Although I know I should not, I always worry when most of our weekly events and studies are cancelled. Mostly I worry because it so impacts my sermon preparation. Given the realities of parish ministry at St. Alban’s, I usually do not have the time to do what I think of as “normal” sermon prep work. Instead, I depend a great deal upon God’s grace and upon you to discern where we as a community need to be focusing on God’s word for that week in our lives, both collectively and individually. Now, I must confess I was excited to shut the office down for a few days and catch up on some missed days off. That meant I could do some reading and “real” sermon prep. Of course, I still needed to make the orders of worship and the Bulletin for last week, so that meant sneaking into the office. And that sneaking provided a struggle that needed to be addressed in our community that even the blind could see it and the deaf could hear it.
Our Gospel lesson for today includes a couple verses in the middle which should have been read at a parish feast on Tuesday. You know the verses as the ones that speak to the deaths of the Holy Innocents. Herod is incensed that the Magi have tricked him and returned home by another route, rather than informing him as to the identity of the new born king. So he plots and schemes. His solution to the threat posed by this baby is reprehensible: he orders that all male children under the age of two in the area of Bethlehem are to be killed. Rather than celebrate that the king has come, the messiah, Herod plots to keep himself in power.
Matthew, of course, ties this event back to the exile in Isaiah 31. Some 7 or 8 centuries before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah prophesized that Israel would be carried off into slavery. Great would be the mourning of Israel. In fact, Rebecca is pictured lamenting over the fact that her children are no more, that they have been carried out of the Promised Land and into slavery. Rebecca’s mourning, is understandable, as would be the mourning of the mothers and fathers of killed babies and toddlers in Bethlehem. What words of comfort could we offer to a mother whose offspring were carried off into slavery? What words of comfort could we offer a mother or a father whose child had been killed on the orders of the rulers?
Seemingly, the reading is out of place. We just gathered 8 days ago to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Just 8 days ago we were singing Joy to the World and Silent Night and listening to that wonderful anthem performed by the choir. Just 8 days ago we heard the story of the birth of Jesus, and we reminded ourselves of the real reason for the season. And then, boom, in barely more than a week, we get this horrific story. Truthfully, for those of us who pay close attention to the assigned readings, we get two terrible stories within 4 days of our celebration of Jesus’ birth. On the 26th of December, we celebrate the martyrdom of St. Stephen. And the Feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated on the 28th. What in the world is He thinking? We go from the peace on earth good will toward man of Christmas to the killing of Stephen to the massacre of a community’s babies and toddlers. What kind of Good News is this?
It was a question asked by several people both in our community and around our community. Heck, it is a question that is often asked by me! Some members of AA cornered me and wanted answers. A recovering alcoholic friend had been hit by a drunk driver and nearly killed over the Christmas weekend. What kind of God allows stuff like that to happen over Christmas? Here was a person who had finally sought help for her addiction, received that help, and seemingly had conquered her addiction. And just like that, her life was nearly snuffed out by someone driving drunk. Where’s the justice?
It was a question asked by several parishioners. After an extensive period of pretty good health—I needed to make very few hospital visits there for a while—we have gotten more than our share of disease, and many of us have learned of the diseases during this so-called season of joy. Cancer has reared its head in more than one family. Other serious diseases have been discovered in other families. In fact, in a couple families, doctors are not yet even sure what the diseases are. And we have not even touched on the seriousness of Lilyan’s condition. And all this was happening over the Christmas season. Where’s the joy? Where’s the peace?
In the coming weeks, we may notice co-workers and friends who are depressed. The world around us has convinced many that the only way to show someone how much you love them is to spend yourself into debt. As a consequence, how many of us or how many of those whom we know spent way more than they had? How many of us and how many of them will begin receiving bills during the month of January that seem entirely too big to ever pay off? And all the while we were elbowing our way to get that “special” gift just to “prove” to our loved ones how much they meant to us. You call this love?
Brothers and sisters, Christmas without Easter is meaningless. We celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation precisely because He knew the cost. Before He ever condescended to become one of us, Jesus knew that His life’s work would lead Him along the path to cavalry and to His death on a cross. And, still, He came. He came knowing that the world would ignore His coming. He came knowing that many in the world would reject Him. He came knowing that the very ones He was trying to save would be the ones who would shout all the louder, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” And, yet, He set His face and came anyway.
He came because He knew we needed mercy when we thought we needed justice. He came because He knew the burdens and loads of the world and that we could never experience His Peace without His sacrifice. He came because we were so deluded by our own desires and the cacophony of the world that we had forgotten what it meant to love someone and, better still, to be loved by someone.
Why would we want mercy instead of justice? I asked those friends how many times did they think their injured friend had gotten behind the wheel of a car drunk. Whoa! Lots. How many people had she injured or killed all those times she drove drunk? None. How would she have felt had she hurt or killed someone? She would have likely taken her life in despair. None of us want justice—that’s what she just experienced. What we want is the mercy He showed us and her by protecting others from her when she could not because of her addiction. You know, Father, you might be right. She did not really conquer her addiction until she got active in a church. Maybe you are right, maybe we don’t want justice, at least the justice we deserve. I know. We all want, we all need grace, whether we know it or not. That’s why He came—That is the meaning of this season.
What of the disease and death that surround us? Jesus’ life and death and life after death speak to those as well. We gather once a month as a community and ask God to manifest His power over disease and death and cure many of us of any number of diseases, aches, pains, and even impending death. But we gather with the empty tomb always in view! We gather knowing that He came down from heaven to die not just for us but for everyone else whom we encounter in our daily life and work. And just as He used His Son’s suffering and death to redeem us, he can use our (his adopted sons and daughters) own suffering and death to point others to Him. And we can face the pain of diseases, we can face the hurt of death, certain that the One who redeemed Jesus’ death has promised to redeem our suffering and to raise us from death! That is the source of our hope, His promise. And that promise is the true source of our peace and our joy.
Brothers and sisters, the story of the incarnation is surrounded in Scripture by all kinds of life’s vicissitudes. We serve a God who knew all too well the cares and concerns of the world and how easily we are misled. But rather than condemn us to the world of evil and darkness, as was His right and as we deserved, He came down, He walked among us, He reminded us of His love, and then, so we would know how much He truly loved us, He laid down His life that we might be able to become His children and live with Him for all eternity. That, brothers and sisters, is love. And that, brothers and sisters, is why we celebrate His Incarnation with such joy, with such thankfulness, and with such awe! And armed with that knowledge, we are sent back into the world to proclaim His salvation in the very midst of terrible darknesses to the ends of the earth!