Salvation Amidst Suffering
As we moved through Advent into Christmas, we focused on the emergence of light into the realm of darkness. Where darkness sought to rule the day, light ultimately won the battle. It is a struggle that is marked by the observance of the Solstice, which while not Christian aspects of this observance have been drawn up into our observance of Christmas. The message of light breaking into the darkness is seen in the greeting given to the Christ child by the Angelic chorus, and we see it in the star that led the Magi to the Christ child. Yes, the message of the season is that a great light is shining into the darkness, and the darkness, though it will try, cannot overwhelm it. Despite the message of the season that we have been blessed by the unconquerable light of God, this doesn’t mean that the darkness has given up without a fight. The one who brings light into the world may have arrived, but the darkness will do all that is necessary to extinguish it.
As a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy, I see this Sunday’s texts, especially the Gospel text, representing the theme of the second film in the series – The Empire Strikes Back. Is that not the message of the text from Matthew? Despite the victory won by the incarnation, when light pushed back at the darkness, the darkness has struck back with a vengeance. This leaves us with a question – shall the empire win? And if not, what resources may we bring to bear to resist the darkness? How will the light prevail? And the answer that these three texts seem to deliver is that this effort will involve suffering. The Incarnate One will suffer, but so will those who are identified with him.
In this set of lectionary readings laid out for the Sunday after Christmas, we find much that requires thought and interpretation. We must wrestle with texts that suggest suffering is the path through which salvation makes it way, and we must also deal with passages that suggest that substitutionary atonement might be part of the deal. There is also the slaughter of the innocents to deal with, along with a passage that emerges from a time of concern about the future, a time when suffering continues to hang over the people. Yes, there is much darkness to contend within these texts – human sin and rebellion and cruelty – a reminder that God’s work of bringing wholeness to our broken world doesn’t come easily. But, there is hope present here in this set of texts. Isaiah 63 reminds us that by God’s presence the people are saved, Hebrews suggests that the one who is incarnate has shared our lives and will wipe away our sins. And despite the attempt on his life, Jesus and family escape so that they may live for another day. Yes, but all of this comes in the midst of suffering.
Let us look more closely at our texts, beginning with the selection from Isaiah. Whereas the two Isaiah texts we most closely connect with Advent and Christmas, Isaiah 7 and 9, come from a much earlier period in Israel’s history, a time when Judah is under pressure from enemies north and south, but it remains intact. This text, three verses that emerge from a much longer poem, comes from either the exile, or more likely from the post-exilic period. There is restoration, but this restoration has not come without difficulties. There is a mixture of emotions in the complete poem, but these three verses that lead us into the discussion of salvation in the midst of suffering, calls on us to offer praise to God. As we go forth to resist the darkness, that is itself resisting the light, we must recognize that we go forth in the presence of the one who brings to bear grace, steadfast love, and mercy. Yes, even as God became their savior in the midst of their distress, and saved them through God’s great love and pity, redeeming them and lifting them and carrying them all their days, while things might look bad, God in God’s faithfulness was there to lift them up and carry them. Do you not hear a bit of the Footprints poem in this text?
The Lord replied, "My precious, precious child. I love you, and I would never, never leave you during your times of trial and suffering.When you saw only one set of footprints,It was then that I carried you."
If Isaiah holds out the promise of God’s saving presence and offers words of praise in response, the anonymous sermon that goes by the title of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the one who has been tested in all things as we have, and therefore is able to wipe away the sins of the people. The passage begins by reminding us that God had thought it fitting that the “pioneer of their salvation” should be made “perfect through sufferings.” This passage seems to suggest that Christ has died in our stead to take care of sins, but it doesn’t define what that means. Perhaps, then, it is better that we stay clear of atonement theory and instead see Christ as the one who, being the pioneer of our salvation, and having tasted life as we experience it, understands that part of experience is suffering. By going through this experience of suffering, indeed, even going through death itself (thought death isn’t mentioned here) we begin to understand the true message of incarnation. This one who came into the world didn’t just make an appearance, but experienced all that we experience, and due to his embrace of God’s mission, faced inordinate suffering. As a result, he has become for us a merciful and faithful high priest before God, representing us before God and as a result wiping away all our sins. He tasted life in the darkness, and brought light instead – but not without experiencing suffering.
The Gospel lesson for this Sunday after Christmas makes us skip over the story of the Magi, which is reserved for the Day of Epiphany. It is a text that offers a story of salvation, but it also offers the most graphic description of the manner in which darkness resists the light. Here is the story of Herod and the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” Herod is the one who builds the grand Temple in Jerusalem, but whose own sins are so great that he stands among the pantheon of history’s cruelest tyrants. As Matthew tells the story, Herod reenacts the story of Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew male children, by having his soldiers massacre all the male children two years and younger. In the case of Herod, the malevolent despot fears anyone who would threaten his hold on the throne, even a small and innocent child. Although there isn’t any historical evidence that Herod ordered the slaughter of the male children of Bethlehem, such an action wasn’t beyond the capabilities of this ruler, who had members of his own family killed lest they try to supplant him. Yes, because he was cruel and sadistic, such an act represents well his personality. And he does stand forth as a symbol of the empire of darkness.
In this story, the child who would be a threat to his throne escapes due to an angelic vision. A father has a dream, and as a result, takes his family to safety in Egypt, reversing the trip the Hebrews took from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. Isn’t it ironic that the land of light had become a place of darkness?
And the message here? Could it be that the mission of God often comes with a cost to those involved? In this story, the suffering comes not to the one through whom the darkness is defeated, but those near him. We call this collateral damage. Why, we ask, must this be so?
Perhaps the answer to the question of why suffering is part of the story is that darkness will not allow the light to take root without a struggle that leads to suffering. Yes, the darkness will not give up easily. Jesus may have, according to Matthew, survived this first onslaught of darkness unscathed, but as we continue reading, we’ll discover that darkness, and with it suffering, will not go away without a fight. Yes, even as Rachel weeps for her children, a day will come when Mary will weep for her child. But, darkness will not have the last word. Christmas marks the beginning, but a full orbed gospel includes Good Friday and Easter. There is joy and there is sadness. There is victory and seeming defeat. But the reality here is that in the end, the God who comes to us not with violence, but with peace, will bring us healing and salvation.