Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Holiday Inn

Luke 2:1-7
by Daniel Harrell

So during this week’s Christmas sermon block, I wondered on my Facebook status update what else there remains to say about the manger. Thanks to those of you who posted ideas, including Simon’s comforting reminder that since everybody loves the nativity story already, Christmas sermons are the easiest to deliver! The weather outside may be frightful, but the certain hope and peace embedded in Christ’s birth is delightful――not to mention indispensable―― especially this Christmas as our Dickens-like economy threatens to make poor Bob Cratchits out of everybody. Needing a familiar, strong dose of yuletide hope, I went to my files to fetch a favorite manger sermon from Christmas past, only to discover to my surprise that I had none. I’ve never preached a sermon from Luke 2.

Luke’s nativity narrative was, however, the first passage of Scripture I ever read aloud in public. It happened one Christmas Eve when I was around 10 years old. The nice folks running our Christmas Eve service invited me to participate as a reader. I was scared silly—or perhaps I should say I was “sore afraid”—an appropriate emotion for Christmas Eve. King James still reigned in those days, so already I was intimidated by the language. Words like Augustus, Cyrenius, Judea, lineage, espoused, great with child (whatever that meant); you had to say them all right or you were doomed. When my turn came, I had forgotten it would be so dark. Ours was a candlelight service and as I stepped up I quickly appreciated why the letters in the humongous pulpit Bible were writ so large. I began with a little introduction I had prepared, the preacher in me asserting itself early. I then stepped into the passage proper, not bungling any of the words I worried about. No, the only mistake I made was when I got to verse 7 and said Mary bought forth her firstborn son instead of brought forth. Perhaps this betrayed the extent to which the commercialization of Christmas had already corrupted my young soul. True, I was greedy for my presents. More likely however, my slip-up betrayed my nervousness as well as my inability to make out the words in the dim candlelit glow.

Still, I don’t think anybody noticed my mistake. By the time I’d mentioned Mary purchasing Jesus, attention had already turned to the spot-lit nativity scene that was being reenacted at the front of the sanctuary. My Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim did the Mary and Joseph honors that year, decked out in the requisite bed sheets and bathrobes. While we featured real live holy parents (and a few minutes later, real live shepherds over by the organ watching the flocks by night), our nativity scene didn’t have any real live animals. This definitely put us Congregationalists behind the First Baptist Church in terms of Christmas Eve authenticity. First Baptist managed to rent a house-broken donkey for Mary to ride down the aisle of their Christmas Eve service each year (though word on the street had it that the house-broken donkey wasn’t necessarily church-broken). They even had an Ebenezer Scrooge of an innkeeper whom everyone lustily booed for being so rude to the mother of God.

Interestingly, none of these live nativity scenes ever had a live little Lord Jesus. We always used a store-bought baby doll Jesus (which may be another reason I confused bought with brought forth). Not that some churches didn’t try to use live infants in their outdoor nativity productions. The problem was they had to have several infants on hand for when one did start crying. Additional backstage workers were also required in order to constantly rotate the unhappy infants out and the Christ-like ones in. One season of this baby shuttling and the quiet Jesus doll was usually back in the manger.

This is ironic, of course, since by far the most crucial aspect of the Christmas story is that God came to earth as a real live baby. Think about that for a second and it can still your mind. Rather than swooping down in Superman-like fashion from planet heaven to save the world, the Holy Spirit impregnates a poor, unmarried teenage girl who gives birth to a son. Totally helpless, unable to eat or turn onto his back without assistance, surely crying and needing a diaper change, utterly dependent on the creatures he created. Mary cradles God in her arms, the one whom heaven’s armies herald as Savior, Christ and Lord――the answer to ransom captive Israel’s prayers.

Luke sets Jesus’ birth during the days of Caesar Augustus and governor Quirinius. Israel was brutally subjected to empire power and its citizenry forced to relocate for the purposes of census and taxation. Both Augustus and Quirinius are introduced with reference to their positions as wealthy and potent sovereigns. Augustus Caesar was so powerful he had a month of the year named after him. The month of August was so named in honor of the emperor since that’s when several of his life’s most fortunate events occurred. Furthermore, not wanting to be outshone by his predecessor Julius Caesar, after whom July was named, a day was taken from February and added to August so that July and August would be equal. Augustus himself was described as divine, as the son of God, imperator of land and sea, Lord and Savior of the entire world. For the herald angels’ to proclaim the baby Jesus as Lord and Savior himself directly challenged Roman rule.

