December 28th, 2015
1 Peter 4:12-19
We tend to think of sin as human action, like adultery, murder, or stealing. Doing good pleases God; doing evil displeases God. Sin can thus taken on a couple forms, from gross and disgusting to alluring and inviting, depending on your mood and your proclivities. But that is only the most superficial understanding of sin. Isaac Watts, that old hymnwriter, puts it well in his Christmas hymn: Joy to the world, he wrote, let earth receive her king, let heav’n and nature sing. Heaven and nature because sin is the word we use to describe the imperfection and brokenness of nature. Imperfection and brokenness don’t do an adequate job of describing how the simple, random, and actually not uncommon condition of a third chromosome can devastate us. Sin actually describes a state of being, in which everything good is fallen, every human act is sour with wrongdoing, and every human story is both comedy and tragedy. So, Joy to the World also has the verse: No more let sin or sorrow grow/nor thorns infest ground; he comes to make/his blessings flow/far as the curse is found/far as the curse is found/far as, far as, the curse is found.
The curse goes very far, much farther than we can go—as far as death. Rachel weeps for her children, Jeremiah says, because they are no more. They have passed into death, from where no human being can retrieve them. And all the mother of Bethlehem cried out in the night when Herod sent his troop to search and destroy the Messiah—and all those children, too, passed into death. And even Mary’s own son, whom she hid in Egypt, away from Herod, also passed into death. She witnessed the failure of God’s promised redeemer, and thus the failure God. But Joy to the World—for Jesus makes his blessings flow far as the curse is found—even into death.
All across the world, there are atrocities and horrors. There is no good purpose in the death of children, although there are purposes for their deaths. She lived, by fighting her way through a window over and through the water and into the air, but her mother didn’t. She said her mother was probably one of the people she kicked and fought to escape. The twentieth century was the century of genocide, from the Shoah to Nagasaki, from Pol Pot to Armenia. In Africa warlords took children and made them into killing machines, and they killed one another in the contest for capitals. These are all reasons, but they are none of them good. My own child died because we believed it would be better for him if we terminated the pregnancy, and better for my wife’s health. Neither of these are good reasons. I once heard a story from a woman who was in the tsunami of many years ago that flooded Sri Lanka. She was in a train with her mother and the wave hit the train and filled the car with water. She was still filled with sadness at this—the tsunami rolled over her train because there was a giant earthquake in the depths of the sea, and the train rolled on tracks that were close enough to the coast that the wave engulfed it. These also not good reasons, not good purposes. The curse of sin dwells in all these things, the vacant decay of all the cosmos as it whirls towards its icy end.
In the story of the innocents, we see again a massacre for no good reason. There is a reason, yes—Herod’s desperate quest to remain in power. And Jesus, of course, will also die at the hands of one of Rome’s choices to rule there. But all this story does is tell us again what we already know—that death and sin, like sharks, constantly seek to destroy. But when they come for us, and they clothe us in pain and heartbreak and despair, we will heed Peter’s words glorify God because we bear the name of Christ, who has overcome death and sin, whose blessing flow as far as the curse and farther yet, and we will entrust ourselves to our faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.
Although there is no good purpose to any notion of sin, there is God’s good purpose, which takes sin and makes something beautiful out of it. We do not cease suffering because we bear Christ’s name: indeed, we may suffer more because of it. Indeed, only those that have faith can know the suffering of when something so horrible happens we question our faith—and say, “God, if you had just done something.” But when these moments come upon us, our risen Lord, who weeps with us in our sorrow, who suffers with us in our pain, who cries out with us in our despair, also says to us—my blessings of life and salvation flow even to where you cannot go, even to death. And then they carry even the dead to life. For I am risen, and I call all people to me—you, your children. They shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future; your children shall come back to their own country. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack