Category Archives: Christmas

A Prayer for Christmas Day 2022

O Holy Mystery,
infinite, almighty, encompassing the universe,
you came to us as human infant,
God made flesh, glory tucked between your tiny toes;
Love latching onto life –
vulnerable and helpless,
and yet our only help.

Now, in the quiet aftermath of all our frantic striving
to celebrate your birth with our best,
the very best of our best,
we kneel before you,

Whether we were ready or not, you came.
Whether we are ready or not, 
come once again, Lord Jesus.
Latch onto our lives. 
Fill us with the mystery of your love, 
God made flesh.


A Word of Invitation for Christmas Eve

I have long thought it was pointless to write a sermon for Christmas Eve. I mean, how many Christmas Eve sermons have you actually remembered afterward? Hmm? Yeah, me too. Not one.

So I’ve always operated from the viewpoint that the gospel could speak for itself this one night of the year. The story of the incarnation is enough.

But lately, I’ve begun to realize that this is only true for people who already believe. For everyone else, it’s just a nice story. It makes us feel all fuzzy and warm, and for an hour or so, we can bask in the gentle glow of candlelight. We can pretend that the cute baby in the manger sleeps in heavenly peace, and won’t bother us too much with the reality of our human existence.

And that’s where we’d be wrong. Continue reading

What Salvation Looks Like – sermon for Christmas 1B on Luke 2:22-40

December 31, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here.

Is your tree still up? It’s still Christmas, you know. All this coming week, too, with temperatures hovering at or below zero, it’s still Christmas.

The angels have returned to the heavenly realms, after breaking into this earthly realm to announce peace and good will to the shepherds.

The shepherds have told everyone they know the story of that encounter, and are back in the fields with the sheep.

Most of Joseph’s relatives who were in town for the holidays have gone home, leaving a little more room in the house for the new family to get stronger before they set out on their own journey.

The magi from the East are on their way, but it will be some time before they show up to offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s still Christmas. Luke continues the story in chapter two of his gospel:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40)

Listening to this story of Simeon and Anna meeting Jesus in the temple, I always bump up against this question: How did they know? How did they know that this was the One they’d been waiting for? What clued them into the fact that their prayers had been answered, and they were in the presence of Messiah?

Keep in mind that Simeon and Anna were the first ones to recognize salvation without any angel announcements or stars guiding them. So how did they do it? How did they know?

Let’s take a closer look at these two. First, we need to recognize that Luke often pairs a male and female experience when he tells the important parts of the story of Jesus. Mary’s song is balanced with Zachariah’s song back in chapter 1. Anna’s “pairing with Simeon … illustrate[s] an important theme in Luke: men and women stand side-by-side before God, equal in honor and grace, endowed with the same gifts, with the same responsibilities.”[1] Luke is reflecting the equality between male and female that God had in mind from the beginning of creation. In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

And in Galatians 3:28 Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Luke will repeat this pairing of male and female interactions with Christ throughout his gospel.

Jesus will speak of the widow of Zarephath in the same sentence as Naaman (Luke 4:25-28) Other pairings include “the healing of the demoniac and Peter’s mother-in-law ( 4:31-39), and the centurion of Capernaum and the widow of Nain ( 7:1-17).”[2]

Anna’s designation as a prophet is also significant. Including her story with Simeon’s is important to Luke’s version of the gospel. He wants to be sure we understand that Jesus the Savior came for all people, died for all people, and can be recognized, accepted, and proclaimed by anyone, male or female.

Anna and Simeon show us how to do this. And so do Mary and Joseph.

So here we have a couple of faithful, law-abiding parents, bringing their firstborn to the temple to dedicate him to the Lord, and to complete the ritual necessary for Mary’s purification. According to Jewish law, the firstborn – whether human or animal – belonged to the Lord. Firstborn animals were sacrificed, but parents could redeem firstborn children by paying five shekels into the temple treasury.

Luke doesn’t tell us that Mary and Joseph did this. Instead, they dedicate Jesus to the Lord, much as Hannah dedicated young Samuel to the Lord back in the Old Testament. And it is clear that they are poor, because of the offering they bring for Mary’s purification – the law allows for two doves instead of a lamb and a dove, if the parents are poor.

