12/29/2019: The Weary World
Isaiah 63: 7-9
9:30 am Service
Rev. Gretchen Jones Switzer
I have to be completely honest with you from the get-go. I have avoided preaching on this biblical account about the slaughter of the innocents for 35 years. Each time it has come up in the proscribed scripture readings, called the ‘common lectionary”, I have managed to find something else on which to preach every time!
I finally faced the fact that I cannot avoid confronting the question of evil presented there any longer. But I still hate focusing on evil. I don’t want to hear about a crazy violent murderous king like Herod. I haven’t wanted to deal with this story because it is too scary to think that God allows people like Herod to exist, much less have the power to destroy so many lives for the purpose of protecting political control.
As the Biblical account unfolds, I want and fully expect God to suddenly appear, to sweep in, like superman, riding in on a white charger and saving the day. But over and over again, I read this story and the only people God saves are Jesus, the baby Messiah, his Mom, and his Dad. The title “Slaughter the Innocents” has always made it sound to me like a much broader reaching event than it was. What we do know about this event is that the number of children who were killed was probably no more than 25, which is the likely reason this event did not make it into the history books. Still, in a small town like Bethlehem was the time, 25 babies murdered was unthinkable, horrifying and certainly a slaughter.
So, as in most horrific human stories, the question that first comes to mind is “Why did God allow this? How could God permit a fellow like Herod to exercise his power in such a gruesome and inexcusable manner? One way or another, all of us have found ourselves asking these kinds of questions about what happens in the world. It is part of human nature to wonder why evil exists and why God allows it.
That is not a question I will be able to answer in a short sermon or even a long one. But we can begin mulling it over together and reflecting on the possibilities. When I was a kid, I figured bad stuff happened in the world because God just didn’t have enough time to stop all the bullies at once. Then I learned that God invented time, so he certainly wouldn’t be without enough of it! So, I thought well, God gave us free will, maybe WE are supposed to stop evil ourselves and although there is no question that we don’t always use our free will for god, how would we ever know how to stop evil in its tracks? None of this made sense to me, or I think to anyone else.
Then everything changed. Christmas happened. Jesus Christ was born, and the truth is that Jesus came to us to teach exactly how to respond to evil, to show us how to neutralize evil (even if we don’t understand it), to show us how to fill the world with good. The Gospels give us just about every method of stopping the evil in the world and promoting the goodness of God.
Did you know that Jesus has trained you to repel and eradicate evil? Did you know that you and I actually do have the power to change the world?
Do you believe that you ARE the solution to the problem of evil in the world? Because you ARE! Jesus says so!!!
The truth is that once King Herod’s men were wandering around killing little children, there wasn’t much anyone could do to stop him.
HOWEVER, what would have happened if Herod had been brought up in a loving home? What if he had been provided good psychiatric care? What if, in the classroom or at home, or in the world at large, he had been shown how to be kind and loving? Any one of those things might have made a difference. Especially if someone had gotten him treatment for his psychiatric challenges, even though they didn’t want to admit that was the problem. Any of those things might have saved dozens of children’s lives and saved 25 families from the disintegration caused by grief.
I believe we can stop this kind of violence, not when the tyrant finally goes mad, perhaps, but way before that, when he is learning how to interact with other kids on the playground. When his parents teach him how to play nicely with his siblings and his friends. Even when his family notices some signs of mental illness and gets him the appropriate care.
When you treat him in a friendly way in the line at the grocery store, or respectfully in traffic. Everything you and I do out in the world and in our own homes determines how other people will be in the world.
Now, I am not naïve enough to believe that you and I can eliminate psychopaths from the world. However, with God’s help, we CAN create a world where those people get the care they need, and you and I can create a world where kindness and compassion are the rule rather than the exception. I believe this with my whole heart because Jesus believed it with his.
Over Christmas, I got a reminder of how much compassion and thoughtfulness can change things. We were down at my sister’s house in Rhode Island to celebrate Christmas. We had brought our beloved little dog, Aruba, and while we were there our dog suddenly became very ill. It was clear we had to find her some vet care as soon as possible on Christmas Night. My sister lives out in the country, but she knew of a place just 30 minutes away that does emergency vet care.
We called ahead and took off to get our little Ruby some help. I will not get into details, but the dog was incredibly ill and we thought she might not even make it. She is better now and getting closer to completely well every day.
In any case, the part of the story I want you to know about is this. We arrived at the Emergency vets with the dog in our arms, tears streaming down our face and filled with fear. We lost our other dog five months ago, and so the thought of losing Ruby so quickly was simply more than we could handle. We signed in and they sat us down in the waiting room where dozens of other families were facing their own crisis after Christmas mishaps with trees or turkeys had brought them in. When it was our turn, a young veterinary technician found us and immediately got on her knees on the floor in order to look our pet in the eye and talked to Ruby all the time. She examined her right then and there. In a very few minutes, they took her from us into the back of the hospital, leaving us sitting there shell-shocked and anxious.
We sat there all night-nearly a full day and a half, while they struggled to figure out what was wrong with our pet. They could have stuck us in a far corner all night and left us alone and upset, but they were clearly trained to take care of the pet owners as well as the pet. Someone from that staff checked in with us every few minutes to make sure we were okay. We got updates on Aruba’s condition every 40 minutes or so. They offered us water, coffee and friendly reassuring conversation for hours and hours.
They even gave us access to an empty exam room where we could get some time by ourselves or take a quiet little nap. By the end of Thursday, Ruby was starting to recover from what they called “Hyper – Hemorrhagic Gastro-Enteritis.” She would have to stay in the hospital until Friday night.
My point in telling you this story is that in a devastating situation for us, the staff at that hospital went to huge lengths not only to help our dog but to care for us – they didn’t have to do that. Even in a topnotch human hospital, we probably would not have received such kind consideration and attention. Clearly these vet professionals have been trained to extend compassion to any animal or human who walks through their doors. And I got to thinking, that if everyone in crisis or even just out in the old world were treated with such kindness and caring, the world would be an entirely different place, where evil would have a terribly difficult time taking root, where we would begin to expect to be treated with respect and thoughtfulness no matter where we were or what we were going through. We would treat others with the same respect and consideration.
I think this is what Jesus was born to teach us-that goodness of God that you and I put out into the world has the power to change the whole world to prevent the development of evil maniacs like Herod, an the nasty people we run into in traffic, even to stop the rise to power of a Hitler, or a sexual abuser.
If you and I would stand up against evil by only doing good, only being devoted to doing the ‘right thing’ and if we would commit ourselves to live as Jesus taught us, while we might not be able to change the entire world, we would certainly change the world mightily, and bring it so much closer to becoming the ‘Kingdom of God.’