a sermon by Sheldon Burkhalter, December 29, 3013
Christians are concerned about the commercial use of Christmas themes streamed in department stores and popular media because it misses the reality of human experience for many. Of greater concern is when churches subtly use this season’s story to excite “feel good” religious fervor that denies human pain, leading to isolation, depression and apathy. Despite our best efforts to get “in the mood,” our true feelings don’t match expectations, our own or of others.
This concern about our culture can be taken a step further. Such commercialization does not fit the reality of the Advent narratives in the Bible. The biblical story is full of mystery. Yes, the account in the Bible inspires good feelings: extraordinary faith and joy and hope. A young virgin receives Gabriel’s message with astounding acceptance. Shepherds hear the joyful news from an angelic choir of the birth of a savior and are inspired to seek out this baby and his parents in a stable. Wise men from a foreign land moved by incredible faith traveled miles across barren deserts to find this babe and honor him as a king. And “Mary treasured all [their] words and pondered them in her heart.”
But pervading the biblical narrative is the mystery of the real context, effusing pain, suffering and brokenness. The genuine fear that overcame the young virgin in Gabriel’s appearance, the real crisis that her pregnancy brought to her relationship with her betrothed husband and probably her Nazareth community, the oppressive census of empire politics that forced their journey to Bethlehem, to say nothing of the excruciating journey of the expectant mother on rough trails through the hill country, multiple rejection at their destination’s inns, delivery in a dirty stable meant for livestock, and the great vulnerability of this infant’s survival amidst the poverty of his parents. The biblical narrative reveals it all.
But nothing stuns the reality like the evil action from a mixed-blood Jewish king named Herod in Jerusalem. In paranoid rage he wants only to eliminate the perceived threat of this poor, newborn child. To assure that this child is destroyed, King Herod orders the killing of “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under.” To escape his scourge, the infant’s family flees and becomes refugees in Egypt. There is enough mystery in human suffering when natural disasters strike or broken relationships occur, but when the actions of a king seeking to control all human destiny, the mystery of evil is too much to bear. In a culture that does not hold back its emotions, “a voice … of wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be consoled.” In the face of such evil, we plead: “What about Herod?” What can a person of faith and peace say? “So, what about Herod!?”
I well remember my helpless lose for words during my freshman year in college. It was one of those dormitory late night bull sessions that turned to honest discussions about our hardest questions. I was a timid Mennonite who, out of a longing for adventure, chose to attend a Methodist college in Indiana, Taylor University. Among my closest friends, I let it be known that I aspired to become a minister. Late one night 5 or 6 of my friends were gathered in my room and our discussion came around to the question of war and America’s preoccupation with defending America against Communism, which was on everyone’s mind in 1964. It was my roommate who put me on the spot: “Sheldon, you’re a Mennonite… I hear they refuse to go to war.” It was like the earth stopped turning as all eyes focused on me. I was stunned for a moment. Then I remembered what I heard in the Mennonite HS I graduated from in Ohio. I quoted from the Sermon on Mt and Jesus’ command to “Love your enemies” and “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other.” I said Mennonite’s believe Jesus wants us to follow his teaching and his example.
Then someone blurted out, “But what about Hitler?” If America had not stopped Hitler, where would we be today? Suddenly our discussion turned to stories of their father’s who fought in WW II. Since this freshman experience in a dorm bull session, I have many times seen discussion about war turn from what Jesus said and what Scripture teaches to the question: but what about Hitler?
So I ask today: What about Herod? When people of faith are confronted with the most heinous deeds of evil, violence, and injustice we too ask: what about Hitler? What about terrorism? What about tens of thousands of deaths in Syria and over a million refugees? And what about Herod? Our response turns to silence.
We can speak about the mysteries of God’s ways. We can call human suffering in a slow death from the ravages of cancer a mystery. The sudden death and destruction from a typhoon named Haiyan that struck the Philippines on Nov 7. The human suffering when a marriage slowly grows cold and breaks up or a person loses a job, we call such human experiences a mystery and ask for God’s wisdom and understanding and compassion. But what about the tyrannical deeds of evil that are brought on, not by natural disasters, or illness, or broken relationships? What can we say about random or calculated acts of human violence? We call it evil—more mysterious than illness or natural disaster.
So how does our text in Matthew speak about the evil deeds of Herod?