Keep this in mind. Jesus was poor. His family was poor. And yet, Simeon and Anna recognize that this poor child is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Let’s consider Simeon. He is a righteous man who has been waiting for Messiah his entire life. God has told him he will see Israel’s salvation before he dies, and he is constantly worshiping in the temple as he waits for this to happen. He has been waiting for some time, but he has not given up hope. What does he do when he recognizes salvation is right in front of him? He takes the baby and sings a song.

But this is no sweet lullaby. It is a prophetic word from the Lord about the significance of the child Jesus. Simeon is ready to die, now that he has seen God’s salvation. He sings about division and peace, a sword and joy. He warns Mary that she will suffer, as she watches her son suffer.

Let’s consider Anna.

Anna proclaims the Savior to anyone who will listen, “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. That’s an important clue: in order to recognize salvation when it’s right in front of us, we have to be looking for redemption. We have to be eagerly expecting salvation to come.

What does salvation look like? How will we know it when we see it?

Simeon’s song describes God’s salvation as something that God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Salvation is out there in the open, a revelation to everyone who will see it.

It also looks like trouble. Simeon goes on to say,

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

This good news of God’s salvation will meet strong opposition. Jesus will grow up to argue with religious leaders, to face torture and a horrendous death. And why? Simeon tells us it’s because Christ reveals the truth about us.

Christ exposes our sinfulness for what it is. “The inner thoughts of many will be revealed” – and when those inner thoughts are not centered on Christ, they are centered on sin. We don’t like revealing that.

We don’t like to have our hypocrisy exposed. We don’t like our failures of faith to be shown to the world. No wonder Jesus faced opposition. If we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus, we will face the same opposition, too.

So here’s what salvation looks like:

  • It looks like God at work, exposing our sin as well as our faith.
  • It looks like caring more about “the least” than “the most”
  • It looks like a vulnerable, human baby and an old man ready to die, encompassing both birth and death in salvation’s story.

It looks like Jesus.

How can we be more like Simeon and Anna, so we can recognize what salvation looks like when we see it?

Simeon was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.”
Simeon was devoted to hope in God. He was looking forward, not backward. And he was receptive to God’s spirit. Notice that the Holy Spirit is mentioned three times in short order here:

  • The Holy Spirit rested on Simeon.
  • It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
  • Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple

If we want to be able to see God’s salvation when it comes through the door, we need to be looking forward, devoted to hope in God, and open to the Holy Spirit.

And what about Anna? She “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” Anna devoted herself to prayer and worship. If we want to be able to recognize God’s salvation when we see it, we need to be devoted to prayer, to worship, to spiritual practices like fasting that focus our attention on God.

We prepare ourselves for salvation as Simeon and Anna did:

  • In humble obedience and complete devotion to God
  • Expectantly, hopefully worshipping
  • Open to the Holy Spirit filling us and speaking into our lives

It’s still Christmas, but it’s also the eve of a New Year.

Each new year, we make decisions about who we want to be. We make resolutions; we set goals. This can be a good thing. Goals give us focus and direction.

Often, these goals are focused on improving ourselves. Losing weight, saving money, getting a better job — but there’s a catch: even the best goals are often inherently self-centered.

Christ did not call us to live that way. Simeon and Anna did not live that way. To live the life God has in mind for us, we must be willing to devote our whole lives to following Jesus.

During the month of January, I invite you to shake up your perception of Christian living. I invite you to deny yourself and go all-in as you follow Jesus, with the full knowledge that while it won’t make your life easier, you will find joy in the journey.

With Simeon, you will be able to confidently say, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace” at the end of your life. Like Anna, your life will be one of rejoicing. Like Jesus, you will grow in wisdom and strength, and in favor with God. Amen.



Unlocking the Mystery – Sermon on John 1:9-18 for Christmas 2C

January 2, 2022

Do you like a good mystery?

I’m a sucker for a good mystery novel. I love the twists and turns of a well-crafted plot, the clues hidden in the smallest details, and the challenge of putting together the pieces of an intricate puzzle. Sometimes, an author leaves a few loose ends dangling at the end of the story, and the unanswered questions act as a teaser for the sequel. This story’s mystery may be solved, but another riddle appears ready to present itself in the next book.

