Our Gospel reading today is one of the most difficult passages of the New Testament to deal with for several reasons. It is widely known as the Slaughter of the Innocents. While there are a number of stories in the Bible that are difficult to read/hear, Herod's murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill a potential threat to his throne must be among the top. Part of our abhorrence at the passage of course is simply the idea that a ruler of a nation would order the massacre of little children and babies; but it is utterly astonishing that this passage could come so close to and in fact just after our celebration of the birth of Jesus who brings the promise of healing, restoration and salvation to the world. How on earth can we hold these two things together?
To begin we need to understand that Herod's brutality was legendary as the 1st century historian Josephus recorded. In the passage itself, Matthew writes that Herod became distraught when he learned from the Magi that an astrological sign had indicated the birth of a Judean King (2:1-8). When the Magi did not return to report the location of this newborn King, Herod realized that he been tricked and "he was infuriated, and he sent and killed the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under" (2:16). Already, we’re given our first hint about having to hold together Jesus’s coming into the world and the stark reality of violence we see around us. We live, as I’ve said before, ‘in between times’ the already of Jesus’s coming and the ‘not yet’ of the final consummation when all of us will be gathered to him completely. But what does this mean? Well it means that there is a reason, some reason that we have all been given time – your grandparents, your parents, you, your children, grand children, even great grandchildren – that all things weren’t completed with Jesus’s death and resurrection i.e. that time simply didn’t end there.
The tremendously difficult part of this (especially for those who suffer brutal losses) is that we’re often left wondering how or why God could allow something that seems to defy God’s love for us to occur. After all, some of the things that we know have happened in history, let alone our own lives have consequences that will sometimes shatter our beliefs, hopes and dreams, and leave us wailing with Rachel, as Matthew puts it, with the parents of those children massacred by Herod, with those snuffed out in the furnaces of the holocaust, crushed by the Ottoman Empire, or civil warfare, or thrown into pits body upon body in the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda or Burundi, or murdered in homes or on the streets of Toronto for money, or drugs, or sex or uncontrolled rage.
Now if Jesus were just a man who said nice spiritual things that we could follow in some way, or if he were God masquerading as a human, then I’m afraid that in fact the horrific events I’ve just described could only point to a world and to a human race that is rotten at its core. Why? Because the good acts of some people simply cannot overcome the consequences of the distortions in what it means to be a good human being or to live a good and faithful life that our history bears. These consequences are shared by all people and they’re referred to in Scripture as sin. But nor would it fit with God’s having created ‘good people’ if he was the one who had to end up exercising power to compel their love and obedience.
For when God created all things out of nothing, he made them all good. And because God is good, good is what all things must become. The catch is that goodness is concrete acts of living not for one’s own self, but for others. We know this because even when human beings turned away from God and made themselves the focus of their own love, bringing a cascade of consequences that often tears our relationships and our lives apart, God himself sent his Son, Jesus, who willingly and freely gave up his own life on the Cross to reconcile us to relationship with him and with one another. Therefore, we know what a good human life is: it is a life of willingly giving of ourselves for the sake of relationship with others. And we know why this is a good human life: because it points to who God is and thus to goodness itself. And so to the sure hope we have as Christians that God is making all things good in and through Jesus, even if we can’t always or ever see the fruit of God’s own labor in this matter.
This of course is the incarnation that we are in the process of celebrating. In theological terms, God sent Jesus into the world not thereby changing himself, but radically changing the world. That is, by coming into the world as the one who is eternally both fully human and fully God he is arranging what makes up this particular stretch of time – our human relationships – to his own life: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. An existence and an act of pure love for God and neighbor. In practical terms this means that his own life death and resurrection is where all of our lives, in each of their particular struggles, sufferings, premature and or atrocious deaths, learnings, transformations, understandings, joys and ends, find their existence and their meaning.
But as we’ve seen, this reconciliation is not instantaneous. It’s actually a sort of repairing of the very fabric of our reality (what we call time) that creates a space for relationships that help us to recognize, learn about, tell about and thereby willingly be drawn near to God.
