[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]
Christmas was just yesterday. Yet our Gospel lesson for this morning fast forwards us to events that happened two years and more after the birth of Jesus. In spite of the confusion that it might cause us though, I think it’s good for us to come to this lesson immediately following Christmas day. Through the centuries, our Christmas celebrations have been loaded down with what I can only describe as sentimental lies or pleasant sounding truth-blockers. Jesus, when acknowledged at all in most contemporary celebrations, is turned into a harmless little baby.
But Jesus was not and is not harmless. Herod knew that. The wise men did too. They knew what we must know: Christmas is D-Day!
Christmas is God storming the beaches of our resistant lives and wills.
In the name of the same freedom the serpent told Eve she would have if she disobeyed God, a freedom that ends in slavery to sin and death and futility, we willingly buckle under the authority of an evil, morally compromising world. At Christmas, God entered our world to upend that reality.
Christmas is God coming to overthrow the illegitimate occupier of power in our world, the devil himself.
Christmas is a just God come to overturn the tables of extortionists, to strip the selfish of their power, to put the violent and unjust in their places, and to bring life to those who, contrary to what the world tells us to do, repent for our sin and surrender our whole lives only to Him.
The bottom line is that the sweet baby Jesus is a threat to the standard operating procedures of the world, maybe even of our own standard operating procedures.
In the New Testament book of Acts, it was said of the first Christians that they had turned the world upside down. Filled with faith in Christ and with God's Holy Spirit, they were empowered by God to continue the mission of Jesus, each believer in Jesus an outpost of the kingdom that destroys all the powers of this world.
Jesus Himself was such a threat to the king of Judea, that, to protect Jesus, He and His earthly parents became refugees in Egypt.
Keep in mind the threat that Jesus represents to all the selfishness and injustice that exists in our world as we delve into today’s Gospel lesson. Please pull the Celebrate inserts from your bulletins and find it on page three.
Read along silently with me as I read the first few verses:
Now after they [that’s the wise men] 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...There are several things to notice here.
First: Herod, we’re told, wanted to “destroy” the child. The verb in the original Greek is part of the same verb family used much later in Matthew’s gospel to describe what the religious leaders in Jerusalem conspired to do to Jesus.
Herod loved power and personal comfort. Over his lifetime he had been willing to do anything to retain his power, including the killing of a wife whom he adored, but who, he was convinced, was plotting to take power from him. Herod was so selfish that, when he was dying, he ordered that the leading citizens of the town of Jericho be murdered to ensure that people would be crying during his funeral. The fact that the same word--destroy--was later used by Matthew to describe what the religious leaders—the priests and the levites—plotted to do to Jesus demonstrates what a threat Jesus can be not just to the rich or to those in government, but also to those who exercise religious power.
Jesus, in fact, is a threat to all who delude themselves with the idea that we human beings are self-sufficient and don’t need a Savior for a crutch. A woman in my former parish told me that she got angry with people who dismissed her faith in Christ as “a crutch.” Her anger wasn’t born of a belief in her ability to conquer any mountain in life. “Of course Christ is a crutch,” she said, “I need a crutch. That’s why I’m a Christian.” Jesus Christ, Who bore the weight of all our sin on the cross and then rose again to life, is the only crutch we can find that won’t buckle under the pressure of all our personal sins, our stresses, our difficulties, our daily challenges. I've often thought since that woman shared her insight with me that we Christians ought to wear lapel pins portraying a crutch in order to openly declare our total dependence on Christ!
Notice a second thing in these first verses of our lesson, something we see throughout the passage: Joseph did not hesitate. As soon as he was told to take the child and his mother to Egypt, he did so. He apparently took action on the very night he had his dream.
If I had been Joseph, I might have hesitated. I might even have simply ditched Jesus and Mary. After all, Joseph had no genetic connection to Jesus. Joseph could have turned Jesus and Mary over to the authorities and maybe lived a comfortable life in the employ of Herod and his descendants. He certainly could have spared himself the grief of being connected with a baby who was already a fugitive.