Maybe it isn’t solving the riddle that hooks us, so much as the experience of mystery itself. Continue reading

Glory Next Door – Sermon on John 1:1-18 (Christmas 2A)

The prologue to John’s Gospel is one of the most read – and perhaps least understood – passages in Scripture. We hear part of it every Christmas Eve, just before the Christ Candle enters the room. The poetic structure of the first few verses has led some scholars to believe that it was  a hymn already being sung by the early church before John set down his version of the gospel story. Others, of course, dispute that theory. Whether the Evangelist borrowed this ‘Hymn to the Word’ from another source or composed it himself, countless Christians have been moved and encouraged by John’s simply worded, yet deeply profound, introduction to the story of Jesus, the Son of God.

John tells his gospel story differently than the other evangelists do. Unlike Matthew and Luke, there is no “birth story” in John’s gospel. Unlike Mark, John does not begin with an explanation of the ministry of John the Baptist, though the Baptizer does have an important role to play in this prologue to the gospel. We might wonder, “Why did John find it necessary to write  a gospel at all? Mark had already set down his urgent rough draft, and both Matthew and Luke had refined that telling, filling in gaps and explaining the confusing parts. And why did John begin his story in such  a peculiar way, leaving out those shepherds and magI we enjoy remembering during this season of Christmastide?

Ancient tradition holds that the Evangelist wrote from Ephesus, near the end of the first century. The temple had probably already been destroyed by the time John wrote, and the Jews had been dispersed, leaving Jerusalem behind as they resettled in other cities. John’s story is directed to these Jews, who have been scattered throughout the provinces, bereft of a location they could call their spiritual home. John also was writing for Greeks who had been converted to the Jewish faith.

John’s purpose for writing his distinctive gospel message is woven throughout today’s passage, but he states it most clearly in chapter 20, near the end of the story: “These things have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” This phrase “that you might believe” may be interpreted two ways. First, that you may come to faith, believing in Christ for salvation, but also, that you might persevere in faith, continuing to believe. John wrote the gospel story to convince those Jews who remained skeptical, that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah for whom they longed. And to those who already believed, John hoped to encourage their faith and sustain them through the hardships the early church was beginning to face. Those Christians needed – as we often do –  a reminder of what they had first believed: that Jesus was the Christ, and that they belonged to God.

Today’s passage is the introduction, the prologue to John’s story. Let us prepare our hearts to hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us by John the Evangelist.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him,
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God;
who were born,
not of blood
nor of the will of the flesh
nor of the will of man,
but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of  a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth;

 (John testified to him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.'”)

From his fullness we have all received,
grace upon grace.
The law indeed was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God;
It is God the only Son,
who is close to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known. – John 1:1-18

Scholars have puzzled over this prologue to the Gospel of John for centuries. John opens his story the same way Genesis starts; “In the beginning…”, drawing his Jewish readers into the creation story that is, for them, familiar, comfortable ground. Ah yes, “in the beginning” – we know how this goes, they think.  But John adds  a shocking twist to those familiar thoughts: In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God. The Evangelist uses simple vocabulary, but his message is far from simple.

The Greek word ‘logos’ means ‘word,’ but it can indicate the action of speaking a word as well as the actual word being spoken. John’s use of logos to describe God’s act of creation draws on this idea. Both Jews and Greek converts to the Jewish faith would connect the action of God, speaking the world into existence, with the word God had pronounced to accomplish this creative act. The Word as  a flesh-and-blood person, however, would have been  a startling idea to both Greek and Hebrew readers. I think that was John’s intent. Identifying the Word of the Creation story with  a real human ought to have grabbed the attention of the Fourth Gospel’s first readers– and it should also grab ours.

Sometimes we need to be shaken up a little. We need to be reminded that this miracle of grace we have experienced cannot be taken for granted. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming complacent, lukewarm. So John the Evangelist uses language meant to grab us and shake us up. First, he uses poetry when referring to the Word, then he interrupts the poem with a story about the witness of John the Baptist. Or maybe it’s the poetry doing the interrupting, giving us a summary of the whole gospel’s message. That message is this: God has broken in on our everyday lives, just as John’s poem about the Word breaks through the story of the Baptizer’s witness to the Son of God. God has come among us, interjecting himself into human lives through the person of Jesus Christ. John was among the last alive who had seen and known Jesus, and he feared for a church that might forget what it was to personally know the Savior. “I have seen him,” John says. “ I bear witness, just as John the Baptizer did, that this man who lived among us is God.”

