Tag Archive: God’s promises


Born Into Our Suffering

This is the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church yesterday on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

Here’s the text from Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday of Christmas:

13Now after they [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

As Jerry Seinfeld might say, “what’s the deal with the Gospel reading for today?!” I mean, seriously, it’s the First Sunday of Christmas, and the lectionary gives us the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?! What happened to the angels and shepherds, the wonder of the manger and the word become flesh?!  It even feels like this gospel sets a totally different tone than the other readings for this morning.  Isaiah speaks of recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord, of praise and God’s mercy.  The Psalm speaks of angels, men and women, birds, beasts, sea monsters (that’s my favorite part!), and, indeed, all of creation praising God.  Hebrews speaks of God bringing God’s children to glory.  And then Matthew speaks of Herod killing all of the children two years old or under.  It’s… awful.

All together, the readings present celebration and praise of God alongside the struggles and pains of life under Herod’s rule.  Herod the Great, who is the ruler Matthew is writing about, was a powerful king – a “Jewish” king in name only known for his complete and unabashed loyalty to Rome as well as his incredible building projects, which included the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, entire cities, and several fortresses.  He was also known to be a ruthless leader, harshly squashing opposition, even to the point killing multiple members of his own family! Talk about family drama…

Bearing all of this in mind, it makes sense that Matthew writes about Herod being afraid when the magi mentioned that they were looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”  And it makes sense that Herod is infuriated that the wise men hadn’t returned to tell him where exactly they had found the boy king.  Herod the Great, a man who lived to defend his power, was terrified at the prospect of a new threat to his throne, even if that person was to be the Messiah!

Now, different traditions say that there were varying numbers of children killed, and we may never know if this massacre actually took place.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that there was a vicious tyrant ruling the region where the Messiah of God was to be born.  A Messiah who was to be the true ruler of God’s people – not the empire of Rome, not the puppet kings appointed by Rome, but a true king, with the best interest of God’s children at heart.  A king that would be worshiped not only by Israel, but also by Gentiles like the wise men who had come from afar.

Needless to say, this made Herod a wee bit uncomfortable and he responded to his fears by commanding that all the children under two be killed.  Now, if Herod had remembered his peoples’ history, he would have recalled the slaughter of the baby Hebrew boys at Pharaoh’s hand and how one baby, Moses, was spared.  He would have remembered that Moses was saved to deliver God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land – to bring about a whole new chapter in Israel’s history.  And if he had remembered all that, it might have crossed his mind that maybe God was acting again in his own day to bring about a new type of liberation.

But he ignores all of that, or at best, forgets, and, instead, innocents die while Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus flee to Egypt.

Last week on NPR I heard a shocking statistic about the war in Syria.  There have been many statistics about this war, but this one caught me completely unaware and caused me to tear up in my car.  I heard that so far, 11,420 children have been killed in this brutal civil war.  11,420.  That is roughly 10% of the total war deaths.  And over half of the 2 million refugees are children.

In addition to these statistics from overseas, we cannot forget that on December 14, we experienced the first anniversary of the shooting of 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Sadly, it’s clear the slaughter of the innocents continues in our own day – this isn’t just a story about Herod, Jesus and the children of Bethlehem.  It’s a story about us, Jesus and all the children of God.

Giotto di Bondone - The Holy Innocents

Giotto di Bondone – The Holy Innocents

It turns out that this story isn’t the antithesis of Christmas after all.  In fact, it is the very meaning of Christmas that God comes into our hurting world and walks with us through all that we encounter and go through. You see, Christ is born in the midst of the ugliness and hatred and violence of this world.  In a fragile, helpless baby, God enters into history and human time in the flesh.  God is born into our pain and suffering.  And there’s the good news.  God is born into our lives and our experiences – not just into some far off land in another time, but directly into the middle of – the very heart of – our darkness, pain, brokenness and suffering.  And we heard it in the Isaiah reading for today: “…and he became their savior in all their distress.  It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  In God’s love and pity for us, God chooses to be fully present with us in Jesus.

And Jesus didn’t only live as a human, but also died as a human.  God is a God of the cross, bearing our pains and experiencing death as fully human.  Because God has taken on human life, God is intimately acquainted with the distress, despair and grief we encounter.  As the author of Hebrews wrote: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Or, in the words of one of my favorite Christmas songs “O Holy Night:” “The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger, In all our trials born to be our Friend; He knows our need, To our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King, before Him lowly bend! Behold your King, before Him lowly bend!”  The fully human and fully divine Jesus is our real king, not a tyrant like Herod.

Of course, we can’t forget that the story continues after the crucifixion.  Our God is not only the God of the cross, but also the God of the resurrection and of new life, conquering sin and death once and for all.  He brings forgiveness, life, comfort and hope to all in need.  This is the promise of Emmanuel – “God with us” – in all that we go through, no matter how difficult or hopeless the situation seems.

