1st Sunday after Christmas
Texts: Matthew 2:13-23;
Heb. 2:10-18; Is. 63:7-9
BACK TO REALITY
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t come here this morning, at the end of our holiday celebrations, to hear a story about children getting murdered. This gospel lesson about Herod is a downer, isn’t it? We’re here this morning to breathe in the last few breaths of the holidays, aren’t we? We’ll sing some concluding Christmas carols and enjoy the lights and decorations one final week. And, in the next few days, we’ll raise a toast to the New Year, take in a football game or two, enjoy the final days off, and then it’ll be back to reality. Back to work, back to school, back to the ol’ grind. The bright lights of Christmas will be replaced with the colder, darker reality of a January winter in Wisconsin. The holiday cheer that we might have imbibed will return to our usual fare of…what? What is your usual outlook? Is it one of cheer? Or one of sadness? One of excitement, or one of boredom? Of peace or anxiety?
Perhaps many of us here this morning have never been very far from your usual pain this holiday, so that the sought-after cheer of the holidays was never quite found. Your normal pain stayed too close. So for some of us the post-holiday return to reality is to a reality never quite left behind.
And perhaps it is good, then, that the Bible’s sense of Christmas is well-anchored in our human reality of pain and suffering, so that it can truly bring us Good News. Our second lesson from Hebrews is a good example. It speaks of Jesus’ coming into the flesh to save us — not some angels, but us. Jesus came into the flesh, not to gloss over reality with fantasy, not even the fantasy world of holiday cheer, but to share in the very things that make up our realities. It says that ‘he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might pioneer for us a perfect way of salvation through the sufferings of our human reality.’ Not around them, or over them. But through them. That’s the Good News for us this morning, even in the face of our normal, non-holiday reality. The Good News is that God helps us to face that reality. We don’t have to try to run away or escape it.
No, the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth never wander far from that reality. In this age, our culture has built up whole fantasy world stories to surround Christmas, but that’s not what the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth are like. Luke’s story of Christmas is the most pastoral and peaceful. Yet even there the cold reality is that there was no room for Mary and Joseph under a roof, so Jesus was born in a barn. And as Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus for his naming, the prophet Simeon tells them, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)
The Gospel of John reflects on Jesus coming into the flesh with the same theme of rejection: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:9-11) Christmas and rejection? Yet all three gospels with Christmas texts witness to this theme.
Our text from Matthew today is the most poignant. Matthew expresses the theme of rejection directly with a story. Three traveling magi welcomed the prospect of a new king, but local King Herod didn’t think much of it. He responded with the kind of violence we’d rather not think about, the kind of violence we’d like to forget with our holiday cheer. Jesus is saved at this point of Matthew’s story. But for what? We know the ending: eventually the powers and authorities will get their wish and kill Jesus. At the beginning of Matthew’s story, it is not yet time.
But the troubling part is that, in the meantime, scores of other little children are slaughtered by Herod. Isn’t that the same kind of reality we go back to this week, the kind of world we live in? We celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace at Christmas, but this week we return to a world of terrible violence, where innocent children suffer and are killed everyday. This is the point of the sermon were I am tempted to find a nice story that will help us to feel better and to make things alright. But there isn’t such nice stories, are there? I may search all my sermon resources, and I don’t think I’m going to find such a story. I search my own personal story, and I know so. Because I know too many people who suffered terribly as children, who were abused and neglected. And there aren’t any nice stories that magically make it alright. There isn’t enough holiday cheer to cover over the reality.
No, there is only one story I know that can begin to make things alright. It is this story of a baby born in a barn, who escaped death at the hands of the authorities as a child, but who did not do so as an adult. No, he knowingly went to his death for me and for you. And it is only the fact that God raised him up from death, that I can begin to have any hope at all. Because that resurrection is the promise that God does ultimately save us from this world of suffering and pain. God does ultimately rescue us from the hands of those who would do us harm.
I say that it only begins to make things better, because two thousand years later, there are children still being sacrificed to madmen the likes of Herod. But this is because God has chosen a whole new way of living to win us salvation. This new way does not run away from the violence but faces it. Neither does God resort to the old way of doing things, which is to fight force with force. God will not stop the madness by getting caught up in the same madness. No, God gives us a totally new way to live. God neither runs away from the madness, nor gets caught up in it, but stands there in the face of it and continues to love. Love. Instead God came into the midst of the madness, and through a suffering love has begun to pioneer a new way for us. Jesus was the pioneer of that perfect way.
Why is there still violence? Because love refuses to violently snuff it out. Love only knows love. With this new option, one that will someday end the madness, there may even be more violence for a time. Matthew’s story of Herod makes that clear. When those who stand for the old way of doing things like Herod, when they are confronted with this new possibility, they strike out with all that they can muster. But Christ-like love is the power of love that can stand tall in the face of it. And we who are called as disciples are called to follow in this new way of love. Perhaps the best news is that God, in becoming a human being, took on our human nature and has begun to transform it, baptize it, so that we are able to follow in the way of Christ.
Let’s close today with that last line of our second lesson: “Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Hebrews 2:18) Did you get that? Because Jesus fought off the temptation to do things the old way, to use force to fight force and violence and inflict pain on others, because he won out over that temptation, he is able to help us to do so, too. That is the Good News this morning. That you and I, in knowing that story of Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit of that same Jesus, that you and I can beat that temptation, too. We can become new creatures with a new way of life. We can begin to make a difference in this world. As we face a New Year, we do so again with the promise that we daily can become new creatures in Christ. The only resolution we need make this New Year is to truly be his disciples. For his is the way that goes through reality, the reality of suffering. Not around it, or over it, but through it. That’s the Good News for us this morning as we head back to our post-holiday realities. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, December 30-31, 1995