That Augustus wielded worldly authority enabled him to move the whole world around like chess pieces. Yet God checkmates Caesar by having Jesus born in the city of David to fulfill ancient and recent promises made by Samuel, Micah and Gabriel. Caesar’s power submits to God’s purposes. The only thing Joseph had to offer Jesus was his role as King David’s descendant. Yet it was this role that sealed Jesus’ identity as true Savior and Lord. King David was the one in whose image and lineage the Messiah would come, but that Joseph holds his position with none of its privilege sets up God’s subversive power play from below. The stark contrast between Caesar’s worldly authority and Jesus’ humility is intentional. It provides the template for the entire incarnation: strength that will come out of weakness, victory that will come through defeat, life that will come by way of death, glory that will come out of lowliness. As the apostle Paul will famously sing it, “Being in very nature God, Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being born in human likeness. He humbled himself and became obedient to death――even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the Christmas story, however, the only bowing knees and confessing tongues belong to shepherds and angels. Previewing the rejection from most everyone else that will hound Jesus all the way to Calvary, Mary gets rebuffed by that Ebenezer innkeeper who refuses
to make room for a woman in labor, forcing God to be born in a barn. I couldn’t help but think of this part of the Christmas story while reading the news last month about the Massachusetts State Trooper who was patrolling a congested Route 2 for cars sneaking into the breakdown lane. A pregnant woman named Jennifer Davis was stuck in the bumper-to-bumper traffic with her contractions just 3 minutes apart. Her husband, John, trying to appear calm for his wife’s sake, veered into the breakdown lane in order to get to the hospital. A couple of other troopers had already waved them on, but when they pulled up behind this third State Trooper to ask whether they could continue using the breakdown lane to reach the next exit; not only did the trooper say no, but he gave them a $100 citation for driving in the breakdown lane. Furthermore, he made them wait for their citation while he finished writing a ticket for somebody else. According to the report he then asked the Davises for proof of pregnancy. He said to Jennifer, “What’s under your jacket?” and Jennifer said, “My belly!” He waited and then gestured with his head like, “OK, let’s see it,” and waited for her to unzip her jacket.

Now the Davises did make it to the hospital where Jennifer gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Their daughter Charlotte did not have to be born by the side of the road. But that didn’t stop readers on boston.com from expressing their outrage anyway. Readers called the State Trooper a pig and a Nazi and even a “state sponsored terrorist.” One irate reader went so far as to post the trooper’s home address (though it was subsequently removed). It reminded me of the boos that mercilessly rained down on the innkeeper at that First Baptist Christmas pageant I attended as a kid. True, he shouldn’t have rebuffed Mary and Joseph, any more than that State Trooper should have issued a ticket. But the innkeeper’s rejection, as with Caesar’s census relocation, served to advance God’s purposes. Strength emerges from weakness, victory comes through defeat, life rises from death, glory comes from lowliness and from our own rejection of him too. As the fourth century church Father Jerome wrote, “Jesus found no room in the Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk and silver. He is not born in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung, in a stable where our sins are filthier than the dung. He is born on a dunghill in order to lift up those who come from it.”

However the interesting thing about the innkeeper in the Christmas story is that most likely he never existed. The Greek word translated inn in every English translation doesn’t actually mean inn at all. As far as we can tell, there was nothing like motels or bed-and-breakfasts anywhere in first century Bethlehem. The word is accurately translated guest room (it’s the same noun used to describe the upper room where the last supper took place). The reason it keeps getting translated inn is because King James did it and inn became so engrained in the story that no Bible-publisher in his or her right mind would dare change it to read “there was no room in the guest room” because nobody would buy that Bible. But since the word does mean guest room, the picture that should rather come to your mind is that of a family home. The typical Jewish family home of Jesus’ day had one big room for the family with a drop-down at one end where the animals could be brought in for the night. Guests would stay at one end of the big room or the other, either that or on the roof. Now it may be that this explanation only make things worse. While it gets the heartless (and proverbial) innkeeper off the hook, it leaves Mary being sent to the stable by Joseph’s own relatives. While imaginable, given that everybody embarrassingly knew the baby wasn’t Joseph’s, this probably wasn’t what happened either. There’s no stable in the Christmas story.

