13Now after [the wise men] 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.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and 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.”
16When 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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18“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.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“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.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But 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. 23There 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.”
It’s hard to believe, but Christmas Day has come and gone and we’re staring 2017 right in the eye. This year has been one of many surprises, some good and some bad, and we’re kind of in a weird bit of limbo. We are making resolutions, we’re trying to be positive, yet the realistic among us are quick to point out that the world will never be all sunshine and rainbows. Even in the midst of the most joy-filled moments, there is always the reality that the moment will end. At times, that’s a huge comfort. Other times, it can feel bittersweet. But the beauty, in each and every moment, regardless of how lovely or ugly, tender or hard it is, is that we see Christ is experiencing it with us. Staying present in each and every moment is the most effective way of reminding ourselves about that.
Perhaps nowhere else in this reality made known to us. We move from the joy-filled birth story of Jesus to quickly find that they are running for their lives. You see, the part of the story that we miss in our reading, one that you’re probably aware of already, is that there were three astrologers that visited Jesus. They came from the Far East, possibly India or China, and they followed a star. Being familiar with the prophecy that a star would arise at the birth of the king of the Jews, but unfamiliar with the territory, they stopped by Herod’s place to ask where, exactly, were they going. Can’t you just hear one of them saying, “Let’s pull over at the palace. You’re obviously lost” and another replying, “I’m not lost. I know we’re headed in the right direction!” So, Herod asks his advisers who remember another prophecy and point them in the direction of Bethlehem. They head out, unaware until later that Herod is not interested in entertaining Jesus, but killing him. Herod was a puppet king of the Roman empire, a leader chosen by Rome for a host of reasons – maybe he told them what he wanted to hear, maybe he promised to stay the party line, maybe he just happened to be born into a family with connections – but however he got into power, he was not interested in giving it up.
Jesus has a funny way of challenging powers, doesn’t he? He is erratic, he doesn’t play by the typical rules of society or leadership, and, even as a toddler (the text tells us that Herod was searching for a child around 2 years old), he represented the fall of a certain way of life. His mother, Mary, sang about it in the Magnificat and Herod certainly feels the resonance in her words, that the mighty will fall and the wealthy will be hungry while the poor are fed and the sick are healed. Jesus was able to be both hope and terror, life for the oppressed and death for the systems of oppression.
This is still true of Jesus. He is both hope for the hopeless and dread for the powerful. He puts death in his grave and, when he rises from the dead, he brings life back with him. He offers eternal, abundant life, yet this good news will challenge us and force us to reckon with discomfort and the realities of the world – that the world is both beautiful creation and broken, that each moment carries with it joy and fear, love and hatred. And we don’t need to look very far to see this illustrated in its fullness.
I saw a picture this week of a Christmas worship service, a joyful and celebratory event, but the setting was certainly not so fun. In place of wreathes and banners and a tree, there was debris, rubble, and gaping holes in the walls and roof. You see, this Christmas worship was in Aleppo, in Syria, where government forces, the empire of the ruling class, has been bombing, killing, and looting to root out rebel forces. Those who have threatened the empire, stood against tyranny and torture, are being pursued. And these Arab Christians still gathered for worship. Worship and celebration is their response to Christ’s coming into a world broken by sin, fear, hatred, greed, and oppression.
I’m awed by the picture that I saw, but I can’t say I’m surprised. If anything could give hope in a time like that, it’s this story. Jesus doesn’t identity with them solely as a baby in a manger, but also as a refugee, immigrant, and scared family. We see and believe that the birth of Jesus signaled the start of a new kingdom, a new way, and the old way, the old kingdom, the old systems of oppression are not quick to surrender. Jesus wasn’t just a baby. Jesus was God Incarnate, come to free the captive, heal the sick, and help the poor. This child brings the hope of the world, but the fall of the world as we know it. In celebration, in joy, and in fear, pain, and brokenness, we can find Jesus right in the midst of it.
We have the tendency to make the story of Christmas into a pretty story, a tender story, but it is so much more than that. It marks God’s enfleshment among us. It begins the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into our kingdoms. It tells us that in each and every moment, the good and the bad, the calm and tumultuous, the strong and the weak, that God is present in them and will use them to bring about the kingdom of God in a fuller way. By no acts of our own, God has come. And because of his coming, we act. We take part in the kingdom of God, we live as though we believe that this is happening, and we rely on God to use us, as individuals and as the Church, to do it.
There’s a lot of pressure to be happy, all the time, especially in this time of year. In the midst of Christmas and New Years, we can feel that if we are not happy in each and every moment, then there is something wrong with us. But I’m here to tell you that Jesus wasn’t born just to make you happy. Jesus was born for the sake of the world, to bring full life to all humanity. Through his example, we see the kingdom of heaven breaking into our empires. Through his teachings and life, we are challenged, comforted, equipped, and sent. Through is death and resurrection, the power of death has been defeated. And, through his family’s running, we see that he is present in each moment, in every person, and will continue to do the workhe came to do.
The gospel has freed us and sent us. This story of miraculous birth is more than just a story – it’s a sending and a challenge. By the grace of God, you are given life and so we give it to others – the hungry, poor, scared, and sick. Christ is present in each and every moment, the empires and systems of oppression are falling, and the kingdom of God is breaking in. Thanks be to God that you are called as a child and a steward of that kingdom. Amen.