I lift up four observations from Matt 2:
1. First, there is the quotation from Jeremiah: “a voice … of wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be consoled.” Anguish is given words and voice. Emotions are not pressed down, but allowed full expression.
2. My second observation is that the story of Herod’s heinous action is recorded. It is not banned from the Christmas narrative. It is a story that is told again and again. We do an injustice to the biblical text to skirt around it.
I reflect on Nelson Mandela, whose life was celebrated at the time of his death, just weeks ago. What drew the world’s attention? Why did world leaders across the international political spectrum stream to S Africa? Castro from Cuba and Obama from America; leaders from East and West, North and South, even Mandela’s bitter national enemies, including S African president de Kirk, the apartheid predecessor. Those of us who are prone to be skeptical of politicians [“they’re all the same, just not as evil as Herod and Hitler ”]. But in Mandela, here was recognized the best of politics. A man imprisoned 27 years by his adversaries, who upon his release chose not to seek revenge, but treated his enemies as human like himself and sought reconciliation. It was not a sugar-coated reconciliation, but I’m doubtful about how full the reconciliation was. Among Mandela’s greatest political measures was his formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His aim was to let the truth be told and hope for a significant measure of reconciliation.
That is what I observe in the story of Herod’s evil action being recorded. The story must not be banished; it must be told. And so must the story of Hitler be told, however hard it might be for Germans themselves to tell this history. And until Americans can tell the violent truth about attempts to exterminate our native inhabitants and the evils of slavery against Africans, (and use of nuclear bombs) we will trip ourselves up again and again in our national and international policies. The truth must be told and remembered by each generation.
3. A third observation is God’s intervention to offer a way out for the Holy Family through a dream at night that leads Joseph and his refugee family to Egypt. He is not sent there to form a band of clandestine freedom fighters. Like Joseph’s namesake in the OT, Joseph in the NT is a man of dreams. Four times in the Advent narrative God intervenes during Joseph’s sleep. First, in Matt. 1 when God’s intervention leads Joseph to change his plans “to dismiss [Mary] quietly,” not willing “to expose her to public disgrace.” Three more times in chapter 2 of Matthew God intervenes in Joseph’s dreams: to escape Herod’s harm and flee to Egypt, then to return to Israel with word of Herod’s death, and again when he planned to settle around Bethlehem but a dream diverts him to Nazareth. In Joseph’s dreams, God guides his choices and actions.
Now, let’s delve deeper into God’s intervention into the course of human history. Let us take notice of the long banners behind me. Their color and beauty are astounding! This past week as I pondered their message, it occurred to me that on the surface the image is that of light beams streaming from the source above. I love that the form above is not just a sphere like a ball or glowing sun. I don’t know what the artists intended in this shape—it is a mystery to me. But I want you to think more about the long beams that stream downward—they appear as light rays. The scriptures often speak of light. What do you think of when the image of light reflects God’s penetration into the world, into our dwelling, into our lives? Do you think of inspiration, a good thought, a new idea, a vision that might even call us to change direction? What does light in Scripture mean? Consider the dreams of Joseph. It seems to me Joseph’s dreams are more than a good thought or new idea. The direction given in his dreams called for clear decisions, a change of plans. Indeed, the content of his dreams changed the course of his life: marriage to Mary, fleeing to Egypt, settling in Nazareth.
In our texts today, God’s interventions, intrusions are more than a new idea, good feelings of peace. God’s interventions change the course of individual lives; indeed, they change history. Ours is a God who dwells with us. God acts and does mighty deeds, as the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt illustrates, as does the Holy Family’s exodus from Egypt. Our text from Isaiah 63 this morning says it well: “I will recount the gracious deeds [not just the brilliant light] of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” These words describe more than inspiration and good ideas. Ours is a God who intervenes, who dwells with us, who guides us, who acts in our behalf, who changes human lives and human history! Intervention in history is the extent of God’s incarnation. This I also see in the banners before us.
4. This brings us to a fourth observation in the Advent text. We have noted God’s intervention in behalf of the Holy Family. But their escape has its challenge. Why did God not warn the other parents in Bethlehem? What about the evil that befell them? The loss of innocent, precious children. What can faith say? I imagine that these parents’ grief did not end with “wailing” and “loud” lament. They could not “be consoled.” Such grief in God’s providence is a mystery. Some human deeds are plain evil!
