Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, 1 January 2017, the First Sunday After Christmas.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Matthew 2: 13-23
I haven’t met anyone yet who will be sorry that the 2016 is behind us. By general consensus, it’s been a brutal year. All the celebrities dying was sad, to be sure, but the real horrors of the year were cities flattened by ruthless and indiscriminate bombing, dictators killing their people, unwanted refugees shivering on borders and drowning at sea, the rise of hatred and bigotry on the internet and in elections, and countless terrorist attacks across the world.
If there was one image that seemed to be especially shocking, at least for a few days, it was the tourists and shoppers mown down in a Christmas market in Berlin by a terrorist in a truck. A European style Christmas market is a magical place, with its handcrafted gifts, music and carols, bright lights, fragrant smells and hot drinks to guard against the cold night. To imagine that scene moments later, the screams and sirens loud among the smashed stalls and broken bodies, is almost too terrible to contemplate.
I think we feel the same horror as we contemplate today’s gospel reading from Matthew. The little town of Bethlehem, which we imagine from countless Christmas cards, is violated and profaned. The silent streets echo with the tromping boots of Herod’s soldiers and the screams of mothers as the killers go from house to house. The wise men have hastily left town, the angels are silent, the skies are dark again, and the the holy family are on the road as refugees, fleeing for their lives. It’s as if Matthew had no interest in allowing us to linger in the peace and magic of the nativity, but wanted to throw us back into the pain of real life as quickly as he could.
The transition from Christmas to this Sunday is a movement from heavenly vision to earthly violence, from miracle to madness. The change of tone can indeed shock us, the faithful who know these stories, but I think it’s more shocking to those who lack perspective because they don’t know the gospel story. This morning I want to suggest that our reading from Matthew today helps us to understand Christmas as part of God’s larger story.
You see, if we allow ourselves to think of Christmas as just a kind of magic sanctuary, a kind of peaceful winter wonderland that we can go to get away from it all, then I think we will be especially vulnerable and disappointed when Christmas ends and real life reasserts itself. If we don’t connect Christmas with the world of Herod then and ISIS now, a world where innocents are still routinely slaughtered, then we aren’t helping ourselves or others to see why we need the Christian faith in this world.
So how does today’s reading from Matthew help us connect Christmas with the world and with the larger Christian story? Let’s go back to the gospel reading and look at what God is doing here. God is an active, protective and determined presence throughout the story. When we pick up the story the Magi have just left, warned by God not to visit Herod on their way home. Next, Joseph is warned to flee into the night and to take the family to a very specific place – Egypt.
Why Egypt, we may ask ourselves? Presumably Egypt is far away, outside of Herod’s reach. That makes sense, but we also remember that Jews have lived in Egypt before, in slavery, and that an Egyptian pharaoh tried to murder all the Jewish first born males, as Herod tries to do in Bethlehem. That connection links Herod with Pharaoh as earthly kings and tyrants who are hostile to God. The connection also reminds us that the Jews were led out of Egypt by one who God picked to save them, Moses. Jesus’ connection to Egypt as a kind of second Moses is very important to Matthew, because it establishes Jesus’ connections as a saviour and leader, a kind of second or greater Moses who will come to save his people.
Matthew goes on to describes how Herod is replaced by another tyrant, Archelaus, which causes God to intervene again and warn Joseph to find a quiet spot, Nazareth, to lay low and raise his family. I suppose there are two ways of reacting here. One is to notice how worldly power keeps throwing up these powerful and dangerous kings, and how it keeps going on, so that Archelaus is followed by another Herod, and Pilate, but in a story that began with the Roman emperor ordering a census so that all the world may be taxed, Matthew has taught us a lot about how earthly power works. At the same time, Matthew has shown us how God’s power is different and persistent, working in quiet ways to resist and outlast the petty tyrants of the earth. The confrontation between Jesus and Pilate in John’s gospel, and Pilate’s troubled question “Are you a king?”, has its roots in Matthew’s version of the nativity story. Matthew is reminding us that followers of Jesus are subjects of a different kind of kingdom, and that we need to be wary of the claims of earthly rulers and would be rulers, whether they live in Herod’s palace or Trump Tower.