How do we know this? Well our passage tells us fairly explicitly. The passage makes reference to events that happened in Israel’s past, showing that each of the three parts of the gospel--the flight to Egypt, the killing of the children, and the settling in Nazareth--fulfilled prophetic words. I’ll focus on just the first two here. If you recall Egypt plays prominently in the life of the Israelites. First Joseph ends up in Egypt after having been left by his own family who stripped him and leave him for dead in a cistern … remind you of anyone? He is treated as royalty for a time by pharaoh. But by the time of Moses, with the Israelites in slavery ill treated by the Egyptians, God has condemned both Pharaoh and Egypt with plagues. He then calls his ‘first-born’ (Israel) out of Egypt, led by Moses. Well this of course parallels Joseph and Mary’s escape with Jesus, from Herod’s clutches: to Egypt they flee and seek refuge; but so too out of Egypt will they go obediently following God’s calling. Jesus’s life, his protection, is foreshadowed by the protection afforded Joseph out of whose line will come Jesus himself. But so too is Egypt’s redemption, a redemption to be afforded to all as promised to Abraham, fulfilled with Jesus’s death and resurrection. This fulfillment of history in Jesus therefore points both back in time, and forward in time to Jesus as the center or goal of time and history. It also shows us though, that Jesus in a sense both makes history and gives it a meaning that someone living at a given time could scarcely imagine.
In the second passage cited in our Matthew reading, Jeremiah records his vision with tears of lamentation as he watches not only the city of Jerusalem being destroyed, but innocent children being slaughtered in the Babylonian invasion. He imagines, with his poetic vision, that Rachel, the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, is weeping for her descendants, her children. Rachel becomes the ancestral representative of all those mothers in the land who wept for their little children. But his lamentation is in the middle of four chapters, Jeremiah 30-33, that are filled with comfort and consolation and joy. These chapters look beyond the grief of death to the dawn of a new age that will come with the Messiah’s coming, One whom Jeremiah calls the Branch. And with that new age there will be a New Covenant that will pave the way for everlasting peace and righteousness. Out of the chaos of violence and death at the hands of wicked rulers there would come a New Covenant, bringing forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life.
Following this idea of God’s ordering history, the early church preached that the infants, in their deaths, were the first martyrs for Jesus Christ. Far from insignificant babes lost in the plot of the life of a more significant story, Jesus’s life, death and resurrection elevates the lives of children to the pinnacle of Christian witness, celebrated by Christians for thousands of subsequent years: martyrs for Christ.
Although of course not aware, and so not willing martyrs, these children’s lives are not insignificantly brief moments; but are rather joined in Christ with others across time who have suffered similar fates as a witness of judgment against the evil consequences of sin and Jesus’s own overcoming this on the Cross. And just here, we find not reason, or explanation for the suffering that would have been caused the family and friends of those murdered; but rather the sure promise that suffering and death are not the final end of our lives. Our lives find their meaning in Jesus Christ because they have their very existence in him: “see the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away … see I am making all things new since I am the beginning and the end (Rev 21:4-5)” Jesus says.
So then if what we have been handed on as the gospel is true – that Jesus in his life, death and resurrection has reconciled our relationship with God – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, then we know what it means to be a human being living for an extended time. We know this involves a process of learning through participation in all sorts of relationships and in various forms of learning to come to know God. To come to know, in him, what is good; so that we can willingly give ourselves to one another for the sake of pointing to or witnessing to Jesus who gives purpose and meaning to our own lives and to our relationship with others. AMEN.
Every year we celebrate the season of Advent in ‘liturgical churches’ like the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. The season is of course about God’s coming first and foremost, and then in some way about our preparation for this. Traditionally, and still in the Eastern Orthodox tradition especially, this preparation during Advent is a penitential season. That is, a season that involves taking stock of our lives before God and seeking to reconcile our actions and our behaviors to draw closer to him so that we can live as faithful witnesses.
