December 30, 2018: "A Word of Hope for a Hard World"

December 30, 2018                                                                            Rev. J. Scott Moncrieff


            If you’ve ever felt like your life was out of control, then you can relate to the harrowing adventure of Tattoo, a basset hound from Tacoma, Washington. One evening, Tattoo’s owner headed out for a drive. He didn’t notice that Tattoo’s leash had gotten caught in the car door. Police officer Terry Filbert, patrolling the neighborhood on his motorcycle, spotted the poor dog running--and occasionally rolling--alongside the car. The officer stopped Tattoo’s owner and alerted him to the situation. Tattoo came out all right, but he hasn’t been begging for any walks for a while. He’s kind of content to stay at home. 

            You may feel like Tattoo after the last few weeks. This is always such a busy time of the year. But now Christmas has passed. The presents have been opened. The wrapping paper has been discarded.  Now it’s time for us to kick off our running shoes and relax.

            Unfortunately it wasn’t that easy for Mary and Joseph. After the shepherds had gone back to their flocks and the wise men had gone back to the east, Mary and Joseph had to flee for their lives and the life of their newborn son. After following the star into the region of Judea, the magi were uncertain of their ultimate destination, so they had consulted with King Herod, seeking the birthplace of the newborn king. Herod was immediately alarmed that a child had been born who would one day be king. Herod was not going to give up his throne without a fight.

            You need to know that Herod was a thoroughly evil and violent man. He was married to ten women. He had fifteen children. Ten of them were boys. As his ten sons grew up and became men, they were destined to become king. Herod did not trust his sons and he accused two of them of treason. In the year 7 B.C., these two sons were sent back to Rome, put on trial, and assassinated.   In 4 B.C., Herod also killed his oldest son.

            No wonder that Caesar Augustus said of Herod:  “It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”  The quotation is a play on words. In Greek, which cultivated Romans spoke at the time, the word for pig (hys) and son (hyios) sound alike. “It is better to be Herod’s hys than Herod’s hyios.”

            You may remember that on the day Herod died, he arranged for a large number of people to be rounded up in Jerusalem and executed on that day as well. He knew that there would not be any mourners for him, so he arranged numerous executions in Jerusalem at the time of his death so there would mourners all around.

            That’s the kind of man Herod was. So it is perfectly plausible that after he discovered that the wise men were not returning to give him directions to the newborn king’s birthplace, Herod would give orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. That is perfectly consistent with his character. As writer Frederick Buechner so beautifully put it, “For all his enormous power, he knew there was somebody in diapers more powerful still.”

            The scriptures are realistic about the human condition. There are evil people in this world. We would rather that this story of the slaughter of the innocents were not in the Christmas story. But it is, because that is the kind of world we inhabit.

            Some of you remember the classic television show M*A*S*H.  M*A*S*H  portrayed a group of Army medics and their battalion dealing with the heart-breaking challenges of the Korean War. In one episode, the battalion is all set to celebrate Christmas when they receive a new patient, a severely injured soldier. The doctors’ deepest fear comes true; the soldier dies on the operating table.

            Although it goes against his medical ethics, one doctor writes the incorrect time of death in the medical records. This allows them to tell the soldier’s wife and children that he died on December twenty-sixth. The doctor justifies his actions by saying, “No child should have to connect Christmas to death.”

            Every parent would nod in agreement with that statement. “No child should have to connect Christmas to death.” But it is connected with Christmas.

            Rev. David E. Cobb’s son Jackson loves to hear bedtime stories. One evening, Cobb was telling his son the Christmas story of baby Jesus’ birth. He always told Jackson the G-rated version from the book of Luke. It is full of drama and lovely imagery, but it leaves out Herod’s murderous rampage through Bethlehem.

            But Rev. Cobb forgot that his son had heard the other Christmas story last year at church--the story from the book of Matthew that set Jesus’ birth within an historical context of injustice and bloodshed. Rev. Cobb forgot that his young son had asked all sorts of uncomfortable questions after the service, questions that he and his wife struggled to answer.

            So as he tucked Jackson in that night, Rev. Cobb began telling the Christmas story, and then he got to the part about the magi leaving gifts, and he said, “The end.” And little Jackson piped up, “What about the babies?”

            “What babies?” his dad asked.

