Tag Archives: obedience

Discipleship 101: This is Jesus – Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13

October 1, 2017

Note: The gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 21:23-32, and should be read immediately before this sermon.

Imagine the frustration those priests and elders must have felt! This Jesus was always catching them in their own words, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people. They liked the respect shown to them in the streets and the markets. They loved being the ones in authority. And here was this unschooled carpenter, teaching right under their noses, sounding like he knew God more intimately than any human possibly could.

We just heard Jesus describe two sons, who are each given the same direction to go work in their father’s vineyard, and the connection between authority and obedience becomes clear. One says he will go, and doesn’t, while the other refuses, but then changes his mind, and does what he was told to do. “Which did the will of his Father?” Jesus asks. The answer is obvious. The one who went to work, even after he said he would not.

What prompted Jesus to tell this parable? The Temple leaders gathered around Jesus hadn’t been able to answer the question he had asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. They got into an argument among themselves trying to come up with an answer that would appease the crowd and uphold their own honor, but that wasn’t possible. So they said, “we don’t know.”

What they meant was, “We aren’t willing to commit. We don’t want to look bad in front of the people.” So Jesus uses this parable to teach that appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t what we say, it’s what we do that shows our commitment to faith. It isn’t our lip service God wants; it’s our repentance. It isn’t our fancy words; it’s our obedience that matters to God.

Here’s how obedience and authority are connected. There is a difference between power – having the strength of will or muscle to accomplish something – and authority – being authorized to act by one who holds the actual power, the “author.” But sometimes, authority comes from a different direction. Instead of being handed down from above, it gets “handed up” from below, from people who submit themselves to another’s authority by their obedience.

Like the two sons in Jesus’ parable, it’s what we do, not just what we say, that matters. How often do we fail to commit, for fear of being ridiculed? Or maybe we just aren’t sure that Jesus is the Way the truth and the Life. We waffle, and instead of confessing that Jesus is Lord, we bear a different kind of testimony. By our silence, we tell the world that we aren’t so sure Jesus is worth committing our lives to.

But even more important than what we do and say, is our focus on the One we follow. Our identity lies in Christ Jesus, and we respond to his authority with our obedience. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he quotes an early hymn of the church that describes Christ’s authority perfectly.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Continue reading

Being God’s Kids – Sermon on 1 John 5:1-6 Easter 6B 

5/10/2015 (Mother’s Day)

It may seem that the heretics we read about in John’s letters are far removed from us. After all, they lived more than 2000 years ago, and a lot of theological water has gone under the bridge since then. We’ve had plenty of time to figure out what it means to be Christians.

Biblical scholars have written tons of books to explain the hard parts of scripture for us, and great leaders in the church have managed to refute most of the questionable beliefs that emerged during the early years of the faith. Those crazy ideas about Jesus being just a spirit who appeared to be human sound strange to us. It would never occur to us that Jesus was ever anything but fully God and fully human.

We live in a time when we don’t hear much about people standing their ground in theological debate. Our scholars and Christian leaders aren’t famous for hashing out the finer points of Christ’s identity as the Son of God. Instead of arguing about who God is and who Jesus is, we argue about who can be married in our churches or preach in our pulpits, or how we should respond to global warming, or what we should do about bigotry in all its forms.

That time seems far away, when Paul and John and Mark and Luke were still defining the very essence of Christian faith. And yet, the questions they faced were very much like the questions our culture asks today:
Who is God, anyway?
Why does Jesus matter?
What if I want to be “spiritual, but not religious?”
How can I know what lies beyond this life?
Who is going to love me, when I don’t love myself? Continue reading

According to Your Word – Sermon on Luke 1:26-38 Advent 4B

The gospel lesson we are about to read is so important to our faith that it appears in the cycle of readings every year for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The story of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel has captured the imagination of artists and theologians for centuries. It’s an amazing story. It’s a story filled with mystery. You have heard it already, in the annunciation hymn of this morning’s offertory, “To A Maid Engaged to Joseph.” Hear it now, as given to us in the gospel of Luke, chapter one, beginning at the 26th verse:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel doesn’t show up much in the Bible. We see Gabriel here in the first chapter of Luke, appearing first to Zechariah, who will become the father of John the Baptist, and then to Mary. Other than these two encounters, the only mention of Gabriel is when the angel appears to Daniel in a vision (Daniel 8:15-16, 9:21). This is an angel whose rare appearances always carry important news from God. So when Gabriel shows up, it’s a pretty good idea to pay attention. Gabriel is no little cherub with rosy cheeks and a sweet smile. This angel means business. Continue reading

