March 11, 2007

Bearers of Bad News May Come
Matthew 14:1-13a

The phone rang at my house early one evening back in October, 1996. It turned out to be the most disconcerting telephone call of my entire life. When I initially heard my mother’s voice on the other end, I expected that we would simply check up with each other. My aunt—mom’s oldest sister—had, after all, just died a few weeks before. It took only a few seconds, however, before I sensed a bit of hysteria in my mother’s voice. “Carol has cancer,” she said, “and it doesn’t look good.” Carol has cancer, I repeated to myself as I felt my entire countenance abruptly change. My sister. I had no idea that she was even sick, no clue that this was coming.

My story, of course, has been repeated over and over again in the lives of countless people around the world, including many of you. An unanticipated telephone call. A policeman or military representative knocking at the door. A disquieting expression on the doctor’s face. A summons into your employer’s office during the “slow” season. A letter from a local divorce attorney. A phone-mail message from the drug rehabilitation center at a local hospital. You name it. All of us, whether we realize it or not, live just one phone call or letter away from “bad news.”

“Bad news,” according to the American Family Physician, is “any news that drastically and negatively alters the patient’s [any person’s] view of his or her future.” News of illness, loss of employment, death of a friend or loved one, arrest of a son or daughter, unfaithfulness of a spouse. One moment you are living under generally stable conditions, only to watch your world suddenly fall apart the next. Professional bicyclist Lance Armstrong, recalling the diagnosis that he had metastatic testicular cancer, said: “I left my home on October 2, 1996 [the same month of my life-altering phone call] as one person and came home another.” Bad news. Many of us have already received it. Others of us, regardless of our level of commitment to God, almost certainly will.

As we continue our journey to the cross during this Lenten season, we soon realize what I at least consider to be a consoling thought: people brought bad news to Jesus, too. Jesus, we all know, experienced a great deal of pain and suffering, to extremes, in fact, that few if any of us can even imagine. Rejection. Persecution. Crucifixion. He was, as the prophet Isaiah described him centuries before, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with infirmity” (53:3). What we may not realize, however, is that Jesus also was left to cope with the agonizing phone calls that we often dread and sometimes receive.

Jesus, for one thing, understood the overwhelming sense of disappointment that comes from learning that your children or, in his case, disciples, fail to measure up to your hopes and expectations. In Matthew 17:16, the father of an epileptic came to our Lord and gave him the bad news. “Your disciples,” he told him, “were incapable of helping my son.” Upon hearing the news, Jesus grew discouraged, frustrated that the endless hours that he had invested in his understudies failed to prepare them for this crucial ministerial situation. On another occasion, word came to Jesus that many of his disciples were pulling away from him altogether because his teachings were too difficult and his expectations too high (John 6:60-71). He was disappointed, to say the least. Disappointed that his tireless efforts to equip these people went unheeded. Discouraged that his self-sacrificial involvement in their lives went unappreciated. And frustrated that both his experience and wisdom were ignored. Jesus received bad news of disciples gone astray, sons and daughters abandoning the faith, and followers and friends turning their backs on him. News like that hurts, doesn’t it? It hurts when our children make terrible decisions and seem to ruin their lives. It hurts when friends walk away from us and people in whom we have invested a great deal suddenly think they don’t need us anymore. It hurt Jesus, too.

Jesus also received bad news when illness struck his inner circle of friends. Whenever Jesus traveled the long journey between Galilee and Jerusalem, he stayed overnight in Bethany at the home of his good friend, Lazarus. It is not at all difficult to imagine the two of them, along with Mary, Martha and others in the house, drinking coffee and eating kanofe—a Middles Eastern pastry—into the wee hours of the night. Jesus and Lazarus became good friends over the years, and Lazarus was someone away from the office in whom Jesus could confide.

Then, one day, the phone rang. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, were on the other end, and they had bad news. Lazarus was gravely ill—perhaps he had cancer—and he was not expected to live. “It is not as serious as you think,” Jesus quickly responded, much as I did when I received that ominous phone call concerning my sister back in 1996. “Lazarus’ condition is not terminal,” he assured them. But, surely such words of reassurance do not suggest that Jesus himself felt no grief that day. Grief over the frailty of the human condition? Grief over the sudden turn of events in the lives of these about whom he cared so much? Grief over the pain that his good friend was experiencing? It hurts when family members and friends get sick. It hurts when our bubbles of supposed youthfulness and immortality finally burst. News like that hurts, doesn’t it? It hurt Jesus, too.

But no bad news, I suspect, saddened Jesus more than the bad news that he received here in Matthew 14:1-13a. He and John the Baptist, after all, went way back. Luke, you might remember, informs us that the births of both John and Jesus were divinely predicted, and that the two were in fact related—their mothers were cousins. How much time they spent together throwing ball and playing monopoly during their growing-up years is of course anybody’s guess—none of the Gospel writers tell us. What we do know is that the later ministries of John and Jesus dove-tailed, so to speak. They were like hand in glove. John, an Old Testament prophet of sorts, stood on street corners announcing the soon-to-be arrival of the long-anticipated Messiah, the coming one who would baptize his followers, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. “He must increase,” John unashamedly proclaimed of Jesus, “but I must decrease.”

