I was a strange child. This doesn’t surprise you, does it? I had strange mental games I would play. Fortunately, being an introvert, I never told anyone about these games at the time, but now I am at peace with my peculiarities, at one with my weirdness, so I am free to share. One of the games I used to play was a form of “six degrees of separation” long before that phrase was used. I would come up with two unconnected things and would see how many steps it would take me to connect the two. I had rules, of course, like that each step had to be logical. For example, if the two items I chose were shoe laces and pizza, I could not say that you would put shoe laces on pizza because that doesn’t make sense. Instead I would say shoe laces lead me to shoes which lead me to walking which leads me to exercise which leads me to being healthy which leads me to not eating pizza.
I also would get fascinated with a concept or idea and ponder it for weeks, even months. One of those concepts was time—particularly the idea of “now.” Is there such a thing as “now”? As soon as you think of it, it’s gone. The present is this moment—this one right here—but now it’s gone so it’s past. So how could there be present moment, if as soon as you recognize it, it’s past? See? I told you I was a strange child.
To tell you the truth, the concept of time has remained an interest. I have told you before about a man who was very dear to me, who died suddenly about ten years ago. In the year before his death, even though he had no idea how limited his time was, he began reading and studying the book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, which focuses on the importance of living in the present, rather than stressing about the past or the future. He tried to get me to read it, which I didn’t do until he died. Then I spent a few months trying to follow the recommended practices, trying to let go of the past and not worry about the future, trying to be present in each moment.
And then one day I was cleaning my office and moved the library table that I used as a desk. I discovered that there was a shelf on the back of the table, and on that shelf someone years before had placed a sign … a wooden sign, at least two feet long, with one word on it in fluorescent paint: tomorrow. Immediately I thought, “I’ve been trying so hard to focus on today, and all this time, tomorrow has been hiding behind my desk!” Focusing on the present is difficult, especially if the present is not all that we want it to be.
Ebeneezer Scrooge learned this lesson. Our dramatic reading earlier highlighted the two opening lines from the Ghost of Christmas Present: “Come in and know me better” and “Look upon me!” The readers echoed look, look, look. The spirit invites Scrooge to see—really see—the present reality, to see things as they are, the good and the bad, the joy in the midst of difficulty, those in need who Scrooge has the power to help. Scrooge sees suffering and, perhaps for the first time, the suffering touches him, moves him to compassion. We start to see signs that his greedy, miserly ways could come to an end.
It is fitting, then, that one of our texts is from Deuteronomy 15, where it says: “If there is among you anyone in need … do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand…. I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
We know how to do that, don’t we? We are generous, especially at the holidays. The ornaments that CCM put on the wall with children’s wants and needs were taken as quickly as we could put them up there. The requests from Long Creek disappeared equally as fast. We filled thirty bountiful baskets for families at Thanksgiving. We are generous when we see the need, when we realize that our generosity can have a direct impact on another’s life.
But we don’t always see the need … or perhaps we don’t always recognize it. We don’t always see that those pledge cards also represent our ability to care for a three-year-old who likes cars and a teenager who is trying to overcome a lack of parenting. We look at a pledge card and see only paper and ink, not the faces of the middle-aged man struggling to stay sober and the older couple for whom church is their only place of belonging, and the divorced woman who finds love here. We don’t see the faces of all those who benefit from this church’s existence and so it’s easy to ignore, or simply to maintain the status quo and keep giving at the same level when we easily could do more. We don’t always see.
We don’t always see the suffering, either. I already said that Deuteronomy 15 felt perfect for this morning, with its call to generosity, but the other scripture passage recommended for today felt horrible. I could not wrap my mind around using it. Who wants to talk about the worst part of the Christmas story on the third week of Advent? You know which story I mean, even if I didn’t read it all. The Gospel According to Matthew tells us that when King Herod heard about the birth of one who would be “King of the Jews,” he plotted to kill the baby before he grew to be a threat. When the magi did not return with news of where to find the child, he ordered that the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or less be killed. You probably noticed that I skipped that part of the reading, though I did read about the grief afterwards, Rachel weeping for her children. It’s the passage called the Slaughter of the Innocents, and it’s a story we don’t want to hear at any time, but especially 14 days before Christmas.