Authority and Obedience – Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

It was the week we now call “Holy Week.” The palm branches from a couple of days before were still withering on the roadside. The money changers from yesterday’s uproar in the Temple were setting up their tables outside the courtyard, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, in case that angry lunatic Jesus came back. Cleaning up the mess he left behind had taken hours, and they weren’t used to doing that much manual labor in one day! The withered fig tree was already on the compost pile, and Jesus was gathering his followers for another lesson about living in the Kingdom of God. He knew his time was short. Every word must count. The Temple was still the best place to teach his disciples, even though he knew the rulers and priests did not appreciate the lessons he offered. Since he’d been twelve years old, talking with the rabbis in this very place, his questions and ideas had disturbed the leaders of the Temple. He was a threat to them, and they were becoming a very real threat to him. But no other place would do, so Jesus led his disciples up from Bethany, straight to the Temple in Jerusalem.

When he entered the Temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:23-32)

Imagine the frustration those priests and elders must have felt! This Jesus was always catching them in their own words, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people. No matter how carefully they worded their questions, he always escaped their traps. No matter how much time they spent looking for an excuse to arrest him, he could slip through their fingers in an instant, with just a word or two. It was infuriating! And it was frightening. The leaders who had ruled the Jerusalem Temple for so long enjoyed their power. They liked the respect shown to them in the streets and the markets. They loved being the ones in authority. And here was this unschooled carpenter, teaching right under their noses, sounding like he knew God more intimately than any human possibly could. This Jesus could easily turn the people away from the Temple, away from the control of the high priests and the scribes. He taught with authority, but who had authorized him? Certainly not the Temple leaders! Just who did he think he was?

The issue of “authority” is a theme that runs throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Back in chapter 7, Jesus “astounds” the crowds who hear him teaching as one who has authority, not like the scribes they were used to hearing (7:29). In fact, the lesson Jesus was teaching back there in chapter seven was about bearing good fruit, doing the will of God instead of just giving it lip service. The lesson back there was very much like this one, at the end of Jesus’ ministry.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” Jesus says. “You will know them by their fruits. … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. … “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Matthew 7:15-26)

In chapter nine, Jesus tells a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven –which makes the scribes a little uncomfortable. Jesus tells them,

“Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.” (Matthew 9:4-8)

Authority and obedience have been tied together since Jesus began his ministry, and Jesus will connect them again after his resurrection, when he gives his disciples the Great Commission, telling them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (28:18-19).

Theologian David Lose reminds us that “there’s essentially one thing we need to keep in mind about authority: it’s given.” This is the difference between power – having the strength of will or muscle to accomplish something – and authority – being authorized to act by one who holds the actual power, the “author.” But sometimes, authority comes from a different direction. Instead of being handed down from above, it gets “handed up” from below, from people who submit themselves to another’s authority.
In either case, authority is given. True authority cannot be taken.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard earlier, he quotes an early hymn of the church that describes Christ’s authority perfectly:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)

Christ received his authority directly from God, and in obedience he humbled himself. Christ’s authority also comes from those who call him Lord, who seek to do his will.

Which brings us back to the parable Jesus uses to teach this lesson on authority. As he describes two sons, who are each given the same direction to go work in their father’s vineyard, the connection between authority and obedience becomes clear. One says he will go, and doesn’t, while the other refuses, but then changes his mind, and does what he was told to do. “Which did the will of his Father?” Jesus asks. The Temple leaders relax a bit. This isn’t a trick question, after all. The answer is obvious. The one who went to work, even after he said he would not.

Then Jesus looks at these priests and elders, and they suddenly know they’ve been had once again. I imagine the look Jesus gave them was a lot like the look King David got from the prophet Nathan, after he had sinned with Bathsheba. Do you remember the story Nathan told David? “What would you do to a man who had a whole flock of sheep, but took his poor neighbor’s only lamb to prepare a feast for a visitor?” “Of course, he must be punished,” David answers. “You are the man,” Nathan tells him. King David realizes he’s been caught. Just like King David, the Temple leaders now gathered around Jesus realize they are on the wrong side of the equation.