In our time remaining, I want us to consider our response to human acts of evil. But I do not have an explanation for such evil. They are a mystery to me. But evil happens.
I. First, I offer a response with a lighter, yet creative, imagination: Several weeks ago our family attended a play at Bryant Elementary School in which our granddaughter Clare was one of the actors. The play by first graders did a delightful retelling of the story of the wolf and the three little pigs. As the play unfolded I realized we were all hearing an insightful illustration of how to deal with evil—from the ideas of first graders. Clare’s poster is pictured on the left.
(a. Clare’s is one of the signs created by first graders the audience saw on the stage walls: “pigs only,” “wolves not welcome” “wolves stay away”
Before the start of the play the director told us in her introduction that the children had made some changes to the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf.
(b. One change was that the depiction of the wolf huffing and puffing to blow the house down—instead was a great big “achoooooo.” In the question and answer period after the play the children explained: the wolves had allergies and came to the little pigs’ house to ask for allergy medicine.
(c. A second change was what happened when the sticks of the house came crashing down: what happened next? Some of the little pigs were blown away by the force the wolves’ sneeze. But one little pig fell down and hid her face. What happened then was a big surprise as the scene slowly unfolded: the wolves knelt down by the frightened little pig and whispered in her ears. As the frightened little pig began to stand and look at the wolves, they then took her hand and began to play “follow the leader” prancing around the stage. Soon the other little pigs joined them on stage and they also played “duck, duck, goose.” And soon they all, the little pigs and wolves together, began to sing: “Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?….” as they all danced around the stage. In the question and answer period the children explained their changes to the story: the wolves wanted allergy medicine and wanted to play games and become friends with the three little pigs. So this story of fear and animosity was transformed into play and dancing.
So one way to address human evil is to imagine another way. Even in a children’s story like “the three little pigs and the big bad wolf” children can learn an alternate to fear and expecting evil from enemies. They can imagine another outcome by listening and seeking to gain friends.
II. Let me offer a second example of our response to evil. Just two weeks ago Dec 14 the Newtown, Conn. community gathered to reflect on their tragedy one year earlier at Sandy Hook Elementary School. National Public Radio interviewed one parent which I found particularly moving. A mother, Nelba Marquez-Green, spoke about that day of unfathomable grief. “I will never forget that day,” Nelba said.
After the morning of Nov 14, when Ana Grace and 25 others were taken, the family wondered if they’d ever feel whole again. But they chose to stay focused on all the good days with Ana Grace. Nelba says “[this] is what gives us comfort and great joy…what gives us strength.” Gratitude for their life with Ana before Nov 14.
Nelba, who had spent her career as a therapist counseling mentally ill and troubled youth, says she will never understand what drove that young man to take so many lives that day. She decided to put her therapy career on hold in order to work at helping to prevent violence and promote healing by leading seminars for building community, connections, and compassion for disturbed children.
Then she said something especially amazing. At many large conferences she reported, “People say to me, ‘I can’t believe what that Monster did to your baby!’ Well, you know, it’s true something terrible happened to Ana, and that was a terrible day,” Nelba continued, “But if we even use that language, ‘monster,’ if we talk like that, we already make a separation between us and them. And it doesn’t work that way.”
III. Now let me close with a final example of how Christians can address evil. Here I want to show you some scenes from Bethlehem when Janis and I did a 7-week service term in Israel in 2012. Our final service project was spending 8 days at the Christmas Lutheran Church center in Bethlehem. So here on the picture to the left for some of our photos on Advent themes; across this small city of 20,000 today, scenes tourists can easily miss.
The sermon includes a 5 minute clip beginning at the 8-minute mark but you may watch the full 23-minute interview with Palestinian Christian Daoud Nassar in Bethlehem. [ed. note: The video shows powerfully how one family of Palestinian Christians is responding non-violently to Israeli settlements around their land and to the oppression of occupation]. Click the video “TentOfNations-video interview with Daoud Nassar” at www.fotonna.org and scroll down to near the bottom and click the video play arrow: “from the Austin Stone”] recorded at the family farm, Tent of Nations.
We humans do not understand the mystery of evil. But God calls us to enter his redemptive work of truth and reconciliation in a world where humans do heinously evil things. Let us be followers of Jesus, which includes the Christian calling to enter into his suffering as well.