Tag Archive: Incarnation


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.

When Words Collide…

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC.  The texts for the day were Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke 4:21-30:

Jeremiah 1: 4-10
4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
6Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ 7But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’
9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’


Luke 4:21-30
21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

I preached sitting in a chair in the chancel and holding a binder (so it’d look a little like a storybook) with the title When Words Collide…  (© 2013. VicarBelle Publishing House)  😛  Enjoy!

 

Come, gather ‘round, Christ Lutheran Church!
I’m going to leave my normal perch,
And sit up here and tell you a story,
So sit back, listen well and don’t you worry!

I read these texts and hear an emphasis on words,
Or maybe that’s just because I’m a language nerd,
But there are some important themes running through,
And so I chose a word-laden poem to bring them to you.

By definition, words are little carriers of meaning,
They can be straightforward or need some sense-gleaning,
For two holy prophets were words crucial tools,
Even though some may have thought them fools.

First we hear about a young Hebrew fella’
His call to be a prophet made him turn a little yellow,
Jeremiah said, “Ah! Lord! I’m just a boy”
And the Lord said, “sorry, kid, you’re now in my employ!”

“I’ve been with you since before you were born,
And I’ll be with you from the dawn of each morn.’”
So now I’m putting my words in your mouth,
So you can go speak to the kingdom in the south.”

The young prophet Jeremiah was none-too-thrilled,
I mean, can you blame him, he might have been killed!
God had charged him to go forth to all the nations,
To tell them about all of God’s frustrations.

He was given the job without pay or pension plan,
Only the promise that he was God’s appointed man.
God told him, “do not be afraid of what lies before
I will deliver you as I did your ancestors of yore.”

So out he went and performed his role,
And though at some times it took a toll,
Jeremiah knew he couldn’t do anything different,
He was called to be God’s wandering itinerant.

Fast forward to Nazareth’s local synagogue on Shabbat,
A young man who’s been coming since he was a tot,
Steps up to read and opens up the Isaiah scroll,
He’s reading well – you might even say he’s on a roll.

It’s a Torah portion about bringing amazing news –
For the poor, the oppressed and all singing the blues!
He tells the congregation that today it’s all fulfilled,
And, naturally, they’re all super thrilled!

They love the words they’ve just heard from his lips,
“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” one of them quips,
All are astonished at the skill of this homegrown lad,
All are excited and couldn’t be more glad.

But then this young man named Jesus gets upset,
Saying things that make the people start to fret.
He says, “you’ll want me to do miracles like in Capernaum!”
And “no prophet is accepted where he comes from!”

It’s almost like he knows their attitude will change,
And that’s why he starts speaking so strange.
He brings up Elijah and Elisha from the past,
Who went to people who should have been outcasts.

In this it seems he’s saying the news he brings,
Is going to be a boundary-pushing, daring thing.
It’s going beyond where we’re comfortable going,
It’s going far past the love and mercy we like showing.

That’s when people really become filled with rage,
It’s so palpable in the gospel, it leaps off the page!
Over a cliff this hometown hero is nearly thrown,
But he escapes through the crowd to become better known.

You see, words have the power to move us to tears,
They can calm our doubts and assuage our fears.
They can stir up within us feelings of joy,
Or they can make us slap our foreheads and say, “oy!”

Those who wield words can hurt or heal,
They can cause scandals or make business deals.
Words can draw us closer to family and friends,
Or bring short or long-term relationships to an end.

Tyrannical leaders can stir up people to harm others,
Or lead people to oppress their sisters and brothers.
Silence can be crushing when you need an answer,
Or a word can break the heart when you hear, “its cancer.”

But words can call forth God’s vision for the world,
And urge others to work toward the kingdom unfurled.
Others’ words can give voice to our prayers,
Hearing a kind word shows that someone cares.

But there’s one word that shapes the others we use,
One word that embodies powerful good news,
One word that seeks out and transforms humankind,
And if you’ve guessed it, you’ve got a sharp mind!

It’s the Word of God, the Word enfleshed,
God on earth, in human form dressed.
Jesus, the Word, who came to love all people –
The one we worship under this steeple.

We’ve experienced the tremendous power of a word,
But what about the Word of God, our Lord?
How does this Word shape how we talk?
Does this Word shape our life-long walk?

So my question today for all of us,
Is therefore, hence, as follows, and thus:
How do we use our God-given voices
or speak up when there are so many choices?

What words do we choose among all the commotion?
How do we follow Christ in our speech with full devotion?
Sometimes it’s difficult to speak against opponents,
But it can be important to do so at the right moment.

Perhaps there’s something you’re called to say,
But you’re hesitant to toss your hat into the fray.
What injustices weigh on your heart and mind?
How can you advocate while being honest and kind?

Jeremiah and Jesus also found it hard to speak up,
Neither of them wanted to drink from that cup.
But they did anyway knowing that God was with them,
And would stay with them even amidst opposition.

Or perhaps you’re being called to use words of love,
To forgive as you’ve been forgiven from above.
How does Christ’s love transform your reactions,
And build up ties rather than cause fractions?

Our words can help others glimpse our God,
The Word incarnate who dwelled among the flawed.
The Word of God who sets all people free,
who graciously forgives the sins of you and me.

So I suppose what I am trying to say,
Is “take this Word with you as you leave today.”
Carry the Word of God within your hearts,
And see what wisdom to your words it imparts.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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