The Slaughter of Innocents Amplifies God’s Incarnation

Prelude: This post comes from my son, Rev. Josh McClendon, Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC, who always amazes me at his depth and strength. Only he could handle the Slaughter of the Innocents and write a first-person monologue to make his old man cry. It made me think of the children I have buried over the years and their parent’s pain. It made me think of my daughter Narcie as Hannah. Listen to his words of a God whose incarnation in Jesus risks our pain from start to finish, and gives us authentic hope.

Here are Josh’s words and for a picture of Joella and other wisdom go to his blog directly at http://joshtmcc.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/blood-stained/:

Even though our culture moves on pretty quickly, the 12 days of Christmas are still here. One usual reading this time of year makes very clear how raw and risky the incarnation was. The passage is sometimes titled, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” and for lots of congregations it is totally avoided. But this is roughly the very next chapter in Jesus’ story and, if not for his sake then for the sake of the “Innocents” themselves and their families, it is worth our attention. Read Matthew 2:13-23 here.

Today we’re going to approach these events from the perspective of those directly affected. I’ll ask you to imagine that we’ve stumbled across the personal journal of one such family. Try to do your best to visualize the following three journal entries as the work of a father in first-century Judea. As a fairly new dad (one of my girls is pictured above), I know this is tough but stick with it.

The journal book of Yosef son of Amos, and Divorah, of Beyt-Lechem. It is the chronicle of our Hannah.

First Entry (8th day of the month of Tishrei)
By many standards, today I am a young man, full of strength and life, who was blessed by God. I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one. I have a good name, which is priceless among my people. I have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it. The Lord led me to my love, my wife, Divorah, and we have had three full years of joy together. God even favored us enough to give her a child, a daughter, whom we named Hannah. She has been the most precious thing I’ve ever known. Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it’s been overwhelming.

Her mother and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could. We wished we could record everything! That is how this journal came to be. With all of our savings, and the help of our parents and my uncle Shlomoh (one of the Temple scribes), we bought these few pages. Yesterday, for Hannah’s first birthday, we dedicated them to keep her story, to be a book of memories.

For all of that, a day ago you could have called me blessed by the Lord indeed.

But, today, let no one talk of the Lord’s favor. Let no one speak his name before me. May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips, or those of anyone in my household, while I live and breathe.

Yesterday morning my Hannah had her first birthday. She was dark-haired and green-eyed like her mother, and big for her age with a good-sized head, like me. She had become so aware – she recognized us, and her grandparents. She would smile and laugh when we entered the room, and fuss when we walked out. She could just speak a little. She was a crawler, and we couldn’t keep her out of all the wrong places. Just a year old.

But yesterday evening, on the seventh day of the first month, a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders. Divorah and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door. They didn’t ask about the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if I was a member of the latest Jewish rebellion. They demanded, of all things, our little girl.

I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers. They clubbed me nearly to death. And those Roman dogs wrenched Hannah from her mother’s hands. So, today…today her life has been cut short.

I couldn’t protect her, and she is gone for it, and I cannot fathom it. My wife hasn’t spoken a word.

I write all of this now, this the first and the last entry in Hannah’s book, because it is the only thing I have left to record of her. And, now, to hell with these memories. To hell with this life.

Second Entry (12th day of the month of Shevat)
Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages that I swore never to write in again. I’ll confess that it’s not the first time… I’ve read and re-read those words often since that day. No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back to this page to remember. More than once I’ve even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old. But it seemed wrong to change this book. It seemed like moving on.

I write today for one reason: because new facts have come to light in the history of Hannah’s life, from someone unexpected. Not long ago I met again a young man named Yohanan, John, one of the sons of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee. John’s mother is my wife’s cousin, and I knew the boy; he spent some time here on the farm when he was younger.

Anyway, I was in the city on the Shabbat, and had been told that John was invited to teach at synagogue. A strange thought for the son of fisherman, but apparently the local Rabbi wanted to know more about another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, Jesus. So, I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, the “spirit” that was upon him and the peace that he exuded. I greeted him afterwards and he remembered me; he took me to lunch and started to open his heart to me.

That is when he mentioned Hannah’s name.

He explained that they believe this Jesus is the Messiah. Right away I interrupted him and said, “I’ve heard all of that talk before and I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs.” But, before I could go, he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village that night so many years ago.

He said, “My Master threatens the evil rule of men like Herod and Herod’s sons, because he is our true king. He is God’s great savior.” And I couldn’t respond. John spoke of how this Rabbi had been born to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents. He described it as signs that the kingdom of God is coming and a new age is beginning, one where even grief like mine will be no more.

