I don’t know about you, but there are days when it feels as if there are only atrocities on the news. I quickly hit my limit, and I have to turn off the TV, or the internet. There are days when I can’t hear or read about ONE MORE. Many of us come to church in order to GET AWAY from what the political world is doing to the helpless and vulnerable. So today, we come to church, open our scripture – and another atrocity leaps off the pages! It’s the reading from Matthew – and how the ruler of the day is trying to SNUFF OUT innocent life. We can’t get away from them.
The political system is a vital part of today’s gospel. King Herod orders the deaths of – babies.
Yet, as bad as he is, there will always be someone who defends a despot, who say maybe Herod was NOT one hundred percent evil; historians say Herod was not as bad as perhaps, Nero. Many people LOVED him. Herod the Great was called GREAT because he was a great builder. There are STILL buildings of his in the mid-East that are standing. His legacy lives on: crumbling, but still there.
To Herod, ordering genocide is simply smart politics. Herod feels threatened, so the solution is to get rid of the threat. It’s part of the business of government to get rid of your rivals. He had ordered the death of his sons – so what’s it to him that he orders the deaths of unknown babies?
Today’s story foreshadows how the business of government grinds down on Jesus right from the beginning, and it doesn’t end until his death. It’s an old, old story: Herod too, is captive to sin and cannot free himself. Yet in today’s story, old as it is, we see God defeating the business of government as usual.
Our political rulers, including those who we really like, make decisions that are considered expedient. These decisions begin to matter when people we love, such as the Holy Family, are caught up in an evil system. When we can identify with the victims, the story changes and our hearts are touched.
For the gospel of Matthew, Christmas is always about a refugee family, the Holy Family is the ultimate refugee family. By rights, Jesus should have gotten a ticker tape parade of welcome. No stable for him! Let’s put him up in a palace. But that’s not the world HE or WE live in. Jesus is born into a world whose knee jerk reaction is to automatically to try to DESTROY him. The world we know is HOSTILE to him– this hostility shows how much in NEED it is of his GRACES.
This is the REAL picture of Christmas – a far cry from what the Hallmark channel presents as Christmas. There is NO sentimentality here – Christmas is a life or death business for Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Our gospel paints a picture of a dangerous world, where the young family has to successfully make their way through violence all on the basis of Joseph’s DREAMS. Jesus is born and he already threatens the status quo.
Grace is dangerous to the rulers of this world. Theologian Matt Skinner says, “The rulers of this world will not stand for a new system breaking in.” The new system is the kingdom of God and the Herods of this world will not stand for it.
We also hear echoes of the books of Exodus and Genesis in today’s gospel. King Herod is the new pharaoh, as he orders the deaths of baby boys, just like in the time of Moses. Now the Jewish king is the predator, who is even worse than the Egyptian pharaoh, victimizing not different tribes, but babies of his own tribe! See how decadent and immoral he is.
If you remember the book of Genesis, today’s Joseph has an ancestor, Joseph, who was also a very successful interpreter of dreams, and got himself out of prison, centuries before in Egypt. This long-ago Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams, and became the pharaoh’s second in command, who called him “Discerning and wise” (Genesis 41:40). Now our Joseph dreams powerful dreams and he shows that he too is discerning and wise because he takes the directions of the angel to heart, and DEFEATS cosmic, destroying evil. HE has to thread his way through the violence that waits for him and his little family. He, unlike King Herod, stays true to his ancestry.
In Luke chapter 2, the angel says to Mary, “The Lord is with you.” The same can be said about Joseph: The Lord is with him, too. Luckily? No, not luckily; Joseph knows to listen and pay heed to these dreams. THREE TIMEs, the angel comes to him. Three times Joseph takes direction from an angelic messenger and saves his baby son.
How we may ask ourselves, HOW does God defeat the business of an evil government? With dreams. With feather-weight dreams. The safety of the Holy Family is so tenuous – based on a successful interpreter of dreams . . . Will Joseph even pay attention to these dreams or just brush them off? If we could put a dream on a scale – how much would it weigh? Would it weigh even as much as a feather? Yet with feather-light God-given dreams, Joseph defeats evil. In obedience, he LISTENS and interprets, Joseph defeats the evil king. THIS is what GRACE looks like: obedience and listening and digging deep to remember his ancestor’s way with dreams.
Joseph’s dreams weigh a great deal against the MIGHT of King Herod, his weapons and violence. Three lives hang in the balance. Joseph, the dreamer, defeats Herod’s evil plan, and the baby Jesus escapes to safety.
If WE are ever fortunate to get a message from heaven, we may assume it’s a sign of perfection. With the birth of Christ, things don’t automatically become perfect. Theologian Stephanie Carter says, “Joseph has had an encounter with heaven, and that voice is telling him just how BAD things are.”
In just ten verses, the Holy Family leaves Bethlehem, goes to Egypt and then Nazareth.
“The move to Nazareth shows that the world is still dangerous and they can’t return.”
Grace sends this young family RUNNING for their lives.
When God breaks through into our world, inertia and stagnation end. In a short period of time – with God’s grace and LOVE – there is movement. This is a time in the lectionary when we are reminded that there are other young families for whom their political system is dangerous, and that God is FOUND among these vulnerable.
As an adult, Jesus will reach out to people on the margins, heal their illnesses, and eat with them. Dr. Esau McCaulley of Wheaton College says, “This feast suggests that God cares about . . . the truly vital events happening in refugee camps, detention centers, slums and prisons. The Christmas story is set not in a palace surrounded by dignitaries, but among the poor and humble whose lives are always subject to forfeit.”
What does any of this mean for us? The birth of Jesus doesn’t allow US to stay still. When Christ is born in our hearts we are made alive again. The birth of Jesus sends us to places we may not want to go our own version of EGYPT. OR sends us places it never occurred to us to go, OR throws us OUT of places we shouldn’t be.
In our own lives, the inbreaking of Christ causes MOVEMENT and displacement, too.
When Christ breaks into our lives, we are not the same, praise be to God. Christ breaks into our world and causes us to scrutinize our lives and our decisions; we look at our lives anew with our ‘Jesus glasses’, we give our lives a divine scrutiny.
Today’s gospel story illustrates why following Christ is such a tough sell – even and especially amongst Christian believers. Look at the anxiety this must have caused the young couple! They have to bundle up a newborn baby and run – ! Mary may have been wondering, ‘Is it supposed to go this way? Shouldn’t the mother of the Messiah be getting better treatment?’ Then she runs for her life! Yet her Magnificat shows us a young woman wise to the inequalities between the mighty and the powerless.
Let’s face it, we like our Christianity without all of the challenges and death defying, literally DEATH-DEFYING – feats. We like our Christianity more of the arm chair variety, while God offers us the chance of a lifetime to practice a Christianity that’s more of the boots on the ground. God offers us a way forward unlike any plan we may have for our lives, with our feet hitting the pavement for truly and purely for the LOVE of GOD.
The Christian life can be an acquired taste, much like eating anchovies. The first anchovy is difficult. The one hundredth anchovy, garlicky, smelly, salty is much more pleasurable.
We thank you, Lord, for giving us a realistic view of Christmas and the Christian life. We remember the refugees of today as holy families. You offer us a much richer life than what we could imagine for ourselves. Help us to see the vulnerable people on the margins. Give us hearts that reach out to them as brothers and sisters in Christ. We pray this in the name of your son, Jesus Christ.