Matthew 2: 13-23
Point: to believe that God still watches over and protects his children! Immanuel
Problem: tend to place the Christmas story together with other fantasies, and therefore dismiss it as being untrue or non-relevant .
Power: Just as God watched over and protected his Son, he watches over and protects us, his adopted children.
If you had misgivings when you heard today’s Gospel lesson, you were not alone. What place does the slaughter of infants have to do in the Christmas season? Isn’t this the season of Peace, Love and Joy? Of course!
When Lessons were being arranged for the Church Year, I believe that the church fathers placed this story into the Christmas season because it reflected the harsh reality of the world into which Jesus was born – the very same harsh world in which we live. Just as Jesus came into the real flesh and blood world of his day, our celebration of his birth must not be separated from the realities in which we live. Both are real. And God is present in both!
The Gospel tells us the story of why it was necessary for Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee to Egypt before eventually making their way back to Nazareth, Mary’s hometown. The reason for this sudden journey was Herod who, according to Joseph’s dream, was about to search for the child, to destroy him.
Now Herod was a good ruler if compared to other rulers of his day. He was a master builder of many civic projects, including the rebuilding of the temple. In many respects, he deserved the title, “Herod the Great”. But Herod was also an extremely insecure man, so inwardly threatened that he murdered many of his countrymen, including members of his own family. We can assume that anyone who could murder his own wives and sons would not lose sleep over the deaths of a dozen infants or so in a backwater village called Bethlehem.
Unfortunately, Herod is not alone. Down through history, tyrants have slaughtered anyone they thought was a threat to them – whether the threat was real or not. In just the past hundred years, there has been the slaughter of the Albanians by the Turks, the Jews by the Nazis, the Chinese and Koreans by the Japanese, and fellow Russians by Stalin, Chinese countrymen by Mao Zedong and Cambodian countrymen by Pol Pot. Today, there is the massacres by ISIS in the mid-east… and need I mention the slaughter of children in Newtown or the Pakistani city of Peshawar where 132 children were killed this past week. By comparison to these atrocities, Herod was a minor leaguer. But as far as Herod was concerned, Jesus was a genuine threat to his throne, and therefore his existence would not be tolerated.
The combination of the Christmas story – with angels and shepherds, wise men on the one side - and the slaughter of the infant boys in Bethlehem on the other - is a stark reminder of the real world in which we live. And, just as Joseph trusted that his heavenly Father watched over and protected Jesus from King Herod, we are challenged to believe that our heavenly Father watches over and protects us – his adopted children – especially when we encounter the most difficult of circumstances.
Just as the horror stories from today’s newscasts cause us to become uncomfortable during our Christmas celebrations, it is important to remember that the original Christmas story had more than a few rough edges. I say this because it is our natural tendency to romanticize the Christmas story – angels, shepherds, flocks of sheep, star-lit sky – everything so idyllic and serene. There’s also the danger to equate this Scriptural story with other fantasies – Dicken’s Christmas Carol, Tchaikovsky’s Nutscracker, and the film, Miracle on 34th Street. Such romanticizing of the nativity not only robs the story of Jesus’ birth of its historical reality, but also of its power.
If you look closely, there are three harsh realities within the Christmas story:
- It’s the story of an unwed mother. Although we may view her pregnancy from a faith perspective, that’s not how it was interpreted back then, and all the insinuations and comments made against Mary by the women in Nazareth must have hurt her deeply.
- It’s the story of a homeless couple – with child. Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown. There must have been brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins living there, yet no one would take them in – not one.
- It is the story of refugees. As we learn in today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph, like far too many others in our present world, fled for their very lives in the middle of the night because of a crazed and insecure tyrant.
I share these insights not to shock you, but rather to invite you to see God’s hand in all of this. Although abused by residents of Nazareth, rejected by relatives in Bethlehem, and threatened by authorities like Herod, God was watching over and protecting his Son. Mary and Joseph must have felt frustration and anger with the relatives and neighbors they knew, fear because of a king they never met, and an overwhelming sense of loneliness and helplessness with their plight. As they hurriedly made their way to Egypt – a foreign country where they knew no one - I’m not sure they saw any light at the end of the tunnel. They only knew one source of strength – their Lord and God. They firmly believed that God would watch over them, protect them and see them through as He promised – and He did.
So, what might all this mean to us? It’s only a few days after Christmas and we are already in the process of putting Christmas stuff away for another year. Decorations are coming down in the stores and you will soon see trees at the curb for collection. Many of us are making final arrangements for the celebration of New Year’s later this week.
Brothers and sisters, there is also a danger of taking our celebration of Jesus’ birth and packing it away again till next year.
This would be foolish for any of us, especially those of us who are facing some significant problems. Are there members of this congregation who are facing serious health issues? Are there couples whose marriages are strained to the breaking point?
Are there parents whose children are troubling or in trouble? There may well be members present this morning or people we know who at this point like Mary and Joseph may not yet see any light at the end of the tunnel.
So, the message for them and for us is the same as it was for Mary and Joseph. God is with us. Immanuel! Just as Jesus came into the real flesh and blood world of his day, our celebration of his birth must not be separated from the realities in which we live. Both are real. And God is present in both.
Just as God watched over and protected his Son, so he will watch over and protect us. He will do this because we are his children, his family. As we are reminded in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we are his adopted children; His family! But when the fulness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, in order to redeem those who were under law, that we might receive adoption as children.
Your baptism assures you that you are a child of God. He not only looks upon you with fatherly pride, but as with any father, watches over you, guides and protects you… When we gather at the altar to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we do so as family – as the adopted children of God. Even as Jesus once came into our world in flesh and blood, he joins us in this Sacrament with his body and blood. After consuming the Body and Blood of our Lord, he sends us back to our homes and forth into the world with this blessing: He will never forget or forsake his children!
His promise is real. His presence is real. His protection is real. Our challenge this morning is to believe this and trust that this is true for you and me.
So, as we conclude the Advent Christmas cycle and prepare for 2015, do not pack up Jesus with your Christmas ornaments; do not leave Jesus curbside with the throw-aways from this past week. Keep Jesus central in your heart, in your life, in your marriage and family. Keep praying:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today… We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Immanuel.