I suppose this might seem a bit strange for those of us who have grown up with a rather watered down notion of preparing for God’s coming through a call and a response to change our ways. Watered down so that ‘the way to Jesus’ we proclaim might be made more acceptable to those outside the faith who we’re hoping to invite in. Watered down so that we don’t present the ‘way to god’ as a way to a ‘god’ whom we think to be a vengeful, wrathful tyrant who does not accept us just as we are. But actually, this notion of who God is and our relationship to him really isn’t all that helpful because it doesn’t take seriously the reality of our struggles, our fears, our diseases, mental and physical, our recognition that our relationships with each other and the world in which we live aren’t ‘all good.’ We end up presenting – in this watered down version – a God who is okay with our brokenness, our mistreatment of ourselves and of one another. We end up presenting a god detached from the narrative of the Scriptures that tells us who he really is and why his coming is indeed good news for us.
But our passage from Matthew makes it clear that the sort of god both that we’ve become fearful of presenting and the god who would merely accept our brokenness is not the promised Messiah who will reconcile us to himself. To witness to such a God would be to miss out on seeing and pointing to our maker and redeemer.
Indeed in the messiness of life, it’s so easy to do. Even John the Baptist asks of Jesus: are you the one who is to come? That is, are you the one to meet our hope and expectation that, as our reading from Isaiah says, we, “shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God … Are you the one by whom the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped … Are you the one who is the highway, the Holy Way; the one through whom the unclean shall be made clean ….”
And Jesus says to John’s disciples, go tell John who I am. Through me, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” I have come to do, for all, what no one else could do. I have come to reconcile all things, all people, to God. I am the way, the highway, the holy way, the one whose way is prepared by the prophets, like, John. I am the truth and the life and I will open this life up to you who follow me. Good news, the Messiah is making all things new, your life included. So take hold by enduring in the way; that is, the way of life that involves the struggle of seeking me out day by day, year by year; a life that will make you servant of all; a life that will require you give up those things you hold dear but that form only shadows on the dawning reality of the kingdom of heaven. Good news, the kingdom of heaven is here in Jesus Christ who comes into the world here and now.
The Church proclaiming God’s word, telling the story of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, tells us: good news! Good news. What is this good news? Christ has come and you have got to change or you’ll end up something you do not want to be! WOAH -- Yikes! Do we appreciate such honesty and calling? For this is, after all, part of what our gospel reading is getting at today. Are we preparing the way to receive the coming of Jesus Christ into our own lives? Are we really ready to be “the least in the kingdom?” That is, not proclaiming Jesus’s coming by equivocating it with some agenda, or feeling, or identity we think we have; but rather by enduring with others in following him with humility, gentleness, patience, and perseverance where it is that he leads us. Into the fulfillment of a life we cannot ourselves construct. This is the only way to see Jesus’s coming, to let go of the shadow of reality onto which we hold for temporary balance, and to live now in a way that demonstrates and shares with others our sure faith and hope of full reconciliation to life with God.
I suppose one of the greatest challenges we all face at one point in our lives is the common sense of hunger to find relief, to find purpose, place, hope, and meaning. The circumstances are unique for each person; but we all struggle in various ways whether we have a mental or physical illness, so too do those who are homeless, those who live in places of great poverty, or corruption, those who struggle with addiction or loved ones who are addicted, those who struggle with loss, loneliness, anxiety, those who have been abused, those who lose their way in life for one reason or another. Yet as challenging as these things are, the events that leave us in the mucky troughs of life are not hidden from God. Jesus reaches even into these dark crevasses of our circumstances and of our minds, to draw us out of the shadows and into his light and life. He moves us, if we will but open up and turn to him.
Of course we’re opened up by some of the most joyful and positive things that go on in life as well. We have most recently welcomed little Liam into the household of God and so into our family. And we recently heard that Erika is pregnant again and she and Tyler will prepare to be parents for a third time! What miracles, what profound gifts, what possibilities … what challenges! Oh yes those. These new arrivals, in light of the lectionary reading, made me think about the stories of scripture where we hear about struggling to bring life into the world and struggling to sustain life, to find meaning and purpose for that life. In the case of new parents – just as with the lives of so many I know who struggle with various things – I wonder how these folks will grapple with the ways in which they are going to be pressed, pulled, turned inside out, torn apart, and put back together again, as they learn to listen, to love, to let go, to be a servant, to give way, to take hold, to expose, to weep, to encourage, to ask forgiveness and give it... Are you really ready for this I’d ask them? Should I say that? Imagine what honesty would entail here! But if someone were to speak such truth as this – and it is true, my friends -- it would only be because we as Christians have this underlying hope: Good news! Good news! Exult! Rejoice!.... For you will not be left, but instead, changed!
Indeed, the universality of our circumstances – whether painful and horrific, or joyful and hungered after – is in that all of these circumstances belong to God. And so through them, he will change us, transform us, if we are willing to let him. If we are willing to let go, to give ourselves up and away to receive his coming to us over the course of our lives. You see, God cares enough about us to have a hope, a desire, and a purpose for us. “I made you to be free! Not bound to your fears, or to your passions or to you hates or greeds, or to the circumstances that imprison you mentally or physically. I made you to love and to take joy in others and in their hopes and needs.” God loves us such that he refuses to just leave us where we are, with merely who we think we amount to. He loves us such that he tells us when we do not measure up, when we have strayed, when we are going off the rails, even tipping into the abyss, regardless of how we got there. Pay attention! Seek me, he says. I will not betray you. Do not get stuck in your customs and rituals and personal habits, or your fears and anxieties. Open yourself to the possibilities I have already planted in you. Seek me and I will guide you where I made you to go. AMEN.
Today marks the second Sunday of Advent. This Sunday begins week two of the Church’s new year. The next three Sundays, we’ll read passages from Scripture that are all about recalling Jesus’s first coming, his incarnation, and what this meant and means for people, so that we can prepare for his second coming. His return. His coming judgment when everyone and everything will be gathered to him.
Our Advent readings seem like they have a pretty simple and straight forward message that were summarized for us in last Sunday’s gospel lesson from Matthew: “Keep awake … for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” God’s coming again in judgment and mercy to reconcile us to him really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The Prophets’ words recorded in our OT books are filled with God’s own promise to come to his people, to lead them out of slavery, to rescue them and set them free to live the way he intended for them to live. And of course, we read these passages, from each of the four Gospels, each Advent.
Our reading from Isaiah today says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
And today we hear John the Baptist continue this prophetic ministry of announcing God’s coming into the world, continuing the legacy of those prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc., before him: “’Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’" This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
Last week Jesus spoke of God’s judgment – the Flood, and of God’s mercy – the Ark upon which a remnant were saved from that flood. And Jesus layed claim to have this very power of God’s judgment in his own coming: as the flood came in judgment and swept them all away, so when I come, will I sweep away those who are not bound to me. As the wood of the Ark raised up a whole people from the union of male and female, up above the flood waters of death, so the wood of the Cross held the Son of Man whose union with human nature raises people from the dust, from dry and desiccated bones buried in a tomb, to life now and eternally.
