The following sermon was preached on January 3, 2016 at The Church of the Redeemer, Providence RI. The lessons can be found here (we used the first Gospel option: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23). The text of the sermon is copied below and a recording of the sermon can be found on SoundCloud or on the Redeemer’s website.
Every day we are bombarded with terrifying and horrific images: images of the streets of this nation being torn apart by gang violence, police brutality, and acts of terror great and small. Images from around the world of men, women, and children being oppressed, starved, and rejected as they are subject to brutal regimes and seek places of safety outside the boarders of their home countries. We watch as our bothers and sisters in Europe and the Middle East, our brothers and sisters around the world fall victim to unimaginable acts of terror. The world is a dark and scary place, and at times it seems like there is no escape – that there is nothing that will change this vicious and violent cycle.
As the world burns around us, we are in the midst of celebrating the 12 days of Christmas. For the last 10 days we have surrounded ourselves with beloved carols, we have been captivated by images of angels and shepherd, shared in delicious meals with family and friends, and have proclaimed with great joy that Jesus – the Christ child – has come among us.
I don’t know about you, but in the midst of all this celebration, it has been far too easy for me to forget, to block out, to all together ignore the problems of the world.
Yet, in the midst of blocking out the pain of the world, in the midst of focusing on the celebratory experience of these 12 days, we come this morning to one of the biblical texts of terror and are snapped back into reality.
The Gospel passage we hear from Matthew this morning is commonly referred to as “The Flight into Egypt.” It is the tale of Mary and Joseph leaving Bethlehem and going to Egypt because Herod is out to destroy Jesus. Then, when Herod is dead, they begin their journey back only to be told that their home country is not yet safe, and so they go to Nazareth. The way the lectionary gives us this Gospel, the way this story is often taught in Sunday School, is as a very matter-of-fact itinerary that forces us to focus on the seeming heroic nature of Mary and Joseph. Taking this passage on its own, it seems that we hear this for the sole purpose of proving that Jesus is the promised Messiah. In these eight verses we hear twice that what is happening to the Holy Family, is happening so that what was spoken by and through the prophets might be fulfilled. With this understanding, we can simply check the boxes that prove the messianic nature of Jesus, in light of Jewish tradition and move on. But that is not the whole story.
For reasons beyond my understanding, the lectionary cuts out three incredibly important verses of this morning’s Gospel passage. These three verses drastically change the tone and experience of this passage and give to us a very different image of the life and time of Jesus. In these omitted verses, Matthew writes:
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.’
In what the lectionary gives us, we hear in passing that Herod was out to destroy Jesus, but in these verses we hear the true horrific and violent nature of Herod’s actions. We hear the work of an insecure and terrified ruler who desperately wants to retain his power – so much so that he will go to any length necessary to destroy any possible threat against him. When we put these three verses back into the passage we heard this morning, a fuller experience of reality is revealed. No longer is this pericope simply a fulfillment quotation, no longer is it used to prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophet’s message, no longer is it just explaining how the Holy Family ends up in Nazareth, it is now a text of terror in which the saving nature of God is revealed.
Jesus was born into a very difficult and dangerous world. It is a world torn apart by violence and strife, where violence rules the day, and rulers do whatever they want no matter the cost to human life. In a devastating way, the world into which Jesus is born is not unlike our own. Like Herod, dictators and rulers around the world use violence and fear to maintain their power. Just as the Holy Family fled, so do unknown numbers of families flee today in hope that they might find a safe place to hide – that they might find a safe place to live out their lives in peace. As a result of the violence and oppression the world is experiencing today, we are witnessing the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. As millions of people are fleeing around the world shrouded in terror we are witnessing the darkness of humanity.
This is why these omitted verses are so important: they speak to those whom Jesus came to serve: the lost, the poor, and the oppressed. Matthew does not present a sentimental infancy narrative. There are no shepherds, no angels singing, there is no manger scene with a babe wrapped in bands of cloth. Matthew presents the birth of the savior in the midst of the turbulence and terror of a very violent history. But, Matthew also dares to see things as they are and still affirm that God is working, even in the worst that humanity can do.
