The scripture text for this sermon is Matthew 2:13-23.
A couple of years ago, I had an idyllic start to my Christmas morning. My kids were older, probably 22 to 18, that age when you look with satisfaction at the kind of adults they are becoming. All of them lived away from home in college dorms or apartments. Christmas was a homecoming, a new experience for our family.
First one out of bed, I grabbed my cup of coffee and quietly read the newspaper waiting for the others to wake. Paige woke next, and then the kids started to come down the stairs. We all opened up the multitude of presents that we had purchased for each other. We laughed at the old jokes familiar to families. As is our tradition, Paige made a huge brunch that capped our morning. After eating, everyone drifted to different parts of the house to explore their gifts.
I went for a run, anxious to use a new GPS watch Paige had given me. When I left the house was peaceful, calm, the picture of contentment, a Norman Rockwell painting. When I returned, there was complete chaos in the house. I heard screaming between my boys from the basement. I ran down to find them fighting, my college aged offspring, over a video game. Before I could break it up they started wrestling and slugging each other just like they had when they shared a room in grade school. I had to pull them apart. They both left the house angry, not coming back till evening. How did Christmas take such a wrong turn?
Matthew and his readers must have wondered the same thing. Just a chapter ago he painted a wonderful picture of a faithful Mary and righteous Joseph making room in their lives for Jesus by saying yes to God’s messengers. In the next chapter the conniving King Herod uses deception, even genocide in an attempt to stop God’s plan from working out in Bethlehem. From the wonder of new birth and the hope it brings to creation, we are horrifically reminded of the evil that still exists and even reigns. How did Christmas take such a wrong turn?
If you are a member of Messiah, you may be asking the same thing this morning. Two days ago this place was full of people dressed to the nines. Hundreds of candles and white lights gave beauty to our sanctuary decorated with trees, garland and bountiful red poinsettias. Special music worked on for months by our talented leaders and choirs filled the sanctuary. It was exciting, exactly how we hoped Christmas Eve would happen. Then, we get to this morning. The pews are nowhere near as full. The decorations are still up and we are singing the same songs, but let’s face it the moment’s gone. How did Christmas take such a wrong turn?
Being human, we would rather linger in an idyllic Christmas before confronting the reality of the broken world we still live. Pastors only talk to others about the great Christmas Eve service they led not the one on December 26. Parents only take pictures of their kids smiling in front of the tree, not beating the snot out of each other. For this same reason, Matthew’s end to the Christmas story doesn’t make it into our Children’s Christmas pageants.
Last week, Garrison Keillor on his radio show Prairie Home Companion, told a story about the fictional Minnesota town Lake Woebegone. In it, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church had revamped their children’s Christmas program because the cranky older nun that had been in charge of it for decades had died. She had not only woven Matthew’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem into the pageant, she had made it the dramatic climax of the play, using gruesome, headless dolls, splattered with red paint for emphasis. After her funeral, they quickly cut this final scene from the production. The parents were relieved.
Matthew is the only one to tell this story of King Herod. Of course, this doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It sounds like something this king would do. After all, he had his two sons and their mother executed for little reason. He signed a decree before he died that every family in his kingdom would bring forward one member to be executed on the day of his death. His hope was to make his passing truly a national day of mourning. Fortunately, his orders were not carried out.
Killing babies was not out of the question for this guy, but likely just a blip in his evil, despotic reign. After all, in a population of about 1000 like Bethlehem demographers tell us we are talking of at most 20 or so male babies slaughtered. In a brutal time, this tiny genocide would hardly be noticed. Well except the parents of Bethlehem whose day was horribly interrupted by a loud knock on their door by soldiers carrying bloody swords.
Matthew speaks truth into all our Christmas celebrations whether we want to hear it or not. In this broken world, wrong turns seem the rule not the exception. In order to get to Bethlehem and baby Jesus, we have to travel through Jerusalem disturbing evil King Herod. Evil consistently stands in opposition to God and God’s purpose. The battle is still between King Jesus and King Herod. Some of the ideas and turns of phrase in this paragraph taken from a Lectionary Homiletics article of unknown date written by Paul Brown, found on their website www.goodpreacher.com
This story rings true. I know it from my life, from the life of the church, from what I read in the newspaper, from my days walking with you in the midst of your lives. Full churches on Christmas Eve give way to sparsely filled pews on December 26. Wonderful idyllic family moments descend incomprehensibly to screaming slug fests. The Good News of Christ passes through the fire of evil that hopes to make a large enough din that no one will hear the announcement that God is with us.
My good friend Dave claims all Christians are pessimistic optimists. We know the power of evil to destroy lives. We know the power of God that has already declared victory in Jesus. In God’s plan for the world we are in the middle of book, still in the cliff hanging chase scenes where we are unsure how it will end if we were simply reading along. However, in Jesus, we know how it ends. We’ve read the last page. Even tragedy in our lives while not erased by hope, can be overcome with the promise that God has not abandoned us or forgotten us. God can reconcile what the world has broken, destroyed or torn apart. We are pessimistic optimists.
Sure, my Christmas took a wrong turn, but that evening when the boys came home, we sat down for a game of hearts together. The love sown in our family was stronger than the petty hatred stirred up in a moment. Though our attendance will not be near a 1000 like it was Friday until Easter, we rejoice that so many added their voices to our own to worship God and welcome the Messiah again. Surely, the love sown that night will bear fruit, too. Nothing can replace the loss of the parents of Bethlehem, or even explain why some babies’ make it safely to Egypt and others do not, but no amount of violence from Herod can dissuade God from His plan to forever heal the creation marred and tortured by evil. We trust the love sown that first Christmas to heal even this incomprehensible pain.
The hard right turns of Christmas are only temporary, slight detours. God has put the world on the right road forever. The river of life that begins at our baptism flows to God’s presence revealed in Christ, with only bends and rapids in the river to contend. In the battle between goodness and evil that is the narrative of our lives, no matter what the score looks like now, victory is ours. Amen.