David, another friend who commented on my Facebook status about the manger, pointed me to a book by Kenneth Bailey entitled “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.” Because Joseph went up to Bethlehem, where his family was, there is no way he would have stayed in an inn (even if such places had existed). Middle Eastern etiquette would have never allowed it. The typical home drop-down where the animals stayed had mangers, or feed troughs for the animals, built into the floor in the house. There was no room in the guest room part of the house (either at one end or on the roof) for Mary to place her newborn because there were so many guests already packed past capacity for the census, so they laid Jesus in a manger at the other end of the family room. When the shepherds went looking for him, they were glad that all was as they had been told, and likely they were also glad to see that Middle Eastern hospitality was being properly exercised and the honor of the Bethlehemites had not been tarnished. Had the shepherds found Jesus in a stable, the shepherds would probably have insisted on taking him and his mother home to their place rather than see them shamed that way.

Whether this ruins the Christmas story for you, I don’t know. It does help reconcile Luke having Jesus born in a manger with Matthew having him born in a house. For me, I actually like the picture of Jesus being squeezed into an already overcrowded house. It’s the perfect Christmas scene. Amidst all the folderol, we stuff our stockings and our stomachs, and fill our minds filled with worries and fears about relationships, family, travel and this year, the economy. Our lives can get so crowded that it’s hard to squeeze Jesus in anywhere. But the good news of Christmas is that even when there is no room, Jesus gets in anyway. And once Jesus gets in, thankfully, he never leaves.

O Christmas Tree

Luke 2:8-14

by Daniel Harrell

They say that one of the things about being a parent is that you get to relive your own childhood. Among the many Christmas memories from my childhood was one where my dad decided it might be a good idea to chop down our own Christmas tree. Part of his motivation had to do with the fact that the woods behind our house were due to be developed into a subdivision the following spring. Another part had to do with Dad’s determination to bypass the rip-off prices at the downtown tree lot. The rest of it may have been some sort of nostalgia for his own childhood when cutting your own tree was what everybody did. At any rate, it was a cold December day, so he bundled up me and my brother, grabbed his bow saw and marched us through the briars to the grove where the pine trees grew. The only problem was that wild fir trees don’t come in sizes much smaller than 20 feet. We’d have to take a treetop. So Dad picked out what he thought was a good one, handed me the saw and told me scramble up to whack it off, telling me not to worry, he’d catch me if I fell. Thanks Dad. Up I went, and after a few shaky moments, down came our Christmas top, which we proudly hauled home and decked with tinsel and lights. It was a pretty good tree.

However, on Christmas morning, bounding downstairs to open our presents, eggnog in hand, we were disgusted to discover that underneath the tree our beautifully wrapped packages lay covered in some sort of moving black film. Upon closer inspection the film turned out to be a huge colony of maggots that had crawled out of our infested fir. Gagging on our eggnog, we spent that Christmas morning burning the tree as well as the presents and exterminating our house.

With that memory indelibly stained on my brain, it was with some trepidation that I determined to redeem my marred Christmas past. Since cutting down a pine from behind my house in Southie would be illegal, Dawn and I bundled up our daughter Violet and drove to Lakeville, about an hour south of here, to a Christmas tree farm (where presumably they disinfect their trees) in order to take a second hack at evergreen glory. Upon arrival, we were pointed to a selection of precut trees all beautifully shaped and reasonably priced at around 40 dollars apiece. This was good news, I thought, since if a tree costs 40 dollars cut, it’s got to be half that if you chop it yourself. The farmer told us that he had thousands of uncut trees from which to pick, and that a tractor pulling hay bales in a trailer would drive by every 15 minutes to take down our choice with a chainsaw; that is, unless I preferred to do it myself with a bow saw. Ah, redemption! I took the bow saw, gave it to Dawn and we trekked out into the forest, I mean farm, and took stock of practically every tree in search of the perfect one. Sadly, figuring that the best trees had all been cut and put up for sale already, we settled on something of a Charlie Brown rendition for ourselves. A few manly whacks and, old tannenbaum went tannenboom. Well, more like tannenpop, the tree was kind of little. The tractor pulled around and we loaded her up and puttered back to the barn. A cup of mediocre hot chocolate later, we were charged a hundred bucks for the experience. “A hundred dollars,” I said, “the cut trees are less than half that price!” “Oh yeah,” the farmer said, “we buy those up in Boston and then sell them down here for a bit of a mark-up. What’d you drive all the way down here for anyway?”

