a sermon on Matthew 2:13-23
When you think of the Christmas story, what comes to mind?
There are of course the great biblical stories of Matthew and Luke that tell about the birth of Jesus, and the beautiful opening words of the gospel of John that put a more theological spin on the beginning of Jesus’ life. Then there are the more contemporary stories that define Christmas for many of us, ranging from simple tales that give wonderful portraits of a spirit of giving to the crazy family stories that get most of their meaning from the characters involved in them. And then there’s A Christmas Story, a movie from 1983 that has built such a broad following over the last few years that one cable channel shows it on continuous repeat for twenty-four hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day every year! Personally, I have yet to sort out exactly why this movie has so many fans—its storyline focuses on an elementary school-aged boy who desperately desires an air rifle for Christmas, even as everyone around him repeatedly warns him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Yet even this strange movie about a boy and a BB gun seems more connected to our Christmas stories than our reading this morning from Matthew. This terrifying story is a strange postscript to the stories that have defined this last week or month or more for us. It features no shepherds and no angels, and the wise men have already gone home. There are no heavenly songs offered here, no manger welcoming shepherds and sheep, no Mary pondering these things in her heart. Instead, this Christmas story brings us a murderous and jealous king-in-name-only, Herod, installed by Rome to make the Jews feel like they had some control over their own destiny, who responds to a perceived threat to his power with infant genocide.
After Herod learned of Jesus’ birth through the visit of astrologers who had come to pay homage to the child born King of the Jews, he sent them on their way to Bethlehem with instructions to return and report to him about this child. When they went home by another road, Herod was so angry and frustrated that he ordered the death of all the children two years and younger in Bethlehem so as to make sure that this threat to his power would not survive. But Herod’s seeming cunning did not match up to God’s providence for Jesus and his parents. After the departure of the wise men, an angel appeared to Joseph and warned him of Herod’s impending search for Jesus. Armed with this news, Joseph took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt, where they stayed until Herod died and an angel delivered word to Joseph that it would be safe for them to return home to Israel. However, when Joseph learned that Herod’s son Archelaus was in power, he feared that this son would share a little too much in common with his murderous father and so resettled not in his hometown of Bethlehem but in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up.
This is a strange Christmas story, to say the least. Not only does it leave out the shepherds and the angels and others that have become an integral part of our idea of the Christmas story, this word from Matthew shifts our focus from birth to death, from celebration to mourning, from joyous new life to horrible untimely death, from hope to uncertainty and fear. This story of the massacre of innocent children just seems so very much out of place in our Christmas celebrations—yet the carol we just sang that lifts it up has been around for hundreds of years, and many medieval celebrations of Christmas included this story as an integral part of their tellings of the birth of Jesus.
Today, though we may try to push it out of our minds, this story serves as a reminder that Christmas just isn’t beautiful and simple and joyful for everyone. For some people, this story of what happened after Christmas is perhaps closer to the reality of their lives at this time of year. When everyone seems to be celebrating, some of us face tremendous challenges in our lives. When many of us are celebrating with our families, some of us are remembering the pain and struggle and sorrow in our family experiences—past abuse, neglect, or alcoholism; present depression, fighting, separation and divorce, or distance; the struggles of difficult relationships, political or religious differences, or expectations not met; chronic or sudden illness; recent or impending death; or some mix of any or all of these. When many of us are sharing gifts with great abandon, some of us are struggling to explain why there are fewer or no gifts this year—or even worse, trying to keep up appearances to hide more difficult realities below the surface. When many of us are rejoicing because God has come to dwell with us, some of us are crying out wondering where God is in the midst of our pain, sorrow, and doubt.
While these experiences and feelings are present all year long, this season magnifies them all the more as so many messages in our culture say that Christmas should be perfect and beautiful. We hear that there’s “no place like home for the holidays” even if that home is emotionally unhealthy or physically unsafe for us to go there. We hear that “Santa Claus is coming to town” even if there is no money for gifts this year. We sing that “everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe / help to make the season bright” when there is no turkey or mistletoe to be found or when darkness of any sort casts its shadow over this season.
Stories like this one from Matthew serve to remind all of us that there is more to Christmas than these visions of seeming perfection—and that God is the midst of all of our Christmases, that the incarnation of God in Jesus is for our perfect Christmases as well as our broken ones, that God’s presence is with us whether our Christmas is wonderful or awful or somewhere in between. At Christmas, God took on our flesh and bone and blood in Jesus Christ, not to make us immediately perfect but to know the fullness of our human life, not to paper over our pain and hurt but to understand them and experience them, not to fix us overnight but to fix us for good, not to transform us in spite of what we want but to push us and drag us and guide us into something new, maybe slowly, maybe quickly, but always certainly and hopefully and joyfully. And even when the powers of this world threaten to destroy this new light in Jesus, this story reminds us that God’s power is stronger than any of them, that God’s work of bringing justice and peace cannot be overcome by evil in the world, that even in his infancy Jesus would face great challenge and yet emerge victorious.
So as this Christmas continues, may God’s presence be in the midst of it all, in the midst of our joy and our mourning, in the face of despair and hope, in the glimpses of perfection that fit our best images of Christmas and in the times when we can only hope and pray that God’s grace and mercy will take hold soon, for God’s new life came into our world in Jesus Christ, to begin making all things new and make space for all of us to join in, here and now and always, until Jesus comes again.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.