Sunday, January 1, 2017

When Christmas is Over (A sermon from Matthew 2:13-23)

Someone said that nothing is as over as Christmas when it’s over. A colleague told about an experience he had in college when he worked part time at a discount, department store. He was working on the day after Christmas when a woman marched in, threw something on the counter and lit into him as if he had made the thing personally with every intention of it breaking on Christmas day. She told him what she thought of him, the employer he worked for and said, "I will not rest until I get my money back.”  

When she finally paused, he said, "Mam, you’re right. This is a worthless piece of junk and I don't blame you for being mad. I don't know but what I wouldn't beat someone over the head with this and I can't believe anyone would sell you this, but if you will look (he turned it over) you bought this across the street. Their tag is still on it." She picked up the item, never said excuse me or I'm sorry, and blew out about as fast as she blew in. My minister friend said that he never did mind working Christmas Eve, but hated working the day after Christmas. Apparently the Christmas spirit doesn’t last very long. 

The themes that run through Advent are the themes of hope, peace, love, and joy and we always emphasize these themes in one way or another through the prayers, songs, scriptures, litanies, and sermons of Advent. But ask anyone going through a really difficult time, anyone who is in grief from the passing of a loved one, or one who is unemployed without any prospects soon of finding a job, or someone who is struggling with a physical illness or mental illness or dealing depression – ask them and they will tell you that it is much easier to sing or talk about hope, peace, love, and joy than it is to actually nurture these in our lives.

Recently I wrote this: What do you do when you begin to lose faith in humanity? [By the way, losing faith in humanity may be losing faith in yourself] Don't say, "I still have faith in God." That don't work. To lose faith in humanity is to lose faith in God - the Divine Goodness - who indwells each one of us. So what do you do? You look around for signs everywhere and you pray at least once each hour: "God, please open my blind eyes." 

When it comes to nurturing hope and faith in the midst of very difficult and challenging circumstances, much of it is about seeing with a different set of eyes. Here is a letter a college student sent to her parents:

Dear Mom and Dad, I am sorry to be so long in writing. Unfortunately all my stationary was burned up the night our dorm was set on fire by the demonstrators. I am out of the hospital now and the doctors say my eyesight should return sooner or later. The wonderful boy, Bill, who rescued me from the fire kindly offered to share his little apartment with me until the dorm is rebuilt. He comes from a good family so you won't be surprised when I tell you that we are going to be married. In fact, Mom, since you always wanted a grandchild you will be glad to know that next month you will be a grandparent. At the bottom it read: P.S.  Please disregard the above practice in English composition. There was no fire. I haven't been in the hospital.  I'm not pregnant. And I don't have a steady boyfriend. But I did get a "D" in French and an "F" in chemistry and I wanted to be sure you received this news in the proper perspective.

Perspective is important. How and what we see is important. How we see God and God’s involvement, God’s participation and engagement in our lives and in the world is a major factor in whether or not we are able to nurture hope and faith and love and even some joy in the midst of the tragedies and sufferings of life.

Our Scripture text today is an after Christmas text, but it is still part of the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. The joyful news brought by the angel is now replaced by the loud weeping of the parents whose babies were killed in the wake of King Herod's rage. Matthew's Christmas pageant ends not with tinsel covered angels proclaiming peace on earth and goodwill toward all, but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered babies. 

We sing on Christmas "Oh little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie" but we don't have any songs for this part of the story. This is not singing. This is wailing, weeping, crying in agony. The days after Christmas return us to the real world - a world where there is danger and risk and hurt and evil and injustice. A world where places like Alepo exist. A world where children die senselessly. A world that can erupt in holocaust and genocide. A world where nature can erupt violently devastating lands and lives.  

Matthew tells us that what took place in Bethlehem “fulfilled” what Jeremiah had prophesied: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Then at the end of the next scene where Jesus flees from Herod into Egypt and then returns to Nazareth, Matthew says, “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

What do we do with this notion that somehow what happens here “fulfills” scripture? I do not believe for one minute that God planned or predestined or ordained or in any way arranged these events. This horrendous slaughter of innocent children is not the fulfillment of a divine plan. Whether or not the writer believed it was is another question. What Matthew may have believed is a historical question and an interpretative question, but it is not an application question. Not for me anyway. That’s not how I read it or apply it.

What this “fulfillment” language suggests, I think, is that the story of Jesus parallels and in some sense completes the story of Israel, that there is continuity between the old and the new, and that the God who was engaged in the life of Israel is now engaged in the life of Jesus to bring redemption and hope to our world. Regardless of what Matthew may have originally meant, this text reminds us that even when evil people do evil things and terrible tragedy, injustice, and suffering results, God is still at work in the midst of it all.

There is no answer – no good, satisfactory answer - to the question of why God permits so much unjust suffering in the world. And every so-called answer – without exception - creates its own set of problems, which ignites more questions. I remember reading a book in a doctrinal seminar on this issue and we had a fairly lengthy discussion about it. These days I simply avoid any discussion, because there is no answer. Though I think everyone has to wrestle with the question to get to the point where you can see that no solution is adequate. At the time, I needed that discussion. I needed to invest the time and energy into the question, so that I could get to the place where I could let the question go. You may be at a place where you need to ask that question and wrestle with it.