Jesus, for his part, demonstrated a lasting respect and appreciation for this preparatory work of John. At the beginning of his own ministry, Jesus came to John, his friend and relative, for baptism. Later, he went so far as to say that no one ever born to a human womb was as great as John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11). The two worked in cooperation with each other, and they certainly stayed in touch as they continued in the work of the ministry. When John was first in prison, for example, he sent a few of his followers to Jesus to clarify some questions that he had about Jesus’ identity and mission (Matt. 11:2). They were life-long friends, relatives, and co-laborers. That the New Testament offers so little information concerning their relationship has more to do with the central importance of Jesus, I suppose, than the unimportance of John. John mattered a great deal to Jesus.

Then, one night, a handful of John’s disciples unexpectedly knocked on Jesus’ door. John, Jesus well knew, had been imprisoned sometime earlier. John, it seems, had had the audacity—the gall—to criticize Herod, the ruling monarch, for marital impropriety. Herod had taken for himself Herodias, his brother’s wife, and John made no attempt to hide his displeasure.

Now, however, things had taken a decided turn for the worst. Herod, the disciples inform Jesus, had resisted the temptation to execute John for fear of a public outcry. A few days before, however, Herod had unwittingly backed himself into an inescapable and embarrassing corner. In the excitement following a beautiful public performance by Herodias’ daughter, Salome, Herod overreacted and promised to give her anything that she asked for. Alarmingly, at her mother’s insistence, Salome asked Herod, not for wealth or position, but for the head of John the Baptist on a platter! Reluctantly, Herod complied and delivered John’s head as requested.

Imagine, if you can, the thoughts that must have gone through Jesus’ mind upon hearing the news. As he scratched his head and wiped his eyes, he no doubt asked for his visitors to repeat the story, finding the circumstances of John’s death difficult to digest. A foolish promise from Herod to Salome? A wager of sorts? A request for John’s head when anything in the kingdom was there for the taking? The entire situation must have seemed bizarre to our Lord, much like we react when hearing about a freak tragedy that defies comprehension. A scuba diver inadvertently scooped out of the Pacific by a rescue helicopter and dropped into a blazing forest. A little girl in New York shot through the front door of her house by a random bullet. A young woman in Harrisburg falling 23 stories when she slipped out of her intoxicated boyfriend’s hands. A woman crushed in her car because a truck driver failed to stop at the traffic light. Sheer folly. John the Baptist was executed because the spoiled daughter of an equally spoiled celebrity asked a cornered ruler to give her his head on a platter. What a phone call. What a knock on the door. Jesus was left not only to deal with the death of his lifelong friend, but to cope with the horror of the circumstances—John executed and his head put on public display. The news must have been overwhelming. It hurts to receive news of car accidents and burnt-down houses. It hurts when the prospect of living on into the future for who knows how many years without a certain friend or loved one begins to set in. It hurts when you are told stories of senseless tragedies and unimaginable violence. News like that really hurts, doesn’t it? It hurt Jesus, too.

Time and time again, people brought bad news to Jesus. News of renegade children and disappointing disciples. News of diseased loved ones and grief-stricken friends. News of senseless tragedies and even murdered relatives. People knocked at his door—they called him in the middle of the night, just like they do you and me—with “news that drastically and negatively altered his view of the future.” Bad news was not unfamiliar to our Lord.

But notice just what Jesus—who came to bring Good News!—did with such bad news. When told of John the Baptist’s execution, Jesus first “withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Instead of denying his pain or drowning it out with endless busyness, as we sometimes do, Jesus faced it head on. He went away and gave himself time to sit with his pain. Time to vent his frustrations with God. Time to grieve. Bad news, if ignored or suppressed, only festers, eating away at the very fiber of our souls.

Then, after facing the pain and resting in God—sometimes it takes a good while to do that—Jesus moved back into the flow of life once again. “When he went ashore,” Matthew points out, “he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Jesus, importantly, did not live in constant fear of the next phone call. He did not worry endlessly about possible car accidents, unexpected illnesses, job losses or tragic decisions. Instead, he allowed his Father to turn his attention away from his own grief and onto the deepest needs of others. Our Lord’s grief was increasingly transformed into genuine compassion.

So it is, or at least can be, with each of us when bad news breaks into our own lives. Disconcerting telephone calls. Faith-testing knocks on the door. First, we run with John’s disciples and share the news with Jesus. Remember? He welcomes those who bring bad news. Then we go away with Jesus to a solitary place, facing our pain and grief head on. Finally, as Jesus begins to lighten our load, we return with him to the center of life. Now, the load isn’t nearly as heavy as it once was. In fact, Jesus lightens the load so much that we can actually begin setting aside our own bad news and instead reach out to those who have just received bad news of their own.