In our baptisms, we too, are marked with the cross and given new life in Christ.  As such, we are called and challenged to walk among and with those who are suffering as Christ did, meeting people in their needs and journeying with them – helping to bring about transformation in the name of the One whom we serve, one step at a time.  Where we see the slaughter of the innocents, the oppression of God’s children, the destruction of creation, we are called to step up and respond.  To make a difference, acting in loving service as a response to God’s amazing love and grace in our own lives.  Where there are barriers between God’s children, we are called to work to knock down the walls and bring reconciliation.

As we reflect on God being present in our suffering and that of the world, we can reflect on how we can be present to those around us in their time of need.  What can we do for those suffering in Syria?  What can we do to lessen the violence in our world? What about the children hungry in our own backyard – the children who receive backpacks of food each Friday at our local schools before leaving so that they can eat over the weekends?

Herod feared Jesus and what this baby boy might do.  He feared change and the loss of his power.  And to some extent, Herod’s fears were grounded because Jesus’ birth did change things.  And as our texts for this morning point out, that’s what Christmas is all about.  It’s the celebration and praise of God’s almighty acts and God’s entering into history to bring hope and new life.

Today, Jesus continues to threaten the status quo and promise change and transformation in our lives and in our world.  It’s like that line so often heard in movies: “Is that a threat? No, it’s a promise.”  Jesus doesn’t only threaten change and transformation, but promises it.  Continuing to try to follow Christ in our daily lives transforms us, little by little.  And through God’s grace, we are invited to be a part of changing the world even if it’s hard to see that we are making any difference.

We, like Herod, may fear the change and transformation Jesus brings to our lives, even if we don’t respond as dramatically as Herod did.  We might find ways of ignoring or resisting God’s call, or just feel uneasy about what we might need to face within ourselves to better follow Christ.

But God has come to walk with us in our lives.  The question is, how we will respond to God’s presence? Will we respond with fear like Herod and continue abiding by the status quo? Or will we welcome and embrace God’s presence and the kingdom of heaven?

God never stops coming to us in our lives, seeking us out, and calling us to welcome the ways of God’s new kingdom.  Even if we respond with fear or trepidation, God continues to gently invite us to be transformed by grace.  Thanks be to God for God’s steadfast love that comes to us at Christmas and every day.  Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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An Aqueous Anniversary

Twelve years ago today,
I stepped into the waters of a new life.
I’d been swimming before,
but this was different – more freeing.

Once I went under,
in the name of the Father, the creator,
of all the miraculous goodness,
in this swirling universe teeming with life.

A second time I went under,
in the name of the Son, God come to save,
in fragile, perishable human flesh,
just like us, but divine and able rise again.

A third time I went under,
in the name of the Holy Spirit, the inspiring,
calling us closer and stirring up love,
gently breathing on us to share God’s grace.

I was soaked in those waters,
not really knowing what they meant,
and each and every day thereafter,
I am still trying to comprehend the promises.

But blessedly I’ve realized,
that I will never completely understand that day,
but that the promises made will continue,
unfolding in the mysterious embrace of a loving God.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

For Times of Transition

On Wednesday, February 20, my classmates and I will will find out to which regions (there are nine in the country) we have been assigned as future pastors in the ELCA.  This is the first step in actually being called to serve in a congregation.  After regions, we’ll hear from bishops, letting us know to which synod we’ve been assigned (there are 65 synods, and each synod is like a diocese).

It’s an exciting time, pondering where we may be serving in just a few short months.  In what area of the country will we be?  What will the congregation be like?  What opportunities will we have? What challenges will we face?  Where will we live? What if it’s not at all what we’re expecting?  What if we are called to a place we don’t like? What if we’re called to the place we preferenced, but it’s not a good fit?  The questions and speculations seem endless.  And it’s tiresome.

My theme song for the past few weeks has been Phillip Phillips’ “Home.”  This song really makes me want to drive with all my windows down on a beautiful day.  It also makes me want to stomp my feet, clap and dance at some kind of folksy pub music night.  I think both are appropriate!

But beyond the driving, boot-stomping beat, Phillips’ soothing voice and the oddly fitting cross-country road trip video, I also just plain love the lyrics at this stage in my life:

Hold on, to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
Cause I’m going to make this place your home

I feel like I’m holding my breath before the next big step and listening to this song, I hear reassurance and the promises of God coming through these poppy, folksy lyrics.  My road is unfamiliar, but I need not feel alone, because I have a whole bunch of wonderful family, friends, fellow seminarians and sisters and brothers in Christ supporting me – just as I am supporting and praying for them.  And the God who has called me to this unfamiliar road is paving the way, leading me ahead, one step at a time.