            “The babies who died, like when Moses was born.”

            Jackson remembered. He remembered that the Christmas story is not only about miracles and angels and answered prayers. It is also about injustice, the abuse of power, and the shocking sacrifice of the incarnation.

            It’s not the kind of thing a child ought to think about. But we live in that kind of world.

            A certain church had just completed their annual Christmas pageant. There had been Scripture readings, and hymns, and candle light, and decorations. It was beautiful and reverent and joyful. Everyone was enjoying that warm and worshipful attitude that we often refer to as the “Christmas spirit.” The pastor was just reciting her closing prayer when she felt a little hand patting her leg. Seven-year-old Lilly, who had played King Herod in the Christmas pageant, wanted to say something. Amused, the pastor handed the microphone to Lilly. Lilly stared at the congregation and announced loudly, “I am King Herod, and I have been watching you. I am going to kill all your babies.”

            An uncomfortable murmur spread through the congregation. Lilly’s declaration put a serious damper on the “Christmas spirit” that everyone had been feeling moments ago. The members of the congregation wanted to go home feeling good. Instead, Lilly had given them something profound to think about. 

            We live such sheltered lives. We cannot even imagine the way many people live in places like the Gaza Strip and in the Sudan and in Iraq. These people see Herod all around them. The 9-11 terrorist attacks brought it home to us for a while, but for the most part, we as individuals were unscathed. The scriptures are realistic about the human condition.

            The scriptures remind us, though, that evil never has the last word. Mary and Joseph are forced to flee, but they know it is only for a time. The promises of God concerning their Son are sure. God will never forsake them.

            Some of you may be familiar with a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave in Montgomery, AL on the 25th of March, 1965. The speech is copyrighted by Dr. King’s family, so I can’t give you the complete text. It is a pity because it would lift your spirits like it lifted the spirits of those who first heard it.

            In the speech, Dr. King asks how long will it be until the hopes of his people would be realized. “How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?” he asks. “I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’”

            If you were to read the speech on the Internet, you could see the responses of his audience (Speak! All right! How Long?) encouraging the preacher to “preach it.” [If any of you would like to throw in an “Amen” or at least a “Help him Jesus!” that would be fine.] Dr. King asked,

            How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”

            How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.”

            How long? Not long:

            Truth forever on the scaffold, /Wrong forever on the throne,           

            Yet that scaffold sways the future, /And, behind the dim unknown,

            Standeth God within the shadow, /Keeping watch above his own.

            How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.     How long? Not long, because:

            Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

            He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

            He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;

            His truth is marching on.

            He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

            He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.

            O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!

            Our God is marching on.

            Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

            And that is the glorious testimony of Scripture. Evil shall not have the last word. His truth is marching on. 

            The scriptures tell us that even in a world filled with demons we can have an abundant life. The story of Herod and the slaughter of the innocents is a horrible story, but it is not without a redeeming message. In the midst of this horror came forth our Savior. Evil did not defeat God’s purposes. Nor shall it ever.

            Life is hard. The story of Herod is a stark reminder of that truth. This is a scary world in many ways. But evil does not have the last word.

            Several years ago my wife, Sue discovered that the Christmas Spectacular from the Radio City Music Hall in NYC was touring and would be in Tampa.  She invited all the girls in our immediate family to attend with her, and among them was our little granddaughter, Hailey, who is now a freshman at Stetson University.  Well, little 4 year old Hailey quietly watched the whole thing, until at the end, as you may know there is a reenactment of the manger scene with donkeys and camels, and then a schimm drops down and the story of ‘ONE SOLITARY LIFE”  is printed on the schimm and narrated out loud.  When the narration came to the cross of Christ, little Hailey could not contain herself any longer.  Sitting on Sue’s lap she shouted for all to hear “they killed the baby?  They killed the baby?”  Some people laughed, but most got the message that even a 4 year old understood.

            The babe was born to die. This can be a cruel world. But beyond the cross is the empty tomb. And after the slaughter of the innocents was over, Mary and Joseph, and their son Jesus were able to return to Nazareth to build new lives--lives that would change human existence as we know it.

Yes, there are Herods in this world. But they cannot defeat God. How long? Not long, because “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Praise be to God.  Amen.

Debbie Wilson