A few years ago, archeologists uncovered a small house, about 900 square feet, in the old city of Nazareth, dating from the time Jesus lived there. Nazareth was a small village of maybe 50 families, probably very poor, and quite likely related to one another. As the archeologists were digging, it was easy to speculate how Jesus might have played and worked in the very spot where they were standing. The personhood of Jesus seems more real when holding a shard of  a pot he might actually have touched. The Word became flesh, John writes. And we have seen his glory.

Imagine, if you can, being told that a guy who went to high school with you, graduated in your class, grew up with you and hung out with you under the bleachers while your brothers played Little League together, spitting hulls from sunflower seeds  – that guy … is God. John was doing exactly that in this introduction to his gospel. John was bearing witness to what he himself had seen and heard. He knew ‘that guy’ – and he recognized that Jesus was more than just a buddy hanging out under the bleachers: he was God, and he was God from before the beginning, before the creation of the world. John’s point is that God has revealed himself in one very like us, and yet not like us at all. The light has come into the world, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory.

Not only have we seen the Light, John tells us, that Light coming into the world, invading our reality, cannot be overcome – or even ‘understood’ by the darkness. But that light can transform our darkness, if we believe. Last week, we considered how God is present with us, even in the face of great darkness, even in the midst of unspeakable evil. While God is continually present with us in the brokenness of our world, God’s presence can only begin to change us and the darkness around us when we trust in God, when we believe in the saving grace God offers us through his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the question each of us must answer: Do you believe?

Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth – that guy – is the Son of God? If you have not yet made that leap of faith, I urge you to take up John’s gospel and read it through, today. Football can wait. And if you haven’t taken down your Christmas tree yet, another day is not going to matter. It is John the Evangelist’s deepest desire that you come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. As we approach the Communion Table today, this is also my deep desire for you.

John writes, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Names mean something in the Bible.  A name represents all that a person is; it reflects a person’s character and identity. God’s name was considered sacred by the ancient Hebrews because it represents all that God is. For John, believing in the Name meant believing that Jesus bore God’s name, that he was, in fact, divine.

“… he gave power to become children of God.” We who believe in his Name, who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we have the power to become children of God. This word, translated as ‘power’ in the NRSV, and as ‘right’ in the NIV, is the Greek word for ‘authority’. We have been given authority to become children of God. 1 John 3:1-2 exclaims, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God – and that is what we are!” God has granted us authority to claim God as our Father. And this authority bears with it some responsibility.

Just as Jesus humbled himself to go into the world to seek and to save that which was lost, so he calls us to go into the world, seeking out those who need God, who hunger for truth, who could use a little grace in their lives. Claiming our authority as God’s children, we have a job to do: we are to be salt and light in the world around us. And we are to be grace and glory for one other, too, as we receive grace and truth from our brothers and sisters within this faith community.

The language is simple, but the truth it expresses is deeply profound. It may be difficult to understand completely, but our task is not to try to make sense of it. Our task is to let it make sense of us.[1] As we submit ourselves to the Word of God, the Word that was made flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, we are changed. We become the children of God. This transformation is grace. We dare not keep it to ourselves. Like John, we must eagerly share this good news, so that others might come to believe, and might keep on believing.

Amanda Highben puts it another way in her poem, “Let us believe”. She writes:

Let us believe in the bright light now before us.

Brighter still is this—
the knowledge that I have placed your love
like  a smooth seed in my heart, and there it pulses
and stirs in  a hope-hollowed space,
deep in dark soil cradled.

We have not come so far, this far, for nothing.
We have come that we might be changed.

And let us believe that, in time, we will come to love
our bright and curving world
without inclining towards fear.

For I have come to believe in this bright truth—
quietly, from the core, we change
and quietly, from the core, we love.   – Amanda Highben (b. 1978)

God calls us to be transformed, so that we can go out into the world, bearing his light and his truth. Our transformation begins in God’s mercy and grace. It develops through our belief in his Son, Jesus Christ. And our transformation is made complete when we can love, as Jesus loved, those around us who need God’s saving grace. Quietly, from the core, let us grow in faith and love. Openly, as children of God, let us share the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Almighty God, you have filled us with the light of the Word, who became flesh and lived among us; let the light of faith shine in all that we do; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

[1] (William H Willimon, Pastor, 150).

