When Christmas is Over it’s Over (A sermon from Matthew 2:1- 18)

I was sitting in my office working on this sermon with my door open, which is my policy. Jim and Betty show up as part of the team taking down all the Advent symbols and decorations. Jim yanked down my Christmas wreath on the door and said jokingly, or maybe not, “Christmas is over, get used to it.” I suppose nothing is as over as Christmas when it is over. We sing on Christmas "Oh little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie" but we don't have any songs for what happens next in Matthew’s Gospel. It's not still anymore.

Matthew couples together the visit of the magi with King Herod’s wrath. In Matthew’s portrayal of the gospel’s beginnings, the joyful news heralded by the angel is now replaced by the loud weeping of the parents whose babies are 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, nor with magi bringing gifts from afar, but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered babies. 

The days after Christmas return us to the real world - a world where there is danger and risk and hurt and evil, a world where children die senselessly, a world where parents like those in Bethlehem live in fear and oppression, a world that sometimes erupts in holocaust and genocide. This is why the capacity to live without fear has nothing to do with our ability to prevent bad things from happening.

Matthew tells us that what took place in Bethlehem “fulfilled” what Jeremiah had prophesied about Rachel weeping for her children. Two other times (three in all) in this part of the story Matthew speaks of that which he writes as having “fulfilled” scripture. Matthew says that when Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus become refugees in Egypt they “fulfilled” the scripture that says, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” And then, at the end of the final scene when the holy family returns from Egypt they “fulfilled” the scripture that says, “He will be called a Nazorean.” Clearly, what Matthew means when he talks about the scripture being “fulfilled” is not what we usually mean when we use the word today. Matthew is NOT saying that God planned all of this to happen, rather, he is simply following a common Jewish practice of reading ancient texts in contemporary ways to show that the story of Jesus parallels and in some sense completes the story of Israel. Matthew is telling us that there is connection and continuity in the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. He is telling us that the God who was engaged in the life of Israel is engaged in the life of Jesus to bring redemption and hope to our world, and no amount of evil will change God’s mind when it comes to the redemption of God’s creation. Perhaps if we would spend some time reflecting we might find connections to our own personal and communal stories, because the Christ is engaged in our lives as well, whether we know it or not. Matthew reminds us that even when evil people do evil things and terrible tragedy results, God is not taken by surprise and in fact, God is still at work in and through the evil and suffering to bring healing and liberation to the world. No matter how bad things get God never gives up on any of us, and that is true for the oppressor as well as for the oppressed.

This part of the story gets real messy, but Matthew wants us to know that none of this is outside God’s engagement. While certainly this is not what God wills for the world, God is involved. Now, exactly how God is involved in all of this has been the subject of much discussion over the years, and some explanations are simply ridiculous, because they betray the character of God. Several years ago after the horrendous earthquake in Haiti where tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were left without food, shelter, and running water Pat Robertson of the 700 club proclaimed that the people of Haiti had made a pact with the Devil and brought this on themselves. Some Christian leaders say such crazy things.

When it comes to life’s tragedies and the magnitude of evil in the world, I do not find any consolation or hope in theological explanations that attempt to answer questions of “Why?” I spent a major portion of a doctrinal seminar struggling with this issue, and after a time of intense study and discussion I realized no explanation is without problems. There is no answer. No response resolves all the questions and tensions. It was then, I think, that I consciously decided such questions are largely a waste of time. But you see, and this is really important, I had to ask “Why?” and enter the struggle, before I could ever move on to a place where I didn’t need to ask “Why?” anymore. I had to struggle with the question before I could let go of the question.

There are some folks who would like to think that some of us are exceptions, that God gives some of us special provision or protection that God doesn’t give to others – because we have the right faith, or are born into the right family or country – that somehow we are exempt. But that is not true. The gospel does not enclose us in a safety bubble. We are not immune to random acts of violence or to common human suffering.

I used to express my gratitude for my situation in life by saying something like “I feel so blessed,” and I still use that expression sometimes, but I am very cautious and sensitive as to when I say it or how I use it, because I know there are those going through some really difficult times who do not feel so blessed.  So now I often say something like, “I feel so grateful” or “I feel fortunate or very lucky.”  I feel so blessed” could be understood to mean that others are not so blessed. I suspect that many who have used that expression don’t mean it that way, but that’s how it could very easily be understood. I don’t believe God favors some people over others, or blesses some people and not others, though God may have different assignments for us to do. Jesus could have only one mother who gave birth to him, right?