The line, “settle down, it’ll all be clear,” helps me to remember to be still and to trust God (Psalm 46:10), or in the words of Cheri O’Teri on Saturday Night Live, to “simma down now!”  I’m reminded to take a break from worrying about what the future will hold and to enjoy the present, knowing that all will be revealed and I shouldn’t get into a tizzy about something that hasn’t even happened yet!

And about all those demons – the demons of worry, anxiety, stress, and doubt about my ability to actually do this – they just fill me will fear and make me forget how far God has brought me in the past few years.  They make me forget that God loves working through (and has chosen to work through!) normal people to bring about God’s kingdom.  Just as God worked through sinners, deniers, murders and all sorts of broken people in the past, God continues to do so today.  And God can work through me too 🙂

And even if I get lost along the way and make mistakes, there will always be the voice of God directing me back to the right road, embracing me in forgiveness and abundance grace.

So wherever we end up, I trust that God will make that place a home.  I trust that I will be given what I need to serve God’s people with compassion and faith.  To walk with them and pray with them.  To teach them and learn from them.  To preach God’s word and to hear them speak God’s word from their lips.  To administer the sacraments of baptism and holy communion and to worship with a new community of people.

I’m just praying that I remember to hold on to God as we go.  I’m just praying that I remember that my energy, strength and ability to serve find their source in God’s loving heart.  I’m praying that the Holy Spirit will keep the cross of Christ always clearly in my sight.  I’m praying and holding on for dear life as we leap into this next adventure!

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Promises

Carvings on a church in Munich, Germany

Carvings on a church in Munich, Germany

You didn’t promise everything would be easy,
Nor to shield us from all pain.
You didn’t promise we’d be wealthy or famous,
If only we just believed.

Instead you promised to be with us,
even until the end of the age.
Instead you promised that nothing could ever
remove us from your hand.

Instead you promised to forgive us,
time and time and time again.
Instead you promised to wrap and hold us,
comforted in your loving arms.

Instead you promised to make us new,
capable of truly amazing things.
Instead you promised to challenge us to follow
and stretch ourselves in your love.

So may we sink softly into your promises, trusting,
with all our heart and our soul,
with all of our strength and our mind.
And let the adventure begin!

© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

“Get up and eat!”

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC.

The Texts:
1 Kings 19:4-8

4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

John 6:35, 41-51
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Elijah is having a really rough time.  He’s just had this epic face-off with 450 prophets of the god Baal.  He alone stood up for and served the LORD, while everyone else was worshiping Baal.  In his face-off with the prophets of Baal, they had dueling sacrifices to see who was the real God – Baal or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.  The God of Israel shows God’s power and the hearts of the people return to God once more.  Then, in a difficult to swallow maneuver, Elijah rounds up the prophets of Baal and kills them by the sword according to the law in Deuteronomy saying that false prophets should be killed.  That should be the end of the story, right?  Well, it’s not.  Jezebel, the king’s wife, is none too pleased with this and threatens to kill Elijah just like he killed the prophets of Baal.  It’s not looking good for our hero!  This is where we find ourselves with today’s reading from 1 Kings.

Fearing for his life, Elijah journeys out into the wilderness, just out of Jezebel’s reach, plops down under a solitary shrub, and laments his situation.  “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  Elijah is burnt out.  He’s overwhelmed by everything that’s occurred in his life.  He’s wondering if he can take any more of this prophetic calling.  He just wants to throw in the towel.  He wants it to be over.

Well, as the saying goes, “things always look better in the morning,” so Elijah lays down under the tree in exhaustion and falls asleep.  While he’s sleeping, an angel appears and touches him, telling him to “get up and eat.”  Now, initially, I thought this seemed like an odd response to someone who is feeling utterly wiped out.  However, this spring I learned a word that might help us to understand a bit of what Elijah was feeling.  The word is “hangry.”  Hangry is when you are angry because you’re hungry.  It’s when you start to get a bit cranky and snippy and on edge because you haven’t eaten in a while.  It’s when the world starts to get a bit overwhelming because you haven’t been fed recently.  Has anyone experienced this?  So maybe being a bit hungry contributed to Elijah’s feelings of being severely overwhelmed.

In any case, Elijah was definitely dealing with some big problems.  Interestingly enough, it seems that God’s recipe for turning things around is taking care of the prophet’s basic needs first: a nap and a snack.  So Elijah eats the bread-cake and drinks the water the angel provides, then he falls back asleep.  But then the angel wakes him again, this time saying, “get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  Now, if I were Elijah, I would appreciate this heavenly snack, but I’d probably be thinking “ummmm, journey, what journey?!  I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep, ok?”