In the omitted verses, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15, “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.” In quoting Jeremiah, Matthew is recalling the great matriarch Rachel and her reaction to the Babylonians overtaking Jerusalem and marching families off into exile. Rachel’s weeping, Rachel’s lament, signifies a key turning point in Jeremiah when the prophet shifts form declaring God’s judgment to God’s promise of hope and redemption. This shift is what we heard this morning in our lesson from Jeremiah. We hear the prophet Jeremiah proclaim God’s promise that, “with weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,” and we hear, “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” From the lamentation of Rachel, from the darkest days of Israel’s history, God promises to redeem them. Matthew, by using these words from Jeremiah is clear; this redemption of God has come in the person of Jesus.
Through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of this new born baby weeping will be turned into shouts of joy, sorrow will be turned to gladness, and darkness will be turned to light. Through Jesus the world will be turned upside down, or as Presiding Bishop Curry likes to say, right side up. No wonder why Herod was so afraid.
We celebrate these 12 days of Christmas because through the birth of the Messiah, through the birth of Jesus, the end to the violent and vicious cycle of our world has been made flesh. It is through the promises of God in Christ that we know light will over come darkness. It is through the incarnation that God takes on human flesh so that human flesh, the whole of humanity, might be redeemed. The world is a dark and scary place, but the light than enlightens everything has come.
This passage from Matthew’s Gospel not only shows a truer reflection of the reality of God, it also demonstrates a broader expression of the capabilities of humanity. In the actions of Joseph we see the potential for humanity to be compassionate, trusting, and obedient to the word of God. In the actions of Herod we see the ability to be oblivious to grace and we see the power that fear yields both in individuals and in systems of military and political power. In addition, each and every action in this Gospel passage is predicated by a command. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt because an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and commanded him to go. The slaughter of the innocent happens because Herod commands it out of fear. The Holy Family comes out of Egypt and settles in Nazareth because the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. These images of humanity combined with the commands to action have a very important message for us today. When we allow fear, anger, and hatred to shut out God’s grace from our lives, when we follow not the commands of God, but the commands of systems of violence and oppression, then we inhabit the worst of humanity. But if we are courageous enough to follow the commands of God, if we are strong enough to live lives that proclaim the Good News, then we become beacons of the best that humanity can be. We become reflections of how humanity was created and intended to be. It is in those moments that we share in the building up of God’s kingdom – that we share in the glories of the incarnation.
Thomas Troeger, recently retired homiletics professor at Yale Divinity School, reflects on today’s Gospel passage through the lens of a crèche. He writes:
It is the custom in most homes and churches that set up manger scenes to take them down after Christmas and store them until the season returns the next year. Matthew’s account of the Holy Family’s trials suggests that this is wrong. Perhaps we should put away the shepherds (Luke) because they returned to their fields, and put away the magi because they returned to their distant home, but we should keep out Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Just the three of them, all alone, facing the terrors of a brutal despot. No visitors. No sheltering barn. No cuddly looking sheep. No friendly oxen. Then we should move the Holy Family to another location in our church or our home. Perhaps to a window looking out on the larger world, the world where there is still violence and repression and terror, and where there are refugees fleeing, needing protection, human beings in whom the Christ is crying to us for protection.
In this reflection, Troeger captures our call in this Gospel passage. We, like Joseph, are to listen to the commands of God and protect those in greatest need. We are to reach out and care for those whom Jesus came to serve: the lost, the poor, the oppressed, the scared, the hungry, and the refugee.
We live in a dark and scary world, but the light than ends all darkness – the life that ends all pain, suffering, and death – has come into the world.
In a few days our celebration of Christmas will come to an end. Christmas lights will be taken down, trees will be undecorated, and carols will go unsung until next year. But we have the opportunity to keep the Holy Family present in our midst as a beacon of hope and light.
God asks us, implores us, begs us, God commands us – as followers of Jesus – to make that hope – to make that light known.