Finally, as we hear today’s gospel, we hear over and over again how the birth of Jesus is the fulfilling of prophecy. In our reading today there are no less than four references to prophecies being fulfilled. We may think this is a bit of overkill, that Matthew is working too hard to establish Jesus’ credentials as Messiah, but think about what Matthew is saying here. For Matthew, God plays the long game. God has a plan for salvation, God is determined to bring as many out of the petty, dark kingdoms of humanity to his son’s kingdom of light. Like a jujitsu fighter, using the strength of his opponents against them, God takes on the tyrants of earth – Herod, Archelaus, Pilate, any number of those who follow – with the weakness of a carpenter’s son from Nazareth, and at the end of the day it is Jesus who is left standing. Prophecy in Matthew means promises made and kept by a faithful God whose word is true and whose son can be trusted. To use a word that we love to throw around today, God is authentic, he’s the real deal.
I’ve listed three connections between the Christmas story as told by Matthew and the larger Christian story. It’s a shame that the lectionary and our worship on Christmas Eve, when our churches are most often visited, don’t do a good job of making these connections. Perhaps if we did, our Christmas Eve visitors might stick around and enter more deeply into the Christian faith. This week I read an interesting essay by Ian Paul, a British theologian, on what the Anglican church gets wrong about Christmas.
Paul talked about how the story that we tell on Christmas Eve is largely disconnected from the rest of the story of Jesus. Christmas alone doesn’t tell us much about how Jesus comes to save the world by saving us from our sin. Christmas carols and candlelight are all well and good, but they don’t tell the story very well, whereas, (and here Paul quotes N.T. Wright), the Advent hymns do tell the story. As N.T. Wright notes, “Advent hymns are … deeply and thoroughly and thrillingly political. Advent hymns look forward not to heaven but the redemption of Israel and of the nations, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. When we turn to Christmas hymns, these themes almost completely drop out”. Unfortunately, most Christmas Eve visitors haven’t heard had the benefit of preparation and context that Advent offers us.
The second reason, according to Paul, is that a lot of Christmas messages and sermons we hear don’t really help us to hear the gospel. By focusing on the Incarnation, on God’s decision to send his son to live amongst us as a human being, it’s fairly easy to draw the idea that we must be pretty good if God decided to hang out with us. If we merely conclude that the Incarnation is about affirming the dignity of human existence, then we don’t really need to change. As Ian Paul says, if “people leave Midnight Communion thinking ‘Well, it’s all OK, so no need to go to church till next Christmas”, then they will miss the who point of the gospel, which is about God’s determination in Christ to save us from ourselves. As I understand his message, Ian Paul is saying that Christmas needs to be about salvation rather than affirmation.
Today, two thousand and seventeen years (give or take) after the birth of Jesus, I think we can agree that the world hungers for a message of salvation. As we look to the near future, we hear talk of a new nuclear arms race, of rapidly melting polar ice, of old treaties and alliances ending. People seem to lose faith in democracies and open borders, and put their trust in strongmen. Cynicism and brutality seem to thrive. King Herod, the butcher of Bethlehem, would certainly look at Aleppo and tell Bashir al Assad, “Job well done.”.
One doesn’t have to go to Aleppo to see the need for salvation. Who knows what anguish and tragedy may be concealed in the comfortable houses around this church? Yesterday local media reported that a gas explosion in a middle class Mississauga neighbourhood this summer was deliberate, a double suicide of a middle aged couple. Police found notes amid the rubble, including this one, which read
“Dear God, as of next week everything will fall apart for us,” begins one note. “We owe mortgage, company, house taxes, water bill, gas bill, hydro bill . . . and we have No Money to fix or pay anyone.”
I don’t think most people are looking for are looking for affirmation or for religion to tell them that they’re basically ok. I think most people want to hear that God is interested in them enough to save them. They want to be saved from tyranny, from hunger, from bombs, from debt, from despair, from a sense of hopelessness so strong that it would lead them to blow themselves up in their own home.
The message of Christmas is the message of salvation. It’s the message of God who is faithful, who keeps his promises, who is determined not to lose us. The Christmas message may be about peace and joy in the manger, but it’s also about God’s presence with us in those moments when there is no peace and joy. It’s about God’s faithfulness to keep the promises he made long ago to his people, and it’s about the power of his son Jesus Christ to overthrow the kingdoms of power and tyranny, the kingdoms of darkness and death. When the stillness of Bethlehem is replaced by chaos, when the nativity scene is dark and the stable is empty, the angels and shepherds gone and the holy family fled, this message of salvation is what we need to hold on to, now, and as we face whatever the new year may bring.