Sunday, December 29, 2019
First Sunday after Christmas Year A
Praise is our cry, O Holy One of Israel, for you have come among us and borne our burdens. Give us open hearts, that we might embrace our suffering sisters and brothers, and welcome Jesus in the hospitality we show to exiles. Amen.
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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
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. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“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.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 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. 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.”
All readings for this week:
Questions for reflection:
1. Why do you think the church tells this tragic story right in the midst of Christmas joy?
2. What have been the “Egypts,” the places of refuge and safety, in your life?
3. When have you had to change plans, to re-route your itinerary, to make a new life in a new place?
4. How do you respond to Freire’s challenge that we cannot be neutral in the conflict between the powerful and the powerless?
5. In what ways is God calling you to courage in this new year?
by Kate Matthews
Compare and contrast: we learned their meaning somewhere in grade-school writing assignments, and Matthew shows that he understands the difference between them. In the few verses of this heartbreaking story, he reminds his listeners of the most powerful people and places in their shared memory.
King Herod’s paranoia and brute power remind us of Pharaoh; Joseph’s attention to God’s leading through dreams sounds like his ancestor Joseph long ago; the flight of Jesus and his family to Egypt looking for safety from a threat sounds like the sojourn of the people of Israel, in need of food in a famine; Jesus, like Moses, is saved as a baby from a brutal tyrant and comes up out of Egypt to respond to God’s call; Bethlehem is the City of David, the great king; Rachel weeps in Ramah over her lost children in exile, like the lost children of the massacre.
Matthew’s earliest listeners would have heard all of these similarities to their own story in the story of Jesus’ birth.
No comparison between these kings
On the other hand, Matthew also provides stark contrasts. Think of the difference between Herod and Joseph: Herod’s ruthless violence in the face of a threat is exactly the opposite of Joseph’s response when in danger. And the contrast between the power of Herod, exhibited in the killing of innocent babies, and the power of God, not to be deterred from the plan of salvation, is dramatic.
Lawrence Farris notes that “King Herod” becomes just “Herod” once the true “King of the Jews” has arrived, but God, of course, is still God. A vulnerable infant makes a powerful king look weak in his insecurity and paranoia–now there’s an illustration of contrast!
How to stir up an entire city
Fred Craddock, too, observes that this tiny baby “stirred a capital city, disturbed a reigning king, and attracted foreigners to come and worship.” Perhaps the word “disturbed” is not strong enough to describe Herod’s awful reaction, and Warren Carter’s description of this second chapter of Matthew as “The Empire Strikes Back” is closer to the truth.
Mary Hinkle Shore quotes Carter, and she also provides another contrast, between the “powerful center” and the “powerless margins” (perhaps not so powerless, we think, in its own and different way): it seems that “the powerless margins” is where we belong, we disciples, since this is only the beginning of an entire Gospel that “imagines discipleship as an itinerant existence on the edges of empire.”
Do you live “on the edge” or “in the center” of the empires of today?
A vision of tragedy long ago
Surely, on this post-Christmas celebration Sunday, some of us read this terrible story (full of terror, indeed), and ask, “Why did God have to kill these babies just to make the Scriptures come true?”
The question itself would be a mis-reading, or better, a mis-hearing, of the text. Matthew is careful in his wording, saying not that “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,” but “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet….”
An important distinction
According to Thomas Long, this matters, because Matthew certainly doesn’t call these murders God’s will; rather, he tells this story to reassure us that nothing, not even the most despicable evil we can imagine, the murder of innocent babies, can stop God from accomplishing God’s purposes.
Indeed, we must note that the middle third of verse 16, just one piece of one verse, recounts matter-of-factly a deed so evil that we can’t bear to hear more detail. I grew up in a tradition that called this Sunday “The Feast of the Holy Innocents,” and I saw many paintings (including one in our family Bible) that vividly, even gruesomely, depicted the death by sword of these babies and toddlers. The message was clear: the powers that be, embodied here by Herod, were capable of great evil.
Suffering through the ages
Later, I majored in history in schools in that same tradition, where I learned about later iterations of the powers that be, also fully capable of great evil. In her memoir, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans provides a wrenching account of a whole series of atrocities by “good” Christians through the ages, including the slaughter of babies by Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099, the tortures of the Inquisition, the burning of synagogues (with the approval of Martin Luther), and the “rape, violence, plunder, and enslavement” brought to the New World by European Christians. Reading that litany will break one’s heart.
But I’m also reminded of the horrifying videos that came out of the tragic war in Syria, for example, when the city of Aleppo suffered so deeply: pictures of a father holding his two small children, and it takes us a moment to understand, as they fall back limply, that the children are both dead. They look perfect, peaceful even, but they have been killed by the powers that be, senselessly, in cold blood.
The suffering goes on today
More recently, images of children being taken from their parents on our own border, often without a systematic way to reunite them, or pictures of children being turned away after fleeing their homelands in desperation, evoke the same deep sorrow. (What if Egypt had turned Mary, Joseph and Jesus away when they fled there for refuge?)
When we consider such sorrows, how can we not remember this story, and hear the voice of Mother Rachel, crying for her children, as Matthew evokes her voice in mourning over these latest of her lost children?
