Sunday, January 3, 2016

Persecution, Martyrdom, and the Gospel of Peace: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas

When most of us think of Christmas, I suspect the image of the baby Jesus lying in a manger comes to mind. Surrounded by barnyard animals, Mary and Joseph gaze lovingly at the Christ child. Maybe the wise men from the east have already made their appearance, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A large star shines in the night sky like a radiant diamond, bathing everything in soft light.

It’s a scene of deep peace and tranquility.

Compared to that, the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and the murder of innocent children in today’s Gospel reading hits us like a bucket of ice water.

It’s not a nice story. It doesn’t fit the image of Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year. But as Holy Scripture and the Church calendar remind us, there’s more to the story than what we see in Christmas cards or creche displays.

For instance, the day after Christmas Day on December 26, we remember St. Stephen, one of the first deacons in the Church who was murdered by Jewish religious authorities. And so the day after we remember the birth of Jesus, we remember the death of a Christian martyr.

And then, on December 28 - and in our Gospel reading today - we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Herod the Great was the ruler of the Jews at that time, and he had kept the peace in Palestine for 37 years by ruthless control and violent coercion. Herod was also a paranoid man who feared losing his throne. So when he heard a report that an infant King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem, he ordered the murder of all male children age 2 and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. It’s hard to imagine anything more barbaric.

The Church has always honored these innocent children as the first martyrs of the Christian faith. For this reason St. Augustine described them as “buds, killed by the frost of persecution the moment they showed themselves.” Many Christians continue to believe that these young martyrs intercede in heaven on behalf of all innocent victims.

This strikes a dissonant note with recent holiday celebrations. But today’s Gospel story of tyranny and hatred, fear and hardship, violence and murder resonates very personally with Christians in other parts of the world. Because many of them live under the shadow of present-day Herods and demonic forces like ISIS that seek their destruction.

Accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. But some data suggests that there are as many as 8,000 to 9,000 Christians martyred each year.

Another report says that compared to 34,000 Christian martyrs in 1900, there were nearly 1 million Christian martyrs during the first decade of the 21st Century, with approximately 230 new Christian martyrs every 24 hours.

And it’s gotten worse. Driven by religious extremism and repressive governments, persecution of Christians is currently on the rise in many parts of the globe.

That’s true in Sudan where government authorities dampened the joy of Christmas by bulldozing church buildings and arresting as many as 200 foreign Christian pastors, giving them the choice of either leaving the country and losing all their belongings, or staying in jail to face charges.

Pope Francis recently described the global rise in persecution of Christians as “a form of genocide” that’s part of a “third world war.” Other commentators have labelled it “religio-ethnic cleansing.” Some information suggests that as many as 200 million Christians in 60 countries suffer varying degrees of discrimination, repression, and persecution because of their faith. That comes to 1 in 10 of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians. And perhaps as many as half of them are children.

All of this data on the persecution and martyrdom of Christians is quite sobering. And it doesn’t even include the hordes of innocent men, women, and children of other religious faiths and ethnic minorities who have been victims of the Herods in our world.

Reflecting on the plight of these persons, many of whom fear for their lives every day, we need to be informed about what is happening to them and to their countries. We have a moral duty to encourage our leaders to act in ways to resist and defeat evil while protecting the innocent from harm.

And as Christians, we need to be willing to do what we can to help. That’s true when it comes to any innocent person suffering persecution, regardless of creed, color, or nationality.

And it’s most definitely true when it comes to members of the Christian household of believers. For regardless of where we come from, what we look like, or what language we speak, we belong to the same Lord. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are citizens of a Kingdom that transcends national borders.

It’s cause for despair for persecuted Christians to think that we American Christians have forgotten them. And it’s a source of strength and hope to know that we remember them and that we care. We have a sacred obligation to remember and to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ, and whenever possible, to offer refuge and assistance.

Today’s Gospel reading confronts us with a tragic irony. For instead of responding with awe and gratitude to the good news of great joy, we find that some people respond to the birth of the Prince of Peace with murderous hatred. When we note that story and consider the plight of the innocents in our world today, it’s understandable to ask: where is the Good News in all of this?

That question raises a host of other questions that persons of faith have struggled with for millennia. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the innocent suffer? Where is God in the midst of it all?

There are no pat answers to such questions. Many of us know this all too well due to the trials and tribulations of our own lives.

But even as we struggle to make sense of it all, the Christian faith gives us sure and certain grounds for hope. For, as Anglican bishop N. T. Wright puts it: “Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God’s future has arrived in the present.”

That may strike some of us as an odd thing to say. After all, evil stills runs amuck. Christians and others are suffering persecution and even martyrdom. Injustice continues to rock our world. How can we say that the world is really a different place because of Jesus? How can we dare to claim that God’s future has arrived in the present?

We dare to do so only because we believe that God became human in Jesus Christ, and that after dying on a cross for the sins of the world, this Jesus rose from the dead.

If that's not true, then all bets are off!

But if it's true - if it really happened - then it changes everything.

Many years ago I came across a military analogy from World War II that helps puts all of this into perspective.

It was June 6, 1944, the day when Allied forces invaded Normandy in the largest amphibious invasion in history. It proved to be the decisive battle against Nazis Germany. And because the Allied forces prevailed, Germany’s defeat was certain.

However, between D-Day (the day of the invasion) and V-Day (the day declaring the Allies’ victory), there were many fall-back battles across Europe. Many lives were lost in those battles and much carnage inflicted before the Nazis surrendered. So while D-Day insured that the war was won, it was not yet fully over.

In the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God launched an invasion against the forces of evil in our world. But the fulfillment of God’s victory will occur only when Christ comes again in glorious majesty to judge the world.

Living between the first and the second coming of Christ, the battle between God and evil continues. We have the scars to prove it. But Christ’s ultimate victory is guaranteed. For Christ has already won the decisive battle against evil and death by rising victorious from the grave.

In the meantime, as we strive to keep our Baptismal Covenant promise to “persevere in resisting evil,” we do well to act as if everything depends on us and to pray as if everything depends on God (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). And we can do so confident that whatever things may look like today, the ultimate outcome has already been won in and through Jesus Christ.

For the birth of Jesus Christ means the coming of light into a dark world. This light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And it never will.

So no matter how many Herods try to snuff out the gospel of peace, the light of the Prince of Peace will forever shine. God will continue to dwell among us. The love of Christ will continue to be born in the hearts of faithful people everywhere. And our prayers that God’s great might will frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish His rule of justice, love, and peace will be answered. For in the end, Christ will “break brokenness, kill death, destroy destruction, and swallow every sorrow.” And God’s kingdom shall prevail.