29 December 2013
First UMC, Coon Rapids, Iowa
This past October I completed a significant step in my doctoral work. I had come to the moment when I needed to prove that I know generally what I should know about the New Testament and Early Christianity. This process came in the form of four exams, called general exams at Harvard and referred to at some schools as comprehensive exams. The point is that I needed to showcase a satisfactory level of general or, dare I say, comprehensive knowledge. I’ll spare you the details, but that all went well, and I felt pretty smart for a while—wicked smart, to use the technical Bostonian term. And then I got lazy because it’s somewhat acceptable just to watch lots of TV for a while after exams and before gearing up for the dissertation, so you don’t need to be too impressed.
Even as I’ve been officially certified as generally knowledgeable about the early days of the movement in Christ, still one of my favorite things to say when asked questions about the Bible is, “Well… we don’t really know much about ancient Christianity.” My point is to say that you might think I have a lot of answers, but there’s a lot that I don’t know. And it’s not just because I forgot everything when I refilled the space previously made available in my brain for general exams with episodes from the latest season of Parks and Recreation. It’s because there are many gaps in the historical record, and even where we do have evidence, we are faced with the challenges of making sense of a world so different from our own, with its own sets of questions and concerns that do not necessarily translate clearly today.
The point in saying that we don’t know much isn’t actually to claim that nothing is or can be known about the earliest period of Christianity. It’s a provocative way of resisting easy answers and insisting instead upon asking questions with an attitude of openness to the unexpected and to the unknown. We often want religion to provide clear solutions and so turn to the Bible for such guidance. Truth be told, there was a time I’d flip open the Bible hoping that God would address an issue weighing on my heart by guiding me to the right page. Sure, such a method can bring about creative readings that might even have some sort of value. But if I open the Bible and point to Mark 14:51-52 and read that “a certain young man was following [Jesus], wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked,” what deep meaning am I supposed to get from that?! Even still, in seriousness, we certainly can approach the Bible with questions about living faithfully in this world and be encouraged, edified, and even challenged by the wisdom it contains.
But the reason I often start my answers to questions about the Bible and the Christian tradition by acknowledging that there are gaps in our knowledge is because I think there is great value in having the first response to our searching to be, “It’s complicated.” Discovering and making sense of ancient history is complicated. Translating the past for the present is complicated. Answering the biggest and even smallest questions of existence is complicated. Because life is complicated. And the Bible, if it is indeed the Living Word, is complicated too. And so I start with the answer that “it’s complicated” because I believe that this is crucial for affirming and addressing our own complex circumstances.
In today’s reading from Matthew, we are startled by a narrative that complicates our celebration of Christmas. Or at least it should. Perhaps it’s become so familiar as part of the Christmas story that we don’t think too much of it, or we simply gloss over it. I’ll admit that I can sort of forget about it. I happened to be preaching here three years ago when today’s texts last came up in the lectionary (the three-year cycle of readings we follow), and I remember being so focused on the passage from Hebrews, which we heard again this morning, that I was rather surprised and bothered to read aloud the Gospel text.
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
“The slaughter of the innocents” this is often called. Innocent children murdered because Herod was upset. His pride was wounded, and he feared the loss of his power. This is one of our important Christmas stories. Here in this joyous season we call to mind evil, unchecked power that deploys violence as a mechanism of control. (more…)