This good news is bad news for Herod
The shepherds and the Gentile Magi, outsiders all, weren’t the only ones to “get” who this baby Jesus was. Herod, at the center of power, also understood the power, and the threat, of this Child, “the political implications” he held for a petty king like Herod, Lawrence Farris writes. Herod sent his soldiers to get the Baby Jesus but also to squelch any messianic hopes in the people who had heard about the child’s birth: Herod was all about killing hope.
The good news that we hear on Christmas, of God entering our reality through the birth (and life, and death, and resurrection) of Jesus, is not good news for Herod on his shaky seat of power, for “if Jesus is Lord, then he is not,” Farris writes, and he goes on to say that the conflict that disturbed Herod’s soul rages, sooner or later, in ours, too: “Not all the world, then or now, welcomes God’s presence in human affairs. This struggle between Herod and the Christ is waged outwardly in the world and inwardly in every person. Who shall rule?”
A season of children, in more than one way
Perhaps it’s easier to welcome a sweet little baby if we don’t have to think about what the little baby was taking on. Perhaps it’s not a pretty image for the Christmas season, but then the Incarnation isn’t about “pretty”; it is God entering our own lived reality, including the pain and suffering and the struggle as well.
It seems that Matthew tells this story to remind us of that, and to remind us of that conflict waged in every soul, in every age. And this story in particular brings before us the stark reminder of how often the wages of conflict are visited upon the smallest, most vulnerable in our midst–those so often without a voice in what happens to them.
“We were only following orders”
The role of the soldiers who carried out Herod’s terrible command is often passed over in this story. How could they have executed that command and participated so directly in such horror?
We cannot imagine such brutality, and yet Farris challenges us to examine our own consciences: we may be several steps away from violence, injustice, and suffering, but can’t we be held accountable for them, to some degree, if we have not resisted them with every resource at our command? Those who passively tolerate evil–when they can do something about it–are not so very different, Farris notes, from the soldiers in any age who are “only following orders.”
What is our responsibility?
We live, of course, in settings very different from Herod’s, with few of us living “under” royals of great power, but that only increases our responsibility all the more when we see or hear about suffering inflicted on the innocent and the powerless. There are possibilities for acting and speaking up when we see such suffering.
We are not powerless, but perhaps we have not spent enough time thinking of how to address it. For example, we face more and more the spectre of state-sponsored violence, which describes Herod’s actions well, around the world today. And there is the ordeal of refugees and immigrants, too, people like Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus himself, and our response to their plight as well.
Called out of Egypt to do God’s will
According to John J. Pilch, “Egypt was a traditional place of refuge for Judeans….It came under Roman rule in 30 B.C.E. and was beyond Herod’s jurisdiction.” Ironically, the place where Jesus’ ancestors had been enslaved, the place from which they had escaped, is the place to which Jesus and his parents escape, the place where they find refuge.
What are the “Egypts” of your life? What powerful associations do you have with places and times in your life that have represented either captivity or freedom and safety, or both? Perhaps there have been times when you felt that you needed to run away, “under cover of night,” from what might harm you.
As we think about those in our churches and in our communities and in the world who are refugees, have we built safe havens and helped them make a new home in a new place?
The “holy innocents” of today
The babies who died at the hands of Herod’s insane rage have been called “the Holy Innocents” in church practice. But this is not just a story of long ago and far away. There are “holy innocents” in our world today, the babies and children at our mercy in our public life, who suffer from the lack of clean air and water, medical care, good schools; the holy innocents who suffer in war, who endure violence in their homes and neighborhoods, who have no voice in the life of our community.
Do we spend time in the role of Mother Rachel, in lament over the deaths of the innocents, or do we simply turn the page, and move on?
Power never sits easy on its throne
Archelaus and Herod are tyrants whose days came to an end. Jesus, the baby whose goodness and power threatened the tyrants of old, still unsettles and provokes a reaction in those who use their power for their own gain.
Perhaps you or someone you know (or someone who inspires you) has experienced suffering for standing up to the powers that be. How is God calling you this day to stand up and speak the truth to these powers? What might be the cost, and are you ready and willing to pay it?
Finding ourselves in the story
How would you feel, at this point in the story, if you were Joseph? Perhaps there have been times when you found yourself unable to put down roots, but instead had to move on, to a better, though unknown, place. Did you experience this as God at work in your life?
How is God calling you to travel to “a new place” in your life, however uncomfortable, in a new day, and how do you experience God’s presence with you in this new place and this new hour, just as God was with Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus, on their way to Egypt and back home again?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Paulo Freire, 20th century
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
“Nearly all [people] can stand adversity, but if you want to test a [person’s] character, give [them] power.”
John Steinbeck, 20th century
“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts….perhaps the fear of a loss of power.”
Paulo Coelho, 21st century
“Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart.”
Nelson Mandela, 20th century
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, 20th century
“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”
Jennifer Donnelly, Revolution, 21st century
“Little by little, the old world crumbled, and not once did the king imagine that some of the pieces might fall on him.”
Plato, 5th century b.c.e.
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when [we] are afraid of the light.”
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