Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sermon for the Slaughter of the Innocents, December 26 2010

Texts here.

Well, good morning! Merry Christmas! I hope you had a nice, relaxing day - one full of joy and celebration - time with family and friends and loved ones - a day of abundance, of loving-kindness. I hope you had that - because today’s reading yanks us out of our reverence and abundance into darkness and terror.

So the child Immanuel, G-d-with-us, is here. He has come! Angels announce his birth to shepherds, who rejoice in all the things G-d has done. The stars themselves align to mark his birth. Wise men from far away bring royal and extravagant gifts. It makes a beautiful picture - just like our kids in the Christmas pageant - all wondering and reverent around the manger in the final tableau.

Then Matthew tears us away from the Christmas-card picture. The shepherds leave, the angels ascend, and the magi take off by a side road to avoid Herod. The wise men, you see, were well intentioned: they saw the star when it rose, and knew that it marked the birth of the King of the Jews - so they brought royal gifts, and they went to the royal house of Jerusalem, to Herod the Great. They expected to find the royal child in a royal palace. They weren’t precise on his birthdate - sometime two years before. The problem was, no child had been born to Herod’s family in that time. So the wise men, well intentioned as they were, tipped off Herod to the birth of a rival king - an enemy - a challenge to the throne.

So Herod reacts the way that kings react when their throne is threatened: he destroys the competition. He commands the death of every baby boy in and around Bethlehem, two years old or younger. If he kills the child, there is no threat, no enemy. And so the voices of all the mothers, all the children, all the women and men and every resident of Bethlehem, become one voice of wailing and loud lamentation. And Joseph and Mary and the baby escape to Egypt, to stay until Herod is dead.

So G-d is with us! Immanuel has come! And they try to kill him. Mary and Joseph have to run, escaping in the darkness, to protect their newborn child - the Son of G-d.

Now this does not work.

The Son of G-d should not have to go into hiding. The Son of G-d had his birth proclaimed by angels - marked by stars - acknowledged by wise men in far away nations. Such an amazing baby should not have to hide. The angels should take up flaming swords, and stand guard around the simple stable, just daring Herod’s soldiers to come closer. This is the story we might want. It works much more neatly if the Almighty arrives, laying down some serious trouble for Herod and anyone else who wants to mess with G-d’s Son. It’s easier to have fire and brimstone raining down, the clouds torn open by giant hands and a loud booming voice saying, “This is my Son; back off.”

But this is not what we get. What we get are silent stars, angels gone, wise men sneaking home, and Mary and Joseph escaping to Egypt with a tiny crying baby in their arms.

This would be upsetting - if it weren’t true. It is true, and it is true because the same thing happens over and over for the next thirty-three years. Throughout the story of Jesus’ birth, life, and death, we get a picture of G-d doing unexpected and unsettling things. G-d in infant form has to run away to Egypt. Then G-d in adult form shows up at the River Jordan and proclaims that the kingdom of G-d is at hand. G-d welcomes tax collectors, and prostitutes, and Samaritans, and sinners, and Romans, and people who just aren’t - welcome. G-d talks about justice, and love, and compassion, and mercy. And when the powers-that-be finally get their hands on G-d, there is no angel with flaming sword, no fire and brimstone, no voice from heaven - there is only the cross. G-d is born among us, G-d lives among us, and G-d dies among us. G-d comes to earth, and the world comes to kill him.

And this is how our lives are, too. Some of us celebrated yesterday. We were surrounded by friends and family, our loved ones. We played board games or chased our cousins around the tree or watched new babies play together. We went for a walk in the snowfall. We made krumkake and ate spiral-cut honey-baked ham and drank eggnog and cider. We opened present after present, and watched as our loved ones opened theirs. At the end of the day, the house was full of joy, and good smells, and little scraps of ribbon and wrapping paper.

But some of us - and some of our friends and co-workers and neighbors - some of us who celebrate the very same birth of the very same Jesus - some of us woke to a cold house. Some couldn’t be with loved ones - some didn’t want to be with family. Some didn’t have enough presents. Some didn’t have enough food. Some were having their first Christmas without a child, or a spouse, or a parent, or a sibling. Some of us woke up, and found ourselves running to Egypt.

Mary and Joseph’s escape is the truth of our own story. The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay is not a magic amulet. He doesn’t protect Mary and Joseph against Herod’s army. Nor do the wise men, or the angels, or the stars. Jesus is born - as extraordinary as a birth can get - and then suffers the same pains we do - the same longings, the same despair. This is the truth of our life. Not every scene is the children’s pageant tableau. And not every day can be Christmas. Each one of us will have days, weeks, months, even years when we feel that all we are doing is escaping to Egypt. We feel Herod’s threat - death and destruction - everywhere. We are threatened by our own past and our own pain. Our bodies begin to fail us. We flee families and friends and communities - even church communities - where G-d’s mercy and lovingkindness cannot be found.

And Immanuel - G-d is with us, even in the suffering.

G-d is with the innocent children when Herod’s soldiers strike. G-d is with the mothers weeping in Bethlehem. G-d is in Mary’s arms as she and Joseph disappear under the cover of nightfall. G-d is standing at the banks of the Jordan, getting his feet wet and his toes sandy. G-d is with the sinner and the tax collector and the prostitute and the Roman, not only when they stand before Jesus but in every moment of their lives up until then. And G-d is at the cross. G-d does not transcend the pain of this world - does not call on angels to deliver him. He feels with us, suffers with us, and dies with us - to raise us to new life.

G-d does not send angels with flaming swords
but mercy, and compassion, and loving-kindness.
G-d does not fight the powers-that-be with yet more power,
but with love.
G-d does not strengthen us for war
but for peace - for hard work - for justice.

G-d is with us in all our sufferings, and G-d’s presence saves us.

And we are given Christ - this tiny, helpless baby,
who disappears into the darkness and flees to Egypt,
but who will one day return.
Who will one day begin to teach of all the good things G-d has done for us,
all that has been done out of G-d’s mercy
and in the abundance of G-d’s steadfast love.
We are given this tiny baby, Immanuel, G-d-with-us,
who dares us to dream of a world
with no ruling from Herod, no flight to Egypt, no wailing and loud lamentation in Ramah.
This tiny,
suffering G-d
comes among us
to call us out of our own suffering,
to open our eyes to each other’s pain,
and to embolden our hands to begin the long and hard work of redemption.


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