Grace Presbyterian Church
December 29, 2019, Christmas 1A
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
These are the opening lines of a poem titled “Home” by the Kenyan-born, London-based Somali poet Warsan Shire. Published in 2015, the poem gained a great deal of attention for its bracingly stark portrayal of the horrific challenges faced by refugees fleeing from despotic regimes in many parts of the world, often with no clear hope of what is to come, but clear on the impossibility of facing certain death or torture or starvation by staying home.
The horrific challenge faced by refugees across the world is, for all its seeming currency, not a new thing. Refugees have been faced with the choice to flee into unknown dangers or to stay and be subject to certain dangers, frankly, for as long as governing powers of whatever kinds have existed. And indeed, we are reminded in today’s reading from Matthew that when we speak of our Lord having faced sufferings and persecution like as humanity has faced, that common trouble began as far back as his childhood.
The reading for today is, in effect, in three movements, like a sonata, sections marked (in order) by two dreams (only one of which is recorded in today’s reading), the nightmare, and two more dreams. We have already encountered dreams as a means by which Joseph, the earthly father of God’s Son, was instructed by God to take Mary as his wife despite her unexpected pregnancy (not to mention an earlier Joseph, back in Genesis, who also had some experience with dreams). Now, after the child is born, and after that strange visit by those star-followers from a distant land, another dream brings another angel messenger to Joseph, this time with a much more urgent message.
Movement 1: Bethlehem to Egypt
We begin in Bethlehem. At this point it is probably best if we put out of our minds a great many of those elements that we tend to think of as “the Christmas story” – events recorded in Luke but not in Matthew, such as the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or the angel visitation to the shepherds and their journey to Bethlehem. To hear what Matthew is trying to tell us, it’s best not to confuse the two narratives. It’s not about preferring one to the other, but hearing each gospel with integrity matters, and today is Matthew’s turn to tell his story, no matter how ugly or despairing it may be.
In Matthew’s account the family is pretty clearly living in Bethlehem. Verse 11 of this chapter speaks of the Magi “entering the house” where the child was with his mother Mary – no stable or manger to be seen. All things considered, once the Magi had gone, it’s hard to say that the family would have done anything other than settled down to a life as normal as possible when your son is the Promised One, were it not for this new and urgent dream after the Magi’s departure.
The dream is a stark warning: “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.” Here warning of the dream is needed in reaction to the consequences of another dream, one in which the Magi were warned not to return to Herod, as Herod had requested in their initial meeting. Herod got angry and threatened, and immediately set out to remove, by whatever means necessary, this unknown child in this forgotten backwater town who somehow convinced these foreigners that he was a future King of Israel. That’s what tyrants do.
But in the meantime, the first move; from Bethlehem to Egypt.
(Move Holy Family)
Movement 2: The Massacre
This isn’t the kind of text to which the Revised Common Lectionary typically leads (there are plenty of battlefield slaughters in scripture that don’t get read). This isn’t the kind of text for which hymn writers typically write hymns (and I tried). Over time you may have noticed that when I’m putting a service together, I do try as best as possible to choose hymns for the service that somehow reinforce or “go with” the scripture reading or readings being read and proclaimed. That’s not really possible for this text; that Coventry CarolJulia played is one of very few songs to tell this story. If anything, the hymns today are, almost of necessity, jarringly dissonant with the scripture, and maybe that’s the best thing to do in this case – let the contrast point out just how horrible this story is.
There are scholars who point out that this particular slaughter is not recorded in any place other than this scripture, even by scribes who were hostile towards Herod. To be honest, maybe it’s not as surprising as they want to make it out to be. Let’s be blunt about this: we remember a few big names – Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland – but how many mass school shootings or synagogue shootings or movie theater shootings have we already forgotten? What happens in a small backwater town is easily brushed aside by history; a few dozen children of families of no importance are easily swept aside by a tyrant determined to maintain his grip on power; again, this is what tyrants do.
