Lectionary Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (UMH 795), Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
We use Luke’s Gospel story for our Christmas pageant, as does pretty much everyone else and what I just read is the reason why. Luke’s Christmas pageant ends the story of Jesus’ birth with angels singing and with shepherds and blessings. Matthew’s Christmas pageant ends here. With the holy family not cozied up around the manger but fleeing for the lives, because Herod has been tricked by the Wise men, whom he sent to bring Jesus to him. Of course he is furious and orders that all children under the age of two be killed. It’s a terrible and violent story, that the Church marks at this time of year each year with the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents.
What’s all this talk about death doing right in the midst of all the light and life of Christmas? Shouldn’t Matthew — and we — leave death outside our doors, just this once, to deal with it later, like just another of our holiday credit card bills? Can’t we, ignore it or deny it, at least while the family’s still here. But this is what we are given every Christmas, because the truth of it is that there are no seasons of uninterrupted joy and light. This is never more apparent than during the holidays, a time when our hopes are regularly joined to our fears, our expectations so often tinged by our regrets, and our reunions sometimes overshadowed by unspoken disappointments or hurts. It’s probably good we have this story. Because that’s just the stuff going on with us, to say nothing of what is beyond us.
Violence and mourning still fill the streets of Bethlehem, which has yet to look like the picture that we paint of it in our traditional Christmas stories and songs. It remains a land that mourns the loss of children, a place where wailing all too frequently fills the streets. It is still full of stories of being a pawn in the power games of world leaders, of violence springing up routinely.
A lot of places in our world still resemble Bethlehem in this story, and too many families still flee for their lives in the face of violence and conflict, where leaders fall to the same temptations toward absolute power and unlimited wealth that breeds deep fear. Why would God choose this city marred by corruption and conflict as the place where God would enter the world? Because a god that will not go to Bethlehem, is not much of a god at all. God looked upon all our darkness and chose to break into the world right in the middle of it-not in the seat of power, not in the prosperous city… The Good News burst into the world in Bethlehem, a city swirling with fear of the unknown, filled with people there against their will and against their own interests and and God came to bring light and hope the the promise of a new world. Herod was threatened by this.. Our Hebrews text this morning tells us exactly what he feared.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself also shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death…. Fear of loss is at the root of nearly all violence, all grabs for power, whether it is loss of power, loss of life, loss of things. Herod is no fool. He knows that people who have no fear of death cannot be controlled. So it is worth the death of innocent children for him to assert his own authority, to remind his subjects of his power to take away life. In order to preserve things as they are, sometimes one has to engage in violence. But preservation of the old ways of doing things ended in that stable, with that baby that Herod knew would overturn everything.
I don’t like acknowledging my affinity to Herod in this story. But if we are honest we understand his predicament. He sees all that he has worked for in this world about to be taken from him by this tiny baby. It’s an easy solution. At first glance, Jesus is not great news for
someone like Herod, or maybe even for people like us. We sit in places where we have lots of power, and we like to use it, both collectively as Americans and individually in our personal relationships, in our workplaces and in our church. It would seem that this baby’s arrival to humble the proud and raise the lowly is a threat to us, just as it was a threat to Herod. Thanks be to God, all of our affinity to Herod is not the end of the story.
The rest of the story is that Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt, and Jesus was spared the fate of the infants of Bethlehem. The story of God that began in a stable and quickly ran as refugees to a foreign land and ended with the crucifixion and resurrection of this baby from Bethlehem. In the in-between time, the promises from Hebrews and from Mary’s prayer are fulfilled. Christ has come that we might all be reconciled to God, from the lowliest creature to the mightiest ruler and that all of us might live together without fear At the heart of much of the conflict and injustice in our community and our world is fear. Fear that there will not be enough resources for all of us to get our share, or more than our share. Fear that all we have worked so hard for will be taken away. Fear of violence, fear of market crashes, fear of disaster. All of this fear has bred in us a distrust and hostility toward one another. This distrust has allowed us to keep one another at a distance, whether that distance is across an aisle in a sanctuary, across the hallway of your home, across a border or an ocean.
But now Christ has come. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The light of the world has come to us and all things from now on will be different. This light will shine on us so brightly that we will have to see one another in the light of Christ. In the light of Christ, all of us are precious and beloved children—both the Herods, the mighty powers of this world of threaten us with corruption and violence, and the Marys, the unwed mothers, stuck in
poverty, the foreigner, the refugee. All of us are infinitely loved by God. In this light, we will look on each other with those same eyes—that those who we disagree with, those who have to work so hard to be kind to, those who do not fit the way we think they ought to be, all of us are deeply precious to God and deserve to be loved with the love of the newborn king! That real deal kind of Love that works hard for justice, love that forgives all things, love that does not see boundaries or need to create margins for people.
I know it’s New Year’s day. We reached the end of 2016 perhaps a little worse for the wear on the whole. It was a year that revealed and magnified deep divisions among us, and that saw the loss of so many celebrities we love that someone started a GoFundMe campaign to protect Betty White until the year ended. 2016 got blamed for acts of violence, for broken relationships and even human mortality. And now it’s over. Will we do any better in 2017? This is the time for setting resolutions, isn’t it? I am all for personal goals. I’d love to drop a few pounds and get more sleep and more exercise and even leave a few of my old neuroses back in 2016. But personal goals are not what really move my heart. They don’t light me up with a sense of urgency at the New year. It’s our desperate and groaning world, that still takes the shape of first century Bethlehem, still filled with people running for the lives, still filled with rulers bent on controlling people through fear, still so many people needing the good news of Jesus Christ in tangible ways–food, rescue, justice, a listening ear–and as we move into a new year I am asking God for the next steps in doing this good work.
We learn from Herod just what a threat that work is—this Jesus would make people do crazy things—love people they aren’t supposed to love, care for people that are different from them, ignore the rigorously learned social boundaries. You cannot control a person who is not
afraid—a sure threat to a ruler. Herod reminds us that Jesus entered a world in serious pain, of real conflict and severe dysfunction—a world where violence is the norm and where peace, in the world, or even in our hearts, is not easy to come by. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He could have been born anywhere I suppose. Someplace much prettier, not surrounded by an impoverished and oppressed people….certainly someplace that at least smelled a little better than a stable. But God chose to come to us in Bethlehem, because if we look closely, we are all in Bethlehem and we could never get to God from there. So God came to us. This year, we have a new chance to live the story of Christmas- the whole story. The one that leaves the manger and follows the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt, that seems them living as refugees far from home in a world turn about violence and greed. God came down into that mess and that is where God still calls us to go. Whatever personal resolutions you have the coming year, may we also resolve to shine light in dark places, to do whatever we can to ensure that injustice and oppression do not have their way with our brothers and sisters, and to share the Good News of Jesus in word and in action. In this place, we’ll be trying to give you as many ways as we can to do just that- and we start, on this day when we see the Holy Family as refugees with this/…UMCOR health kits. UMCOR responds to needs around the world, after both natural and human-made disasters. One of the ways they are helping in the refugee crisis is by providing hygiene items to people who have had to leave everything and travel. In your bulletin, you’ll find a list of everything that goes into a kit…make them, return them by Jan 22.
Friends, the light of the world has come to us. Now we get be light for others. Let us pray for God to make us faithful to the task….
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service. And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.