Sophie, our oldest granddaughter, who is now 8, liked for me to read her the story “Going on a Bear Hunt” when she was 3 or 4. I discovered that there are any number of versions of the story in print and on YouTube, but the basic storyline is, of course, the same in all versions. Whatever the challenge, whether it is a forest or muddy swamp or snow storm, there is no going over it, no going under it, and no going around it, you have to go through it. In a lot of ways it is a great story that prepares kids for the struggles and hardships of life that inevitably come our way.  

There are some things we simply have to go through before we know and can see.  Maybe the symbolism of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the creation story is actually a blessing in disguise. One can’t really know either good or evil until one experiences good and evil.  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 . . . 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, the only way we can fully know them is by experiencing them and going through them ourselves.

Some of the pain we experience in life never goes away. A minister, writing in Christian Century, tells about the first time her mother visited in the church where she is the pastor. During the passing of the peace, what we would call the welcome, a woman, who realized that she was greeting the pastor’s mother, asked, “Just how many children do you have?” “Six,” her mother responded. Then she corrected herself. “Well, five who are living.” Then, as she turned to greet the next person her eyes filled with tears. Her firstborn had drowned more than 50 years ago when he was a small child. Even though that was so very long ago, that loss was still so very raw and real, that the most benign of questions could cause her to relive it at random moments – like during the passing of the peace at her daughter’s church. There are some tragedies and some losses we never get over. We learn to cope and get through, but we never get over them. Some pieces of our lives gets shattered and there is no fixing them. We simply have to learn how to do the best we can with the pieces that still work.

Now, the irony and paradox here is that from a spiritual perspective the one who hasn’t had to face in any real hardships or pain in life is at a disadvantage. This is part of the reason why Jesus says such strange things like, “Blessed are the poor,” or “Blessed are those who mourn,” or “Blessed are those  who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” It’s a different way of seeing.

One might think that there could be nothing worse than having to deal with too many problems and too many trials in life, and certainly, we can feel overwhelmed when the problems and sufferings of life fall upon us like raindrops. However, if we have eyes to see, we might realize that while having too many problems is a problem, it is a greater problem when we have so few problems in life that we come to feel entitled and never think of asking “Why?”

At this stage in my spiritual pilgrimage it is enough for me to know that God is with us in our suffering and that God suffers with us in our suffering – that our suffering somehow impacts and influences and affects God. Knowing that, I know enough. That’s part of what incarnation is about. That’s what “Emmanuel, God with us” is about. If we search our hearts deeply, if we listen intently to the Divine Voice, I believe that our hearts and spirits can intuitively grasp and know that wherever suffering is, that’s where God is (that’s where the Spirit is, that’s where the living Christ is). I’m convinced of two things. Wherever love is, God is, and wherever suffering is God is. Even though it may “seem” or “feel” like God is far away.

In the suffering at Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place a little later up the road at a place called Calvary, where the one called the King of the Jews bears the wrath of the powers that be. In the events that lead up to and culminate on Good Friday, once again, as at Bethlehem, violence and bloodshed and weeping break forth, but this time, Jesus does not escape. Jesus bears it all.

We need to understand, sisters and brothers, that the gospel of Jesus is not a gospel about worldly power and control and material success. The prosperity preachers have it all wrong. The symbol for our faith is not a scepter or a throne or a mansion is it? It is a cross – the very means used for Roman execution. The cross is a symbol of humiliation and rejection and defeat. It expresses vulnerability and weakness. And yet, this is the transforming symbol of our faith and the way to new life. There is no resurrection without death. As Paul so beautifully puts it in his first letter to the Corinthians, the wisdom and power of the cross constitute the wisdom and power of God for salvation. The wisdom of the cross is the wisdom of love and the power of the cross is the power of suffering. It takes both love and suffering to conform us to the likeness of Christ. The cross represents and symbolizes how far God is willing to go to show us the way through, which does not come by means of physical force or violence, but by means of endurance, forgiveness, and grace. Salvation is deliverance through our suffering, not from our suffering. This is even true of our sin. Salvation is not deliverance from our sin, but through our sin to a place of healing and liberation. / Today is Epiphany Sunday, and just maybe our greatest revelations come to us when we are living in the darkness.

Oh God, may we know in the core of our being that you suffer with us when we suffer. Help us to realize that you are not way out there, but right here – among us, with us, in us, absorbing it all. Help us to see that while you do not offer us answers, you give us your presence. And may we know, too, that the way through has been traveled already by Jesus, whose cross is always a reminder of and a witness to your great suffering love for each one of us.   


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