You see, they weren’t able to answer the question Jesus had asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. They got into an argument among themselves trying to come up with an answer that would appease the crowd and uphold their own honor, but that wasn’t possible. So they said, “we don’t know.” What they meant was, “We aren’t willing to commit. We don’t want to look bad in front of the people.” Then Jesus uses the parable to teach that appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t what we say, it’s what we do that shows our commitment to faith. It isn’t our lip service God wants; it’s our repentance. It isn’t our fancy words; it’s our obedience that matters to God. Knowing this puts us in the hot seat too: How do we respond to Christ’s authority?

It’s what we do, not just what we say, that matters. How often do we fail to commit, for fear of being ridiculed? Or maybe we just aren’t sure that Jesus is the Way the truth and the Life. We waffle, and instead of confessing that Jesus is Lord, we bear a different kind of testimony. By our silence, we tell the world that we aren’t so sure Jesus is worth committing our lives to. What are you doing – not just saying – to show you’re a follower of Jesus?

During my last semester of seminary, I had to write a mission statement for myself. It’s a couple years old now, but reading through it the other day made me realize that the time I put into crafting that mission statement was well spent. It helped me concentrate on what God is calling me to do and be, and it reminds me that, no matter how many “God words” I toss into my conversations with others, what really matters is what I do as a follower of Jesus Christ, to invite others into a life of following Jesus. Let me share part of it with you:

When I entered seminary, I had no “ministry goal.” I hated hearing the question, “What do you want to do with your degree?” For one thing I thought it arrogant to assume what I wanted had anything to do with responding to God’s call on my life. But I also hated being asked that question because I simply did not have an answer. My call came gradually over time, as I discovered gifts I didn’t know I had until I tried to use them. Even before those gifts began to fully develop, they were evidence to others – and finally to me – that God has a plan to use me in ministry.

So, this is what I know:
I am called to serve Christ and his Church as a pastor: preaching, teaching, making disciples and baptizing them into church fellowship, leading worship, and caring for the needs of a local congregation as it seeks to serve Christ and worship God. My goal as a pastor is to encourage mature faith among those under my care, teaching them to develop meaningful friendships with non-Christians for evangelism, to reach out in love to meet the needs of others in mission, and to grow in faith, as followers of Christ, through spiritual practices, especially the study of Scripture and prayer.

Through pastoral care, I seek to promote restoration and reconciliation among those who have suffered brokenness and pain. Through teaching and by example, I seek to encourage Christ-like living among those I serve, recognizing that it is not me, but Christ in me, who overcomes sin and reconciles us to God through Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. Through preaching and fellowship, I seek to share the Good News that we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8), and that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (1 Peter 3:9). Through the administration of the sacraments of baptism and communion, I seek to remind believers of Christ’s commands to his Church, and our connection to the great cloud of witnesses who participate with us in the Kingdom of God. Through the observance of Christian marriage and burial, I seek to remind both young and old of the covenant promises of God, and his steadfast love for each of us.

My mission, my calling, is to lead others to believe in Jesus Christ so that they may become devoted disciples of Jesus, growing in spiritual maturity and giftedness, and participating fully in Christ’s body, the church. I am called to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

So how about you? What is your personal ministry statement? What is God calling you toward? It may seem like I repeat that question often, but I’m going to keep asking it, because if we can’t articulate our mission as individuals, how can we say what God’s call is for our church? How can we reach new people who need the grace that Christ offers? How can we renew this congregation through deeper discipleship? How can we offer healing to the broken world around us?