Bethlehem was a small town, maybe of two hundred residents; a best guess might be that somewhere between ten and twenty young boys under the age of two were killed for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The trouble with Luke’s Nativity story is that it is so easily to sentimentalize beyond all meaning. It’s just a series of pretty pictures or verses, something you can gather up a bunch of children and put them in bathrobes (or dress some of them as sheep) and pose them on stage and you have a pageant guaranteed to make every grandparent in the room go “awwww…” and every parent snapping pictures to the point of blinding the poor kids on stage. Matthew will have none of that. As Matthew desperately wants us to see, this birth takes place in a world that knows hideous cruelty and violence –the very sinfulness and rebellion this child came down to earth to bear witness against – and this child was very close to being caught in it, but for the quiet but urgent intervention of God.
Human depravity doesn’t go away just because the Son of God shows up on earth. It’s not exactly a heartwarming story, but we are unprepared for the world if we do not remember this.
Movement 3: Out of Egypt
Time passes. We don’t know how much, but it could possibly have been as long as two years, when another of those dreams gives Joseph the heads-up that Herod was dead, and it was time to return. The family had spent this time in Egypt as…immigrants? refugees? asylum seekers? Whatever it was, that time was over, and a journey back to Israel awaited the family.
While Herod might no longer be ruling over the Roman province of Judea, someone potentially even worse was: Herod’s son, Archelaus. This set off alarm bells for Joseph, and (as if he had come to expect these dreams to help him get through this time of trial) he hesitated to return to Bethlehem of Judea. Joseph’s instincts were correct; Archelaus would go down in history acknowledged as an even worse and more abusive ruler than his father, so bad that his Roman superiors (who never worried overmuch about how brutally their puppet rulers did their job) decided he was going too far and removed him from office. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Joseph’s hesitation here; after all, he’s only been told to return to Israel, not necessarily to Bethlehem or Judea proper.
Sure enough, one more angelic dream comes to him, redirecting him further north, to the province of Galilee and the town of Nazareth. As Matthew has done all along, he jumps in to tie this new address to ancient prophecy – just as he had with the flight into Egypt, citing a prophetic line about God calling the son out of there, now an apparently obscure prophetic proclamation about the Promised One being a Nazarean comes into play. Not to mention the very resonance of Egypt in the history of Israel – the whole Exodus story probably came crashing into the mind of every one of Matthew’s Jewish readers in the first century at the mere mention of Egypt. So at last the family would make their way to what would be Jesus’s hometown.
(Move Holy Family)
It’s not easy to know what to do with a story such as this, and frankly I’d run like mad from any preacher who tried to sell it with any kind of positive or triumphalistic spin on it. Trying to draw out some sort of “big finish” to a sermon seems all wrong, and yet it does seem that there are two things that we, so easily seduced into taking all meaning out of Christmas that goes anywhere beyond ‘awwww…’, need to hold on to from this horrific story that Matthew insists on putting before us. All the dreams make us modern educated types a little uneasy, and reading about a slaughter of children by a cruel and desperate tyrant doesn’t lend itself to easy sermon points, but maybe we should remember this:
- Human cruelty and wickedness does not cease simply because the Son of God is incarnate among humanity. If anything, it seems as if that wickedness ramps up, determined to hold on to its own power or wealth or status without regard to the work of God on earth. Jesus is not a magic spell that we cast about to ward off evil spirits. Wicked people will continue to do wicked things.
But at the same time, this is also true:
- Human cruelty and wickedness will not stop God’s movement among humanity, any more than it stopped the Son of God from being incarnate and living among us on earth. This may be the harder one to remember. It can be easy to despair of the Kingdom of Heaven making any headway in a world that displays so much hatred and vindictiveness. How can God possibly be at work in all this?
And yet it is precisely in all this that God is most at work. Among the poorest, the most desperate, the most “least of these” among humanity, the Spirit of God is most moving, most active, if we take Matthew 25 seriously. The Spirit isn’t always heard very well in places of comfort or power, on the other hand, like, say, a tyrant’s palace or the homes of those who support him (and it’s pretty frequently “him,” it seems).
No, to quote the old Christmas hymn, “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” God is still at work. God is still moving. That is not the question, despite the best efforts of the worst of humanity. What is the question? The question is whether we will join with God, follow Jesus, and be led by the Spirit in the work of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #143, Angels, from the Realms of Glory; #127, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing; #159, O Sing a Song of Bethlehem; #113, Angels We Have Heard on High
(Image: Léon Cogniet, Scene of the massacre of the Innocents, 1824; Musée des Beaus-Arts, Rennes)