[This message was delivered at the Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on 12/29/19, based on Matthew 2:12-23 and Hebrews 2:10-18.]
I would never have selected this Matthew reading for the first Sunday of Christmas. What were the people that determine the lectionary readings thinking? We have been working counter-culturally to keep Advent for four full weeks while our society has been in full Christmas mode. We have resisted breaking out all the magnificent Christmas carols (except when driving or home alone). And now it is the first Sunday of Christmas. We don’t read Matthew 1 about Joseph’s righteousness. Or Luke 2 about Mary birthing the baby in Bethlehem and laying him in a manger. Or even John 1 with the word becoming flesh and blood and moving into our neighborhood. No. We get Herod’s rage.
My former colleague at Northeastern Seminary, Esau McCaulley, wrote in the New York Times two days ago (12/27/19) about the bloody fourth day of Christmas, sometimes called the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This fourth day is not about four calling birds, but about a jealous political leader threatened by the thought of a rival entering his domain.
My current colleague and member of this worshiping body, Richard Middleton, wrote an article a few decades that I re-read every year about this time, entitled, “Let’s Put Herod Back in Christmas.” Richard reminds us what the popular culture wants us to forget; that Herod’s rage rages still in this world. Philips Brooks’s carol rings as true today as ever: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
No nativity set can tell this whole story. This is not a precious moments story. This is not a Hallmark Christmas movie. This story is filled with troubled people:
- Zechariah: he couldn’t believe the angelic announcement and lost his voice for nine months.
- Mary: she was troubled by the angelic greeting, sensing something unexpected was coming. She was right, and said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
- Then when she and Joseph brought the baby to the Temple, Simeon said to her, “A sword will pierce your heart.” Had any woman ever been in such circumstances?
- Joseph: the silent, righteous man was preparing to end his late stage engagement with Mary. Had any man ever been in such a dilemma?
- John the Baptist: languishing in a prison cell, even he would dare to ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we start looking for another?”
Herod is another category altogether. His reign in Israel was based on fear and bullying. He had already ordered the murders of three of his sons. He held in suspicion any rival, political or otherwise. Just over three decades later, the adult Jesus would stand before another insecure political leader named Pontius Pilate. There is a direct line from Herod to Pilate and it continues through the centuries right to our day, when leaders, both political and religious, are self-absorbed and seek to reign without rivals. We cannot help but note that all through his earthly life, Jesus’ greatest enemies were people in power, both political and religious. In some dark sense, they were right. Jesus comes to turn the present order upside down. Mary has it right in her song of praise, the Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Except it isn’t fully that way in our world yet.
The angel appears again. Is this making Joseph an insomniac? In the span of two chapters in Matthew, Joseph is awakened four times. “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.” My, there is a lot of travel in this story. Nazareth to Bethlehem. Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Bethlehem to Egypt. Egypt back to Nazareth. I hope they had frequent flyer membership.
And this story is filled with hope. In Jesus, God is with us. The author of Hebrews makes clear that Jesus is not God above us, but God with us, in every aspect of life. “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, should make the pioneer of our salvation perfect through sufferings.” Jesus didn’t float two inches above terra firma, he experienced the fullness of earthly life. As a toddler, he becomes a political refugee, an undocumented alien forced to leave his birthplace for a foreign land. His suffering isn’t incidental; it is essential to his full humanity. My life is cushy compared to what Jesus knew. Hebrews makes it precisely clear that his suffering makes him relatable to all that suffer. “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
There is darkness in our world today.
- About 65 million people are displaced globally, including 26 million refugees;
- About 14 million in Yemen are at risk of dying due to starvation;
- About 40,000 die in our country each year from gun-related violence (homicide, suicide, and accidental);
- Over 60 thousand die from drug addiction each year in the US;
- About 38 million Americans live in poverty in our country, while the wealthy are growing in their wealth; about 12 million of them are under 18 years of age;
- This year there have been about 70,000 migrant children held by our government in detention centers;
- Meanwhile, the 500 wealthiest people on earth added $1.2 trillion to their wealth in 2019.
The Rachel mentioned in Matthew 2 is still weeping as children around the world suffer, including those at our southern border. Suffering is never unnoticed by Jesus. His suffering did not immunize him to our suffering, but made him eternally sensitive to all human suffering.
What can we say to those weeping at the darkness and cruelty that still lingers in our world? I think of a letter President Lincoln sent to Lydia Bixley on Nov. 21, 1864: “I have been shown in the files of the War Department … that you are the mother of five sons who have died … on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” –Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, A. Lincoln.
Did anyone write letters of consolation to the grieving mothers of Bethlehem? We remember them today, the mothers of the Holy Innocents that didn’t escape Herod’s wrath-filled rage one day long ago. They, without their consent and not knowing why, sacrificed their young sons at the hands of a tyrant, while the young savior was able to find safe haven in a foreign land. Our hearts go out to them. Jesus can never forget them and their sons, his brothers in suffering.
While Herod has a place in this story called Christmas, reminding us of the continuing reality of darkness, this is not his story. Tyrants and bullies never have the last word. Self-absorbed politicians never have the last word. Self-appointed religious leaders never have the last word. The super wealthy never have the last word. This is not Herod’s story. This is the story of the entrance of the light into our darkness. That light is shining brightly and the darkness is powerless to extinguish it. Howard Thurman’s great poem rings as true today as in that dark day in Bethlehem:
“When the song of the angels is still
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back in their fields…
The work of Christmas begins,
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release prisoners
To bring peace among peoples
To rebuild the nations
To make music in the heart.”
The light shines in the darkness. There is work to do. Let us be about the work of Christmas.