First Sunday of Christmas (Year A) – December 29, 2013 – Matthew 2:13-23
St. Jacob’s-Spaders and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Pastor Evan Davis
Merry Christmas (?). Since we were here last, I imagine many of us watched children in our lives have a joyful Christmas morning – maybe kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews, or just friends. That’s a Merry Christmas. My wife and I got to witness our 2-year-old niece enjoy opening the presents more than actually playing with them. Sometimes I think we should just wrap wrapping paper inside of wrapping paper inside of wrapping paper and let the kids play with that for a while – they’d love it, right? That’s a Merry Christmas. But today, on the First Sunday of Christmas, we hear of something different – an unspeakable crime, the senseless killing of probably tens of thousands of children by an insecure dictator, Herod, who was scared to death of a child. Like it or not, this is part of the Christmas story.
Like it or not, as Christmas approaches in Egypt, Christians there probably won’t have the luxury of a quiet, happy morning of opening presents. Christmas in Egypt has become a time when churches are particular targets of senseless violence. That is the Christmas story for the land to which Jesus fled. Like it or not, for the third Christmas in a row, the Christians of Syria welcome the Christ child by mourning the deaths of their own children as the civil war there rages on. Since March 2011, somewhere around 120,000 people have been killed in that war, maybe many more.1 8 million people have been forced to flee from their homes, 3 million of them to refugee camps across the border, forced to seek refuge in a foreign land. This is their story at Christmas time, and it’s not unlike the certain refugee family, the Holy Family, that we hear about from Matthew today.
This Christmas, as we play with our children, as we bask in the joy of a child born to us and for us, we hear from Matthew the other side of the Christmas story. The story that is all too unsurprising to the people of Syria and Egypt, of Africa, the people of the rural mountain hollers and inner city alleys of America where death and suffering are just as real. This is the story of a ruthless, self-absorbed tyrant, consumed by his own fear and rage. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine him, does it? Herod feared this child, the one the astrologers, the wise men, from the East had mentioned, so much, that he had to kill him. Herod tried to use the wise men to find out where the child was. But when God sent the wise men home by another road and they didn’t come back to give up Jesus’ location, Herod can’t handle it. In a fit of rage, he sends his hired swords to slaughter “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” The Church remembers these children every year on December 28, calling them “the Holy Innocents.” And hence we hear about them today on December 29.
Are we shocked? I’m not sure. What’s perhaps most tragic is that this is not unimaginable. Human history is the story of the many holy innocents of many times and many places. Both adults and children, although, of course, when we hear of such atrocities committed against children it hurts so much more. I think of the child soldiers forced to fight in Sierra Leone and Congo. The children of Newtown and Colorado and the young adults of Virginia Tech – all holy innocents. And there are so many more. We simply can’t count or remember them all.
This Christmas, many more live in fear than in the comfort and security we enjoy. This Christmas, hundreds of millions are starving, even as we throw out our Christmas leftovers. We can’t remember all the places where there is fighting, where people are hungry, where there is suffering. There are too many places and too many people. We can’t remember them all. We can’t change it. Maybe you remember Christmases during Vietnam, or Korea, or World War II – some of you spent Christmas in these places. I’m quite sure you remember the first Christmas after that beloved person in your life died.
By now you may be getting used to what God is doing here. Every time we think we’re good, comfortable, sitting around the tree or the Christmas dinner table with our family, God reminds us of someone else’s suffering. I want to hear singing and laughter, but all I can hear in this story is a voice “in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” The mothers of Syria, of Newtown, of Colorado three times over now, the mothers of Virginia Tech – they are all inconsolable. Can you hear them?
But hear this – the truth of the Christmas story that shocked Jesus’ society, and what shocks the world still today: God has chosen to live in this world, the real world. Not to judge it from afar. Not to rain down death upon we who deserve it. Not to simply wipe the slate clean and start over. No…God’s answer to a world in which children are buried in mass graves is to enter that world in the flesh. To show up and face it himself. What Christmas really means is that God really has chosen to live with us. With this.
And as Matthew tells the story, immediately we begin to find out what this Emmanuel, this God with us, this Messiah, Jesus, will be like. In Matthew’s portrait, Jesus is not the one who sits in a palace, issuing death sentences. He is not the one who makes deals with the Herods of this world. Neither is he the one who opposes them in battle. Jesus is the one who must flee from the agents of death. He is a refugee, an illegal immigrant, oppressed, hunted down. He is protected by God through Joseph and Mary for a time, but not forever. The day came when the Herods of this world got what they wanted.
In the manger and all the way to the cross, God casts his lot with us, with all the holy innocents of this world. Jesus is the most holy and the most innocent of all our sisters and brothers who have been murdered.
And even more amazingly, God works through this story and the whole story of Jesus’ life. Wherever evil is present, God faces it, but does not return it. At every turn, when the Herods of this world dish out violence and death, Jesus responds with wisdom, with the strength to love, with abiding faithfulness to his Father. And Jesus is at work in you – in all the darkest parts of your stories. In your pain, in the evil done to you, and even through the things you’ve done of which you are ashamed. God claims all of it, all of you, and no part of you is excluded from Christ’s redeeming and sanctifying work. That’s the fullness of the Christmas gospel – that God embraces and enters all of humanity, even its ugliest parts.
But joined to Christ, we do not remain the same. You are forgiven and set free. Free from fear, free to courageously love. Free to work for a world where love dethrones all tyrants. Where the wisdom, love, and faithfulness of Christ are transforming every heart. As we begin a new calendar year, that’s the work we have to do. That’s the mission of God in Christ – to go to every dark corner of our community, every dark corner in the lives of our neighbors, with this Christmas gospel of God with us. That’s a Merry Christmas. Amen.