(Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23)
The last few weeks, as we have prepared for and then celebrated Christmas, we have been hearing about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Right around the time that Jesus was to be born, Joseph and Mary had to travel in order to fulfill a decree given by Caesar Augustus that all people be registered in their own town. Joseph, coming from the line of David, had to travel to Bethlehem, the city of David, with Mary, his betrothed, to be registered.
So, here is poor Mary, at the end of her pregnancy, traveling. It doesn’t sound like much fun. And, then, when she and Joseph reach their destination, there is no place to stay because so many people have traveled to be registered. As we know, they finally find a place to stay in a stable. And this is where Jesus is born, as our nativity scenes depict, surrounded by the animals.
Shepherds, who have seen the star above his birthplace and heard the angel chorus sing, come to worship him. Magi, who have, also, seen the star, come to worship him. Together, all celebrate the birth of the one proclaimed Messiah.
And, then, they all leave. Mother, father, and baby are left alone to be a family. But, they do not have long to rest, for Joseph has a dream in which an angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him” (Mt 2:13).
Joseph listens to the angel. He, Mary, and newborn Jesus travel to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod. Herod has heard that the new King of the Jews has been born. He is disturbed, as he doesn’t want a new king; he is the king! So, he plots to kill Jesus. He kills all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. Jesus, of course, has escaped, because of the message from the angel in Joseph’s dream. Even so, there is a slaughter of innocents, with much weeping and mourning.
These are the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. We sing of a bright star; an angel chorus; shepherds quietly watching their flocks by night; grand magi coming from far off with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; a silent and holy night; but the reality is much darker and disturbing: a young woman forced to travel at the height of her pregnancy who finds no place except a stable in which to give birth; a king who calls the magi to him so that he may find the newborn king and murder him; magi warned in a dream to travel home a different way so that they do not have to participate in Herod’s plot; a new father warned by an angel in a dream to escape, quickly, with his family to a distant land; a young mother, fresh from her first labor, gathering her baby in her arms and fleeing persecution; the needless slaughter of innocent young toddlers and babies to satisfy the greed and wrath of the current king. Over two thousand years later, we can sing of star, angels, shepherds, magi, and gifts, but, as the events were occurring, there was no time to sing; there was only time to survive in the midst of difficult and deadly circumstances.
Why does it matter that we acknowledge the difficulty and deadliness of the actual events? Why can’t we just sing of the silent and holy night, the peace and calm, the joy and gladness?
We must acknowledge the reality because it was into that reality that God chose to be born into our world. God did not choose to be born into peace and plenty, safety and security, wealth and well-being. God chose to be born into discomfort and danger, anxiety and angst, struggle and strife. The fact that this is how God chose to come into our world and be with us defines our faith, our religion, our spirituality. God is present in every circumstance of our lives, even – and particularly – when those circumstances are hard. And they are often hard, because our world contains sickness, war, unemployment, hunger, violence, homelessness, and death. God in Jesus is our savior in all our distress.
God is our savior in all our distress, in all of the circumstances of our lives, and will work to bring us through them. The magi were warned in a dream to go another way, and they did. Joseph was warned in a dream to escape to Egypt, and he did. The Bible doesn’t tell us what God did for those parents whose toddlers and babies were slaughtered when Herod was trying to kill Jesus, but I trust that God worked to bring them through their grief, too. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, in all times and all places and all circumstances: both the good and the bad, the joyful and the sorrowing, the celebratory and the grieving.
One last word about this: When we look for God in our world, let us remember to look for Him in the lost, the lonely, the grieving, the sick, the ugly, the homeless, the poor, the hurting, the enemy, and so on. The next time we see someone who repulses us for some reason, let us remember that there were those who would have looked on Mary as someone to be rejected because she was an unwed mother; who would have looked on Joseph as someone to be rejected because he was marrying that unwed mother; who would have looked on Jesus as someone to be rejected because he was born out of wedlock; who would have looked at all of them as a family to be rejected because they were homeless in Bethlehem; who would have looked at all of them as a family to be rejected because they were immigrants in Egypt; who would have looked at all of them to be rejected because they weren’t wealthy; and so on. God chose to be born among the “least of these,” and it is to the “least of these” that we should look to find God today. As we begin 2017, let us remember to honor the God in the “least of these” wherever we find them, and remember that, at any time, we may become the “least of these,” too, and need others to find God in us. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, January 1, 2017, the First Sunday After Christmas Day.
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