Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a, Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
A few nights ago, I was sitting in my favorite chair at home reading the newspaper. I am a luddite – I still prefer a real paper newspaper in my hands. I love the smell of the paper, seeing the pictures. It was that time of night when most of the kids were asleep or at least on their way there and one of my children was awake and in the peaceful quietness of my end of day reading, he lobbed this question at me: “Dad, is the devil real?” If he had asked this question in the morning, after I had a couple cups of coffee, and was primed for the day, he maybe would have received a halfway decent answer. But it was night, and I was already thinking about going to sleep myself, so I told him “Great question – let me get back to you!”
An expectation many people have for someone like me who works in a church is that we would have the “easy” answer for any question dealing with God, eternity, you name it. I am no doctor, but at least for me, the part of my brain that goes immediately to the easy answer, is a dull place. There’s just not much creativity or life there. Easy answers lose their appeal over time, and I know longer have much need, or interest in them, because often they just seem inadequate. I am more interested in the question. Part of the reason I didn’t answer my child’s question immediately, was that I didn’t like the answer that came to my mind at first – the easy answer. Another reason why I punted his question is because – I’ll be honest with you – I am uncomfortable with the idea of evil.
I am not alone, but in good company on this – as the church often is not very comfortable with it either. Take today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. It tells the story of the Holy Family’s hurried departure out of Israel and into Egypt for safety. The Bible tells the whole story, but this morning we get the “edited version” – the version that omits three verses (16,17,and 18) in which something really bad happens.
Without those three reasons, it seems that the reason why Mary, Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt is because Herod, the Roman Ruler, wanted to have Jesus imprisoned or possibly killed in order to preserve his own rule. But while that might be an “easy answer,” it’s not the whole story. The full story is not easy for any of us to hear, and I suspect that is why the church, who decides our readings for today likely omitted these three verses, which I will read now. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated and he sent and killed all the children around Bethlehem who were two years old and under.” Not real pleasant, is it?
This is probably not the best reading for the day we welcome Lisa Puccio, who will be working with our children at St. Andrew’s, but there it is. It’s in the Bible, there’s no ignoring this painful part of the story of Jesus’ birth.
Most churches that hear this story will not hear that part, the part about Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children. It’s just not a real popular reading for family-friendly churches, and our children’s Christmas Eve pageant tastefully omitted that part Jesus’ birth story as well. Why? What are we afraid of?
The church seems to be comfortable in discussing evil during Holy Week, in which evil meets its demise in the crucifixion. But the church seems to cower from it at other times, like Christmas, because it just isn’t a palatable concept to entertain amongst all the Christmas trees, gingerbread houses, and gum drops. So we omit it, like the verses in Matthew’s Gospel, we brush it under the carpet, and do our best to ignore it. Except that we can’t really. Because it’s there, and it’s uncomfortable, and in our heart of hearts we know that there is nothing seemingly redemptive about Herod’s violent act. There is no easy answer. Which is exactly why we need to hear the story.
Those children were not alone in their death – because Jesus who was crucified upon the cross, died with them for them. And in his death, and theirs – they conquered death – stripped it of its power, and death came undone. There’s no easy way to say that, but it’s true.
What I told my son after reflecting on his question about the reality of the devil is that evil is real. It doesn’t matter really what name you want to attach to it – it is real, and we are all affected by it. But much more important than that is that evil has been conquered, undone, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In God’s own time, all evil will be redeemed. And that is the miracle of Christmas, the miracle of the baby in the manger – is that through his birth all death and all evil ultimately were undone. And that’s an easy answer I have use for. AMEN.