anymore. However, I am not suggesting that you should not ask “why.” Much will depend on where you are on your spiritual journey. The person who has never asked “why” is a spiritual infant no matter what that person’s physical age.

One might think that there could be nothing worse than having to deal with too many problems and too many challenging situations in life. And it can be a struggle when the problems come in droves. But there is something worse than having to cope with too many problems and crises. What’s worse is having too few; having so few that one never asks “Why.”

I am not suggesting we should never ask “why”; I am suggesting that we should not expect an answer when we ask “why” because no answer is satisfactory. Demanding an answer is an exercise in futility.

So I am at a place where I have given up on asking, “why.” But you see, I had to ask “why” in order to give up on asking “why.”

At this stage in my spiritual pilgrimage it is enough for me to know that God is with us in our suffering and that God suffers with us in our suffering – that our suffering somehow impacts God. I believe that our suffering influences and affects God.

That’s what incarnation is about. That’s what “Emmanuel, God with us” is about. If we search our hearts deeply enough, if we listen to the Divine Voice within, our hearts can intuitively grasp, deep in our core we know that wherever suffering is, that’s where Jesus is (that’s where God is, the Spirit is, the living Christ is).

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In the suffering at Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place a little later up the road at a place called Calvary. Where the one called the King of the Jews bears the wrath of the powers that be and there is, once again as at Bethlehem, violence and bloodshed and weeping.

The gospel of Jesus is not a gospel about worldly power and control and success. The symbol for our faith is not a scepter or a throne or a mansion, but a cross – the very means used for Roman execution. The cross is a symbol of humiliation and defeat. It expresses vulnerability and weakness.

In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul said that the very image of Christ crucified, the very idea of the Messiah executed, was to many Jews a stumbling block and to many Greeks foolishness. It made no sense. But to those “being saved,” said Paul, it is the very power and wisdom of God.

Please do not read Paul’s words about salvation as a kind of legal transaction that provides a ticket to heaven. “Being saved” is a process of change and conversion that occurs in our hearts and is expressed through our lives. We enter into it, not by believing doctrines about Jesus, which, to be honest, does very little for us, but by faithfully living and embodying the way of Jesus – which is the way of the cross.

The way of the cross is the way of surrender and love – surrender to God’s greater good and love for all people, no exceptions. The cross represents the extent to which God was willing to go to show us the way out of our mess. The way out is not through physical power and force and violence, but through endurance and forgiveness and grace. In 1 Cor. 13, Paul calls this the most excellent way. It is also the most difficult way.

As we prepare ourselves for a new year, it is good to be reminded of what being a Christian means, and what it means is to follow the way of Jesus, and the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.


Our good God, may we know in the core of our being that you suffer with us when we suffer through the really difficult times in our lives – that you are not way out there, but right here – among us, with us, in us, absorbing it all. Help us to see that while you do not offer us answers, you do give us your presence, and the way through has been traveled already by Jesus, whose cross is always a reminder of your great suffering love for each one of us.    

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