December 29, 2013 Hebrews 2: 10-18 Matthew 2: 13-23
Rev. Catherine Purves
The Christmas trees are still dropping pine needles onto the carpet. You may even have a few Christmas presents that are unopened awaiting late holiday visitors (I know we do). In church we’re still singing Christmas carols. And the spending frenzy is on-going at the mall. But suddenly our readings for this first Sunday after Christmas bring us down with a thud, right in the middle of the harsh realities of the world into which Jesus has just been born. After dreamily singing Silent Night only a few days ago, now we are jolted awake, and with wide eyes we have been forced to envision a dream-driven nighttime flight from Bethlehem, the massacre of innocent babies, Jesus’ early life as a political refugee, a difficult return trip from Egypt, and the hunt for a new home in Nazareth. Why? Why can’t we sing a few more carols and enjoy our eggnog and fruitcake. It’s not even New Year yet. There’s still time to think about what’s not right in our lives and in the world so that we can make our resolutions. Why rush back into all that is sad and depressing? Obviously, Jesus had a rough start in life, but why dwell on that now. We can romanticize the manger and give our gifts with joy. At least let’s get through the month of December before the credit card bills appear and we have to pack away the Christmas lights, plunging ourselves back into the long dark days of winter in the real world.
The message for this first Sunday after Christmas, though, is an important one. It may well interrupt the happy holiday spirit of your Christmas. Or it may give you a way to cope with the fact that family holidays are seldom as glorious or joy-filled as we expect they should be. In actual fact, there is a lot of stress around Christmas. There is often loneliness, people get sick, people even die. Families have arguments. We always have to pay a price for over-indulgence – in eating, drinking, or spending – pick your poison. The picture-perfect Christmas only exists in pictures.
Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean that all of the bad news has been replaced by good news. Have you watched the news since Christmas? Soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan, parts of Canada, New England, and the Midwest were without power for days on end, genocide is on-going in South Sudan, and millions have lost their unemployment benefits while Congress is on vacation. I’m not saying that all of the news is bad, just that all of the news is the same, even on Christmas.
Sometimes I think we get Christmas the wrong way around. We celebrate it as if the birth of Jesus means that we are being lifted up into heaven. We act as though we are up there with the heavenly host singing Glorias. But the message of Christmas is that Jesus has come down to earth. Jesus was born in a dirty, drafty barn surrounded by mangy animals and some random shepherds. Today’s readings emphasize the shocking fact that Jesus has really and truly entered our world, the world we know. Why? Because that actually is the good news of Christmas!
Matthew is the only Gospel writer who recorded these events. Why? Well, Matthew was a big picture kind of guy. Like Mark, Luke, and John, Matthew knew the end of the Jesus story when he was writing about the beginning of Jesus’ life. And Matthew was particularly writing for a Jewish audience, so he wanted to show that Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams. In these stories that are unique to Matthew, it looks like Jesus is actually repeating Israel’s history which included a flight to Egypt, great suffering, a departure from Egypt, and the arrival in the Promised Land. Matthew says as much when he writes, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” For Matthew, the birth of Jesus was not so much God doing a new thing, as God finishing an old thing in a new and more powerful way, a way that would finally and completely fulfill all of God’s promises.
God had given Israel the Patriarchs; God had sent them Moses to lead them out of their Egyptian captivity and to give them the Law. God provided kings, God sent prophets, God gave them the Temple and the priests to lead them in worship. All of this was not a failure or a miscalculation on God’s part. This was preparation. This was the prequel to Jesus’ story. In order to redeem and complete this history, God had to enter this history. In order to save this world, God had to be part of this world, subject to this world so that, in Jesus, God could transform the world from the inside out. In order to restore humanity and to be truly reconciled with us, God, as the man Jesus, had to become like us in every way.
So, Jesus had to flee for his life almost as soon as he was born. He lived as a political refugee in a foreign land, an existence that no doubt combined danger with deprivation. Even when they returned to Israel, Jesus and his family continued to live in fear of despotic kings in an ever-changing political climate of oppression and harsh military rule. The massacre of children was relatively commonplace and there was no such thing as security. This was the real world. This was the world Jesus lived in. Our world. Still, we may want to ask, Why?
The author of the letter to the Hebrews shared a similar agenda with Matthew. He was also a big picture kind of guy, and he too was writing to Jewish Christians. Like Matthew, he knew his Bible, what we call the Old Testament, and he liked to quote it. And, of course, like Matthew, he knew that the story of Jesus which began in suffering would end in suffering, and that his death and his life would mean salvation for us. Our reading from Hebrews attempts to answer our question, Why?
The passage begins with the assertion, “It was fitting…” This is as it should be, as it must be. All of our Whys are going to be answered in this singular act of God. In the birth of Jesus, God and man came together. Our reconciliation with God happened in the person of Jesus. He is the bridge, the bond that can never now be broken. And he will serve as that unbreakable bond throughout his life and throughout the rest of history. In Jesus, everything that it means to be human was united with everything that it means to be God. So, his life combined suffering and power, vulnerability and grace, death and resurrection. In Jesus, our rough and ragged path through history was put right and the path of salvation was completed. To do that, the writer of Hebrews says, “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…” He did not live a gilded, glorious, joyfully Christmasy kind of life serenaded by angel choruses amidst piles of precious gifts. He lived our life; he joined our history; he arrived with an abrupt thud in the midst of our fallen world.
So, if your Christmas toys have already started to break, if your family get-together wasn’t all you’d hoped, if you do decide to read a newspaper before the New Year and discover that locally, globally, as well as in your own home, all is not right with the world, remember that Jesus is part of that world now, your world. And that means that God is now bonded to that world, to your world. God is saving it from the inside out by suffering along with it and by turning that suffering into salvation. Both Matthew and the Letter to the Hebrews saw this as a big picture, the all-encompassing transformation of history and all of creation. And they also saw it as a remarkable word of good news for each one of us as individual sufferers whose lives are less than perfect.
In the simplest of terms, the author of Hebrews concludes, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” He is able to help. That, ultimately, is the answer to all of our Whys. The life of Jesus was what it was, it began as it began, and it ended as it did, so that he would be able to help us. When we stop pretending that we’re angels and that our Christmases and our ordinary days are full of joy and light, when we accept that we’re all sinners living in a broken world full of despots and innocent suffering, then he will be there, right there with us. The Jesus who is God and man will be able to help. He will be the answer to all of our Whys.