I admit his words started to take me in — his facts were sound as far as I could tell. It had always indeed been a point of pride in our village that Israel’s king was destined to come from the birthplace of David. Even now, I can remember the Roman census in that second year that Divorah and I had been married. The perennial rumors about a Christ child had been unusually active and vivid at the time, and we had noticed – I remember we had taken it all as a good omen because only months later Divorah had become pregnant with Hannah. “Think of it,” we would whisper to one another, “our little one growing up to see the reign of the Coming King….”

And, in that moment, I came to myself. I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night. I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they know what life is like here and now, on earth. I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, chose for his son to be born to peasants in an unsecured and unknown town. I asked him why this God speaks in fables and dreams, while men like Herod give orders to armed legions. I asked him why it was only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone that night. I asked him where he saw a Savior’s reign, in this dust-covered Rabbi of his.

I can’t remember John’s reply, if he even made one, but as I regained my temper I thanked him for the lunch and arose from the table. I wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar, or the Chief Priest for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation. If I am honest, I feel no better for my rage. Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me. I have no answers to my questions. I no longer know who I am or why I live.

I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story. God have mercy on us.

Third Entry (20th day of the month of Nisan)
Today, I write here for the last time because Hannah’s record in this book comes to a close. And, as I read again my last words on this page, it feels like ages have past for me since my time with John on that peculiar Shabbat. I recall that over the days and weeks after our lunch together, I couldn’t take my mind away from his words, or the memory of his presence; it began to gnaw at me. The possibility that John was telling the truth sparked a fire of emotions – one moment I would long to risk some hope in God again, the next moment I would be overwhelmed with confusion and contempt at how this would-be Messiah had a part in shattering Hannah’s life. It was the first time in more than thirty years that I had truly felt something. It was the first time in so long that I cared to feel something, or that I dared to wonder at what might be. In the end, it drove me to seek Jesus out, face to face.

I started by following on the edge of his crowds, very skeptically at first. Then, through John, I was able to sit with him, and speak to him on occasion. I don’t know how to describe the experience except that the same presence and Spirit that I first saw in John in the synagogue, I experienced in this man in its fullness. It was clear that he was the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.

Can I remember when I first truly started to consider him the Messiah? No. It was gradual. It came slowly as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones. But something particular in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me. Occasionally, he would speak of death, and of his own suffering. He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again. He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.

I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, the words rang in my heart. The crowds asked him not to say such things. They foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies. But, in my mind, he was hinting that something deeper was at work. And we soon saw.

Before any of us could have imagined it, Jesus had indeed arrived in Jerusalem. He had been greeted like an emperor, and had seen the hearts of the people poised to crown him their ruler. But, only a moment later during the heart of the Passover, he had just as quickly been betrayed, arrested, and put on trial.

Almost all of the others fled in fear, or they stayed only to shout in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal. But I felt stirred to draw nearer to him than ever before. What did I have left to lose? What could the soldiers take from me now? I hadn’t come to see a victorious king; I came to stand beside the man, my Teacher, who had led me back to life. So I did, and I prayed for him.

The scene broke my heart, and infuriated me, and I wanted to cry out to Heaven, but suddenly something else struck me. I had wrestled with these same feelings before, for some thirty years. I realized then that Herod’s assault on my Hannah, intended for the newborn Messiah, had been in the same vein and for the same purpose as what I witnessed now. It was the same injustice, cruelty, tyranny. And one thing was clear that day: the evil right in front of me, and that which stained my family’s past, was none of God’s doing. It was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do. It was an effort on the part of darkness to quench his great light.

In that moment, I repented from every word of blame and curse I had ever laid at the Lord’s feet. God’s doing had been to spare his own son in Bethlehem, not so that he could flee to a life of safety, but so that he could return one day to shed his own blood. Jesus, the Passover lamb. As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured it, it was confirmed in my heart that this was my Lord and my God.

I stayed that day until the end. I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, watched his breathing cease, and saw the women mourn. I thought back to his many promises and wondered what could be next. Then, only days ago I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers: “the grave could not hold him.” Today, I believe I know what that message means.

I run through his words in my mind. He once said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” And didn’t he say, “Because I live, you shall live also”? I remember it. And I believe it.

I believe that, although God not intervene in that moment years ago to spare Hannah’s earthly life, today she lives also in Christ Jesus.

