Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Innocents

Third Sunday of Advent
Year C
Focus Text: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

On Friday afternoon, our hearts shattered. If you, like me, were in the midst of Christmas shopping, perhaps your heart slid off the store shelves, too. In Newtown, Connecticut, a young man named Adam shot and killed his mother. Then, he found his way into an elementary school, kindergarten to grade 4, and opened fire. He shot 20 children, 6 staff, and then killed himself. And on Friday morning, in Chengping, China, a man named Min Yingjun stabbed 22 children and their elderly teacher.

I am going to begin this morning by taking us into Matthew’s nativity story, and the journey of the magi. As the magi were on their way to Jesus, they were called to Herod, who had heard their inquiries about the newborn king of the Jews. He asked them what they knew, and then, requested that, if they should find this king, to tell him, so he could go and pay homage. After the magi found Jesus, they were warned, in a dream, not to return to Herod, so they took another way in order to avoid him. After the magi left, an angel came to Joseph in a dream telling him to take his new family and flee to Egypt. They fled in the middle of the night. When Herod realized the magi had avoided him, he ordered the murder all male children in Bethlehem who were 2 years old and younger (Matthew 2:13-18).

Matthew 2:18 ends the tale of the massacre of the innocents by quoting the prophet, Jeremiah:

 A voice was heard in Ramah, 
weeping and much grieving. 
Rachel weeping for her children, 
and she did not want to be comforted, 
because they were no more. (Matthew 2:13-18, CEB)

It’s paralyzing, this kind of horror, and the paralysis itself is horrible. It is so overwhelming and awful. Posting a candle on facebook seems so inadequate, and yet, what else can be done? It’s a start.

On Wednesday night our Advent group looked at the question, “Why does God allow suffering?” We talked about the Holocaust, residential schools, and evil, and what we say and don’t say to those who are suffering. We shared our own understandings of how God works in our own search for meaning. I’ve been turning to that conversation a lot. We all recognized, and Jason articulated it, that our understandings really mean very little in the midst of suffering. It is only after time has passed, life has continued and our hearts have healed that we can find answers. In the midst of it, there are no words except those of pain and anger.

Jesus’ life, according to Matthew, began by fleeing violence, an unspeakable act that killed thousands of children, all for the sake of greed and power. What kind of relief and fear did Joseph and Mary experience as they heard the news, that, yet again, children would suffer for the sins of adults, and, yet, they would be safe?

I spoke with my friend, Cydney, about all this yesterday. We wept and raged together. I asked her what she needed to hear today. She said, “i need to hear that there’s God in schools, and that there’s God in wars. and that there’s God in courtrooms and that there’s Gods with policy makers and that there’s God with those survivors I know all of those things. But…I (need to be) reminded where God is and that there’s freakin’ (not her word) hope…and that sick empty feeling is not emptiness. It’s a hope-hole.”

I love that–hope-hole. A space that is open, waiting for hope.

Two weeks ago I said when we light the candles of hope, of peace, of joy and love, we are promising to carry that light into the world around us. That is still true. This morning, as we gather, we light these lights for ourselves in our confusion and grief, we light them for classmates and parents and siblings and teachers and policy makers and those who see no other solution except violence.

Our readings from Philippians and Zephaniah bring us to a place of rejoicing. When we read passages like this, especially when they sound trite, it is good to remember the Bible contains stories of people who have faced exile, genocide and political persecution. They have also lost their children. And they can still join together and call on one another to rejoice. Both these readings call us to rejoice not because God somehow appeared, but because God is already here.

Hope is the place between the world gone wrong and all being well. We always live in that in between, even today, when we feel closer to the end of the world gone wrong. These readings shed some light on how we can live in the hope of in between.

We remember that God never abandons us. God doesn’t need our permission, for us to have prayer in schools or the 10 commandments on the wall, in order to be with us. We are God’s beloved creation. God is in Newtown, and God is here. We rejoice because we are never alone.

We resist fear. Fear keeps us from caring from one another because, when we are afraid, our instinct is to isolate ourselves. The scriptures tell us over and over we have no reason to be afraid. Stories of violence make us want to run for cover. We wonder about the guy next door, question our safety. Fear breeds more fear. Christ assures us that we need never be afraid, and we can share our hope, rather than our fear, with others.

Everyone deals with grief in different ways. Our outpouring to the families who lost children can be shared with those around us who need an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. We revolt against oppression by caring for one another. We destroy violence with peace.

In our baptismal vows, we promise to resist evil. There are forces and systems in this world, in our own country, that perpetuate violence, that do not respect the dignity of every human being. We increase funding for prisons for criminals we don’t have and take money away from mental illness, which is on the rise. We make it normal to be afraid of one another. There are systems that objectify our children, turning them into a market share. As Christians, our faithful response is to resist and speak out against these systems. Maybe not today, but tomorrow, yes.

We can be gentle with one another, and take care of one another. In our gospel reading, John the Baptist and his followers are discussing this in between time, waiting for the Messiah. What do we do? John’s answer: love. Be honest with one another, take care of those in the greatest need, hold one another up,

I will end with an invitation. Tuesday night, we will hold our Quiet Christmas service. If your hope holes are still empty, or if you have hope to share, join us. We will pray together, remember those we have lost, and leave space for the Spirit to fill our hope-holes. Jason and I will be offering the sacraments of anointing and laying on of hands in prayer.

…The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.  Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:5b-7 CEB)


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