Isaiah 63:7-9, Hebrews 2:10-18, and Matthew 2:13-23
Grace and peace to all of you in this season of light, life and hope. May God give to you and your family continued Christmas joy and love.
Of course, on Friday and Saturday of this year, the Christmas lesson was from the gospel of Luke. This is the lesson with shepherds and angels and the touching scene in the manger. That is fitting for the day of festive joy and light.
Today, we have a section of the Christmas story from the gospel of Matthew. This is the year when most of the gospel readings will be from Matthew.
In Matthew’s account, Christmas is much more difficult. Substantial problems are embedded in the events surrounding Christmas. You can sense this as we read the story. Complex things are happening. At the same time, even as the difficult things happen, something mysterious is woven into the account, something that gives us insight that leads to joy that emerges even in struggle, the joy that is tested by the pain of life.
Let us first approach three of the struggles embedded in the account. This is a story of innocent victims. The Bethlehem children are innocent victims of Christmas. This is a tragedy of intense proportion. We do not know how many children are lost. In the traditional eastern calendars the number is set at 14,000; but from what we know today about first century Palestinian village life, this number is too large. It would have been perhaps less than a hundred lives lost. Still, we do know that many young lives were brutally ended.
In the early church there was a discussion about whether or not non-believers were saved, including these innocent victims. The decision was soon made in the early church, that regardless of their ability to believe in Jesus, these children were to be recognized as martyrs. In northern Africa they were given a feast day as early as the fourth century, about the time that our earliest creeds were written.
The prayer formed in their memory lifts up our concern for all innocent victims of violence through the ages. The Lutheran version of the prayer reads: receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims, and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love and peace.
Let us remember all those who are victims this day, those who innocently suffer, and those who do not deserve their difficult fate.
A second struggle in this story is the difficulty of the refugee. This is a story about a refugee family, fleeing to Egypt. Again, we are reminded by Matthew of the plight of refugees throughout the world. We know that the need for refugee settlement and care continues. Even this year, Wisconsin has needed to renew its social service commitments to the settlement of more Hmong and Bhutanese refugees through Lutheran Social Services and other social service organizations. Many of us in this immigrant nation have refugee status somewhere in our personal history, and we can sense from our own past the needs of those who must leave their homes for political or economic reasons beyond their control. Today, let us remember those who are forced to flee, like Mary and Joseph and Jesus. In the end, this story calls us to practice hospitality to those who must flee.
A third horror embedded in the story is the fury of tyranny. King Herod is the story’s example of the tyranny of power. He not only commits this act of violence, but his entire rule is marked by such events. He drowned his sixteen-year old brother-in-law, the high priest; killed his uncle, aunt, and mother-in-law, his own two sons, and some three hundred officials he accused of siding with his sons in an internal family coup.
Power is a difficult thing. It is easily misused. Power may become tyranny. The story reminds us of the need for responsibility in power, for checks and balances in government, and for the sensitivity and compassion of those in power to the commonweal.
The presence of Herod reminds us to recognize always the potential for the forces of evil to become embedded in the structures of power and to work as we can to limit the adverse impact of power in the everyday lives of ordinary people.
Innocent victims, refugees, and tyrants. Can anything good come out of all this from Matthew? Well, yes. The framework of the story reminds us that good and evil are usually mixed together in profound proportions, often in ways too complex for us to separate. Although the story reminds us of the sorrows of life, the story also points us in the direction of hope.
The first glimmer of hope comes from the recognition that the accidents of our lives are interwoven with the fulfillment of our destiny. In Matthew it appears that all sort of accidental occurrences (some bad, some good) seem to shape the course of events. At the same time, Matthew takes great care to indicate that this apparently random sequence of events is following a charted course as outlined by prophets living long ago.
So it is with us. Often small accidents of life seem to determine the course our lives take. Relationships form around accidental events. So do personal careers and the courses of national history and international affairs. But in the end, as we move through our lives, no matter how accidental it all seems on the surface, there is the presence of that script, an underlying awareness that a divine pathway is being followed. As we become more and more aware of the script God his in mind for us, hope is kindled in our hearts, even on the worst days.
The second glimmer of hope is kindled by noting how Joseph and Mary follow their dreams and instincts. By attending to his dreams and instincts, Joseph avoids one disaster after another. Through his instinctive senses and dreams, God speaks to Joseph and gives him direction in the struggles.
The story causes us to think about our own dreams and how we might follow them. What are your dreams? How is God speaking to you in your dreams? Follow your instincts, dreams and inner life and find hope born fresh in your heart.
Finally, the story sustains hope as we see the movement of God in the lives of the characters. This appears to be a story about the first two years of Jesus’ life and how Bethlehem and Nazareth get connected to each other in Jesus’ early personal history. But as Matthew tells it, this is really a story about the movement of God through the pages of history. God is at work in the story.
God is still at work in your life as well. On some days, God’s work in your life may be as invisible as it is for the characters in this story. But God is at work in your life. God is not finished with you yet. You are God’s work in progress.
This Christmas is a time for blessing. Today’s story with its awareness of innocent victims, refugees, and tyrants, etches the importance of these blessings that we receive as we see the course God sets for us in what appear to be the accidents and details of our lives. Through it all, we are given a vision, a dream of hope to follow, as did Mary and Joseph so long ago.