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January 02, 2005

"Far as the Curse Is Found" - January 2, 2005

Second Sunday after Christmas; January 2, 2005
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84:1-8; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

On the last Sunday of Advent, I stood in this pulpit and shared with you one of the most radical and empowering truths the gospel has for us.

God, the Creator of the universe, is making all of Creation new. That renewal, healing, and reconciliation is the most fundamental force in the universe; everything else, every force that would isolate us from one another and from God, everything that would interfere with the abundant life God has for us, is falling away.

That’s true, that’s real, and that’s not something off in some unreachable future, because everything the world needs for its renewal came in the person of Jesus. That’s why in the Eucharistic liturgy we name Jesus’ ministry for what it is: perfect and sufficient. When we decide to follow Jesus, we’re not joining some hopeless but noble quest; we are answering Jesus’ invitation to celebrate the victory that is already won, to BE THERE to watch the remaking of the world, to experience the abundance of that abundant life in the here and now. That’s what we celebrate this Christmas season we’re in: if Jesus heals by God’s hand, then the kingdom of God – the realization of the best of humanity’s dreams, and of the new dreams that come to us in profound moments of God’s grace – has come among us in the person of Jesus.

That’s real.

There’s something else that’s very real to us to in this Christmas season, something we see very graphically in the headlines and photographs from the tsunami that struck countries around the Indian Ocean, and that’s pain. An official death toll of  over 150,000 dead solely from the impact of the wave, over a third of them children. Over five million people in immediate danger from starvation and disease because of the disaster – and again, this danger is borne disproportionately by children.

How can we hold on to that vision of the world made new, of a people dancing on the ruins of the world of sin and death, in the face of such obvious and unjust suffering?

What did the children of Indonesia or India do to deserve what they got? For that matter, what does a child do to deserve being born in crushing poverty, to a family or in a country in which the kind of medical care most of us take for granted is totally unavailable? As a song ("Crumbs From Your Table," from How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb) from U2’s most recent album says, “Where you live should not decide/ whether you live or whether you die,” but that’s exactly what’s going on now. And then there are the personal tragedies we experience, some of them in this congregation still fresh, the personal losses that just don’t make any sense, that make the world itself seem cruel and senseless.

Wasn’t it just over a week ago that we met in this sanctuary and sang, “Joy to the World”? What sense does that make, in light of what’s happened since? How can we celebrate Christmas, the world made new, in the midst of such suffering?

But we do. Every year in our liturgical calendar on December 28, the fourth day of Christmas, we observe the feast of the Holy Innocents. That’s when we remember what Joseph and Mary were running from when they became refugees in today’s gospel. They were running from Herod.

What kind of a ruler was Herod the Great, Jesus’ rival for the title of “king of the Judeans”? The first-century Jewish historian Josephus documents Herod’s struggles to secure his territory, which he eventually did with extensive help from Roman troops. He thanked his benefactors not only by taking on titles like “Admirer of Rome” and “Admirer of Caesar,” but by undertaking extensive building projects – temples, gymnasia, statues, and even whole cities named after the emperor. But “since he was involved in expenses greater than his means,” Josephus writes, “he was compelled to be harsh toward his subjects, for the great number of things on which he spent money as gifts to some caused him to be the source of harm to those from whom he took his revenues” (Antiquities 15.365, as cited in Horsley, pp. 43-44).

The more the people chafed under Herod's rule, the more repressive it became, as Josephus explains:

No meeting of the people was permitted, nor were walking together or being together permitted, and all their movements were observed. Those who were caught were punished severely, and many were taken, either openly or secretly, to the fortress of Hyrcania and there put to death. Both in the city and in the open roads there were men who spied upon those who met together. ... Those who obstinately refused to go along with his practices he persecuted in all kinds of ways. As for the rest of the populace, he demanded that they submit to taking a loyalty oath, and he compelled them to make a sworn declaration that they would maintain a friendly attitude to his rule. Now most people yielded to his demand out of complaisance or fear, but those who showed some spirit and objected to compulsion he got rid of by every possible means.
– (Antiquities 15.366-369, as cited in Horsley, p. 47)

In other words, when Herod saw his power threatened, he quashed the threat without asking who was guilty and who was innocent. Matthew chapter 2 more than gets that across when it reports that when Herod heard that some were proclaiming a newborn child in Bethlehem as “king of the Judeans,” Herod arrived at a solution that was as brutal as it was complete: kill every boy in Bethlehem under the age of two.

I saw a cartoon the other day that showed a copy of the Bible with a big sticker on it, reading, “PARENTAL WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT.” Stories like the one in Matthew 2, our gospel for this morning, are the inspiration for that cartoon, and I think it’s only half-joking. The bible is a collection of stories of God’s people wrestling with what God’s redemption means. The bible doesn’t and can’t shy away from episodes of unspeakable and unjust violence because the story of God’s people is not a sanitized and charming tableau in which “all is calm, all is bright.” In the pages of the bible, we encounter flawed men and women. We encounter violence, and injustice, and loss, and pain, and I for one am glad that it’s all there. I’m glad because even if all I had to go on were the personal tragedies I see and a newspaper, I would know that the world is far from perfect, far from whole. So when I read the Christmas story in its totality – when I see just how great the violence was in the world into which Jesus was born, just how vulnerable Jesus’ family was as simple peasants fleeing from a king supported by the military might of Rome, just how deep the darkness was in which the Light of the World came among us, I tap into the power that is greater than the power of darkness:

I find hope. Hope isn’t the denial of pain; it is the beginning of healing. When I read the newspaper through the lens of self-pity, I say that the darkness that we face is unprecedented and insurmountable. When I read the newspaper through the lens of scripture and see the context in which God’s people have proclaimed our redemption, I say that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, will not, cannot overcome it.

Jesus was born into a world ruled by a Caesar who spent resources glorifying himself as “savior of the empire” that would better be put to use in saving his subjects from poverty, famine, or Rome-supported client rulers like Herod. Jesus was born as “king of the Judeans” in a Judea ruled by another who claimed that title, and who would stop at nothing to hold on to it. He was born to a people who had been delivered from slavery in Egypt, but ruled by a king who drove him and his parents back there as refugees. Christ our savior wasn’t in the dark about the extent of the problems we face in the world, but his faith in the God of Israel who called him was such that he knew no darkness could hold out against the Light that has come into the world.

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP, p. 238)

That’s our prayer in the collect for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, part of our Christmas celebration as God’s people. As God’s people, we give our children a gift that’s far greater than a fleeting illusion that there’s no pain or injustice in the world. We can teach our children the meaning of compassion – that great tragedy and great need are met by greater love. And when we have been intentional about getting and staying in touch with both Christ’s hurting with those who hurt and Christ’s vision of a world made whole, we can give our children a gift of immeasurable worth: the gift of HOPE, the recognition of both the darkness and the fundamental truth that the deepest darkness must give way when it meets light. We celebrate because even as King Herod conspired to kill the innocents of Judea, our God, the Creator of the universe, sent Jesus Christ his son, so that we all might be delivered from bondage and receive power to become God’s children, participating as full partners in God’s work on earth – the full and inevitable healing and reconciliation of all Creation to one another and to our Creator. The universe arcs toward the justice for which it aches, and Christ our Redeemer is born – in our aching, in our justice-making, and in our singing:

No more let sin and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his mercies flow
far as the curse is found.

– 1982 Hymnal

Thanks be to God!

Sources cited:

Horsley, Richard. 1988. The Liberation of Christmas. Crossroad Publishing Company.

January 2, 2005 in Christmas | Permalink


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