Real Life, Real Religion

Pulpit in Winter Sunlight, Hebrews 4:12  There’s a story told by a pastor about what happened one December long ago.

 The month included all of the normal end-of-year business. There was the election of new officers, and placement of elders in positions of leadership on session committees. The pledge campaign was significantly short of the goal, which required additional meetings with the finance committee and session to deal with painful cuts in the budget. Hospital calls, two funerals, and office appointments about upcoming baptisms and weddings filled what might have been free time in the schedule. Of course, there were special holiday services to prepare and lead.

 When, on Christmas Eve, the second evening service ended, the pastor wanted nothing quite so much as to go home and sleep, but things didn’t work out that way. About 3:00 AM, he was dimly aware that one of his children had plopped down in the center of the bed. He heard a whisper, “I don’t feel so good,” followed by sounds he associated with someone becoming ill. Lights were switched on, the child was carried to the bathroom, attended to, cleaned up, and eventually laid on towels in bed with a bucket close at hand.

 Then, there was the matter of cleaning the parents’ bed. What was on display was more than a polite childlike “urp,” and it was spread across the middle of a thick king-sized comforter. This bedding was too large to fit the washing machine, and too large for the deep washroom sink. So, at 3:30 AM on Christmas Day, the pastor found himself in the driveway, holding out sections of a king-sized comforter, while Mrs. Pastor used a garden hose to spray off the worst of the damage. It was cold, and it was windy. The pastor’s hands stung where the cold mist washed over them, and the water formed a slick glaze on the driveway. The comforter made noises as frozen water crinkled and crackled in the breeze.

 Around 4:00 AM, with fresh linens on the bed, the pastor settled down for what he hoped would be a long winter’s nap. But there was another child in the house, the one who always needed the least amount of sleep. About 6:30 AM, little footsteps pounded down the hallway, and a gleeful voice announced, “Mom! Dad! Santa Claus was here!” At 7:00 AM, the pastor was turning on the coffee maker and setting up the video camera to record scenes that would bring joy to distant grandparents. And when, during the course of the day, he spoke to family members by phone, he thought about how the greeting “Merry Christmas!” sounded a bit hollow.

 The pastor’s Christmas story is just one particular example of a general phenomenon. If you live longer than eight or nine years, then you learn that high expectations for Christmas are not always matched by reality. Despite our best efforts, the holiday doesn’t always turn out as neat and heartwarming as what we see portrayed in Christmas cards and films. Sylvan scenes and sweet songs have their place, and we all like to linger with them for a while. But, at some point, we all face real life challenges that require real religion.

 Real life challenges and real religion are exactly what we find in today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 2:13-23). Matthew shares the unsettling news that Jesus’ birth creates a crisis for the nation.  When King Herod hears that a cosmic sign of royal birth has appeared, Matthew says he is “troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”  Frustrated in his first attempt to find and destroy Jesus, Herod is infuriated.  He orders the killing of all infant male children in and around Bethlehem.  Joseph flees with his family to Egypt, and returns only when Herod is dead.  Even then, fearful of the royal family, Joseph chooses to take up residence in the remote northern village of Nazareth.

 Many years later, the writers of the New Testament take up their pens to interpret this unhappy chapter in sacred history.  Matthew, with his special interest in demonstrating Hebrew heritage, describes a connection between Jesus and Moses.  Like newborn Moses, who escapes the furious wrath of the Egyptian pharaoh who ordered a mass slaughter of Hebrew babies, so Jesus escapes the wrath of King Herod.  As God brings Moses and his people out of a dangerous place, so Jesus is brought out in safety.

 Bible scholars also point out the unique new twists in Matthew’s gospel.[1] In Moses’ time, Egypt was the land of slavery; in Jesus’ time, Egypt becomes a place of sanctuary.  That’s because those trying to kill Jesus were not foreigners, but the very people who are supposed to be guarding the tradition of Israel. 

 When you study the context into which Jesus was born, you learn that Herod was a heartless ruler who had sold out his nation and became a puppet for the Roman Empire.  During a trip to Israel years ago, I climbed around the family tomb of Herod, carved out of a limestone hillside.  I learned that its location never has been in doubt because it was used so often.  Herod was what might be called a megalomaniac.  When his mother-in-law consulted Cleopatra without permission, Herod murdered her.  In a jealous rage, he killed his wife.  His sons Antipater and Alexander became his victims.  Still worried about his throne, he drowned his youngest boy Aristobulus in the palace swimming pool.  Knowing that Herod followed Jewish dietary laws to maintain political favor among the Jews, Caesar Augustus joked, “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than to be Herod’s son.”

 Matthew tells the story in such a way that evil King Herod ends up serving a useful function to the Wise Men.  Herod has the wrong motives for helping, but he certainly has resources: he puts his team of rabbis to work on the problem of locating the child Jesus.  Herod’s anxious fear is used against him; he guides the wise men on their journey, but his plan to destroy the new Messiah is thwarted.

 Sadly, we know that Herod is not just a relic of our religious past. Herod prefigures real life danger all around us; he stands as a symbol of the many manifestations of evil in our time that threaten peace and wholeness, sometimes our very lives.

 Fortunately, Matthew’s narrative gives us some real religion for real life.  The good news of the gospel is that the agents of evil, while pursuing their personal goals, ultimately cannot prevent God from accomplishing the divine purpose for history. When the world throws up its worst at us, God has a way of vindicating those who suffer unjustly; God is at work to restore what is broken.

 Frederick Buechner, in one of his short essays, writes about the problem of evil.  He reminds us that Christianity ultimately offers no theoretical solution.  It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene but that God can turn it to good.[2]  This is the promise that Christ’s birth holds for those living in dangerous times like ours.

[1] E. g. Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House Publishers, 1995), pp. 78-80.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973, p. 24.



~ by JohnH1962 on January 7, 2013.

2 Responses to “Real Life, Real Religion”

  1. I remember that story!

  2. Shelly, you were one of the first to hear it. Somehow, my stories often end up a little less Michael Lindvall and a little more Stephen King.

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