a sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
It feels like Christmas ought to be over by now. Sure, I still have my tree up at home, and our decorations are still up here in the church, but by next Sunday nearly all the visible signs of Christmas will be gone. Of course, that will be a good two weeks after our world has left Christmas behind. The old traditional twelve days of Christmas beginning on Christmas Day have instead become about two months of Christmas beginning as soon as the stores can shift Halloween candy and picked-over costumes into the clearance bins! But whether it be twelve days or two months, the time and seasons of this world can’t contain Christmas.
This uncontainable Christmas was the case from the very beginning. Even the four gospels that carry the stories of Jesus’ life to our own time tell us two somewhat different versions of the Christmas story, with different timetables for the parents’ travel and different visitors coming to pay homage to the newborn Jesus, not to mention different audiences for the news of his conception and birth. It is clear that a single telling of this story cannot capture all that this important event contains for us.
Matthew’s telling of it brings us several people who do everything they can to contain the meaning and message of this transformative event. First, the wise men from the East who have seen a star indicating the birth of the King of the Jews head directly to the capital city, Jerusalem, expecting that they would find a royal child there, never imagining that they might find him anywhere else. Everyone at the palace of King Herod has a similar response when these foreign visitors arrive, never thinking that God might be doing something outside the approved and endorsed channels of the puppet king placed in power by Roman authority. King Herod himself seeks to contain and control the meaning of this birth that might potentially undermine his very tenuous and limited authority by instructing the wise men to report back to him about the whereabouts of the child. Even beyond our story today, in the next few verses of Matthew, we hear the horrible story of how King Herod tried to contain the impact of the birth of Jesus by killing all the male children under age two in Bethlehem once he heard that some thought someone else had been born King of the Jews.
But all who would try to contain even this first Christmas were unsuccessful. The wise men were put back on their way to follow the star all the way to the place where it was guiding them by none other than King Herod. The halls of power in Jerusalem were released from their fear of the sinister King Herod by the wisdom of the chief priests and scribes as they sought the counsel of the prophets. And King Herod was thwarted in his attempts to destroy the child by dreams that sent the wise men home by another road and Jesus and his parents off to the safety of Egypt until they could safely settle back closer to their native land in their new hometown Nazareth. From the beginning, as hard as many might try, amidst so many misunderstandings and threats, the gift of Christmas simply could not be contained.
As this Christmas season comes to an end over the next few days, as we put away the decorations that mark this holiday for us, as we try to move on from the celebrations and holidays of this time of year and back into the normal pace of life, our temptation is to pack up the meaning of this season in those boxes alongside our ornaments and other marks of the season. But the deeper call of Christmas is not done once we pass the celebrations of Epiphany on Tuesday. We are not done with this season just because we have taken down the decorations from the church or our homes. And we must resist the temptation to contain Christmas to a brief season marked mostly by Christian attempts to co-opt pagan winter solstice festivals in late December. Poet Linda Felver puts the consequences of this beautifully, I think:
Let me not wrap, stack, box, bag, tie, tag, bundle, seal, keep Christmas.
Christmas kept is liable to mold.
Let me give Christmas away, unwrapped, by exuberant armfuls.
Let me share, dance, live Christmas unpretentiously, merrily, responsibly,
with overflowing hands, tireless steps and sparkling eyes.
Christmas given away will stay fresh—even until it comes again.
—“Let Me Not Keep Christmas,” from A Book of Christmas
When we try to contain Christmas to this brief season or limit the message that this birth brings to us, we always find that God has other ideas, suggesting that we must do more to live out God’s preference for the poor and oppressed, to stand with those who are hungry or in need, and to find Jesus among us where we would least expect to meet him. Pastor and activist Howard Thurman put this challenge of Christmas best, I think:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
—“The Work of Christmas,” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations
In his life among us that began that first Christmas, Jesus brings all these challenges into clearer view for us, reminding us that while we are not alone in doing this work, we are never excused from being the hands and feet and voice of Jesus in our world. In his birth amidst controversy and confusion, Jesus reminds us that the fullness of God’s presence is rarely found in the halls of power but far more often among the poor. In the myriad ways that he manages to avoid being contained by the ways of the world, Jesus reminds us that God’s power reaches far beyond our dreams and imagination. And in his message of a new way that begins to take hold at Christmas, he reminds us constantly that we are called to continue bearing this message of new life into the world, looking for openings to join in the transformation of those lost, broken, hungry, imprisoned, ruined, war-torn, and empty places where the light of Christ can shine into our world through people like us.
So when we finally give up on our attempts to contain Christmas, we find that we have no choice but to let the light of Christ shine through us. This light illumines our lives and makes us whole and complete, but when we are tempted to make this light our own and hoard it for ourselves and our own good feelings, we are called to let our light shine. We are called to share God’s glory with all those who come our way and to bear this transformative light into a world where darkness has far too often been allowed to rule the day. The work of Christmas for us beyond these days is to continue to bear this light into the world so that we can join in finding the lost, healing the broken, feeding the hungry, releasing the prisoner, rebuilding the nations, bringing peace among people, and making music in the heart.
So may we go forth from these Christmas days, not boxing it up for another year or containing it within a few days or weeks of this season, but instead bearing the epiphanies that burst forth into our world through the fullness of our lives, always shining the bright light of Christ into the world each and every day until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.