Rubbing Elbows

“Nothing gives an arts donor greater pleasure,” the consultant said, “than rubbing elbows with the sweaty artists.” The topic was post-concert receptions, and the consultant was encouraging performers to spend time with the patrons who support them.
“I thought about going into music,” the insurance agent said, “but there was this guy in high school who just blew the rest of us out of the water. I knew I could never compete with talent like that. So I majored in math instead of music.” The classmate went on to become a world-famous orchestra conductor. The insurance agent enjoyed telling stories about rubbing elbows with the famous conductor when they were in high school together.
A few years ago, archeologists found the remains of a small first-century house in the village of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. It might have even been the same house where Joseph and Mary raised their family. At the very least, given that Nazareth probably had no more than fifty homes in it, this little house belonged to someone Jesus knew when he was a child. Imagine what it must have been like to live right next door to the Son of God! What would it be like to rub elbows with the sweaty carpenter’s kid, to hang out as a teenager with the smartest guy in Hebrew class? I wonder…
“The Word became flesh and made his home among us.” – John 1:14

No Consolation – Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23

Have you already taken down your Christmas decorations at home?  We haven’t.  We leave them up as long as possible.  In fact, one year, we barely got Christmas put away in time for Ash Wednesday!  I grew up in a church that did not really observe the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  For us, Christmas was a day, or two at most, if you counted Christmas Eve.  The twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany were nothing more than a vacation from school.

As an adult, however, I began to appreciate this span of time that forms a bridge between the birth of Jesus and his presentation to the world as its Savior.  We know so little about the years between Bethlehem and Jesus’ appearance at the Jordan River, asking to be baptized by John.  It seems appropriate that we should pause here, on the first Sunday of the season of Christmas, to consider how Jesus got from the manger to Nazareth, the village where he would grow to adulthood.

Matthew follows a clear pattern to tell us this story.  He uses three dreams, three “obediences,” and three geographic locations to describe how prophecies about the Messiah are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.  Today’s reading picks up the tale where we left off on Christmas Eve.  The magi have come to pay homage to a king.  On their way, they have stopped to ask Herod where to find him.  Herod tries to smooth-talk the magi into letting him know how their quest turns out, but an angel of the Lord warns them to go home by a different way than they came, and they follow this advice.  The main character in this story is not the magi who have just left, and it is not Mary who gave birth to Jesus. It is not Herod, the evil and paranoid king.  This is Joseph’s story.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, the second chapter, beginning at verse 13:

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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

This passage falls neatly into three sections: God’s call into Egypt, what happens “meanwhile, back at the ranch,” and God’s call back from Egypt, to a final destination in Galilee.  While the writing may be tidy and well-organized, the story Matthew tells is certainly not.  This young family did a lot of traveling, and many preachers choose to focus on Jesus the Refugee as the main point of the story. 

Such a focus offers plenty of preaching material. We could talk about the obvious parallels in Matthew’s Gospel with Old Testament writings.  We could consider how Joseph’s flight into Egypt recalls another Joseph, back in Genesis, who went to Egypt against his will, but who became Pharaoh’s right-hand man and made it possible for the nation of Israel to survive, grow, and thrive, even under the hardship of slavery[1].  Matthew reminds us of the story of the baby Moses, hidden in the bulrushes to protect him from Pharaoh’s slaughter of newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt[2].  It is clear that Matthew draws a connection between the return of Moses to Egypt after Pharaoh’s death, and Joseph’s sudden return when he learns through a dream that Herod is dead.  The young family’s trip back home to Israel reminds us of the journey Moses led through the wilderness, as the Israelites escaped their captivity in Egypt and headed toward the Promised Land.  Matthew connects the story of Jesus’ early travels to God’s call, protection, and provision for his people throughout history.  It’s a powerful connection.  And there are certainly strong connections between Jesus the Refugee and the plight of refugees throughout the world right now.  Refugees who have been displaced by politics, war, and poverty struggle with the same fears and anxiety that Joseph and Mary must have experienced, as they did whatever they could to protect the young child, Jesus.