But there must have been something about that food that gave Elijah the energy to continue on with his calling.  Something that renewed his strength, turned his attitude around, and gave him hope.

In 1954, as Europe was continuing to rebuild after World War II, J.R.R. Tolkien published the first volume of what would become his most famous work: The Lord of the Rings.  In the three volumes of this fantasy book, the seemingly weak and insignificant forces of good battle the utterly overwhelming forces of evil.  Part of this battle includes taking the one ring into the heart of where evil resides in order to destroy it once and for all.  Those who will carry this burden are the most unlikely of all – simple creatures called hobbits who love good food and drink, pleasant company and the outdoors.  Taking the ring to be destroyed seems like an impossible task, but they are helped along their journey by others and by the gifts that their companions give them.

One gift is the gift of lembas bread or waybread made by elves.  In the book, Tolkien describes this bread as “very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream.”  When they run out of everything else, it is this simple bread that sustains the hobbits, Frodo and Sam, on their dangerous, lonely and nearly insurmountable journey.  As the author describes it later in the book: “The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die.  It did not satisfy desire, and at times Sam’s mind was filled with the memories of food, and the longing for simple bread and meats.  And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods.  It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”

Just like Elijah, the hobbits would have lain down to die without this food.  But just like Elijah, they were fed with bread that was far more than it looked to be at first sight.   The fact that this bread made by elves sounds like Communion is no accident.  J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of this wonderful book, was a devout Catholic, weaving Christian elements and symbolism into his fantasy story.  And as the book The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth explains, “…the elven-food called lembas [is]clearly reminiscent of the Eucharistic wafer: its airy lightness gives strength in direct disproportion to its weight.”

“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  Life is hard.  Life is journey full of twists, turns, bumps in the road, mountains and valleys, surprises, joys, sorrows, laughter, tears, pains and comforts.  That’s a lot to handle.  And sometimes, we feel like Elijah, like we’re the only ones on the perilous journey.  We have those days where we’re wiped out and we just want to find our own solitary broom tree that we can curl up underneath.  Some days, we just want to pull the covers up over our heads.

And God gets that.  Rather than telling Elijah he has to carry on or that he’s failing at being a prophet since he’s overwhelmed, God lets Elijah rest.  Then the angel of God wakes him and gives him food that sustains him for forty days and forty nights.  This food he is given is enough to get him to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God.  The simple bread and water is enough to sustain him on the journey until he reaches the place where he will once again encounter God.

And just as God fed and sustained Elijah for his journey and calling, God feeds and sustains us so that the journey of life will not be too much for us.  As we hear from Jesus in the Gospel, “”I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Jesus feeds us with himself, being fully present in the bread and wine we have every week.  Jesus presents himself to us, promising to be with us on our journeys through this meal – through plain food and drink shared with the promises of God.

Communion Bread and Wine

Holy Communion became really important to me while I was studying abroad in Germany – while I was on a journey of my own.  While there, a large part of my diet consisted of bread and cheese, both of which Europeans do fabulously!  However, it wasn’t this bread alone that kept me going.  It was the bread I received at a tiny Lutheran church on Sunday mornings.  Coming up to the altar rail, receiving that bread in my folded hands, and hearing “the body of Christ given for you” was so incredibly powerful.  You see, I had only received Communion like that once before, so to hear those words and to know that this was a meal and promise given for me – and for everyone – was incredible.

When I returned home after living in Germany, I did not attend church because I had previously had a painful experience with a church here in the States.  But as time went on and work became more frustrating and overwhelming, I realized how much I missed Holy Communion.  I realized just how much I needed that little piece of bread and that sip of wine.  I needed the promise of God and the mysterious food that would sustain me in my everyday life.  I wanted and needed to be fed by simple bread and wine.  I wanted and needed to be fed by the promises and the word of God.  I wanted and needed to be fed and nourished in my faith.  I wanted and needed that bread of life that nourishes us to have abundant life with Christ in the here and now.

So I found a church, risking another bad experience in order that I might hear the promise: “the body of Christ given for you” and “the blood of Christ shed for you.”  I went back so that I might be fed.  And I was.

And like Elijah, I was fed so that I might continue on my journey – a journey that has led me here, to this place, to share in Holy Communion with all of you.

“Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  God feeds us.  God gives us what we need to sustain us on our journeys through life.  God gives us food for our souls so that we can, like Elijah, carry out what God is calling us to do in life.  When we are in that place of feeling overwhelmed, of being stressed out, of feeling worn out to the point of giving up, God welcomes us to the table.  God tells us to eat so that we are satisfied.  We are welcomed over and over again to the feast so that we can “taste and see that the LORD is good!”  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

© 2012. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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