Needless to say, my shot at redemption didn’t quite live up to expectations. But isn’t that the Christmas story? Israel’s history had been fairly maggot-infested, most of it due to their persistent unfaithfulness toward God. Having first gotten exiled to Babylon and now overrun by Imperial Rome and mired in their own economic meltdown; they eagerly longed for redemption themselves, for God’s kingdom to come. God loved his people and promised to save them despite their unfaithfulness―and not just them but the whole world too. But when redemption finally came, it arrived in somewhat disappointing fashion. Rather than a Soldier Savior armed at the hilt to impose justice and secure prosperity, God delivered a little baby scandalously born to a teen-aged girl and her bewildered betrothed—in a barn no less, because no hotel in town could spare a room for a woman about to go into labor. Why is it that among the gospels only Luke gives us this information? Mark and John say nothing about Jesus’ birth. At least Matthew has him in a decent house visited by foreign dignitaries bearing expensive gifts. Luke gives us lowly shepherds, ancient day peasants, unclean and outcast, who come bearing nothing but themselves. They’re the last people you’d think would be the first to get news of God’s plan to save the world.

But as is common throughout the gospels, the last go first, and on this occasion, the last get blasted by a heavenly host of angels, led by the most formidable angel of the Lord himself. A proper translation of heavenly host would be heavenly army. As far as expectations went, this was more like it. For a people chafing under Roman oppression, forced to up and migrate to their hometowns to be taxed, there’d be nothing sweeter than a host of Chuck Norris cherubim dropping the hammer. Except that this angelic army just drops off a Christmas card: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord!” Still, having something akin to the 82nd Airborne deliver a Christmas card would be enough to scare anybody to death, which is why Luke has the shepherds so terrified. But what should have really scared them silly was God placing all of their hopes on a helpless, poor little kid wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in some roadside feed trough. What kind of Messiah shows up like that? How was he going to save anybody? Where exactly was their redemption? The angels never say. And the shepherds never ask. They simply trusted God and traded their fear for joy. They headed over to check out Jesus. And then they praised the Lord all the way home.

We took our forlorn fir home and rotated it so that its biggest bare spot faced the wall. It didn’t look like much of a Christmas tree. It also had these really sharp needles that drew blood a few times as we strung on the lights and ornaments, which hurt like ho, ho, ho. The whole time I was still fuming about driving all the way past Plymouth to pay double for half the tree we could have had, especially with money so tight, jobs so shaky and the need to watch expenses. Add to that my hot cider was tepid and I was coming down with a cold. Where exactly was my redemption? I begrudgingly flipped on the tree lights―and our one-year-old Violet flipped out! Whoa, her eyes bugged, her mouth gaped and her arms flapped with such joy that suddenly that hundred dollars was worth every penny.

They say that one of the things about being a parent is that you get to relive your own childhood. I remembered my own joy at the lights coming on every Christmas, even on that tree infested with maggots, and I had to smile too. Maybe this is one reason why God showed up as a baby. As I look at my daughter and imagine her future, some of my visions terrify me. But at the same time there is something about little kids that invite such hope, such newness. It does feel like a do-over, like a new start, just like the gospels promise. The Bible says, “If anyone is in Christ you are a new creation, the old is gone, the new has come. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” Despite our unfaithfulness, God makes peace with us through his son Christ who born in humility, died for our sins and rose for our redemption. It’s why the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest.” May your own expectations go unmet this Christmas, that you may discover the real redemption God has gained for you through Jesus.

Friday, December 12, 2008

No Place Like Home

Mark 6:1-6

by Daniel Harrell

For those of you for whom going home at Christmas means more misery than mistletoe, tonight’s passage from Mark’s gospel is for you. I had a friend in college who struggled mightily to get through his coursework and needed some serious help if he was going to graduate. Being one of those obnoxious kids for whom school came fairly easy, I told him I’d work with him to get him through statistics class. We grinded it out over the entire semester, sweating out the logic of p-values, standard deviations and analysis of covariance. The hard work paid off. When test time came, my friend pulled in a respectable B+, the highest grade he had ever received. He figured his folks would be so pleased with his progress that he decided to wait and tell his parents as a sort of Christmas present. Once home, he sprung the good news, only to have his dad raise an eyebrow and ask, “What’d you do, cheat?”

It’s the same kind of reception Jesus gets from his folks here in chapter 6. The last time we were in Mark’s gospel, chapter 4, Jesus told a raging storm to be quiet (and it obeyed) demonstrating to his disciples that God himself was in their boat. In chapter 5, Jesus went on to cast a legion of demons into a herd of swine, heal a woman with the mere swipe of his coattails, and raise a young girl from the dead—firmly establishing his divine credentials. However, because Jesus let his miracles do all his talking in chapter 5, I’m skipping over to chapter 6 since this is a sermon series on the sayings of Jesus.