Now, I have to point out that scholars disagree about whether this actually happened. History records many heinous crimes of Herod, but this one is not mentioned except in the Bible. Some scholars use this fact to say it didn’t happen. Others say that given the population of Bethlehem at the time, a maximum of twenty children would have been killed, and a small number of children from an unimportant town might not have warranted historical documentation. It’s just twenty children.
I don’t know if that number rings any bells for you, but I lived thirteen miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School when the tragedy there occurred. It was four years ago this week.
So as much as we don’t like this story, or want to include it during Advent, there’s a reason we do … because it’s part of our present. Suffering is part of our present reality.
I read a beautifully disturbing article this week called “Let’s Keep Herod in Christmas.” The writer begins by telling a story. Twenty-seven Christmases ago I was the new pastor of a Baptist church in Indiana. I decided we would have a Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service—the first ever. I wanted everything to be perfect. It almost was. Snow fell that afternoon. A junior in high school, Melody, played “What Child Is This” on the flute. Three generations—a grandmother, her daughter, and granddaughter—lit the Advent candles. We sang the carols “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” … I remember thinking: This is a Hallmark card of a worship service. This is as picture-perfect a Christmas moment as any church has ever known.
I’m going to pause right here to say it’s clear this was a new pastor because those of us who’ve been around for a while know better than to allow such thoughts! I don’t know that I believe in fate, but I still won’t “tempt it” that way! Anyway, the story continues. He writes:
That’s when Danny’s beeper went off. Danny was a member of the volunteer fire department. When his beeper sounded—as it often did— Danny ran out of the sanctuary. We had gotten used to it, but it was still disconcerting. Then we started singing “Silent Night.” As we got to “Wondrous Star, lend thy light,” Danny ran back in and shouted that church member Bob’s mother’s house was on fire. Bob’s family ran after Danny. Danny’s wife got up and left. Everyone had to choose between listening to the preacher’s sermon or slipping out one by one and going to a big fire. By the time I got Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the crowd— and I use that term loosely—was made up of those who were waiting for a ride home and those who had fallen asleep. That’s not how Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion services are supposed to turn out. Tragedies should wait until January, because they don’t fit our ideas about Christmas.
That’s why King Herod doesn’t fit the Christmas story. The horrifying sequence of events in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t feel like it belongs in the Christmas story.… but we need to hear it. Like a lot of stories, we have to hear the whole story or we get the story wrong. Every true story admits that even in the midst of blinking decorations and flickering candles, darkness threatens the light. Ignoring the darkness is ignoring reality. We leave King Herod out of the Christmas story because we think we’re supposed to keep the hardships of the real world away from Christmas….
It’s easy to understand why there’s no carol in our hymnal about the slaughter of the innocents. Perhaps there should be, because we need to understand that Christmas is God’s response to our sorrows. The part of this story that we’re used to leaving out—the sadness, suffering, and death—is most important. It’s the hard part that explains why this child is a holy child…. God comes to the worst places and the most painful circumstances to share our suffering, to care for us in the midst of tragedy. Christ has come to bear our sorrows. We have not been left alone.
I know some of you are having a joyful Christmas, and for you the lights and the music reflect what you feel in your heart. You have no trouble singing “O Come Let Us Adore Him.” I know others of you are struggling to find the joy this year, worried about the future, whether the future of our country or the future of your family. You are singing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Please, come. I know some of you are facing loss or dealing with grief or are in a crisis of life or faith, and you may be singing “in the bleak midwinter” or in spite of it all you may still know that “all is calm, all is bright.” But whatever your present, whatever this moment contains, know that God contains this moment.
This is the power of now. This is the spirit of Christmas present.
I no longer play the six degrees of separation game I used to play as a child, where I try to connect disparate things. Still sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking that suffering and joy are so far apart that it would take many steps to join the two. It’s not true. There’s just one step in-between. The space between sorrow and joy is where God lives, encompassing it all. Encompassing us all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Younger, Brett. “Let’s Keep Herod in Christmas.” http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/4496/lets-keep-herod-in-christmas