8th Sunday After Pentecost, July 15, 2018
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are times in the church year that we deal with lessons that we just as soon would not have to deal with, simply because they present an ugly side of life and sometimes even an ugly side of religion. One of those lessons, which sometimes occurs around Advent and Christmas is Herodâ€™s slaughter of the innocents, when Herod the Great, fearful of the predictions about the Messiah coming, about a baby to be born in Bethlehem who would turn out to be the Messiah, has all of the male children killed, age two and under, hoping that one was the infant Christ. Matthewâ€™s gospel writes, quoting the prophet Jeremiah,Â â€œA voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children;Â She refused to be consoled because they are no more.â€
Those lines cut right to the bone. We can feel the pain and the anguish of those people mourning the loss of their children, and we feel outraged that someone would do this. It is a sad, and hard story and we donâ€™t want to hear it, especially at Christmas when everything is supposed to be happy.
We donâ€™t want to deal with pain at Christmas because there is so much of it out there, and it seems to affect us even more so because it is the holiday. Donâ€™t you find that at Christmas, the news of people dying in fires, or accidents or shootings more troubling then say, at this time of the year? I know I do.
But the fact that Christmas is supposed to be a happy time, doesnâ€™t consider what we know of Jesusâ€™ mission, ministry, and life. We know ahead of time what the outcome is to be. He will suffer and die. We also already know that he will be raised from the dead.
Just because itâ€™s Christmas, doesnâ€™t mean that suffering stops. We know it doesnâ€™t. We would like to think that by some sort of magic that things, just on one day of the year, Christmas day, could just be perfect. That is a fantasy. A nice fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.
And now, today, somewhere around 6 months and 20 days after last Christmas, and somewhere around 5 months 10 days before this Christmas, here we are with another ugly story, this time, about the other Herod, Herod Antipas,Â son of Herod the Great, who has his brother murdered and then marries his brotherâ€™s widow.
John the Baptist knows exactly what has happened and he doesnâ€™t care what power Herod has, he proclaims the word of God to him, telling him that he is wrong. He is a murderer and an adulterer. Herodâ€™s wife, Herodias, gets upset and asks Herod to do something about John. He throws him into prison. Not exactly what she wanted him to do, but at least heâ€™s out of the public eye.
There is something about John and his message that just intrigues Herod. He canâ€™t kill him.
Herod decides to have a party and invites all of his friends in, people of wealth and power and privilege. He has Herodiasâ€™s daughter Salome dance for him and his friends, and she is so enthralling that he promises to give her whatever she asks. Her mother pushes her to ask for the head of John. So, she does. Herod is upset. He doesnâ€™t want to kill John. But if he goes back on his word he will lose face with all of his friends. So, he has it done. Thus, the end of John.
Another sad and gruesome tale from scripture. Some suggest that this story prepares us for what Jesus will endure later on.
That is true. But stories like this donâ€™t go away, as much as we would like them to.
They are with us each day and every day. Their sadness and horror are with us all of the time, every day of life. We see similar things.
What are we to make of this story and others like it? I think they serve a purpose in telling us, really reminding us, that life is not easy. Bad things happen every day, including days that are supposed to be the happiest. God is there in those days, and in these days too.
And on the days when it seems like these sad, tragic events get to be too much for us, those are the days that we need to embrace the tragedy and the pain the most and try to bring healing to the world.
We cannot walk away from the pain, the sadness no matter how much it hurts. It is a part of life, and it is a part that we have to live with. John did not die in vain. Johnâ€™s life had purpose and meaning. He prepared the people throughout Judea for their Messiah, who would not come in peace and harmony but in a time of captivity, and insurrection, and even murder.
He would come,Â though, proclaiming a gospel of love and peace. To fully participate in the life, the ministry, the mission and the gospel of Jesus Christ, we also have to participate in the tragedy, the suffering, and death. We cannot ignore it. We cannot turn away from it, but we must embrace it, in order to call it out of hiding, out of the darkness. If we donâ€™t see it, we canâ€™t fight it.
This lesson serves as the intermission between two stories. Jesusâ€™ sending out of the disciples, and the disciples returning from their mission. John isnâ€™t needed any longer. His role has ended. Our role is beginning.
We are to pick up the mantle and the role from John, and the disciples, and we are to go out in mission and ministry. We are to go out and proclaim Christ, the one who is the light in the darkness, who is the life of us all, who brings us salvation, and the life to come.
We are to be his hope for the world, and his healing for all of the pain that is out there. What do we do with all of the pain? We give it to Jesus. We learn from our own pain, not to inflict pain on others, but give it over to Jesus. He can hold our pain, but that doesnâ€™t mean we donâ€™t bear with others who are in pain.
We learn from our own pain not to inflict pain on others, and to relieve the suffering of others. We donâ€™t ignore the suffering but face it head-on. It is ours to deal with by virtue of the fact that we proclaim Jesus Christ our Lord.
Neither of these stories is pleasant, but they reflect human sin and frailty. They help us to make ready for Jesus who turns the tables on sin and evil, and evil humanity. They make us ready to be disciples.
Disciples who advocate on behalf of those in need and at risk in this world. We are disciples, who cannot ignore the pain in the world, not even at Christmas.
Not now, not ever. It is up to us to continue to proclaim the love of God in Christ Jesus to this world of ours. It is up to us to see the pain and alleviate the pain. What will we do? What will we do?