Now surely news of his popularity and power preceded his arrival in Nazareth. You’d think he would have been welcomed back with open arms, you. But instead, stepping into the local synagogue to teach, all he got was folded arms. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, but I take for granted it’s the same sort of thing he’s been teaching throughout Mark. You know, the Kingdom of God is like seeds. Throw them in the ground and watch what happens. For people with higher expectations of God’s kingdom, having Jesus talk in terms of germination had to be disappointing. Of course had they remembered their Sunday School lessons, they would have remembered how seed metaphors fit squarely within the Old Testament prophetic tradition. Isaiah and Ezekiel both described God departing his people because of their faithlessness, leaving Israel to topple like a mighty tree cut down to a stump. Yet Isaiah from that stump, Isaiah promised a “holy seed” would emerge. As we read every Advent, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on him.” Jesse was the father of the great King David, the one in whose image and lineage the Messiah would come. Maybe Jesus’ congregation did remember their Sunday School lessons. Maybe they knew that seed talk was Savior talk—and that was the reason they asked where Jesus got all his wisdom and power from. After all, Jesus didn’t look like any King David they’d ever imagined. Verse 3, “Ain’t he that carpenter boy of Mary’s?”

But before you start thinking this was an expression of community pride, Mark writes in verse 3 that “they took offense at him.” The phrase derives from the Greek word “scandalize.” In the passive voice, it means: “to have your moral sensitivities insulted.” By taking offense you realize their calling him Mary’s boy was like calling him a mama’s boy; real men were always identified as sons of their fathers. Of course everybody knew that Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s son anyway. That dirty little secret was out. Mom had been pregnant before the wedding, and not by the groom. Was this why Mary and Jesus’ brothers tried to have him locked up back in chapter 3? No need to bring any more shame on the family. No need to have the illegitimate son running around with a Messiah complex. He’d already made all the ministers mad. Given how things had gone so far in Mark, you’d think Jesus would have expected the rude reception. But Mark writes in verse 6: “He was amazed at their lack of faith.” It’s the only time in Mark Jesus is described as being surprised.

The only way he knew to explain it was with a popular aphorism: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown, and among his relatives, and in his own house.” It’s one of the few sayings of Jesus that shows up in all four gospels. Mark does have Jesus tacking on the part about his relatives. Perhaps that’s because only Mark reports Jesus’ family thinking he was crazy. By referring to himself as a prophet, Jesus placed himself in that long line of prophets sent by God only to be rejected by the people of God. And not just rejected, but eliminated too. The very people he was sent to save want nothing to do with him. And when they finally do, it’s only because they want him dead.

Had this occurred in more recent times, Jesus might have used another aphorism: “familiarity breeds contempt.” Turns out this is true. A recent psychology study using online dating asked participants whether learning more about a potential date would lead to greater liking. The participants responded, “of course,” and were then given a list of traits about another person and asked how much they would like that person. The traits were generated to be broadly representative and participants were shown anywhere from 4-10 traits at random. The results showed that, contrary to their expectations, the more information people had about others the less they liked them. As soon as just one trait popped up that was undesirable, suddenly every other trait became undesirable, even the traits they previously valued.

This study reminded me of an article in The New York Times entitled Let’s Not Get To Know Each Other Better. The author, Joel Walkowski, writes how what typically happens with relationships these days is that, friends meet up at some sort of bonfire or impromptu game of night volleyball. Maybe that girl from your history class or office is there, and you start to talk. Neither of you has expectations. But just hanging out and swapping stories, laughing a little, creates a spark and the attraction builds, eventually leading to the big kiss that changes everything and nothing. It’s the perfect romance, a pressure-free surprise. With a stranger, everything is new and acceptable. Her quirks are automatically endearing. This first encounter is the perfect place, but where does it lead? In the best case, nowhere at all. If it continues, you have an understanding, physical chemistry and great conversations. Your relationship is good. Your relationship is strong. But it isn’t a relationship, and that’s the key.

