December 29, 2002
I woke up Thursday morning wondering what had just happened. Like a freight train screaming by, Christmas had come and gone, and all that we did on Christmas day was a blur. And now, family has left to return home, we are slowly starting to remove and box up our Christmas decorations, and things are returning back to normal.
The anticipation and excitement of Christmas day has faded away and I am beginning to return to my regular schedule and to the real world. Maybe this is why I chose to preach on this lectionary text for today, because we need to be reminded that our real world lives have not stopped, that time continues to tick on, that we have to continue living day by day in the midst of what goes on in the world around us, that even though our Christmas day activities have ended, the message of Christmas, the message of the Gospel, continues to be the message of hope, peace, joy, and love we know in Jesus Christ.
I turned on the TV the day after Christmas to catch up on what is going on in the world. I flipped through the cable news channels reading the bottom of the screens as news items scrolled by. My heart sank as I read that 3 people were killed and 11 others wounded by a terrorist attack at a small church during Christmas services in a Pakistani village. Then I read about the continued violence between Israel and Palestine. And for the past couple of days, there has been more news from around the world.
News of North Korea dismantling UN video cameras and kicking out UN inspectors as they again prepare to start up their nuclear reactor, as well as placing heavy machine guns in the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea. News from Russia of homicide bombers blowing up Chechnya’s government headquarters killing 57 people. Even news from the Ivory Coast where French troops are clashing with the rebels. It doesn’t take long to be reminded that the world, as it was 2000 years ago after Jesus was born, has not stopped being a dangerous place.
I will be the first person to admit to you that this text is not an easy text to read. I would rather talk about the sentimental things of Christmas, like the miraculous birth, or the shepherds, or the baby Jesus in the manger, or how there is peace on earth good will toward all. This text seems grossly inappropriate to read during the Christmas season. After all, Christmas is supposed to be a time of hope, peace, joy and love, a time of promise, a time of laughter, a time to be with friends and family, a time to ponder what the birth of Jesus means for us? The very thought of suffering, injustice and cruelty being spoken of in the same sentence with Christmas seems irreverent and offensive. Christmas should be a time when people put aside their differences, reconcile their relationships, and remember the true reason for the season.
But the stark reality is that Christmas isn’t this way, it should be, but it isn’t. The world is still a dangerous place, bad things still happen, evil still exists. Wars, disease, famine and death are still a part of this broken world, and suffering, abuse, oppression and cruelty are still a part of our broken lives. Christmas may be a time of hope, peace, joy and love for some, but it is not that way for all. Maybe this is why we need to hear this text this morning.
I went to one of my preacher forums on the Internet where pastors can talk about texts they are preaching on. I wanted to see what others were saying about this text for today. Over and over again I kept reading that people were not going to touch this particular text from Matthew. I read things like “it’s a dark text” or “it’s too depressing for Christmas.” On the one hand, they are right, this is a dark text and not very uplifting for Christmas, but, on the other hand, they are wrong, they are wrong for avoiding it. It is precisely the fact that the world does not stop that we need to hear this text.
Is the Christmas story only good news for some but not for others, for those who already have hope, peace, joy and love in their lives, but not for those who have no hope, no peace, no joy and no love? Of course it’s not. The good news of Christmas is good news for all people, for the whole world, and our text today reminds us that the Christmas story must never be told without acknowledging, let alone even caring about, real people and their real human lives.
Our Lord Jesus was not born in a vacuum, but rather he was born in the midst of the real world with its danger, evil, and suffering. And the good news of Christmas is good news precisely because of this fact, precisely because God came to be with us in the midst of the world’s brokenness, as well as our own. Maybe this is why we need to hear this text during Christmas.
Can you imagine what Mary and Joseph must have been going through? Just a few days before, their precious son was born, but their baby was not like any other baby, for he was the Son of God. It must have been an exciting time for them, yes, I know they were in a manger and had to put the baby in the feeding trough, but when your baby is born nothing else matters. Then shepherds come and sing praises to God, then wise men come and bring very expensive gifts.
But suddenly, in the blink of an eye all is changed. The baby is in danger, and Mary and Joseph are warned to flee to Egypt. There is chaos and panic in the air as they try to take whatever they can before Herod’s troops come. Could this really be happening? Is this the way it is supposed to be? Throughout this last year our lives have been changed. We have been at war in Afghanistan, we are still fighting a war against world wide terrorism, the fighting in Israel is becoming more intensive, and now there is renewed talk of another cold war as nations again speak of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Could this really be happening? Is this the way it is supposed to be?
But, behind the chaos and panic, behind the seemingly random scribbling of human history, another story is being played out, another story at work in human history, a story of grace and redemption, a story being firmly written by the hidden hand of God. Maybe this is why we need to hear this text this first Sunday after Christmas.
Over the past 15 months, our mind’s eye has been seared with the images of Usama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, but their faces are among the countless faces who have darkened the pages of human history with the blood of countless victims, whose hatred for people is the lasting legacy of their tyranny. Bin Laden, Hussein, Hitler, Stalin, Herod, Pharaoh – dictators and tyrants, who believed that they could secure their power through murder and genocide.
But the message of our text today is that the brokenness of God’s creation will not have the final say, the dangers, evil, and suffering of this world is passing away, that chaos is being replaced by the hope and peace of God in Christ. The political tyrants of this world, who rule by terror and oppression, will come and go, but God’s will outlasts and overrules them all.
The words of the text should bring fear to the hearts of those who rule others by the sword…Herod is dead, but the Word of the Lord continues…Herod is dead, but he messenger of the Lord is still appearing, speaking, guiding, and protecting…Herod is dead, but the grace, mercy and love of God is everlasting. Oh yes, we need to hear this text this Christmas and everyday of the year.
It seems like little comfort that Jesus was spared when so many other children died. We will never know why things like this have to happen, but we can be sure that it is not part of God’s plan. Sin is always the author of death, not God, and evil can only stand in opposition to God’s purpose. No evil, not even in its most catastrophic form, as the murder of innocent children, can thwart or destroy God’s working out of His eternal plan of salvation through Jesus Christ.
In our text, the sovereign God is at work providing for the security of a baby, a baby who through his life, death and resurrection will bring salvation to the world, a baby who will wipe away the tears of those who suffer and morn, a baby who will bring hope, peace, joy and love to a broken world.
Our world is dangerous, and humanity will continue to do the most inhuman things against God and against each other. But, God has not abandoned us. Oh no, God has not abandoned us at all in fact God has come to be with us. God has slipped quietly into our lives, and with deliberate action, God is even now working through Jesus Christ in this real world to bring to it the hope, peace, joy and love that surpasses human understanding. This is the message of Christmas. This is the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And this is why we need to hear this text today, and every day after Christmas.
In the powerful name of the living and acting Triune God, Amen.