December 23, 2018
This Vulnerable God-who-saves
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Introduction to Matthew 2:13-23
Our second scripture reading this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s the ending of the story of Jesus’ birth and infancy we’ve been following throughout Advent. This is the last part of the “Prequel” to Matthew’s Gospel – the stories that set the stage for the good news of Christ Jesus.
Our passage today is one we don’t often hear read in worship; some of you may never have heard it before. And I will tell you that it’s grim, and sad – not what we’re used to hearing right before Christmas, and not the way I’d like to end Advent. But I think it’s important to hear our scripture on its own terms, and not what we want it to say. This is Matthew’s story to tell.
Just to review, Matthew’s Gospel begins with the long genealogy – all the ‘begats’ of Joseph’s family, fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Exile, and fourteen from the Exile to the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. And the shocking inclusion of a few women’s names – not just any women, but women with some scandal surrounding them….
Which was also true of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Our first introduction to Mary and Joseph is that while they’re engaged, Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, and he’s not the father. But an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him to marry her anyway, because this baby will become the Messiah. And Joseph, faithful Joseph, does just that.
In Matthew’s gospel, the baby is born in Bethlehem, because that’s where they live. There’s no stable in Matthew’s version of the story, not even shepherds. When the wise men come to visit, they find Mary and Joseph and the baby in a house.
The wise men have followed a star to find the newborn king of the Jews. Naturally they stop by the royal palace first– where else would you expect the king to live? But King Herod lives there, the King who was appointed by the Roman Emperor.
Herod is shocked to learn that there is a newborn in his kingdom claiming his title. He tries to trick the wise men into telling him where to find Jesus, ostensibly to worship him, too. But the wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they go home by another way.
Which is where our story picks up this morning. Listen once more for the Word of God.
When the wise men had left, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod is about to search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up, and during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. They stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: Out of Egypt I have called my son.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men, he was infuriated. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and younger, based on the time that he had learned from the magi. This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and intense grieving.
Rachel weeps for her children,
refusing to be comforted,
because they were no more.
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”
So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Herod’s son Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father, Joseph was afraid to go there. After being warned in a dream, he went to the region of Galilee, and they settled in a city called Nazareth. This fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets: He will be called a Nazarene.
* * * * *
I spent the last couple of days down in Nashville, visiting my 2-1/2 month old granddaughter Asa, and her parents Ben and Jessica. Luke and I flew down Thursday morning, and I got to spend two days holding a sweet, squishy baby and being filled with delight. I got to give her one of those cheesy ‘baby’s first Christmas’ ornaments. I got to sing to her. I got to tell her stories about when Jesus was a baby, just like her – knowing full well she has absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.
But still, I left out this part of the story. There’s plenty of time for her to learn this part about Jesus.
I suspect I am like most grandparents… I want Asa to experience the world as all sweetness and light; I don’t want a single hair on her head to hurt! If I could, I would protect her from finding out the world can be filled with cruelty and danger. I wish I could save her from knowing things like this happen.
It was such a juxtaposition, holding sweet Asa, with this passage rattling around in my head and heart as I prepared for this morning. I found myself trying to imagine being a parent – or grandparent – having to flee for another country because you fear for your child’s life. I just couldn’t go there. I just couldn’t do it, not while I was holding Asa.
But I also know this is how it is, in some corners of the world. This is how it was, for Jesus.
Michael Jinkins describes our passage this way:
There it is, woven into the glorious story of the first Christmas. As a pastor I have skipped over it when possible. It just didn’t seem to fit. But St. Matthew refuses to avert his eyes. At the very heart of chapter [two] of Matthew’s gospel, terror appears like a viper in the garden… [i]
This is how it was, for Jesus. But what Mathew’s first audience knew was that this was not only true about Jesus. This was how it was for the people of God, centuries before, when the Hebrew people lived in Egypt, and there was another tyrant on the throne, also filled with fear, also determined to kill the innocent, just to hold onto his power.
So if you hear echoes of the story of Pharaoh and Moses in today’s reading, it is no accident. We are meant to hear the parallels.
