January 4, 2015

2 Christmas

Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1: 3-6, 15-19a, Matthew 2: 13-15, 19-23


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.


December 25, 2014

Christmas III

Isaiah 52: 7 - 10; Psalm 98: 1 - 6; Hebrews 1: 1 - 4; John 1: 1 - 14


The Gospel of John, the prologue to which we just heard, unlike the beautiful prose of Luke which was read last night and is a more familiar Christmas story, does not provide detail of the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate this Christmas Day. Or does it?

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. Where else have you heard the phrase, “In the beginning?” The very first words of the Old Testament, of the Bible itself, Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning, God.” John sends us back to Genesis to find the beginning of Jesus, who he states was with God and is God. Genesis tells us that as God created all that is, God spoke. God’s word and breath and being entered into everything that was created.  So, if Jesus, the Word of God, WAS at the beginning, what is the significance of the birth of this baby in Bethlehem?

The baby born in Bethlehem was part of a Jewish family and grew into adulthood in a Jewish society. The stories of his family’s ancestors, preserved by both oral tradition and written documents, reflected the struggles of a people of faith, the temptation to trust more in human devices than in God’s providence and the back and forth journey between trust in divine promises and disbelief. One might truthfully say that continues to be our own story and journey today. What is different about the God of the Hebrews and the gods of the many cultures through which they traveled during the Exodus? What about the gods of the Greeks and Romans worshipped at the time of this birth we now celebrate? 

The gods of the Canaanites, of the Fertile Crescent peoples, and those of the later Greeks and Romans were many and each ruled a specific portion or portions of human life and/or the universe. They interacted positively and negatively among themselves, and the perceived results of their actions affected human life. These gods, however, were set apart and did not actually build relationships with humans. These idols were worshipped for what they could DO for humankind, and in fact, their worshippers often sought to control them for purposes of their own well-being. These false gods have no history of loving humans and desiring them no matter what. They certainly did not stoop to toil and suffer as humans do.

Israel’s God claimed sovereignty over everything to do with life and the universe, not just a portion of it. Israel’s God demanded whole-hearted devotion to only the One God. The Israelites were invited to take part with God in unfolding history. They were a covenant community, and their covenant was with the God who created and ruled them. They were in a true relationship with Yahweh, a living god, not just a stone statue or a marble construct. They relied on God’s promise, God’s word.

Now the Word (with a capital letter W) used in John’s Gospel in Greek, is logos, and is more than our English word in meaning. It implies essence – the essential core of a thing. So, beyond the extent to which our human language allows, John is emphasizing that this Essence which came into our world, was indeed the Divine; was God. Then, as now, there was much in the world that was evil and much about the affairs of mankind that were in opposition to the way God intended for his creation to function. In the end, however, neither the Jews nor we ourselves control our God as the neighbors of the Israelites sought to do. 

So in the midst of the darkness that pervaded the world of the Jewish people and others in the year 1 BC, God came to his people as one of them, as life and light for all people. John tells us that the darkness did not overcome this light, although the world had no understanding of who this baby in Bethlehem, this boy interpreting the Holy Scriptures in the temple, this man preaching, teaching and healing throughout the land or even the rabbi hanging on a cross between two thieves was. This child was given by God to all people to reconcile them, us, to the God of the beginning. God himself came to show us that he lives among us. Yet, even before his birth he was rejected, inasmuch as his mother was sent to the barn to give birth.

Thus, as heirs of the Judean tradition, we believe human affairs are not governed by the evil designs of human beings or by economic stresses, but by the overruling providence of God, who works for good in all things. In recent weeks we have witnessed how the absence of this belief creates great fear, even panic, and results in seeming triumph for evil. I speak of course of the recent SONY vs. North Korea misadventure and the overflowing emotions and destructive behavior of the increasing tension between people of different skin color in our society.

Further into the Gospel of John, in the third chapter, we read, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” The Word, the Love, greater than all possible imagining, came to us this day to claim us, to relate one-on-one and one over all. Even though our own spiritual ancestors rejected him, tortured and killed him, the Word, the Light, was victorious in that we need not dwell and die in our own sinful ways. We need not stay in a state of doubt, fear and disbelief. We have been given the hope and promise of life everlasting by a God whose grace is immeasurable. This is the God who took on our form for his own, who lived an earthly life, who was tortured, died and rose again - for us. There is not enough wrapping paper and ribbon in the world to contain the love of God. And yet, this baby, like all babies, longs to capture our hearts, to dwell in our hearts and to provide for us all that is good for us.

That is why we celebrate his birth this day. We, as Christians, are a covenant people through the covenant of our baptism. Won’t you pray to ask Jesus to be born once more in the manger of your heart, setting it on fire so that you may shine his Light and share his Love, not only this Season, but all the days of your life. Amen