December 29, 2019
The problem with reading articles from the internet is that when you go back and think about them, you often can’t find them again. Which is the case for the article I read somewhere this past week about a woman hearing her minister tell her not to keep Christ in Christmas. And, the bit of cleverness of the article… because she was initially shocked that her minister would say such a thing… the clever twist was that by this time… just a few days after Christmas… by this time you have had enough of Christmas and you are ready to pack it all away to be forgotten until next year. If you keep Christ in Christmas… then Christ gets packed up as well… only to be brought out again next year. Clever word play, right? But, in the church, there is a reality to it. We are just now in the Christmas season in the church. Starting from Christmas Day until Epiphany… the twelve days of Christmas… and already… already… are you tired of Christmas? Are you enjoying singing these Christmas songs this morning… or are you tired of it and ready to move on? Our neighbor when we lived in Sparta… our neighbor would actually take down her tree and all her decorations on the afternoon of Christmas day. Pack it all away. She was done with it all. She would have hated coming to my church because we’re just now getting started.
When secular Christmas starts before Thanksgiving… at least that’s when the radio stations switched over to 24-7 Christmas music this year. Before that I saw Christmas stuff in the stores before Halloween. Every year secular Christmas presses in on the church through well-meaning people who want to skip the messages of Advent and go straight to Christmas. And then when Christmas finally does arrive… they are so done with Christmas. How dare the church actually try to be the church… and not conform to our wishes and patterns of celebration.
End of short sermon number one.
Our reading on this Christmas Sunday is not what we would call very Christmas-y… which… I guess if you’ve already packed Christmas away isn’t such a big deal. Our reading today is not a story of joy and goodwill. In fact, it shows another type of response to the proclamation of the good news… it shows another response to the proclamation of peace and goodwill among people. Our reading this morning comes from Matthew’s gospel. The Wise Men… who will arrive in the next week’s reading on Epiphany… the Wise Men have come and gone home by another road… thwarting King Herod’s plan to find the child the Wise Men were seeking. Herod’s response to hearing the good news of the birth of the Christ is only evil. Herod is the darkness that the light of Christ exposes. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.
READ Matthew 2:13-23
Like in last week’s reading from Matthew’s gospel… it is Joseph’s obedience to the angel’s words in his dream that saves the Christ child. Last Sunday, Joseph… in taking Mary as his wife… in naming the child when he was born, claiming the child as his own… Joseph saved the child from both the religious law of Deuteronomy… where if obeyed Mary would have been tried and executed… and he saved the child from the social practices of the day by legitimizing the child. Joseph wraps the child in his own goodness and decency. He puts the needs of the child and its mother ahead of the demands of the Law and the pressure of society. He puts the needs of the child and its mother before his own needs. To me, that is the mark of Joseph’s goodness and decency. Say what you want about the storytelling and the use of the dreams… in the end it is where Joseph places his obedience. It is to what Joseph is fully obedient. When his wife and child are threatened… he protects them. They are his responsibility. He has the power in that society… and he uses that power for the protection of the weak. Joseph acts the way Jesus will later teach to his followers to act. Use your strength for the benefit of those who are weaker than you are… use your power… whatever power you may possess… for the good… to build up those in need and in this way will the fruits of God’s grace abound.
Compare Joseph to Herod… who has even more power in that society. Herod is filled with paranoia. Ever since the Magi found their way to Jerusalem and informed him of the star that had told them of the birth of the king of the Jews… Herod has been filled with fear. He is afraid of being replaced. He is afraid of the loss of his legacy… his own children are meant to inherit his throne… his wealth… his power… not some unknown child. He is afraid of losing what he has. He is afraid and he plots immediately to remove this perceived threat. When the Magi do not report back exactly where they found the child… Herod thinks nothing of the cost of murdering an untold number of innocent children in order to assuage his fear… in order to protect his own power.