But nagging in the back of my mind, and perhaps in the back of yours, is the horror of what happens “meanwhile, back at the ranch.”  While it’s important to see how the greater story of God’s activity among his people is connected to, and completed in, the story of Jesus, we cannot ignore those middle verses, the ones that speak of an unspeakable tragedy.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The question has been bothering us since the beginning of human history:  How can a just and loving God allow evil to exist?  How can God let innocent people suffer, while evil people thrive and prosper?  The book of Job is filled with this question.  In seminary, they even give us a name for the problem: theodicy.  But giving it a name, and even knowing that brilliant theologians have been struggling to find an answer for as long as we can imagine, doesn’t help when it becomes personal.  When it’s your child being put to the sword, the question is no longer hypothetical.  The pain is real, and the only question we can raise is “Why, God?”

Make no mistake: the slaughter of those children in Bethlehem was not God’s idea.  It was Herod’s.  Herod the Great wasn’t even a Jew; he was an Idumean, or an Edomite – descended from Esau, not Jacob, whose sons would become heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.  Herod never felt his position was secure, and he was known for his paranoia and brutality.  He even had his favorite wife and some of his sons murdered when he suspected them of treachery.  He decreed that forty Jewish nobles should be brought to Jericho to be killed when he died, so that there would be abundant mourning throughout the land at his death.  Thankfully, the son who succeeded him decided not to carry out this final wish.

Matthew is the only source to describe Herod’s murder of the children in Bethlehem.  Some scholars think the event wasn’t noteworthy for first century historians to record, partly because it was only one of many atrocities committed by Herod, and partly because the number of children affected was probably no more than twenty, given that Bethlehem was such a small village.  Such violence against innocent children may have been unremarkable by first century standards, given that children were considered to be little more than property at that time.  They were expendable.  But Matthew names it as an atrocity.  United Methodist pastor Cherie Baker writes, “Matthew tells us that God cares that children are massacred.  Misuse and abuse of children was common then, and the Good News names that as wrong.  Misuse and abuse of children is far too common now, and the Good News names that as wrong”[3].

For example, fighting in South Sudan has taken countless lives and sent over a hundred thousand refugees to neighboring countries over the past two weeks.  Two of my former students are there, with their missionary father, attempting to help displaced children find their parents as they work to get food and supplies to overcrowded camps where children are only slightly safer than they were in South Sudan.  Please pray for my friend and his family, as they work to protect innocent children from becoming “collateral damage” of the growing conflict in South Sudan.

But that’s only one example.  Halee Gray Scott writes,
“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Christians suffer persecution, discrimination, and harassment in 133 countries—a full two-thirds of all countries worldwide.  In September, 85 congregants were killed in bombing of All Saints Church in Pakistan while a consecutive attack at Nairobi’s Westgate mall claimed the lives of 72 people. On October 21, … Islamic rebels invaded the Syrian town of Sadad and carried out one of the largest massacres in the country’s history. Forty-five Christians, including women and children, were tortured and murdered.  The Syrian rebels documented the massacre in YouTube videos.”

We hear of the children in our own country – in our own state – who are victims of human trafficking.  Child abuse continues to escalate throughout our country.  Atrocities against children are just as real now as they were in Bethlehem in 4 BC.

Meanwhile, many of you have suffered the terrible loss of your own children.  Maybe they did not die violent deaths, as those twenty children did last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School, but the loss is still real, and the pain is still acute.  You know, as others may not, what it means to weep with Rachel, who will not be consoled, because her children are no more.

So, when we ask, “Why, God?  How is this Good News?” it may not help to know that Matthew is painting a Bigger Picture of God’s providence and protection for his people.  Being reminded that God is not willing for any to perish, but wants to give each of us eternal life might seem like an empty promise.  Knowing that bad things happening to innocent people has more to do with our sinful condition than God’s will for us might be difficult to explain.  We can’t just shrug off the sorrow.  We can’t diminish the pain of the here and now.

It’s a dangerous thing to be human, to be vulnerable, to face the fact of our own mortality. The Good News is not always sweetness and light. That pretty baby in the manger grows up to die on a cross. God has to watch his own Son, his only Son, die a horrible death. And God grieves.

God grieves all the Herods and the Pharaohs and the murderers of innocent children. God grieves us when we turn away from him. God grieves as only a bereft parent can grieve.  Friends, that is exactly why this story is part of the Christmas story.  Christ came to be God With Us – Immanuel.  He came to be God with us in our sorrow, God with us in our fear, God with us in our wandering, God with us.  Always.

