|2 Christmas, Yr. A, Jan. 2, 2011
The Church of the Epiphany – Glenburn
The Rev. Craig C. Sweeney
Soli Deo Gloria
Some wag once commented that nothing packs up and gets out of town faster than the Christmas Spirit – except the circus. Having grown up in a family and time that took the 12 days of Christmas to heart, I’m always surprised to see naked old Christmas trees out on the curb the day after Christmas.
On the other hand, it has seemed to me the last few years that many people want to hold onto that Christmas feeling for quite a while. Businesses seem slow to remove decorations, many homeowners likewise leave their lights and blow up ornaments out and lit and there is still Christmas music in the air. Seems like we can’t bear to let go of all those wonderful warm sentiments and face the cold dark world out there.
I’ve spoken this Christmas time about light out of darkness and indeed, Jesus’ birth brings a great light of hope and joy to an oftentimes dark and frightening world. It is tough out there now, and it was tough – perhaps even tougher in Jesus’ times.
The world then was ruled by ruthless dictators backed up by armies of hardened warriors. The vast majority of the people were slaves or poor tenant farmers and shepherds. The poor people were simply trying to live out relatively short lives as peacefully as possible.
Our Gospel lesson this morning follows immediately after the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. These were not ‘kings,’ they were likely astronomical scholars from what is now Iran. But in any event, they knew enough of the Jewish traditions to know that they were foreign gentiles, unclean in Jewish eyes, and so they wisely go first to Herod to introduce themselves. They weren’t politically savvy enough to know that announcing to Herod that they were following a star to find the next king of Israel could unleash the slaughter of innocent infant boy babies.
Herod was a genuinely ruthless villain – political assassinations and just plain murders were committed nearly every day. He even killed some of his own sons to preserve his rule. This announcement of an astronomical portent foretelling the birth of a king could only point to the birth of the long-awaited Messiah – and the end of Herod’s kingship.
So Herod immediately calls for his own scholars to ask where the Messiah was prophesied to be born and they tell him Bethlehem. Herod tells the Wise Men to go and find the child and then return to tell him where he is. The Wise Men go on their way to Bethlehem and we know the story of the gifts they give to the baby there.
However, they must have wised up to Herod’s true nature, or more likely someone told them about his villainy, so they leave Jesus and head for home without returning to Herod. This doesn’t faze Herod, who immediately orders that every male child under the age of 2 is be slaughtered.
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream warning him to get outta town, so they pack up what little they have with them and head off to Egypt as exiles, refugees. The queen of heaven and the light of the world, the Messiah, scurry away in the darkness, no maps, no GPS, no reservations, no 800 numbers for emergency services. They don’t know where they will end up, how they will live, or even where they will sleep. But, they go.
After a time, Herod dies and an angel again appears to Joseph in a dream telling him that it’s safe to go home. So Joseph, ever obedient packs up his wife and toddler and heads for Israel. But, it turns out that Herod has divided his lands in his will and each of his three surviving sons has a bit of it. Archelaus, nearly as vicious as his father, rules Bethlehem. And again an angel appears to Joseph telling him to head north to Nazareth to settle. And so Joseph does.
Matthew, who is writing to a community of beleaguered Christian Jews, makes sure to point out that these actions of the Holy Family happen so that prophecies will be fulfilled. Matthew goes out of his way to make it clear that Jesus truly is the Messiah.
And lo and behold – the Messiah becomes a refugee before he is weaned. The newborn king is run out of town by a ruthless Herod before Mary has run out of her first package of swaddling clothes. What has happened to the choir of angels? What has happened to the joy of new birth? Where’s the Christmas warm-fuzzies now? They’ve packed up and left town, just like a circus.
For Christ Jesus came to the real world, not to our commercially driven spectacle. Jesus was born into the cold darkness of reality, not a permanent warm crèche. And in Jesus’ world, the powers and principalities ruled everything – and he would eventually be killed by them, some 30 years after the slaughter of the innocents.
This story of exile would have rung true to those new Christians that Matthew leads, Jews who had chosen to believe in Jesus and suffered for their beliefs. They had been thrown out of the synagogues and were shunned by their friends, neighbors and families. They were exiles ‘in place,’ as it were, for family was everything then and to be cast out of their homes, right there in their own town was as bad as being exiled to a foreign country.
The Jews of Jesus’ day knew all about exile, about their people being refugees. All of Jerusalem and northern Israel had been marched off to Babylon some 7 centuries earlier, as the ethnic cleansing of their homeland was accomplished. They had been prisoners there for 70 years before the beneficent King Cyrus changed policies and encouraged them to return home.
Jeremiah predicts this return in our OT lesson this morning, saying that God would gather up his scattered people and bring, no, escort them back to Jerusalem. This prophecy would be a message of joy to those who are facing shattered lives in a strange place, to those who have lost everything, including their lives as Jews back in Israel.
So hearing that the infant Jesus, the newborn Messiah has also suffered as a refugee would be some comfort to those who heard Matthew’s gospel, to those who were in exile right in their own communities. It would point again to the old prophecies and it would make it clear that Jesus was one of them – outcast, a refugee.
Now, scholars would point out that this story of the Wise Men, Herod’s fury and Jesus’ refuge in Egypt is unique to Matthew’s gospel – it is not in the other three gospels. Scholars would hem and haw that perhaps Matthew added this adventure on his own to bolster his clear effort to paint Jesus as the long-prophesied Messiah. But we really just don’t know for sure.
But I find a powerful message in all of this. It is simply this: God is most available to us when we are ‘up against it,’ when we face a problem that we can’t analyze or buy our way out of. And who is most ‘up against it’ then a refugee? Our lives have seen this same scenario unfold several times. In recent memory, we have seen Kosovo, we have seen the Sudan, we have seen slaughter in Rwanda and Uganda, we see it even now in the Congo. We see it in Pakistan where millions are left homeless by flooding. Even in Haiti we see refugees, people driven out of their homes into tent cities.
I cannot imagine what their lives are like, cannot imagine not being able to drive home, put my car in the garage, fix a good meal and climb into a clean, warm bed. I cannot imagine facing the chaos of all of that loss, cannot imagine feeling to helpless and totally dependent on someone else to help me with life’s basic necessities. At times like that, where do you turn?
We turn to God, for there is no one else. And in our prophecy from Jeremiah and in Matthew’s tale of fleeing in terror to the unknown, we are assured that God is still with us, that God will always be with us. For God came to us in the darkness and brought light to that darkness – he still does.
For most of us, and especially us men, it takes a calamity to bring us to faith and that’s because we men are raised up to be ‘in control,’ to provide, to be strong and fearless. Surrendering our lives to God, admitting that God is actually in control, ‘letting go and letting God’ is very, very difficult. I can assure you, it was so for me.
Yet where else can you go when you find you truly are out of control of your life? To whom can you turn when things are truly in chaos? There is only God, for God in Jesus came to a world in chaos, came to a family on the run, came to the darkness and brought light. He still does. And that is what we have to hold onto as we pack up our decorations and look into another year – a year that will likely produce times of joy and also times of chaos and fear.
Remember, God in Jesus will be there, the light of the world will never leave us alone.