To download the .pdf file of the text below, please click the following link: AndyWolfe_12.16.12
It is hard to know what to write this morning. This week should be filled with the joy of preparing for the great feast of the Incarnation, for Christmas. But our joy has been shattered by the events of last Friday. The words I would like to share are those from Sunday’s Sermon:
The Slaughter of the Innocents
Andrew Wolfe – December 16, 2012
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by 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 were no more.”
This is not the sermon I had planned to preach this morning. Today has been a day of joyful music, of hearing the story of Jesus’ birth through scripture and song. I had planned to preach on Luke’s report of the angels appearing to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus with word and song. But, after the events of this past Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, that sermon will have to wait. As the Prophet Amos wrote long ago, “Our feast has turned to mourning and our songs have turned lamentations.”
Once again the unthinkable has happened. We have witnessed the senseless deaths of 20 innocent children and 6 of their teachers. What began as a normal day, turned suddenly violent . . . and no day will ever be normal again for the families whose lives have been torn asunder. This is, not only a day for prayer, but also a day for reflection. We come today with heavy hearts – seeking solace and comfort – but also seeking some word from God. What has happened is unspeakable, but we must speak of it.
There is another text from the Christmas story that calls to be preached today. It is a story we do not often read – because it is not a tranquil story of shepherds and sheep, wise men and stars, a manger and a baby. This story points to the dark side of Christmas. But this story, no less that of the manger, shepherds and wise men, needs to be told, especially today. Matthew records this story for us. It is the story of Herod’s reaction when he receives the news that Jesus, a new King of The Jews, has been born.
Unfortunately, for the families of Bethlehem, Herod had no intention of allowing this potential usurper to grow to adulthood. Warned in a dream to flee, Joseph and Mary took Jesus and left in the middle of the night to find refuge in Egypt. Matthew says that Herod was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. Church history refers to this as “the slaughter of the innocents.”
Now, this story has once again repeated itself. To the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem, we must now add the slaughter of the innocents of Newtown – and countless other places around the world – wherever human beings have seen violence as an acceptable way to solve their problems, be they personal or political.
Of course, we would prefer to skip this story. We are tempted look away, to cover our eyes and pretend not to see – because what we see is so painful and horrible. Before Newtown, there was the high school at Columbine, a movie theater in Aurora, an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. There have been so many incidents that we are numbed by them. We can only handle so much tragedy before we begin to shut down.
Like the priest and the Levi in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are tempted to pass by on the other side, pretending that we do not see the victim lying by the roadside as we go about our business. But, these victims are our business as God’s people because we are people who know the full story of Christmas – both the glory and the horror. We must instead take our place beside the Samaritan in the parable who saw the victim, had compassion and did something. To know the full meaning of Christmas, we must hear Rachel and the women of Bethlehem and the parents of Newtown weeping for her children. Only in that way will we find the compassion to take our place beside those victims and the courage to face all the demonic structures – the Herod instinct – that leads to violence.
We look first of all to see that amidst the evil that has happened – there was good. To not name that good and claim it, is to allow evil to have the only say in our world, which we must never do. Already we have heard the stories of teachers who put themselves in harms’ way, using their bodies as shields, to protect and save the children. We have seen law enforcements officers respond without fear for their own lives. We have seen first responders, who have offered comfort and healing at great cost to their own peace of mind. That first Christmas was the worst of times and the best of times. If, on Friday, we saw the worst of what we humans are capable of, we also saw the best. We also saw undaunted courage, selfless devotion, and boundless compassion. We saw the Samaritan go to the aid of the victim. We saw Jesus taking his place beside us in the chaos and brokenness of this world. We thank God, for those who refused to turn their heads and look away – but who, instead became the way for good to answer evil.
We must also look into the face of the one who committed these senseless acts. We cannot know the dark forces within this young man – the rage, the pain. Even if we knew the reasons for this act, it would never excuse his act. We are all accountable for our actions – we must all choose between the darkness and the light. There must be no notoriety in such senseless acts. We look into the face of Herod, only so we can name the evil that would undo us all. With our prayers for the victims, there must be prayers for all who are lost in darkness in our world.
But, we must also recognize that these individual acts of violence do not happen in a vacuum, they take place against a backdrop; they have a context. We are the most religious nation in the western world, but we are also the most violent. What happened on Friday was not an isolated incident.
The most recent statistics reveal 2,694 children and teens were killed by gunfire in 2010. If those children and teens were still alive they would fill 108 classrooms of 25 each. Since 1979 when gun death data were first collected by age, a shocking 119,079 children and teens have been killed by gun violence. That is more child and youth deaths in America than American battle deaths in World War I (53,402) or in Vietnam (47,434) or in the Korean War (33,739) or in the Iraq War (3,517).
We must look to ourselves as a people and ask what are the causes of this culture of violence; a culture that both sanitizes and sanctifies violence and then wonders why it happens. What we must not do is pass by on the other side. What we must not do is to accept this horror in the name of some false freedom, nor accept it with a fatalism that says, it just happens – there is nothing to be done. What we must not do is to throw up our hands and acquiesce to the slaughter of innocents.
Albert Camus, Nobel Laureate, speaking at a Dominican monastery in 1948 said, “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.” He went on to describe our responsibility as human beings, “if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it” and “to refuse to consent to conditions which torture innocents.”
In the name of Jesus we must refuse to consent to a culture that promotes violence and acquiesce to the slaughter of innocents. We must join our voices in saying a loud “no” to the Herods of the world – “no” in the name of Jesus, the Price of Peace. We must cling to and claim the promise of scripture of the prophet Isaiah who dreamed of that day when they shall beat their swords and guns into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations and people shall not lift up swords against nations and people.
What we must do is to be a people of hope and not despair. Professor Tom Long tells about a photograph on the wall of the museum in the former concentration camp at Dachau. The photograph shows a mother and little girl being taken into a gas chamber at Auschwitz. The girl, who is walking in front of her mother does not know where she is going. The mother does know, but there is nothing the mother can do to stop this atrocity. In her helplessness, she performs the only act of love left to her. She places her hand over her little girls eyes, so, at least she will not have to see the horror that faces her. When people see the picture in the museum, they do not move easily to the next one. Long said that you can feel the emotion, almost hear their cries, “O God don’t let that be all there is. Somewhere, somehow set things right.”
In Bethlehem, God hears those prayers and moves to begin to set things right. Herod did his worst. Yet, the slaughter of the innocents was not the end of the story. Herod’s plan failed. Jesus lived and grew into manhood. He brought good news to the poor, healed the sick, and comforted those who grieved. He was crucified, dead and buried and on the third day he rose again – forever conquering evil and death. In Jesus, God has met the love of power, with the power of love and won.
I was watching a pastor from Newtown being interviewed the night of the tragedy. He said he has had parishioners come to ask him if they should turn off their Christmas lights in response to this tragedy. He told them, “By no means – leave them on.” Leave them on so that we can be reminded that: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Darkness came to Newtown on Friday morning – we mourn with those who mourn. But, in the darkness there is a light that shall not be overcome. Emmanuel, God is with us – even in the chaos, the brokenness, the pain, the sorrow.
That is the meaning of Christmas.