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Christmas is over. If “Blue Christmas” is not just an Elvis song, then post-Christmas blues are definitely a thing, as the young people say. All the excitement leading up to Christmas. The anticipation of gatherings and meals and gifts, get-togethers with friends and family. Or maybe it’s not so much a good time. Either way, it ends, and we’re thinking back to life, back to reality.
I remember leaving an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica after a stay of 4 days not too many years ago. As all the tourists were sitting on the bus pulling out of the driveway on the way to the airport, someone said: “Back to life, back to reality.” It made me think “Well what was that if not reality and why are you making a distinction between the two.” These are thoughts that I have. I left them unspoken of course. It did make me ponder though.
If there is anything that this story might remind us of, it’s a perceived return to reality. We talked about steely-eyed pragmatists last Sunday and this story is a reminder that despite the peace on earth that we’ve been singing about, tyrants still rule. People still become refugees as they flee for their lives as a result. People die as a result.
But this gospel story has always been about reality. The other thing this story reminds us of is that Christ came into the world’s mess. Neither Gospel writer tries to gloss over this, no matter how much we want to sentimentalize the story of Christ’s birth and see him glowing there in the manger. As someone has said, even in the Gospel of Luke, there is no angel glow over the manger. The angel glow is happening in nearby fields. By the manger, we have a couple and in the manger a baby being wrapped in clothes in order to keep his limbs straight. This baby who would grow up and be killed and live again in order that everything may be made straight. One day that is, because we’re waiting on that day that we read about when Advent began, the vision of the day when swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Instruments of destruction become instruments of nurture and growth and life.
All because of this new life.
It’s not so much a matter of back to life back to reality because Matthew has very much been about the facts. Very Joe Friday. Just the facts ma’am. Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly. He had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. Facts. The stories of our lives. The events of our lives which don’t simply go like sands through the hourglass, because God has entered time. And this story of God entering time has changed everything. The fact of “God with us” has been inserted into the human story and we have been invited to make the fact of “God with us” part of our story – the foundational part in fact. Which changes everything. They shall name him Emmanuel. God is with us. She bore a son, and he named him Jesus. Saviour. Deliverer. Everything has changed. It’s not simply a matter of back to life when we’re talking about the author of Life and the author and finisher of our faith, our beginning and our ending in the form of a little baby.
And then a little infant because this is how things go of course. It’s not the only way things go. Tyrants rule and people are killed, even little children. Violence born from fear results in death. Power wielded through fear results in death. We look around our world and we might think it’s the same old story, the same old song. We might think of the lines from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” – “And in despair, I bowed my head/There is no peace on earth, I said.” Everything is different now. The birth of this child has resulted in opposition. The birth of this child affects every part of life because to say “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Herod is not. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that an ever-expanding economy is not. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that we are not. There will be opposition to this story and this stance and such opposition is the way to death.
So much for gentle Jesus meek and mild!
This is not to explain away suffering or to try to blow it off or simply say it is what it is. A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation. Well might we lament too. Rachel is heard weeping for her children. She refuses to be consoled because dead, after all is dead and there’s nothing easy about that.
That is not the end of the story though. God is not dead nor doth He sleep! How do we live in what someone recently called the new reality? The new reality of Christ. Christ our deliverer. Christ the saving one. We tell the story of what God has done. We look back. Delivering has always been what God is about. When we read the lines about Joseph and the family heading to Egypt how can we not think of another time that the people of Israel went to Egypt looking for salvation (looking to not starve to death) from another Joseph? What happened? The saving of many lives. When we consider the old prophecy “Out of Egypt I have called my son” how can we not think of Moses leading the people of Israel out of captivity and God making a way through the sea and God making a way over the river through a new leader also called saviour or deliverer – Joshua. How can we think of these stories and not think of how they point ahead the one greater than Moses who would return from Egypt and lead his people and all of us out of captivity?
Tell the story. This is what the prophet Isaiah does in our reading this morning. It’s a lament too and it starts with recognizing the mighty acts of God – “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 favour that he has shown to the house of Israel, that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love… 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.”
May those be our words this morning and as we go into the New Year. A new year contains a lot of unknowns, maybe more so for some than others. I often call to mind at this time the poem read by King George VI in 1939 when his country was heading into a lot of unknown. “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year;/Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown”/ And he replied, “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God/That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
Let Christ and his light go before us. To remind ourselves who goes before and beside and over and under and behind us, let us remember God’s mighty acts of salvation.
What does the phrase “all that the Lord has done for you” mean to you?
May God give us the enablement and the opportunity and the courage to live it and to speak it.
Kings come and go. Empires come and go. Herod dies. Joseph is told about the new situation in a dream by an angel of the Lord. Those who were seeking the child’s life are dead. Kings come and go. Things weren’t 100% safe even without Herod and when Joseph heard that Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling over Judea and was warned again in a dream he headed up to Galilee where things were presumably a little safer and the little child grew up. Kings come and go. The word of the Lord endures forever. Things that demand our worship and adoration come and go but the one whom the magi adored and worshiped endures forever. The one in whose perfect love our fear is cast out.
May he cast out our fear too. The fear that we’re talking about this morning is not just the fear of tyrants. We mustn’t read texts like this and think they’re solely meant for other people. When King Herod heard the news that the wise men brought he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. Someone has said that one thing about children is that they pull us into an unknown future. What future might be Christ be pulling us into in 2020? What might Christ be calling us to? We needn’t fear whatever it is because God is with us. The same person who wrote about children pulling us into an unknown future wrote this about the pull of Christ – “But that pull is the lure of love that moves the sun and the stars, the same love that overwhelmed the wise men with joy. It is that love that makes the church an alternative to the world that fears the child.” So may this be the truth for us in 2020 my friends. Perfect love casts out fear. As we begin the year with a look at the foundations of our faith, the love of the one who is the foundation goes with us and his Spirit comforts us, guides us, and quells our fears. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift. Amen.