The world is filled with darkness, with evil evident in every corner.  But God is with us.  The violence that surrounded Christ’s birth was the same violence that would eventually lead to his crucifixion.  Christ went into every dark place we humans must go, even into the darkness of the grave.  But he rose again.  There is no darkness that can frighten God.  God is with us.

Christmas is a dangerous holiday.  It’s dangerous to be human, to admit our mortality, to hold in tension both this awareness of our vulnerability, and the awareness of God’s great gift to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who made himself vulnerable to the power of evil, and yet conquered it.  The joy of Christmas depends on the joy of Easter resurrection.

There’s a little detail in this story, Joseph’s story, which we need to notice. Every time an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, Joseph immediately did what he was told to do.  He did not ask, as the weeping mothers of Bethlehem must have asked, “Why, God?”  He got up in the night, packed his family’s belongings, and he went where he was told to go.  Even when he was afraid, he obeyed.

Only Joseph saw the angel.  Only Joseph had the dreams.  Only Joseph knew the magnitude of his task, to protect the Messiah from the danger of Herod’s henchmen.  Just as Mary did not argue with the angel who told her she would give birth to the Savior of the World, Joseph did not argue with the angel who said, “Go!”  He just went.  He answered God’s call with action.

God is calling us, today.  He is calling us to be a voice for peace, justice, and grace.  He is calling us to challenge the way things are in the world, to stand against evil when we see it, to be the presence of God for those who suffer violence and abuse, to let them know that God is with us, Immanuel.

When we challenge the world, we make enemies.  Herods and Pharaohs will try to crush us.  But our job is to connect the human story with Christ’s story, to rescue our history from being reduced to a timeline, and allow it to be converted into God’s event.  That event is the breaking into our sin-filled world of the kingdom of God.  As we become aware of God’s constant working in our lives, we are called to participate in that work.  Whether we are sent to Egypt or Nazareth, whether we are called to feed the hungry or clothe the naked or heal the sick, whether we are tasked with comforting the bereaved or spreading hope to those who have lost it, God calls us. May we, like Joseph, answer that call without hesitation, knowing that God is with us, Immanuel.  Amen.

[1] Exodus 1:7

[2] Exodus 1:22; 2:15

[3] Comments by Cherie Baker, UMC pastor, in online chat.

How is this good news?

Pharaoh murders innocent babies, but Moses escapes in a basket.
Herod murders innocent babies, but Jesus escapes into Egypt.
Rival factions in South Sudan have killed more than a thousand, but over 100,000 have escaped into neighboring countries until the conflict can be resolved.

How, exactly,  is this good news?

Biblical scholars say, “You have to keep the Big Picture of God’s story in mind.” I get that. I understand that God does not desire for anyone to perish, but for all to believe and to have eternal life. I know that Bad Things Happening to Good People has more to do with our sinful human condition than God’s will for us. If I want to blame someone for atrocities, I might as well go all the way back to Adam and Eve. There are times when I’d like nothing better than to pound their chests with my fists and yell, “What were you thinking!”

All that knowledge doesn’t help much when I sit next to a woman whose son died, and she asks me, “How could a loving God let this happen?” A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more (Matthew 2:18). How do you comfort a grieving parent who refuses to be consoled?

You don’t.

Just because I can’t explain it doesn’t mean I can shrug off the sorrow.  Just because I know God has a bigger plan in mind for eternity doesn’t diminish the pain of the here and now. It’s a dangerous thing to be human, to be vulnerable, to face the fact of our mortality. The Good News is not always sweetness and light. That pretty baby in the manger grows up to die on a cross. God has to watch his own Son, his only Son, die a horrible death. And God grieves.

God grieves all the Herods and the Pharaohs and the murderers of innocent children. God grieves us when we turn away from him. God grieves as only a bereft parent can grieve. How do you comfort a grieving parent who refuses to be consoled?
You don’t.
You weep, too.


Quiet Christmas

It’s Christmas Day.  The flurry of activity that led up to Christmas Eve has settled into a quiet day of rest and family time.  Later, I will put together the lasagna for our Christmas supper, and tomorrow will be filled with cleaning up after last night and preparing for Sunday’s worship, making visits and phone calls, and getting ready for next week.

But this is Christmas Day. It marks the beginning of the season of Christmas. Isn’t it good to know that there are still twelve days to celebrate peace on earth, good will to all?