Tag Archive: Pain

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.


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.

Ever since Sunday, I’ve been thinking about dear ole’ Doubting Thomas. Poor Thomas has gotten a bad rap for thousands of years for being a “doubter,” but I think he’s one of my favorite characters in Scripture because he doubts and he does so so honestly.

I have doubts. And I know others – deeply spiritual people – who, occasionally, have doubts. Does this mean that we are not truly believing in Christ? No, not necessarily. It just means that sometimes, we have questions and struggles. In other words, we’re blessedly human.

In thinking about the Gospel reading for Sunday (see below), I began pondering on Thomas’ request to touch Jesus’ wounds. I’ve also been thinking a lot about our own wounded-ness and the amazing fact that God works through and in spite of our wounds and brokenness to serve God’s will and bring about the kingdom in this world. That’s awesome!

But then I began thinking about whether or not we are really willing to reach out and touch the wounds of others – of those around us. Are we willing to come into contact with brokenness, hurt and pain to understand another’s story? Are we willing to sit with a homeless person and hear what they have experienced? Can we patiently journey with those who mourn or struggle with despair and be Christ to them? Dare we get close enough to extend our fingertips to believe and not doubt the injustice and suffering in this world – inequalities to which it is so easy to turn a blind eye?

God is calling us to reach out our hands and touch the wounds of the world – to not doubt or ignore the oppression, injustice and deplorable situations in our world. God is calling us to see the marks, the scars left on the souls of our brothers and sisters (only as they are willing to share them with us!) that we might walk with them and support them in the healing process.

Can we, like Thomas, encounter the wounds in ourselves and in others, and call out “My Lord and my God!” seeing the face of Christ in the world around us?

John 20:19-31
19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

© 2011. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

In The Midst

In the midst of despair,
you are there.
In the midst of suffering,
you are there.
In the midst of pain,
you are there.
In the midst of confusion,
you are there.
In the midst of grief,
you are there.
In the midst of frustration,
you are there.
In the midst of anger,
you are there.
In the midst of sinfulness,
you are there.
In the midst of doubt,
you are there.
In the midst of brokenness,
you are there.
In the midst of sorrow,
you are there.
In the midst of sickness,
you are there.
In the midst of hate,
you are there
In the midst of disbelief,
you are there.
In the midst of injustice,
you are there.
In the midst of weeping,
you are there.
In the midst of night,
you are there.
In the midst of death,
you are there.

In the midst of hope,
you are there.
In the midst of celebration,
you are there.
In the midst of pleasure,
you are there.
In the midst of clarity,
you are there.
In the midst of happiness,
you are there.
In the midst of satisfaction,
you are there.
In the midst of peace,
you are there.
In the midst of righteousness,
you are there.
In the midst of trust,
you are there.
In the midst of wholeness,
you are there.
In the midst of joy,
you are there.
In the midst of health,
you are there.
In the midst of love,
you are there.
In the midst of faith,
you are there.
In the midst of justice,
you are there.
In the midst of laughter,
you are there.
In the midst of day,
you are there.
In the midst of life,
you are there.

Wherever we are, you are there with us.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Whoa! That’s some text, isn’t it? I picture the disciples walking through Jerusalem as the city is hustling and bustling in preparation for Passover. I imagine it almost as if they’re on vacation, taking in the sights and atmosphere of the great city. Then they spy the Temple, and, even though they had just been in it, it still takes their breath away. The Temple was known as one of the most beautiful buildings in the Roman Empire and for good reason, too. It was constructed with walls of imposing masonry which enclosed a huge area. Topping these walls was an expansive platform, supported by massive piers, some as large as forty feet long, by twelve feet high, and eighteen feet wide.

The Royal Porch of the Temple had a row of Corinthian pillars each standing thirty-seven and a half feet high and made out of one solid block of marble a piece. From a distance, the Temple was said to look like snow since it was stark white in some places and gilt in glittering gold in others. It must have been a truly amazing sight to see.

So, with all this in mind, we hear of one of the disciples in naïve excitement pointing out this architectural wonder to Jesus, admiring the magnificent structure. However, Jesus’ response is not the one they were expecting. He’s not taken in by the imposing and impressive sight. Instead, Jesus tells them the great, towering Temple will be utterly destroyed. At this point, I can just see the disciples turning to stare at Jesus with mouths hanging wide open, complete shock enveloping their faces. How on earth could such a thing ever happen?

After the disciples have heard Jesus’ powerful words, they ask him to explain when all these things will happen and what the sign will be that all of this is taking place. Doesn’t that sound familiar? How often do we, like those first disciples, ask for signs or wish know that we’re making the right decision, or what will happen if we do certain things? I know this is especially true when I make major decisions in my life or when I’m standing at a crossroad and I imagine it’s the same for you as well. We want to know how things will turn out and what exactly is around the bend.