As the Book of Exodus begins, the people of God are in Egypt, having settled there during a famine centuries before, led by another man who was named Joseph. They lived there in peace for a very long time – until a new Pharaoh came to power, who was threatened by the Hebrew people. There were so many of them, he was afraid they would eventually outnumber the Egyptians and overrun their country. So he ordered that all Hebrew male babies be killed. And he ordered the midwives to do it.
As the story in Exodus goes, the midwives refused to carry out Pharaoh’s orders, and Moses’ life was saved. And Moses grew up to save God’s people from slavery in Egypt, and bring them out to the promised land, the land of Israel.
It is the central story of salvation in the Old Testament.
Eugene Peterson reflects on this story of Moses, and how salvation comes in these life-and-death confrontations. He says,
Salvation is not imposed from above or from without; it emerges out of the conditions in which we find ourselves as life is confronted with death…
The contrast could not be stronger, he says:
The command to kill, vs. the will to life.
Privilege and power vs. the oppressed and powerless.
Impersonal orders vs. the very personal lives of the marginal.
And, he observes, “History as told from the place of invincibility is mostly about death; history as told from the place of vulnerability is mostly about life.”
Let me say that again: “History as told from the place of vulnerability is mostly about life.” [ii]
That was true for the Jews in Egypt under Pharaoh.
It was true for Jesus in Bethlehem under Herod.
And it is true for the vulnerable today who live under heartless authoritarians who care for nothing but their own power.
If there is any story in the Bible that tells us how vulnerable Jesus really was, our story this morning is it. It sets the stage for the rest of the emerging story of salvation. The story about Jesus is a story about life – life that even death could not quench.
In some ways, the stunning cruelty of this story makes this the worst possible reading for this Sunday before Christmas. It seems destined to steal away the magic of Christmas. But perhaps it invites us instead to go deeper than magic, into true mystery, the mystery of the Word-made-flesh. The astonishing realization that God would come into this world, not only into the beautiful loving places, the family hearth and home where all seems right with the world, but into the truly broken. God comes not only into homes where babies are safe and warm, but into the most broken and terrifying places imaginable.
God comes into those places, too. Especially those places, where the power of love is most needed. Into the vulnerable, and even the tragic.
Michael Jinkins wrote about this passage six years ago, right after the shootings at Sandy Hook. Somehow that horrific event made this story make sense. As he reflects,
For much of my life, I have been bewildered at why… Matthew included the slaughter of the innocents in the story of the first Christmas. No other gospel writer includes this story… today I am simply grateful [he] told the story as he did. Today I take some comfort in the fact that the story of the most joyous event we can imagine, the story of God’s becoming flesh to dwell among us, that this story of the first Christmas is set in the midst of the dangerous world we inhabit and not in some fairy-tale magical kingdom….
Last night while I was baking bread and tinkering with this sermon I was listening to Christmas music. I especially like to listen to our own Angel Choir’s Christmas CDs. And something struck me I had never noticed before. On the most recent CD, tucked between the Christmas songs “Were You There on that Christmas Night” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is another song, one I never associated with Christmas. It’s the song “I Believe”. The Angel Choir has sung it a number of times in worship, and it’s haunting and beautiful. The lyrics are simple:
I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when God is silent.
You may remember hearing them sing it. What you may not know is that these words came from an inscription found in a Nazi concentration camp.
I was dumbstruck when I heard it last night, on a Christmas album. I thought, this is the song of the slaughter of the innocents.
As Jinkins writes,
There is so much broken in this world that we do not have the competence or the power to repair. But we are not incompetent. Nor are we powerless… I pray that we will find the will to do what we can to protect and to care for the innocents among us.
Like the midwives, in Egypt, who refused to do Pharaoh’s bidding.
Like the wise men, who do not return to Herod, but go home by another way.
Like Joseph, the father of Jesus, bringing his child to safety.
Like all of us, who love another person and would do anything to keep them from harm.
This is what God is doing in Jesus: this God who will do anything to save us. Who comes to this earth, this world, our world, to face even death, to give us life. This is the story of Christmas. This is the story of a God who saves.
[i] Michael Jinks, blogpost 12-18-12
[ii] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: a conversation in spiritual theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 150-151.