But let’s look a little closer at the last two weeks of readings in Advent. Just in case you thought God was a giant teddy bear, let’s be clear what Jesus has said here: pay attention, do not take grace for granted. Do not dare think that you will be able to flee from the wrath to come; that is do not think that you can somehow avoid the judgment of all of humanity. You cannot turn from it saying you do not believe. You cannot hide from it saying you didn’t see or hear about it. And my friends who think yourselves so righteous, beware that you have not deceived yourselves in thinking you are righteous when you are not. You brood of vipers, John says to the religious righteous persons of his day, who told you to flee? Turn around, turn back to God. That is, do not think yourselves to be righteous. Like everyone who stands before God, you, my friend have sinned. Take responsibility. Do not pass the buck, so to speak. Do not blame others. Instead, know that I love you and desire you and open up to me. Take a step back from your self-determined righteousness so that you can see the log in your own eye. For only in humility, will you be able to see the gap between what I desire, and what is. And when you see this, know that I will bridge that gap. To be humble is to accept what is true: that I alone can rescue you from sin. Only then, will you be able to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
So last week we heard: pay attention. In other passages, we find, ‘lift your heads.’ Why? Because we hear today, the judgment of God is coming. And that judgment – if we follow John’s words here of those who are unworthy being thrown into the fire – is actually a warning of impending death and destruction for those who are not bound to God. It’s a warning of an unnatural end: life without God, whatever that might mean, whether annihilation, or hell, or the worst of our living experiences repeated over and over without end. The Son of man will come and every tree that does not bear fruit, that is, everyone who does not seek God and turn to him, will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Take heed. This is a warning not to be ignored. Do not let yourselves fall away, Jesus says. Now this might seem a strange statement for Protestants to contemplate. We cannot save ourselves right? It is God who came in Christ to save us right? It is God in Christ alone – our God who became man for our sakes – who joins us to himself, which we mark in our baptisms and in the Eucharist, as a sign of grace working in us. And then of course there was a rather large and complex debate about justification and about human action and about whether one could lose one’s salvation. Let me tell you now that there still isn’t really a clear or coherent consensus about these matters.
I think we could debate questions about salvation and justification and whether salvation could be lost until Jesus comes and still not arrive at a consensus that would convince even a portion of Christians. Fortunately and quite mercifully, it would appear – if we read scripture – that God was quite aware of our individual and collective inability to make sense of his commandments not because they are unclear, but because we are blinded by our own ‘stuff’ our sin and because frankly, we live short, limited lives with exceptionally limited knowledge. So instead of having to resolve a complex philosophical or theological puzzle to determine who’s in and out with God, God said this: my friends, you do not know when I shall return. That’s what we heard last week. Stay ready; stay alert; don’t forget what happened to others when they didn’t stay alert and when they got distracted by their work, their daily affairs, their emotional issues, their social issues, etc.
Folks: keep your eye on the ball: ME. If you’re struggling, seek me. If you’re worried, seek me. If you’re wondering what to do, seek me. Then let go of your stuff – let go of your jealousy toward others, your anger, your self-pity, most especially your fear, your sense of worthlessness, let go of feeling jaded, stop being so narcissistically self-focused and entitled, stop bowing to the idols you create to keep you reveling in your own sin, stop engaging those things or even people after whom you lust sexually or emotionally, stop ignoring God and the challenges and difficult paths he puts before you because you prefer a kind of secular Canadian comfort. Let this stuff go when you’re seeking a better way, because that’s the only way you can hear me calling you.
To let go of what you think gives you control over life, over yourself and others …. this demands humility. And humility is the basis for honesty. Honesty is the basis for self-reflection before your creator and redeemer, God. And self-reflection in accordance with the Scriptures will bring you face-to-face with God’s demands on how you live in relationship with others, your friendships, your working relationships, your marriages, your children, and indeed even in all those ways your find yourself tempted away from God’s design. That’s what we heard last week in Romans. Not some theological trope, or some philosophical reflection, but rather the ‘how to manual for those who are willing to heed God’s warning that he’s coming’: I am coming. Do you know me? Do you know who you are before me? Do you pursue your own ways, or mine?
Whom do you follow? Follow me, Jesus says again and again. Jesus doesn’t give some complex formula, or some promise clearly developed by people who think solely with the flesh rather than the spirit. So what do we do while we’re waiting for Jesus’s return? What does it mean to be prepared? John tells us really bluntly, “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Concretely, that means you need to know not your own will, but God’s – for every aspect of your life. And so really concretely, instead of going bowling, or playing cards; instead of blaming other people, or hiding behind your money and possessions and your ability to consume more and more and more, or behind your self pity and anger and inwardly or outwardly directed rage and punishment, attend to the one who is coming in judgment: God and attend to the Scriptures to find yourself this day, and every single day, in every situation you find yourself. For it is here alone that you will find where you are before God as he comes to us. If you don’t know the Scripture, learn them. For it is there alone that you will find yourself putting on, as Romans put it last week, the armor of God who will deliver you to life eternal. AMEN.