There are some who would like to think that some of us are exceptional, that some of us are exempt. At the Bible college I graduated from I remember having a class discussion about the rapture. Would it come before the tribulation that would overtake the earth in the last days? The professor in my class argued it would and I think everyone of us in the class accepted that view. Of course, if you don’t believe in a rapture or a final tribulation period before the second coming of Jesus then the question is really moot isn’t it. Today I find that question totally irrelevant, but it wasn’t when I was asking it. Now that I reflect on it I think one of the reasons so many Christians who believe in a final tribulation period and a rapture think that it will take place before the time of tribulation is because we would like to think that somehow God would spare us from all that suffering. But God doesn’t make those kind of promises. And this after Christmas text of horrendous suffering for the families whose babies were killed is a reminder that no one is exempt from great heartache, tragedy, and loss, and that our world can come apart any day for any of us.

When Sophie our granddaughter, who is now 6, was about 3 or so I remember her really liking the children’s story about going on a Bear Hunt. There are any number of versions of the story in print and on YouTube, but the theme is the same. Whatever the challenge, whether it is a forest or muddy swamp or snow storm, there is no going over it, there is not going under it, and there is no going around it, you have to go through it. Maybe that is a lesson in preparation for life.

Author and spiritual teacher Joan Chittister says, “There is no way to comprehend how to go through grief other than by going through it. There is no way to practice foregoing a hot rage that comes with feeling ignored or dismissed or found to be ‘essentially disordered’ – for any reason. There is no way to plan for the sense of abandonment you feel in a society that thinks differently from you; because your child is gay, maybe, or because you’re a woman and so automatically considered deficient for the work, perhaps, or because you’re not white in a white world, or because the person you thought was an eternal friend abandoned you.” She says, “Those things we need to figure out for ourselves, one situation at a time.”  In other words, there is no avoiding them, so we have to deal with them as they come. 

There are things that can only be learned by going through them. And there are things that we would rather not learn. Sometimes the events and experiences of life shatter us, and there is no putting the pieces back again, at least, not in the same way. And so we are left with doing the best we can with what pieces that are left and still work. 

There is a children’s story about a balloonist who is taking a trip over the Alps. He has his itinerary very carefully planned. But each day as he sets out, something happens to drive him off course. Instead of arriving a point A he finds himself at point B. But each day in a different place than he intended he is always able to find something positive. He says, “I didn’t know this place, but this is a wonderful place. Had I known about it, I would have planned to come here.” 

Now, we don’t live in children’s stories. And when our plans are thwarted and we are blown off course, we don’t always land in a “wonderful place.” We land in some hard, painful places. We plan on being at point A – and point A can be any dream or expectation pertaining to work, family, physical health, anything. But a storm blows us off course and we land in a very different place, maybe a place of real suffering. What do we do? What do we see? How do we respond?

Incarnation is about God with us. Yes, we celebrate a very special incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, but can we see that incarnation is not limited to one person no matter how special that person is. God is with us. God is there in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and God is there in Bethlehem with all those mothers and families mourning the brutal slaying of their little ones. Can we trust God, can we be awake to the Divine Presence, can we invite God into the midst of our sin and hurt and pain and loss, even when healing and some measure of joy seems to have fled forever?

There is one other dimension to the story that we would do well to think about. In the suffering at Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place a little later when the one who escapes the wrath of this tyrant will not escape the wrath of another. It’s important for us who are followers of Christ to realize that the gospel of Jesus not about worldly power and control and success. In fact, the gospel of Jesus often puts us at odds with the powers that be. Often, the gospel of Jesus puts us at odds with the forces and powers that control government, the media, big corporations, and the economy. The symbol for our faith is not a scepter or a throne or a place of power, but a cross – the very means used for Roman execution. The cross is a symbol of humiliation and defeat that expresses vulnerability and weakness, and the cross is a major symbol of our faith.

In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul said that the very image of Christ crucified, the very idea of the Messiah executed, was to many Jews a stumbling block and to many Greeks foolishness. It made no sense. But to those “being saved,” said Paul, it is the very power and wisdom of God. That is, to those being changed by the spiritual power of cross, the cross represents the power and wisdom of God. The cross represents the power of love and the wisdom of doing what is right and just and good regardless of the cost.

Following Jesus doesn’t lead us to safe places where we avoid suffering. In fact, sometimes in our clash with the powers that be our discipleship leads us right into the middle of suffering. Our discipleship certainly always leads us to stand with and for those who do suffer from the policies and practices of the powers that be. Let’s not be afraid. Rather, let’s remember that God is Immanuel. God is with us at all times and in every place.



Our good God, may we know in the core of our being that you suffer with us when we suffer and that in our most difficult times, when beaten down for whatever reason help us to know that you are not out there, somewhere, separated from us, watching from a distance, but help us know that you are right here – among us, with us, in us, absorbing it all. Let us see and know that you are one with us. You are part of us. Your Spirit gives life to our spirit and we live because of you. Help us to see that while you do not offer us answers, you do give us your presence, and may we find in your presence, the hope and grace and faith and endurance to get us through.    

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