So, yes, today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close. But that is only because it continues elsewhere. As does mine. And I can think of no better words to close this book than these that I borrow from my brother, John:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors, Amen.

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UMC In Exile

As I continue to process GC2012 and look forward to God’s preferred future, I am struck that where we are is a good place in spite of the predominant reaction of despair over the state of our church.  It’s a painful place, a scary one, but also a hopeful one. We are not people who want to go back to the good old days of the status quo or Garden of Eden. We are people who long for the New Jerusalem and want to be used by God to help usher in the Kingdom. We are a people who desire to put legs on our prayer, “Thy kingdom come…” If author Scott Peck is right then our pseudocommunity has given way to chaos, and if we let it do its work then we shall find ourselves embracing a Jesus-like emptiness that will lead us into a bright God-blessed future. But first we have to mourn our chaos: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep (Luke 6:21,25).”

The acceptance of Enlightenment era certitude created a centuries-old illusionary humanistic optimism that has fueled two opposing sides of hardliners. This has been evident in the halls of Congress and at GC2012. It is time for us to move away from the  literal and liberal fundamentalism of old world empirical stances and follow God’s directives which often find voice in mysterious ways.  As much as I would like to put funnels in people’s heads so that they know the difference between unchanging doctrine and ever-changing theology, it doesn’t work that way. Sure, I’m going to teach the truth of our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, but I want to do it in ways that allow God to speak more than me. I have to be quiet. We all do. We have to let God do the talking in contemporary ways. Then we can move forward and stop the status quo entrenchment of extremist polarities that are holding us back.

I’m not saying that we need to check our understanding of good theology at the door, but we do need to open ourselves to a new word from God.  Not a new Word of God, but a new epiphany so that we have a personal theophany with the Living God. Of course, this is where chaos reigns in our discussions. Who decides what is God’s W/word for today, this generation? What does this kind of thinking do to the unique salvific person and work of Christ? How do we objectify the Immortal, Invisible God that we see face-to-face in Jesus? Is there a way for us to hold in tension the apparent paradox and oxymoron of a God bigger than all, that created ex nihilo, yet is made incarnate  and truly human while remaining very God of very God? “Whew!” is about the best response I can make because I can’t answer all of these questions adequately. However, I will not yield on who Jesus is and what Jesus does or what Jesus says. He is the Logos! But, until I give up a great measure of what I think that I know, I know that I won’t know the God of the Apocalypse. There can be no revelation (apocalypsis) if everything is already revealed. Isn’t this the essence of our dilemma? Is God dynamic or static? Is God immutable only in God’s loving nature? Is God ever-changing in nano-second immediacy in response to God’s loving relationship to creation? If not, then why pray? The questions continue, leading from one to another, and yet we need a clarion call, a sure pronouncement from God. I contend that we will not and cannot hear such a pronouncement until we give up our human machinations that put words into God’s mouth. Where we are is between chaos and emptiness and this is where the Old Testament’s prophets found themselves. They, like Jesus after them, were strangers among their own people. They spoke God’s truth of judgment on a wicked and idol-worshipping people. They spoke also of a God eager to love. They were the voice of exile, and out of the Hebrew Exile came the most profound renewal: Dedicated care for the poor and oppressed, overwhelming revitalization of worship practices, and absolute dedication to community.

We, too, can find hope in our time of chaos and emptiness, our sense of exile from our glory days of yesteryear. Our hope is found in our hopelessness. Our salvation isn’t found in empirical data mining called metrics for the Spirit blows in unseen ways before there is fruit even imagined. Just ask Nicodemus. Our Gospel is a saga of exile to hope, death to resurrection, crying in the night before joy in the morning. To bypass chaos and death diminishes the cross’ victory! Now, that’s a paradox – “the cross’ victory!” But this is our Gospel after all. God redeems! Jesus died and rose again. We are not stuck between Good Friday and Easter. We are post-Pentecost Christians that supremely worship a Living Lord who can make all things new! Think about Jesus and the wineskins analogy or I Corinthians 5:17. Something’s got to give if we are to move past our semi-idolatrous harkening back to the supposed “good old days.” Polarities are keeping us from admitting the failure that is ours in reaching a confused generation. Revival can come only if we repent. If we will repent then we are able to have hope. If we focus overly on what was or is then we miss what can be and will be. We absolutely must give up all hankering for going back to the Garden of Eden and press on toward the New Jerusalem – a place described, interestingly enough, a lot like post-exilic Judaism: care for the least, last, lowest, lost; fantastic worship; blessed community.

