Tuesday, January 4, 2011

December 26, 2010

Matthew 2:13-23

13  Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."  14  Then Joseph  got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  15  and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."  16  When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,  he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.   17  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  18  "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."  19  When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,  20  "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead."  21  Then Joseph  got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  22  But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  23  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." 

“Your Kingdom Come?”
Dec. 26, 2010
Rev. Justin Nickel
So, this is the reward for faithful church attendance, is it?  Here you dear people are, committed enough to show up the morning after Christmas, and your payment is this most gruesome readings from early in Matthew’s Gospel?  If ever a situation begged the question: “is this the thanks I get?”  this would perhaps be it.   Your fidelity rewarded with the grisly, political execution of children. Believe me, nowhere is this sort of thing listed as a best practice for growing a church. Where went the soothing beauty of the night of our dear savior’s birth?  Gone are the angels and the shepherds, gone are the wise men, gone is the sense of easy peace and sublime calm that filled our heads and our hearts not but two nights ago.  And with a tragedy that is too deep to comprehend, gone are the children, their winsome hymns replaced with the primal dirges of parents who must bury their children, a reality that offends the deepest biology of the universe.   Like a new born infected with an unanticipated disease before she can even leave the hospital, we have before us a panic that erupts in the middle of what should be the happiest of stories.  How, then, did we get here and so quickly? 
Well, to answer that question, we must unravel the story a bit and rehearse an exchange between the wise men and the ruler, Herod.  The wise men, you see, with no regard for the implications of their actions, happen upon a scene of inter-Jewish politics, and unintentionally set into a motion a series of events that will spin manically out of control.  These wise men, and by that phrase we mean astrologers, have been studying the stars and notice that something miraculous has happened to their East.  And so with the excess time and resources of the upper class at their disposal, they set out for Jerusalem, naively assuming that the current ruling party would also be celebrating whosever birth this star heralded.  Yes, they might have been wise, but street smart is not exactly an apt description.  King Herod and we should also note all of Jerusalem, that is all of those whose stability and comfort rely on the maintenance of business continuing as usual,   they recognize the new king for what he is, an unwanted threat to their stability, a possible attack on the status quo.  And while the wise men escape Judea without giving up Jesus to Herod’s bloody intentions, that will not stop the man in his madness.   For he, with the paranoia of those whose heads are made heavy by the crown, takes upon himself a horrific responsibility, and in so doing, gives himself over to demonic forces.  The sort of forces that insist the extermination of a group of people is necessary for the survival of another.  Forces that will even take on God if it means acquiring power, forces that will have one lusting after children’s blood on your precipitous descent to perdition. Herod is, in, some sense, the embodiment of humanity’s tragic condition in the extreme. For please do not forget that it is not just Herod who is afraid, but all of Jerusalem with him, which means that one need not be a murder of children to wish a freedom apart from God.  That sinful part of all of us who wish to be free of God may find an arresting resonance in Jerusalem’s agitated soul.  Yes, the terror of this story is that, we as inhabitants of Jerusalem, in part, wish that God would simply leave us alone so that we may protect all the good things for which we have worked so hard, and that the normalcy of our lives may not be interrupted by the Christ child.  
Yes, for as Herod nervously paces the floors of his palace hall, his mind is saturated with this one thought, that he has a right to protect all that he sought to build; that his whole life’s work is worth more than the lives of Bethlehem’s children.  Oh, stop to consider what crippling tragedy!   For what he has done, in ordering the slaughter of all those who might take on his throne, is to exert his freedom against any forces that might defy him, and in so doing, Herod attempts to abdicated even God’s throne. Yes, Herod has taken on the right that belongs solely to God, the right to create life and to take it away.  But we know how this storming of heaven ends, for Herod’s destruction was ensured the instant he believed Christ to be a threat.    
And so we, who sit in Jerusalem, anxiously wondering what it means that God has come in the flesh, yes we ponder what it could mean for us that God has entered space and time. Is a threat or a comfort that God has moved in next door?  I would venture a guess that, for most of us, it is both. Yes, for God’s incarnation into our worlds means that, in a certain sense, the jig is up.   We have been measured, and we have been found wanting.  We simply do not do that well when we are left to our own devices.  There is too much anger in us, too much doubt, too much greed, too much sorrow.  We will work towards whatever is in our own best interest, and whatever stands in our way of achieving that, we will name our enemies.
If this is the truth about us, then can it really be such a bad thing that this part of us has come under attack? This, then, is perhaps the greatest irony of this story: Herod is just as right about Christ as are the Wise men.  Christ is the new King, and Herod is quite right about what this means for his reign and for ours.  Where Herod goes wrong, though, is assuming this is not the greatest freedom.  For, in Christ, God reclaims His rightful place as the one who is truly God, truly responsible for the judging and redeeming of humanity.  That the Christ child coming in our midst has come save us from the minor wars we wage against ourselves and others, perhaps this is actually a welcomed relief, a much-needed respite. For this means, we need no longer attempt that exhausting and finally destructive project of being God for ourselves.  That, in Christ, we can see, touch, and yes even taste a God whose love is finally more real than the lies that we everywhere encounter.  Lies like you are not worthy of God’s love, or lies like you must go about this business of living on your own.  For we were not made to live apart from the God who has created us, and oh, if only Herod had someone to tell him this.  Yes, the notion that we can build lives free from God is the greatest and most tempting lie that we tell ourselves, and Christ has come as a light in that darkness.  Christ has come to create in us the freedom of being God’s children, and this, dearly beloved, is the most animating freedom that there is. This is the freedom to become truly alive.  It is the freedom to become not gods, but genuine people; people whose identity is secured not by what they consume or what tax bracket they inhabit, but people who are refashioned in the image of Christ.   The sort of people who can give generously of all that they have and all that they are, because in so doing, they participate more deeply in the community that God is everywhere building in their midst.  The sort of people who can point to the font and say that is where I was born, for in those waters, Christ made me his own.  Yes, this who God has proclaimed you to be.  Christ’s birth is a threat, yes, but it is a threat only to those forces that would keep us from becoming who we are in Christ.  Yes, our reign as masters of our destinies is over: for there is a yet more excellent way. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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