But Joseph opted to share the danger that the toddler Jesus faced. Joseph chose to obey God…immediately! Faith that doesn’t result in obedience to God, to the extent that you and I are able to understand God’s will and obey, isn’t faith; it’s just an idea. Wherever the call of the God we know in Jesus, sends us, that’s where we’re to go. That’s what faith does.
Back to the lesson:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men [who had left Herod’s kingdom without telling Herod where they found the newborn King], 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…Herod was taking no chances. He enjoyed his comforts and perks too much to allow a competitor for his throne to threaten him. This intolerance of other contenders for positions of privilege still goes on, and not just in the counsels of the national governments and big corporations. It even happens in churches.
I read once about a man who held a place of prominence in the church he attended, a large congregation in a small Texas town. People bowed and scraped to him and didn’t call him directly by his first name. He was Mister John. No decision was taken in that church without Mister John first giving his approval. A young pastor arrived, who, naïve enough to believe in the Bible's teaching that all believers are ministers, treated John with the same respect he showed all people, but not with deference. John wasn’t on the church council; so, the pastor didn’t know he was supposed to run things by John before bringing them before council. Mister John tried to correct the young pastor, but the pastor seemed insusceptible to any authority but God’s authority, as expressed in the Scriptures. No one knows how they got started for sure, but after awhile, rumors started being noised around the church and community: rumors about the pastor and his relationships with other people, rumors about church finances, rumors about the church’s decision making process, all false. Nonetheless, the pastor was forced from ministry altogether. Most people in the church had no idea what had happened. But Mister John did, which is why, to his credit, decades later, he found that pastor and his wife living in another town and apologized to the pastor. But much damage had been done, the same damage always done by those who are threatened by Jesus’ authority supplanting their own.
In the last verses of our lesson, Herod has died and Joseph, once again, is told in a dream to head out, this time away from Egypt and now, to Nazareth. To me, this may have been the hardest of all the orders Joseph received from God. By the time Joseph received it, he and his fledgling family had put roots down in Egypt. Anyone who has ever worked for a large corporation, been in the military, been in ministry, or grabbed a new opportunity in a different community, will know how hard it is for a young family to move to new places. The reasons for staying always seem to outweigh the reasons for leaving.
But Joseph took his family to Galilee immediately. The thought of keeping the life to which he’d grown accustomed seems never to have crossed his mind. For followers of Jesus, he status quo will never do; only Jesus will do!
And that brings us back to this. Christmas reminds us that Jesus and those who dare to follow Him are threats to this world. When you understand that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life, the only means of being reconciled to the only One Who can give us life, all other ways, all other supposed truths, and every other way of life must be abandoned. This is hard; but, God has revealed, it’s the only way to truly live.
When I was a senior in high school, I asked a girl out on a date. She said, “Yes,” but later backed out. I was baffled. (I mean, I was real charmer back then. Right, Ann?) During the rest of the school year, she would speak to me, but in little more than grunts. When our yearbooks were delivered, I emboldened myself to ask her to sign mine. “You really are a nice guy,” she wrote. “But you have to quit worrying about what people think of you.” It took me years to figure out what she meant. And it took Jesus to begin to liberate me from the tyranny of other people’s opinions.
There is only one person Whose opinion of you and me matters, and that’s the God we know in Jesus Christ. He has expressed His opinion of us in the suffering, blood, and cross of Jesus.
This Christmas, let Jesus storm the beaches of your will and heart.
Let Him assault and destroy the sin in you through a life style of daily repentance and renewal in His Name.
Let Jesus be all that matters to you.
None of that is likely to win you a popularity contest. And letting Jesus be first in our lives won’t earn us places of comfort and ease.
But surrendering all to Jesus will allow us to be ushered into the presence of the One Who tells all who grow weary of the rat mazes of a sinful world, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
May we hear that call from Christ above all the sinful din of the world and of our own souls, and so, always live in faithful obedience to Him. Amen