So first things first. We can’t get to the New Jerusalem without going through real chaos and emptiness. Therefore, it behooves us to lament, to cry out, to express our anguish. GC2012 and Election Year 2012 have me convinced that theological and political gridlock on top of economic disaster is real.  We cannot dare to be priests or prophets who say, “Peace, Peace – when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11), in a divided world or church. We cannot put a useless band-aid of denial on our situation and strike a passive stance of do-nothingism on our dismal condition. If we want to have hope in the God who sends exiles home and resurrects the dead, then, like the Hebrew prophets of the Exile, we must declare our utter failure at trying to manipulate and manage God. By accepting our emptiness and expressing our grief we acknowledge that God has judged us. Listen to the prophet in Jeremiah 30:12: “This is what the Lord says: “Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing.”  We are judged by God who then enters our grief and surprises us. When all hope is seemingly lost by virtue of self-caused and God-judged chaos and emptiness we are surprised by God; i.e., Jeremiah 30:16-17: “Therefore, all who devour you will be devoured; all your enemies will go into exile. Those who plunder you will be plundered; all who make spoil of you I will despoil. But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds.” Only grief allows newness and only newness can come from God entering the judgment we have brought upon ourselves. Jesus saves, not this group or that one. Only Jesus saves! That is the essence of my report about General Conference 2012, and it is my message to everyone about the state of our world: “We’re broken and we’ve tried everything we can to fix things on our own, and it hasn’t worked. God help us! And God does help. There is our only hope. God is our only hope!”

By the way, you need to know that this hopeful comparison of the Hebrew Exile to today is thanks to the gentle prodding of retired Bishop Ken Carder to reread Brueggemann. His book, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile is a must read. The book’s premise of Hebrew Exile as a means of renewal is more than a timely word for us. It was published in 1986 yet its words speak as if written today (pp. 45-47) (Hint: When you read “city” think Jerusalem, Church, Enlightenment, or Culture, etc.):

“I believe that we are in a season of transition, when we are watching the collapse of the world as we have known it. The political forms and economic modes of the past are increasingly ineffective. The value system and the shapes of knowledge through which we have controlled life are now in great jeopardy. One can paint the picture in very large scope, but the issues do not present themselves to pastors as global issues. They appear as local, even personal issues, but they are nonetheless pieces of a very large picture. When the fear and anger are immediate and acute, we do not stop to notice how much our own crisis is a part of the larger one, but it is.

When such a massive threat is under way, so comprehensive in scope, so acute in personal hurt, frenzied, dangerous activity takes place. Such activity runs from arms stockpiling to frantic self-fulfillment to oppressive conformity. All of these are attempts to hold the world together enough to maintain our dignity, our worth, our sanity, and probably our advantage. I believe these attempts can be identified among conservatives (including theological conservatives) who want to stop the change by formulae of authority and conformity. I believe these attempts can be identified among liberals (including theological liberals) who want to keep power in place because liberals have had a good season and still trust the worldly knowledge of the social sciences to keep us human and to keep us safe. The voices of newly revived conservatism and responsible liberalism are important. Both voices have something to tell us.

Neither voice, however, touches the issue of the death of the beloved city that must be grieved. Indeed, one can argue that the polarities in our society are a game on which we have agreed in order to keep us busy, so that we do not notice. Powerful vested interests are at work, perhaps mostly unwittingly, to keep the grief from notice. In one way or another, we believe the ideology of our party, our caucus, our nation, our class, because ideology serves as a hedge against a serious diagnosis. If one denies serious illness, then there is no need for the diagnosis. There is then no cause to weep over the city. There is no call for such poignant poetry. But if the city is dying, if the old order is failing, if the poet has diagnosed rightly, then the grief is urgent. It is a personal grief. It is a quite public grief. It is facing our true situation, in which living waters have been rejected and we are left with broken cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13), in which all our lovers despise us (Jeremiah 30:14), in which we are like restive camels in heat (Jeremiah 2:23-34). All the metaphors mediate our broken, beaten fickleness. The news is that God enters the broken, beaten fickleness.

In God’s attentive pain, healing happens. Newness comes. Possibilities are presented. But it all depends on being present with God in the hurt, which is incurable until God’s hint of healing is offered. We wait, along with the poet, to see what the tone of the next ‘therefore’ (Jeremiah 30:16) will be.”

This post is long, but long overdue. Where is our hope? The answer is found in our hopelessness. We can only find hope in Jesus! Exile is hard! Life is hard! The alternative is deadly! Let us give ourselves to Christ, the Only One who raises the dead back to life!