First Sunday of Christmas- Year A
Each year, on this Sunday, the first Sunday of Christmas, the texts for the day are chosen from the stories of Jesus’ childhood that we have recorded in the Bible. There aren’t many. We only have a handful of stories before Jesus begins his ministry as an adult. One year we read the story of Anna and Simeon in the temple bringing their blessings to the tiny messiah and those beautiful words, “Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace”. One year we read the story of Jesus reading in the temple while his parents search for him frantically.
And this year, we read Matthew’s version of Jesus’ childhood. This story is called by two names “The Flight into Egypt” and “The Massacre of the Innocents”. The two names reflect the two parallel events- two distinct sides of the story. One side is the safety for the holy family as they flee into refuge in Egypt. The other side is the true and horrid fact that many families did not have the same opportunity to escape the wrath of Herod. Wrath that was caused by hearing that a new king- albeit a very different kind of king, an infant Messiah- was on the scene in Israel.
This is a tough story to hear in the Christmas season, in part because we expect the perfect frozen images that I described on Christmas Eve night. We don’t expect to hear about the harsh reality of sin and evil in our world. We especially don’t expect to hear about the effects that sin has on the beloved holy family or on young innocent children anywhere. But, as one theologian, Prof. David Lose, writes
The thing is, Jesus’ birth upset the order. He comes as God’s chosen king, the one who is to bring about the peace, justice, and equity of the kingdom of God. And so all earthly kings who put their own power and privilege first are terrified.
Such a grim account of wholesale massacre and night flights to safety would seem far-fetched were it not for similar atrocities and tragedies happening right now. How many families, for instance, are being dislocated in Syria even as we gather for worship. And how many children are being starved to death around the world as we finish up or throw away holiday leftovers. And how many families, perhaps some even in our congregations, are contending with their own private sorrows and hardships only exacerbated by expectations for a perfect Christmas.
Professor Lose is right. These atrocities are not far-fetched. They are real and they are what Jesus came to defeat. But, Jesus’ birth as the Messiah did not look like the Israelites had hoped. It did not bring political power or military rule. It also does not look like we would like it too look. As we know too well, Jesus’ birth doesnot bring the end to families fleeing for their lives or the death of children. Death and sin still existed in their world, and of course still exist in our world today.
So then, what is changed by Jesus birth? What does happen by God’s incarnation?
One truth that is made plain in the coming of Jesus as one of us, is that God cries with us. Matthew quotes the words of Jeremiah as he mourns the exodus, “”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 his children experience pain, God is present, and calls us to be present as well. Sometimes the only thing that one can do is to sit and cry with a parent who has lost a child or a child who has been forsaken by a parent, even when there are no words to say. Scholars believe that only about 20 or 30 children would have been killed in Herod’s atrocious decree- but we know, we feel, that the death of even one child is too much. Even one is too much.
Another reality through the incarnation, is that we are invited to live out the kind of love that Jesus lived. We are called to serve others and invest in the good, even in the face of tragedy. A couple of weeks ago, in a remarkable statement by the families of the children lost in the Sandy Hook shooting, they echoed that call as they wrote:
On the one year mark of that horrific day, we know that many people across the country will be thinking of the children and educators so tragically taken from us, and wondering how to help. We ask that you consider performing an act of kindness or volunteering with a charitable organization in your local community. In this way, we hope that some small measure of good may be returned to the world.
It seems small. It seems insignificant. But as these parents of children who were lost too young know, the way to combat injustice is not through bitterness or hatred. It is through love. It is as Mother Teresa said, “I cannot do great things. Only small things with great love”
Anne Howard, the director of the Beatitudes Society, also writes a story of learning to do small things with great purpose and love. She begins,
WHY BOTHER?” I asked the rabbi. It was 1982, and I was working for an interfaith nuclear disarmament group, pushing against the massive nuclear weapons buildup of that day. I went to see Rabbi Beerman, one of our advisers, on a day when I was just about ready to give up. I was feeling that it was futile to protest the arms race when every day the weapons budgets swelled bigger, the nuclear stockpiles rose higher, and our country sold more and more weapons to more and more Third World countries. The spiral of violence seemed out of control.
“Our efforts are so puny. Nobody listens. It’s hopeless. Why do we bother to keep working for change?” I asked.
Rabbi Beerman listened, as he always listened to my questions and complaints. Without a word, he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a picture of his new grandson, Matthew Benjamin. He asked to see a picture of my new baby son, Benjamin Michael.
In the style of all wisdom teachers, he asked me to think about these two little boys and the world in which they would grow up. He asked me to think about what we owed them. And then he asked: “If we cannot cultivate a passion for what one human being owes to another, what are we?”
And now I have a new call to hope. My baby son has grown up. He is now a doctor, training in trauma surgery and serving an urban population, where he too often finds himself sewing up the gunshot wounds of inner-city children. I ask him my new version of “Why bother?”-“What keeps you going?” He says, “I feel honored to do my best. I owe each one my best.”
In coming to us as “Emmanuel”, God gave us his very best. He came to weep with us when we suffer. He came to teach us how to love one another through acts both great and small.
What is your best today? Perhaps it is a small thing, but through small acts of great love, we honor and serve those who were massacred in the holy land of 1st C. and those who still flee to safer countries today. Through those acts of love, the Holy Spirit acts through us to draw us into deeper communion with the Christ child, who goes with you today. May you be strengthened for the journey. Amen.
Pastor Kate Costa
St. Luke Lutheran Church