And what of the apocalyptic warnings in today’s reading? In the first centuries, early Christians believed that they were living in the last days. Examining the history, it’s not difficult to see why they believed this. The first few centuries of the Common Era were a period filled with strife, struggle and hardship. As Jesus had declared and Mark’s contemporaries experienced, there were wars between the Jews and Romans, and in 70 CE, the Romans burned the incredible Temple and then dismantled a great portion of it, stone by stone.

Playing off of peoples’ beliefs that Christ would be coming back very soon, there were many “pseudo-messiahs” and false teachers eager to step in to take Jesus’ place. In addition, the early church was plagued by internal conflicts over doctrine and right teaching, as well as by the external conflicts of persecution and even martyrdom. Life was not easy.

Things certainly looked bleak and that must have been exactly what the disciples were thinking, because Jesus tells them, “do not be alarmed.” Actually, this phrase in the original Greek can also mean “do not be frightened,” or “do not be troubled” or, even, “do not be disturbed.” In fact, the form of the verb used in the Greek implies “do not continue being frightened.” I hear in Jesus’ words incredible reassurance and hope. Moving from these words, however the next phrase is troubling again; Jesus says “but the end is still to come.” So, there is going to be an end, but the wars, false prophets, and the destruction of the Temple are not it. Jesus continues to explain that the earthquakes and famines aren’t the end either. No, Jesus states, all of these things – natural disasters, famines, wars, false teachers – are only the beginnings of the birth pangs.

I hear the last words in this passage and I recall The Wizard of Oz, my favorite movie as a child. The Scarecrow, while walking with his companions in the woods, utters one line that pops into my head when I hear Christ’s words to the disciples. The Scarecrow says, “of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.” In other words, things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better.

Just as birth pangs are a part of birth and necessary before a beautiful child enters the world, Jesus explains that trials and hardships will mark the disciples’ way before things become better. Patience, endurance, persistence and faith must mark their lives; they should not be troubled or distressed, or be thrown into panic when all the world seems a frightful mess.

So is this passage just about Jesus telling his disciples to hang in there when things are difficult in the beginning centuries of the church? I don’t think so. I think it is appropriate that we hear this text as the days grow shorter and colder, when the landscape is beginning to look bleak and barren. Simultaneously, however, this is also the time leading up to Advent when we will await the coming light of Christ shining in the darkness to illumine our way. Therefore, I hear Christ’s words as encouragement for our lives today. In the midst of a recession, dealing with high unemployment rates, with wars and violence around the world, and other struggles, Jesus’ words are incredibly timeless. Like the first disciples, we are to be persistent and full of faith, not fearing anything the world might throw at us, but trusting that God is in control, no matter how out of control the world seems to spin. God is far bigger than all that might threaten us. It is in these times of trial that our faith is tried and sometimes shaken, but it is also through these difficult times that we have some of the most amazing opportunities for spiritual growth.

In these times, when our faith is shaken and we can’t seem to see the next step, we stand at the foot of the cross and call on God. For me, some of the most difficult, frustrating and painful things I have encountered in my life have driven me to God’s arms and strengthened my faith in ways times of comfort could not have. In the most strenuous times, it’s as if all pretense is stripped away and I am able to be most honest with God, which draws me nearer to Him.

Although all the splendid things we have – cars, houses, money, electronics – will fade away or crumble like the Temple, in Christ, the living, indestructible temple, we have something solid to which to cling. In the crucified and resurrected Christ, we can look forward expectantly to the coming kingdom and reign of God, even in the midst of all our trials and pains.

This promise is made especially clear to us in baptism in which we die with and are raised again to new life in Jesus Christ. Through baptism, we who are fallen, sinful and broken, much like the Temple, have been redeemed and made whole. In baptism, we receive God’s amazing promise that the Holy Spirit will sustain us and we are marked with the cross of Christ, sealing us as God’s children forever. Through baptism into the body of Christ, we become the new Temple, the place in which God dwells. In this new baptismal identity, we are encouraged and strengthened to take up our cross and follow Christ.

It is with the promises of God made to us in baptism, recalled daily, and nourished through Holy Communion that we face the trials of this world. As we encounter these difficulties head on, we look forward with anticipation to the day when the kingdom of God will break onto the scene, ushering in a new age of mercy, peace and justice. Whereas today we may only catch fleeting glimpses of this kingdom in the kindness of friends and strangers, in joyful communion with those around us, or in incredible stories of generosity and love, the day is coming when these glimpses will be the norm.

So when we find ourselves in difficult situations or when we are faced with obstacles that seem insurmountable, we can recall the promises God has made to us in baptism and the comforting words of Jesus to the disciples: “do not be troubled.” Yes, there will be troubles, pain and suffering – there always have been. However, it is important to remember that before pain and death were, God was. One day, the kingdom of God will be realized, bringing with it magnificent joy and a splendor far greater than any man-made Temple could offer. Looking forward to that day, then, may we remember the word of life and the word of hope that God gives to us each and every day. Amen.

© 2009. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Hymn: “Lead On, O King Eternal”:

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