A Messier Christmas

+ A sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas (transferred) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 5, 2020 +

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

Audio: LINK

Merry Christmas, my friends!
Yes, today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas.
But in some ways Christmas Eve already seems so long ago.
Maybe the trees have come down in our homes and decorations have gone back into the closet.
Family has returned home and the holiday songs have left the radio.
That strange time between Christmas and New Year’s has come and gone and the reality of the world has hit many of us as we return to work or school or some sense of normalcy.
And as if on cue, the slowness of the holiday news cycle has been abruptly disrupted in the past few days with worsening fires in Australia and threats of war with Iran.

And yet, while most of the world has moved on into a new year, here we are still celebrating Christmas.
We are still here feasting and marveling in the mystery of the Word of God incarnate, God born among us as a little child.
And I admit, this twelfth day seems so distant from that first day.
Gone are the angels singing peace on earth, gone are the strains of Silent Night by candlelight, gone are the picturesque images of the quiet nativity scenes.
Instead this twelfth day of Christmas is a little messier, a little more chaotic.
And yet it’s still Christmas.

And our gospel reading from Matthew reminds us of the other side of Christmas, that this mystery is more than the perfect nativity scene, more than our carols, more than choirs of angels.
Matthew reminds us that the mystery of the incarnation is bigger than just Christmas Eve and grapples with the harshest realities of our world.
Because rather than leaving it with that beautiful and familiar story from Luke with the animals and the shepherds and the manger, Matthew reminds us what the birth of our Lord means.
How his coming threatens those in power and the extreme ends to which they will go to protect themselves.

Specifically, we hear about King Herod, a puppet king of the Roman Empire who was obsessed with ego and ambition and maintaining his power.
He undertook massive construction projects to cement his legacy including an expansion of the temple, strong fortresses across the land to protect himself, and—just outside of Bethlehem—the Herodion, a self-named hilltop palace and tomb for himself that he built so tall that it can be seen from Jerusalem more than seven miles away.
Herod was a paranoid and ruthless man who routinely killed family members including his own sons and his wife and anyone he saw as a threat to his rule.
And so, when he hears that a new King of the Jews has been born, he unleashes his fury.
slaughter of infantsMatthew tells us that he orders the death of all male children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem to snub out this new pretender to his throne.
So Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and they flee to Egypt, out of the reach of this tyrant, to find safety and refuge there.

Yes, Matthew gives us a messier version of Christmas; but in some ways, I think it’s a more useful version.
This is a Christmas story that can be hard to hear—it would not look good on greeting cards and often doesn’t make it into the Christmas pageant—but it reminds us that God has been born into our world, our real world with all of its brokenness and messiness.
We are invited to see how our God came among us as a baby born under the rule of a tyrant.
We are invited to see how our God’s very life was in danger and was present in horrific tragedy.
We are invited to see how our God was a refugee as the Holy Family sought asylum in a foreign land.

Matthew reminds us that Christ was not born in the idealized versions of Christmas, but in the world as it really is—a world of political corruption and violence, a world of oppression and tragedies, a world that we know all too well, and a world in which God has chosen to enter to be Emmanuel: God-with-us.
Because if our understanding of Emmanuel is only limited to Christmas Eve, to the idealized or celebratory portions of our lives, what use is that in the harder times?
Instead, we have a God who has experienced the fear of life-threatening oppression, a God who knows what it means to flee, a God who has personally seen tragedy and personally heard the anguished cries of mothers whose sons are gone.
Not that God’s presence alone will stop the violence anymore that the presence of the Christ child would have stopped Herod’s troops, but that we have a God who is with us and who is working for transformation.
A God who is working within and among us to change the world.
A God who entered this world, entered our bodies, entered our lives to bring the news of God’s unimaginable and transformational love.
To bring a new kingdom based on God’s pure justice and peace.
To bring hope in the face of despair, music in the midst of despair, love in the face of violence.
And we have a God who will not be thwarted by the evil deeds of a despot, who refuses to let oppression to have the final word, who resists tyranny so the good news of God’s love for all people could be proclaimed.

Latimore, Kelly. Refugees: Holy Family, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57108

Today Matthew confronts us with an image of Christmas that looks less like this idealized nativity creche, but that can be seen in the icon that is on your bulletin this morning, or this icon that I keep in my office.
Both are written by Kelly Latimore and show the Holy Family we see in Matthew’s gospel today, refugees, migrants, feeling oppression and desperately looking for hope and life in a foreign land.

Latimore, Kelly. Refugees: La Sagrada Familia. https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/img_2361/

And this messier, this more real, depiction of Christmas inherently invites us to look for where Christ is being born around us today, where God is still entering our world—not just in the perfect moments, not just in the idealized versions, but in the realities of life.
That we shouldn’t look for Christ in the administration of tyrants, but in the faces of refugees who are fleeing oppression and searching for asylum.
That God is not found in the acts of violence, but in the laments of the brokenhearted.
That God is with us in the most difficult, the most painful, the most broken, the most lonely parts of our lives.
Matthew reminds us that God does not wait for things to be perfect to enter our world, that God does not need the ideal situation to come among us.
God sees our world, God sees our own pains and imperfections and chooses to enter our lives to bring love and healing and hope and transformation.
In times of corrupt and violent political leadership, God comes to bring peace and a vision of a new kingdom.
In times when the world seems to be falling apart, God comes to bring transformation and restoration to the whole creation.
In times of pain and turmoil in our own lives, in our bodies, in our souls, God comes to bring hope and healing and love.

Here at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, we are told how Joseph took up Jesus and carried him into Egypt and then carried him back into Israel and onto Galilee.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, after another tyrant seeks to destroy Jesus, we will hear how another Joseph, Joseph of Arimathea, will also carry Jesus and lovingly place him in a borrowed tomb.
A few minutes from now we will again celebrate at this table the feast of victory of Christ’s triumph over death in open defiance of all tyrants who still seek to destroy any threats to their power, who still seek to squash Christ’s gospel.
And at this table, we will take in our hands a small chunk of bread, the Body of Christ that is given for us, and we too will carry Jesus.

Elsheimer, Adam, 1578-1610. Flight into Egypt, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46238

We will carry Jesus within us, God-with-us in the most difficult times of our lives.
We will carry Jesus into our community, into the our broken world, bringing his presence in our grief and his message of hope for the world’s transformation.
We will carry Jesus in resistance of the tyrants in this world, openly declaring that God’s power is greater than any human power and God’s love is stronger than all forms of violence.
We will carry Jesus, Emmanuel, into a world, into a new year that is already in desperate need of him.
We will marvel at the mystery of a God who choses to come among us in such a way and in such places and we will celebrate a real and messy Christmas feast that is still good news for us and for all people.

So on this last day of Christmas, allow me to close with a poem by the late pastor, theologian, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

“The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985)

Merry Christmas, my friends.

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