“But,” the author goes on to write, “staying out of relationships can be just as much work as maintaining one. After hanging out with the same person several times I’m sometimes haunted by the “Relationship Status” question on Facebook, and I’ll linger over the button, wondering whether to make the leap from fun to obligation. I envision holding hands, meeting her parents and getting matching ankle tattoos. Then I come to my senses and close the window. ” He writes, “We float from room to room watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing Frisbee and finding satisfaction around every corner, if only for a moment. Out of fear, we shrink ourselves. There have been many times I should have cried but stifled the tears. Instances where I should have said, ‘I love you’ but made a joke instead. Once, a girl dumped me and it nearly ruined me. How bad was it? I ate nothing but Wendy’s for an entire week. I’m fairly certain I could have saved the entire endeavor with a soul-baring soliloquy of what was true and what mattered to me, but I couldn’t muster the courage. I don’t know many who can. We’ve grown up in an age of rampant divorce and the accompanying tumult. The idea that two people can be happy together, maturing alongside each other, seems as false as a fairy tale. So when a relationship ends, it isn’t seen as bad. It’s held as evidence that the relationship was never any good to begin with. But I do occasionally wonder: If we can’t get past ourselves and learn to sacrifice for the sake of somebody else, then what is in store?”

The mystery of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is that Jesus is God in the flesh. It’s not that Jesus looks like God, but that God looks like Jesus. The tragedy in tonight’s passage is that by rejecting Jesus, his family and friends reject God. We like to think we would have acted differently, that face to face with Jesus we would have fallen on our faces and worshiped him rightly. But imagine God looking like one of your relatives. Any of your relatives. You see the conflict. Familiarity breeds contempt. You’d like to think the problem was that they didn’t really know Jesus at all; that if they had, they would have come around. But that usually doesn’t happen. Instead, people say “I know God,” but then say things like “I know God would never have me suffer or be unhappy or poor,” or “I know God would never cause disaster to strike,” or “I know God would never allow evil people to succeed” despite that in Scripture God does all these things. And then when disaster strikes or evil wins or suffering happens, their faith crumbles under the weight of disappointment because the God they thought they knew never existed.

I had the opportunity on Friday to speak to a gathering of medical ethicists on the question of whether terminally ill babies can be medically sedated until they die. I was invited to provide a “religious perspective,” but was told by my host not to make it too religious. She was worried that if I went overboard with the Christian references I might turn off the largely secular audience to the good stuff she thought I had to say. It’s rare that anybody ever worries about me being too religious. I respected her wishes but thought it necessary to began my presentation by laying out a few presuppositions I brought to this question (since I am a minister). Among these was that Christian ethics views suffering redemptively. The God we worship suffers unjustly himself in Christ, meaning that God is in solidarity with all who innocently suffer and that ultimately, because of his resurrection, all suffering will somehow be redeemed. In Christ there is no “meaningless suffering.” As the apostle Paul put it, “To share in Christ’s suffering, is to share in his glory.” For Christians, this is our hope and strange comfort amidst suffering and death.

The reception from the largely secular crowd was good. A number approached afterwards to express appreciation for my contributions. The only flack I caught was from another Christian, who furiously leapt up at the end of my presentation to loudly assert how “all Christians do not view suffering redemptively.” “God would never allow the innocent to suffer,” she said. Except that God does allow the innocent to suffer. Mark writes in verse 5 that Jesus “could do no miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” It’s an odd picture, isn’t it. Theologians are quick to insist that Jesus’ hands weren’t tied. He could have done more if he wanted to. But that only makes matters worse. It’s one thing to say that people’s lack of faith made it impossible for Jesus to use his power; it’s another thing to say that he chose not to use his power. OK, so he healed a few sick people, but apparently he left the rest to endure their hardships and affliction. Is that what God is like? Uh, well, sometimes. Right? But that’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not what the Jesus I know is like. That’s offensive.

Familiarity breeds contempt. And thus most tend to opt for less familiarity. Stick to the parts of the Bible that say what we want to hear. Have Jesus be a cuddly baby who never cries surrounded by stuffed animals who never stink along with cute angels who never scare anybody. Cut out those parts about Mary’s and Joseph’s humiliation caused by God and all those innocent babies God allowed to be murdered by King Herod “in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” Un-familiarize yourself with all of that, and faith is easy. The only problem is that it’s no longer faith in Jesus.

A Neonatal Intensive Care nurse came up after my presentation to thank me. She said that the most difficult aspect of her job is always wondering why. It was enough that she had pretty much given up on God. But ironically, giving up on God had made the suffering she witnessed and worked among even harder to bear. It was one thing for a child to suffer. It was another for the suffering to be meaningless. If God who suffered in Jesus does somehow redeem suffering, that God might be worth believing in. Maybe this is why, rather than pretty presents laid out under a tree, Christ communicates his love by his body and blood laid out on a table. This is our hope and strange comfort.