Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
In my favorite Robert Duvall film (and I love them all), Tender Mercies, his character, Mac Sledge, has begun to inch his life out of alcoholic despair. At one point along the perilous climb, his new wife Rosa Lee tries to lift his spirits by telling him, “Every night I say my prayers for you and when I thank the Lord for his tender mercies, you’re at the head of the list.” It is an ironic moment, inasmuch as the phrase tender mercies is most often used cynically, as a definition in a dictionary of idioms describes: submission to another’s power or discretion, especially to an unsympathetic individual. This expression is most often used ironically, as in “We left him to the tender mercies of that stiff-necked, arrogant nurse.” It alludes to a verse from Proverbs (12:10), “The righteous know the needs of their animals; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”
The Christmas story is full of tender mercies – moments of grace and cynicism so artfully combined it’s difficult to know which is the triumphant of the two – grace or cynicism.
Both Matthew and Luke, in telling the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, used ominous examples to describe powers of darkness. From Matthew we learn that Herod’s rage and jealous paranoia drove him to kill all the children of Israel under the age of two so that he could be sure to destroy the one child who would end his reign of terror. But Joseph had dreamed of this threat and escaped into Egypt to protect the baby and his mother. There is no historical account anywhere of such a slaughter of innocents - no evidence that such a terrible thing ever occurred. But it’s an example of a tender mercy, isn’t it - innocents die when powers and principalities are threatened.
Luke’s version of the story is also full of tender mercies. We know of the angels who sang with joy and the shepherds who ran to the stable and we know Mary pondered the enigmatic events in her heart. But Luke has written an undercurrent - how this messiah would completely overturn the system of oppression that had taken hold in that region in that time. The mighty will be made low and the prisoners will be freed from the jails of poverty. God will trample weapons underfoot and the weary will find rest and the weak strength. And at last, the old guardians may depart in peace – another tender mercy.
The human experiences described by Luke and Matthew are subject to interpretation, of course, in that same way all experience is interpreted. Our individual fears or desires influence how we think in powerful ways. We can be misled by the smallest of things, “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”, so Scrooge warns. We can talk ourselves into believing almost anything, driven by the powerful forces of self-justification, embarrassment, greed, or fear, longing, despair, even hope. Scripture is filled with stories of human experience as it encounters the divine presence and all of it is subject to interpretation. And often, surprisingly often once one begins to look for it, the human experiences of God are perfect examples of tender mercies – moments of innocence and cynicism all mixed up together and moments of barely desirable encounters with God.
Simeon is a good example. Think of his hanging on to life until he could see the Messiah with his own eyes, his daily trips to the temple in expectation and hope. Don’t you wonder about his foreboding words to the little family, words about what this child would bring to light. Could he know that Jesus would grow up to confront oppression and poverty and self-righteousness and violence and in so doing, he would himself be violently killed? Simeon believed he saw God’s salvation when he laid eyes on the baby Jesus. He looked for a king and when he saw Jesus, he saw one. Did he know that the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart would pierce the hearts of millions of soldiers and civilians, perpetrators of violence and innocents alike, all in the name of Christian virtues and values? How could he now depart in peace when he foresaw that this child, this incarnation of God would be so violently opposed, challenged, and eventually murdered?
So many Christmas celebrations later, so many holy nights, telling the story of the manger, the shepherds, the star, and the magi, so many children dedicated, so many protective parents, so many frightened despots, so many innocents lost, so many soldiers, so many wounds, so many prayers, so many pleas to God in heaven. They were all tender mercies.
In this passage from Matthew, we hear the heartbreaking story of Herod’s great rage at having been tricked by the wise men and his fear that this new king would rob him of his power. Matthew tells us that Herod’s rage and fear made him kill all the children under the age of two so that he could be sure to destroy the one child who could and would end his reign of terror. Joseph had dreamed of this threat. He escaped with his family into Egypt to protect the baby Jesus and his mother from Herod’s murderous rage.
Matthew was writing his gospel account especially to Jews who were attracted to Jesus and to this new religion – Christianity. He linked his story of Jesus’ birth and life to the stories of the Old Testament. He quoted prophets and psalms, and he reminded them of the Jewish experience of slavery in Egypt, and of the great exodus into the promised land of freedom. Matthew made up this story of the slaughter of the innocents of which there is no historical account anywhere. But Matthew wanted to remind those early Jewish Christians of the last plague against Egypt, the Passover, when thousands of children were murdered, only that time by God, rather than a jealous and paranoid King Herod. That would make the saving of Jesus’ life quite a tender mercy, wouldn’t it? And wasn’t that a subtle and vicious anti-Semitic twist? Here we are, less than 48 hours after singing the sweet lullabies of Christmas Eve, pondering the evil threat to the baby Jesus’ life.
Our congregation makes promises to the families of children we baptize - that we too will watch out for their well-being, sound the alarm when the threat is imminent, offer a place of safety to the degree we are able. And we will also offer reassurance when the threat is only imagined and not real, when paranoia, whatever its source, threatens to cloud judgment. A community of faith weaves a protective shield over and around its children that fulfills those promises made to parents at the baptism of their children – we are also watching over them. You are not alone. We do this because life is full of tender mercies – moments of sweetness all mixed up with the harsh realities of life. There are innocent children left to the tender mercies of social services, bullying classmates, a garish culture that seeks out the loudest, the biggest, the weirdest.
What have we to counter such an assault? Only this – a God who so wants to be involved in human life that a baby fulfilled the promise, a boy learned the Scriptures, an adult gave us hope, and hope – now that’s the tenderest mercy of all. Amen.