Several weeks ago, you had an opportunity to discover your spiritual gifts. Some of you took advantage of that opportunity, and you may have discovered that the gifts God gave you for ministry, are things you already enjoy doing. This week, you will have an opportunity to commit to using those gifts in the coming year, as you develop them in service and discipleship. If you receive the Friday Five from First e-mail, you will find a special link in Friday’s message. Clicking on that link will take you to an online survey, where you can indicate the ways you might be willing to participate in our ministry here. Go ahead and check everything that interests you. Don’t be shy! This is not a commitment to do everything you mark on the form! It’s a way to tell us what interests you, where your giftedness lies, what you think God is calling you toward. Next Sunday, we will have a couple of laptops available after worship, so you can complete the survey right here at church if you want to. It only takes a few minutes. If you aren’t comfortable around computers, we can enlist some tech-savvy young person to enter your answers for you, or you can complete the old-fashioned pencil and paper version. The goal is to get as many of you as possible thinking about ways you can grow in your own faith, as a member of Christ’s body.

However we serve, it’s what we do, not just what we say, that counts. So, let us renew our own commitment to be faithful followers of Jesus, so that our witness draws the attention of people who need reaching. Let us renew our determination to grow in friendship with God, to make new friends with whom we can share a life of faith, and to heal the broken world that cries at our doorstep. Then let us rejoice, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Amen.

Remember your baptism

A picture hangs in my office, taken sometime in the mid-1950s. A young boy is standing waist-deep in a river, holding a list of names, candidates for baptism.  Next to him is his father, a pastor, preparing to baptize a young girl. The busy river flows around these three figures, and makes me grateful that, by the time that same pastor, who also happened to be my father, baptized me, it was in a heated baptistery filled with clean water.

This Sunday is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus going down into the Jordan River, where John was baptizing repentant sinners. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t asking to be baptized because of sin, but in order to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:13-17).

There’s a story in the Old Testament (2 Kings 5:1-14) about another man, Naaman, who also walked down into the Jordan River. But Naaman didn’t do it voluntarily. In fact, he was angry that the prophet Elisha had told him to do such a degrading thing, and turned away in disgust. But his servants reminded him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’d been told to do? Naaman changed his mind, and was healed of his skin disease.

I see a connection between John’s baptism “with water for repentance” and Naaman’s repentant plunge into the Jordan River. But I see an even stronger connection between Naaman’s “baptism” and the baptism of Jesus, who had no need to repent, who knew no sin. Naaman may have balked at first, but in the end, he did what he was told to do.  John may have balked when Jesus came to him to be baptized, but in the end, Jesus did what he was told to do, too. Naaman was cleansed of his disease, while Jesus took on the sins of the world. Both  were obedient to God.

Baptism won’t save you. Baptism isn’t some secret initiation rite with magical properties. Baptism is a sign of obedience. As you touch the water this Sunday, maybe making the sign of the cross on your forehead with a wet finger, remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember the promises you made, or the promises that were made on your behalf by your parents and the congregation that witnessed your baptism. Renew those promises to be faithful, to love God and neighbor, to seek righteousness, to be a true follower of Jesus. Then go out, marked by grace, to be obedient to God.

No Consolation – Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23

Have you already taken down your Christmas decorations at home?  We haven’t.  We leave them up as long as possible.  In fact, one year, we barely got Christmas put away in time for Ash Wednesday!  I grew up in a church that did not really observe the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  For us, Christmas was a day, or two at most, if you counted Christmas Eve.  The twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany were nothing more than a vacation from school.

As an adult, however, I began to appreciate this span of time that forms a bridge between the birth of Jesus and his presentation to the world as its Savior.  We know so little about the years between Bethlehem and Jesus’ appearance at the Jordan River, asking to be baptized by John.  It seems appropriate that we should pause here, on the first Sunday of the season of Christmas, to consider how Jesus got from the manger to Nazareth, the village where he would grow to adulthood.

Matthew follows a clear pattern to tell us this story.  He uses three dreams, three “obediences,” and three geographic locations to describe how prophecies about the Messiah are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.  Today’s reading picks up the tale where we left off on Christmas Eve.  The magi have come to pay homage to a king.  On their way, they have stopped to ask Herod where to find him.  Herod tries to smooth-talk the magi into letting him know how their quest turns out, but an angel of the Lord warns them to go home by a different way than they came, and they follow this advice.  The main character in this story is not the magi who have just left, and it is not Mary who gave birth to Jesus. It is not Herod, the evil and paranoid king.  This is Joseph’s story.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, the second chapter, beginning at verse 13:

Now after they 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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and 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.” When 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. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “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.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get 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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But 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. There 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.”

This passage falls neatly into three sections: God’s call into Egypt, what happens “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” and God’s call back from Egypt, to a final destination in Galilee.  While the writing may be tidy and well-organized, the story Matthew tells is certainly not.  This young family did a lot of traveling, and many preachers choose to focus on Jesus the Refugee as the main point of the story. 

Such a focus offers plenty of preaching material. We could talk about the obvious parallels in Matthew’s Gospel with Old Testament writings.  We could consider how Joseph’s flight into Egypt recalls another Joseph, back in Genesis, who went to Egypt against his will, but who became Pharaoh’s right-hand man and made it possible for the nation of Israel to survive, grow, and thrive, even under the hardship of slavery[1].  Matthew reminds us of the story of the baby Moses, hidden in the bulrushes to protect him from Pharaoh’s slaughter of newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt[2].  It is clear that Matthew draws a connection between the return of Moses to Egypt after Pharaoh’s death, and Joseph’s sudden return when he learns through a dream that Herod is dead.  The young family’s trip back home to Israel reminds us of the journey Moses led through the wilderness, as the Israelites escaped their captivity in Egypt and headed toward the Promised Land.  Matthew connects the story of Jesus’ early travels to God’s call, protection, and provision for his people throughout history.  It’s a powerful connection.  And there are certainly strong connections between Jesus the Refugee and the plight of refugees throughout the world right now.  Refugees who have been displaced by politics, war, and poverty struggle with the same fears and anxiety that Joseph and Mary must have experienced, as they did whatever they could to protect the young child, Jesus.

But nagging in the back of my mind, and perhaps in the back of yours, is the horror of what happens “meanwhile, back at the ranch.”  While it’s important to see how the greater story of God’s activity among his people is connected to, and completed in, the story of Jesus, we cannot ignore those middle verses, the ones that speak of an unspeakable tragedy.

When 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. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “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.”

The question has been bothering us since the beginning of human history:  How can a just and loving God allow evil to exist?  How can God let innocent people suffer, while evil people thrive and prosper?  The book of Job is filled with this question.  In seminary, they even give us a name for the problem: theodicy.  But giving it a name, and even knowing that brilliant theologians have been struggling to find an answer for as long as we can imagine, doesn’t help when it becomes personal.  When it’s your child being put to the sword, the question is no longer hypothetical.  The pain is real, and the only question we can raise is “Why, God?”

Make no mistake: the slaughter of those children in Bethlehem was not God’s idea.  It was Herod’s.  Herod the Great wasn’t even a Jew; he was an Idumean, or an Edomite – descended from Esau, not Jacob, whose sons would become heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Herod never felt his position was secure, and he was known for his paranoia and brutality.  He even had his favorite wife and some of his sons murdered when he suspected them of treachery.  He decreed that forty Jewish nobles should be brought to Jericho to be killed when he died, so that there would be abundant mourning throughout the land at his death.  Thankfully, the son who succeeded him decided not to carry out this final wish.

Matthew is the only source to describe Herod’s murder of the children in Bethlehem.  Some scholars think the event wasn’t noteworthy for first century historians to record, partly because it was only one of many atrocities committed by Herod, and partly because the number of children affected was probably no more than twenty, given that Bethlehem was such a small village.  Such violence against innocent children may have been unremarkable by first century standards, given that children were considered to be little more than property at that time.  They were expendable.  But Matthew names it as an atrocity.  United Methodist pastor Cherie Baker writes, “Matthew tells us that God cares that children are massacred.  Misuse and abuse of children was common then, and the Good News names that as wrong.  Misuse and abuse of children is far too common now, and the Good News names that as wrong”[3].

For example, fighting in South Sudan has taken countless lives and sent over a hundred thousand refugees to neighboring countries over the past two weeks.  Two of my former students are there, with their missionary father, attempting to help displaced children find their parents as they work to get food and supplies to overcrowded camps where children are only slightly safer than they were in South Sudan.  Please pray for my friend and his family, as they work to protect innocent children from becoming “collateral damage” of the growing conflict in South Sudan.

