Sunday, December 26, 2010
Our Wandering Savior: Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23
It always comes as a shock, doesn’t it? The letdown after Christmas. Suddenly, you feel as if the sound of one more Christmas carol just might drive you bonkers. The idea of returning to the store to exchange something that was the wrong size or the wrong color or just plain wrong is about as appealing as stale cookies. Everything builds and builds to the day of Christmas—and the peace on earth and goodwill towards all is fleeting at best. The Irish performers “The Chieftains” have a song about this very phenomenon—the evaporation of peace and goodwill on December 26. The song is called “The Saint Stephen’s Day Murders.”
And so we come to it: the dark side of Christmas. And make no mistake, there is indeed a dark side to this holiday, and every three years the lectionary provides us with a reading that is a glass of ice water in our faces to remind us of the reality that sweeps in as a result of the birth we have just celebrated. The reality is death, stark, unlovely and violent.
We are going out of order with our story, because the events described in today’s reading take place after the visit of the travelers from the East—variously called magi, kings, philosophers, wise men or astronomers—a reading we will not hear in church for another week or so. You will remember that these traveling astronomers learned from their charting of the stars that a king was to be born in or around Jerusalem, and they came inquiring of Herod the king where that child might be, so that they might pay him homage. That was their deadly mistake, inquiring of Herod.
Here are some of the things we know about this King Herod, not to be confused with Herod Antipas, one of his sons, who later sees to the killing of John the Baptist. This Herod was known as Herod the Great—a title he, perhaps, gave himself, since his brutal regime did not inspire love in his people. He was King of the Jews, but not a Jewish King—he was an Edomite, installed as king over the Jews by Rome; he was a puppet king, a client king. As long as he did Rome’s bidding, he was able to retain a certain amount of power. That power included the ability to put to death anyone who threatened his claim to the throne.
Here are just a couple of instances in which Herod used that power. First, Herod had three of his own sons executed, lest they usurp his throne. And second, Herod issued a decree that, upon his death, one member of every family in Judea should be killed. That way, he reasoned, the people would truly mourn.
And so, Herod was entirely capable of responding to the threat of a new king, a king whose birth even the stars bore witness to. And his response is a brutal and merciless act, the act of killing all the children in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. Mind you, scholars are not convinced that this killing really happened. There are a couple of reasons for that; first, there is no evidence outside scripture, or anywhere except this passage, that it happened. And second, Matthew writes his gospel very much with the intention of showing Jesus to be a kind of new Moses, and the slaughter of children by a cruel monarch echoes the killing of the Hebrew infant boys by the Pharaoh.
Still. Bethlehem, in the years of Jesus’ birth and infancy, had a population of just around 1000. That means there would have been, perhaps, twenty infant boys of the age Herod targeted. It may be that, in the midst of a tyrant’s reign that was filled with killing, the deaths of twenty Jewish children were not considered to be worth the notice of the historians. In any case, whether or not the story is factual, it is true.
What do I mean by that? That the story may not be factual, but it is true. I mean, the empire always strikes back. When someone rises up, someone on the margins, someone like this Palestinian Jewish baby boy, born to poor parents with no political power, but still someone who, in Herod’s mind constituted a threat to him, to the Empire—of course, the empire will strike back. Think of everything Jesus came to stand for. Jesus came, preaching the good news to the poor and powerless. He came healing the blind and the deaf and the lame and welcoming sinners and children. He came challenging the system that insisted on ritual purity and instead insisted on love and compassion. He came, eating dinner with anyone and everyone. He came saying, not “Blessed are the fortunate,” or “Blessed are the elite,” but “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are the merciful.”
Of course, Herod couldn’t yet know any of that. All he knew was that someone, somewhere was thought of as newborn king, perhaps only by a handful of star-gazers. For King Herod in Judea, for the Emperor Augustus in Rome—the coming of this child could only mean that the delicate balance of power of the empire was being threatened, was being challenged. In Jesus’ day, as in our day, innocents are regularly killed when they become even the tiniest threat to those in power.
And so what becomes of Jesus? His parents flee with him; they become vagabond refugees. Like Moses, Jesus becomes a wanderer in Egypt. Our church teaches us that Jesus is fully human and fully divine—that is the mystery of the incarnation, that is what is at the heart of Christmas . If we take that belief seriously, we are confronted with the staggering irony of the all-powerful creator of the universe, the one who fashioned every star and planet and galaxy and sun, on the run from a third-rate king who only gets to wear a crown because he is willing to play nice with Rome. This gives us some sense of the cost of the incarnation, the cost to God of becoming human. God was willing to empty God’s self of power so thoroughly, so completely, that he took on our fragile human flesh and made himself vulnerable to even this Herod, this petty tyrant. Jesus becomes our wandering savior, on the run with his parents, until such a time as Herod himself is dead and the warrant cancelled.
This is a hard gospel lesson for the Sunday after Christmas. But the incarnation is more than a beautiful baby held by his glowing mother in a warm and cozy stable. The incarnation is more even than glorious visions of angels singing their heavenly melodies, and shepherds running, jubilant, to tell the good news. The incarnation is about God being willing to experience what it is to suffer and die as a human, because God wants to put an end to our suffering. The incarnation is about love so deep, so broad, so high, it is willing to go to any lengths for our sake. That kind of love is something to make us rejoice, to be sure. And it reminds us where Jesus’ heart is, who it is that Jesus stands solidly alongside: the refugees, the vagabonds, the powerless, and the poor.
Because this story is so painful, Matthew remembers for us the weeping of Rachel, one of the matriarchs of Israel. He quotes from Jeremiah: “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.” The piece I am about to sing was written about five hundred years ago, and it too gives voice to Rachel’s pain. I invite you, if you are mourning any loss, or if you simply are mourning the ongoing violence of this world, the ongoing suffering of the innocents, to pray this lament with me, knowing that the love that saves comes at a great cost.
Rachel’s Lament From a Medieval Mystery Play
Ah! Alas! You tender babes!
Such savage wounds we are viewing!
Ah! Alas! You sweet infants,
Doomed to death by a deed of madness!
Ah! Alas! That neither years
Nor tender affection could save you!
Piteous mothers, Ah!
That you should have to realize
What we have witnessed!
What shall we do now? Alas!
How can we bear such happenings?
All these memories of ours, Alas!
Can but serve to renew our grief!
No more can there be gladness
Since our sweet pledges of love have perished!
This is, as I have said, a hard gospel to hear the day after Christmas. But we have to hold alongside this story the words from Christmas Eve: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). The empire strikes back. But the power of the empire is fleeting. And the Christmas promise of peace on earth and goodwill towards God’s people is real and enduring, despite the burnout we may feel today from overdosing on shopping or cookies. We can find that promise reflected in the resilience and courage of this little vagabond family, traveling home again after a sojourn in Egypt. They made their home, we are told, in Nazareth of Galilee. But the truth penetrates deeper than that: God made a home with humanity, forever. And nothing—no petty tyrant or superpower, no heartbreak or illness, neither heights nor depths nor things past nor things to come—nothing can separate us from God, now that God’s home is with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.