Two different men and the light of Christ. One uses his power to protect and save those weaker than himself. The other uses his power to shore up his own power. One is obedient to goodness and decency. One is paranoid and the words goodness and decency mean nothing to him… unless he can use them to manipulate others into getting what he wants.
You know… I used to read this story and I never really felt much connection to it. It was a story that was too extreme to my own experience. Herod always seemed too cartoonish… even if there was a historical Herod… there wasn’t anything in the historical record about this Herod in the story indiscriminately killing children in order to eliminate the one. That makes for a good story… but that doesn’t happen in real life. Right? That’s the way I felt. It was too much like the story in Exodus and the Pharaoh commanding that every boy born of the Hebrews was to be thrown into the Nile. The Pharaoh in that story reflected the fear of the Egyptians who savagely oppressed the Hebrew slaves and feared an uprising… feared a loss of power. A possible story. A plausible story as a student of history. But again… not a story I could emotionally connect to because it is so far away from my realm of experience.
To purposefully harm children out of fear. This is World War Two gas chamber evil. To purposefully harm children especially children who are already weak and defenseless. I had nothing in my lifetime to compare it to… I had nothing to make it real until our own country decided to separate children from their families as they tried to cross our southern border. According to a PBS Frontline report last month… government data showed that last year 69,550 children were separated and detained. Almost 70,000 children separated from their families… the result of a policy put in place to purposefully harm children as a deterrent. Let’s be clear. To separate a child from their family is not a neutral act. The younger the children the more damage it does in that child’s emotional development… especially in developing attachments. The damage this will cause will last a lifetime.
To purposefully harm children. That’s the darkness I can’t get past. I don’t care about your politics. I don’t care about the wider goals or issues concerning immigration and refugees. Other things could have been done to make the immigration system better. To purposefully harm children is about as low as we can go as human beings. And I’m not going to get past this. Me personally. Every time I read this story in Matthew from now on… this will be there. Herod’s murder of the innocents now has a connection. Even if Herod had ordered his soldiers to cripple every child under the age of two… pulverize their legs so that they will never be able to walk again… the story would be no better. In his fear, he purposefully and without regard to decency… enacted evil that harmed children. Period.
Rachel wailing… that’s now very real. Every mother… every father having a child taken from them… that is Rachel wailing. If you cannot find the empathy for that… then I can only feel sorry for you.
And, of course, with this story is the added wrinkle of the holy family becoming refugees… Joseph doing the good and decent thing to protect his wife and child from the threat of murder… from the harm that would befall them if they stayed home in Bethlehem… fleeing their country by night to a place where he hoped they would be safe. Imagine them forcibly separated at the border of Egypt. Would you separate this family? Have we separated this family seeking the very same thing?
On Christmas Eve, we celebrated again the light shining into the world. Coming into the world through a child… helpless and in need of care. We lit the Christ candle and we passed it to each person there making us all like the shepherds who came to witness the child lying in a manger. “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” The one light growing in intensity as it spread among all the people… young and old… male and female… people with deep faith and people with just a sliver of hope… the light filling the sanctuary. It’s a great symbol as that light is to reside in each of us as we go out into the world for another year until we gather again at the next Christmas Eve and celebrate the light coming into the world. And Saints, the truth is that light is still so needed because the darkness has not quit. The darkness has not fully retreated and given up. Nor will it ever. It is quick to rush back in as soon as the light of Christ dims. These stories we read unfortunately find new relevancy with different generations. Churches are not dying because we have won and it is safe for us to pack it all away and forget about it. Christianity is fading because even as the light shines into the world we would still rather embrace the darkness and profit what we can from that darkness. Retails sales are not a good sign of whether or not this year was a good Christmas. How much that Christ light shines through you is the only real measurable sign of whether or not this Christmas has been a good Christmas.
So… yes… don’t be so quick to extinguish that light by packing away Christ with the rest of the decorations. Don’t be so quick to stop singing the songs of peace and goodwill. Don’t be so quick to put it all away… Amen.