But that’s only one example.  Halee Gray Scott writes,
“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Christians suffer persecution, discrimination, and harassment in 133 countries—a full two-thirds of all countries worldwide.  In September, 85 congregants were killed in bombing of All Saints Church in Pakistan while a consecutive attack at Nairobi’s Westgate mall claimed the lives of 72 people. On October 21, … Islamic rebels invaded the Syrian town of Sadad and carried out one of the largest massacres in the country’s history. Forty-five Christians, including women and children, were tortured and murdered.  The Syrian rebels documented the massacre in YouTube videos.”

We hear of the children in our own country – in our own state – who are victims of human trafficking.  Child abuse continues to escalate throughout our country.  Atrocities against children are just as real now as they were in Bethlehem in 4 BC.

Meanwhile, many of you have suffered the terrible loss of your own children.  Maybe they did not die violent deaths, as those twenty children did last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but the loss is still real, and the pain is still acute.  You know, as others may not, what it means to weep with Rachel, who will not be consoled, because her children are no more.

So, when we ask, “Why, God?  How is this Good News?” it may not help to know that Matthew is painting a Bigger Picture of God’s providence and protection for his people.  Being reminded that God is not willing for any to perish, but wants to give each of us eternal life might seem like an empty promise.  Knowing that bad things happening to innocent people has more to do with our sinful condition than God’s will for us might be difficult to explain.  We can’t just shrug off the sorrow.  We can’t diminish the pain of the here and now.

It’s a dangerous thing to be human, to be vulnerable, to face the fact of our own mortality. The Good News is not always sweetness and light. That pretty baby in the manger grows up to die on a cross. God has to watch his own Son, his only Son, die a horrible death. And God grieves.

God grieves all the Herods and the Pharaohs and the murderers of innocent children. God grieves us when we turn away from him. God grieves as only a bereft parent can grieve.  Friends, that is exactly why this story is part of the Christmas story.  Christ came to be God With Us – Immanuel.  He came to be God with us in our sorrow, God with us in our fear, God with us in our wandering, God with us.  Always.

The world is filled with darkness, with evil evident in every corner.  But God is with us.  The violence that surrounded Christ’s birth was the same violence that would eventually lead to his crucifixion.  Christ went into every dark place we humans must go, even into the darkness of the grave.  But he rose again.  There is no darkness that can frighten God.  God is with us.

Christmas is a dangerous holiday.  It’s dangerous to be human, to admit our mortality, to hold in tension both this awareness of our vulnerability, and the awareness of God’s great gift to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who made himself vulnerable to the power of evil, and yet conquered it.  The joy of Christmas depends on the joy of Easter resurrection.

There’s a little detail in this story, Joseph’s story, which we need to notice. Every time an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, Joseph immediately did what he was told to do.  He did not ask, as the weeping mothers of Bethlehem must have asked, “Why, God?”  He got up in the night, packed his family’s belongings, and he went where he was told to go.  Even when he was afraid, he obeyed.

Only Joseph saw the angel.  Only Joseph had the dreams.  Only Joseph knew the magnitude of his task, to protect the Messiah from the danger of Herod’s henchmen.  Just as Mary did not argue with the angel who told her she would give birth to the Savior of the World, Joseph did not argue with the angel who said, “Go!”  He just went.  He answered God’s call with action.

God is calling us, today.  He is calling us to be a voice for peace, justice, and grace.  He is calling us to challenge the way things are in the world, to stand against evil when we see it, to be the presence of God for those who suffer violence and abuse, to let them know that God is with us, Immanuel.

When we challenge the world, we make enemies.  Herods and Pharaohs will try to crush us.  But our job is to connect the human story with Christ’s story, to rescue our history from being reduced to a timeline, and allow it to be converted into God’s event.  That event is the breaking into our sin-filled world of the kingdom of God.  As we become aware of God’s constant working in our lives, we are called to participate in that work.  Whether we are sent to Egypt or Nazareth, whether we are called to feed the hungry or clothe the naked or heal the sick, whether we are tasked with comforting the bereaved or spreading hope to those who have lost it, God calls us. May we, like Joseph, answer that call without hesitation, knowing that God is with us, Immanuel.  Amen.


[1] Exodus 1:7

[2] Exodus 1:22; 2:15

[3] Comments by Cherie Baker, UMC pastor, in online chat.