Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Christmas story we need

Matthew 2:13-23; Hebrews 2:10-18

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I promise to keep this short, because today we’ve come primarily
to sing the story of Christmas.
But I had to get a little sermon in for two reasons.
A minor reason is that next Sunday we won’t have a sermon,
because we’ll be celebrating communion,
and singing again, lots of songs of Christmas and Epiphany.
The main reason is that on this first Sunday after Christmas,
in Year A of the 3-year lectionary cycle,
we have one of the most absolutely horrible, and distasteful
stories from the Gospels,
and I never get to preach on it,
since this is always a music Sunday.
Yes, I should be glad I don’t have to deal with scripture like this,
and in a way I am.
But as I’ve said other times,
the texts that repel me, that I want to push back from,
usually have a hidden treasure,
that’s worth the struggle to find.

And I think that’s the case with this terrible story
known as “the slaughter of the innocents.”

The quartet did a lovely rendition of the old beautiful Coventry Carol,
didn’t they?... “Bye, bye, lully, lullay.”
That was a familiar carol to you, wasn’t it?
Raise your hand if you’ve heard it before.
Almost everyone.
Now, raise your hand again, if you can say in all honesty,
that before today,
you could have told me the Coventry Carol was all about
Herod killing the children of Bethlehem.
I didn’t remember that.
Until we started searching far and wide to find some music
based on this gruesome gospel story.
Check out your collection of Christmas records and CDs.
The Coventry Carol shows up mostly
on classical or renaissance collections,
or on instrumental albums.
It’s really hard to find on pop Christmas albums,
and even harder on contemporary Christian albums.
I found it on one, in my collection.
But they changed the words completely... sanitized it.

We don’t really want to hear this story in Matthew 2—spoken or sung.
But to quote the Methodist bishop Will Willimon,
“Even though it’s not the Christmas story we want,
it may be the Christmas story we need.”

His point was that in the time of Herod,
Bethlehem, and all of Judea, was an awful place to be.
And Willimon says, and I quote again,
“Any God who is unwilling to come to Bethlehem,
won’t do us much good.
If any God is going to save us,
God will have to come to where we are,
because we can’t get to God.”

We just don’t get the picture of how awful things were in Bethlehem.
The idyllic manger scenes we have in our homes,
and on Christmas cards and tree ornaments,
are all so serene, peaceful, charming.
Those are imaginary scenes.
That was not the reality. It simply was not.

Jesus was born into a world that was incredibly hostile
and dangerous and violent.
King Herod was a brutal king.
He did some good things for the people.
Politically, he had to.
He built gardens and parks and great buildings.
He even helped restore the temple.
But Herod ruled with a terrible iron fist.
He was fearful. He was paranoid.
He didn’t hesitate killing anyone
who seemed to be a threat to his throne.
He had three of his own sons executed,
as well as one of his wives.
In fact, he was so insecure—and so deranged—
that on his death bed,
he had the most prominent Jews brought to his palace,
and locked up,
and gave orders that the moment he died,
these prominent citizens would be executed,
so there would be national mourning when he died,
instead of national rejoicing.

So you can imagine when wise men from the east arrived,
and asked about the newborn “King of the Jews,”
this pushed all Herod’s buttons.
He hatched a plot to kill Jesus, by tricking the wise men,
but it didn’t work,
so he slaughtered every male child in Bethlehem under age 2.
It was horrifying and repulsive,
but for Herod, it was par for the course.
It wasn’t his first bloodbath, and it wasn’t his last.

This was the kind of Bethlehem into which Jesus was born.
So where is the good news in this horrible Gospel story?
Why do we need a story like this
on a day of joyful Christmas singing?
What a downer!
But no! In the midst of this terrible, terrible story, there is good news.
And it’s simply this:
That God wanted to come and be with us,
in a world exactly like Herod’s Bethlehem.
That God would take on our flesh and become one of us,
when we were at our worst.
That the incarnate God would show up
not in lofty Jerusalem or Rome or Washington,
but head straight into the bloody darkness that was Bethlehem.
That God was pleased to be born as the child of young Mary,
to be taken on as the son of Joseph,
to be delivered in shadows of a livestock shed.
and to become, soon after his birth,
a child in an Egyptian refugee camp,
because his parents managed to escape Herod’s violence.

That world was not a whole lot different than the world we live in now.
War. Terrorism. Genocide.
14 million refugees, all over the world,
huddled in tents or tiny houses of tin or cardboard.
Popular leaders being assassinated
under the watch of insecure governments.
This is the world into which God is pleased to come.
And be with us.

In Jesus, God entered our human condition, the worst of it.
In Jesus, God walked with us in the darkest of times.
In Jesus, God experienced our suffering.
And in Jesus, through his birth, his life, his ministry,
his suffering and death, his resurrection,
God took it all and redeemed it.
In Jesus, God comes to save us.

Our reading from Hebrews 2 says the same thing basically.
The writer said Jesus came not to help angels,
but the human descendants of Abraham.
Therefore (and I quote from Hebrews),
“he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect,
so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest
in the service of God,
to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”
This awful gospel story that we don’t want to hear
is the Christmas story we need.
The bloody reality that was Bethlehem, into which Jesus was born,
is evidence that we have a God who knows our suffering,
is able to be with us in our suffering,
is able to be a “merciful and faithful high priest.”

Remember my quote from Willimon?
“Any God who is unwilling to come to Bethlehem,
won’t do us much good.
If any God is going to save us,
God will have to come to where we are.”
The wonderful, and joyful news is that God came.
Then, and now.

A poet and song writer Scott Soper wrote these words,
Helpless and hungry, lowly, afraid,
wrapped in the chill of midwinter;
comes now among us, born into poverty’s embrace,
new life for the world.

Who is this who lives with the lowly,
sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger?
This is Christ, revealed to the world
in the eyes of a child, a child of the poor.

Who is the stranger here in our midst,
looking for shelter among us?
Who is the outcast? Who do we see amidst the poor,
the children of God?

Bring all the thirsty, all who seek peace;
bring those with nothing to offer.
Strengthen the feeble, say to the frightened heart:
“Fear not: here is your God!”
Because of Matthew 2, we can be confident
that in the worst of our human reality,
“Here is your God!”

—Phil Kniss, December 30, 2007

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