a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas on Matthew 2:13-23
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on January 2, 2011
Happy ninth day of Christmas! With the blizzard and all the other things swirling around us over the past week, it is easy to forget that our celebration of Christmas continues today and concludes only with Epiphany on Thursday and Baptism of the Lord next Sunday. These twelve days remind us that there’s more to the coming of Jesus than a baby born in a manger, angels appearing to shepherds, or even the journey of the wise men to Bethlehem, and our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel is an incredible and even disturbing reminder of the other side of Christmas.
This truly unpleasant text shows up in the lectionary on the Sunday after Christmas every three years, just rarely enough that pastors can easily skip over it with a Christmas carol sing or pass it off to a guest preacher! Last Sunday, while relaxing at my parents’ house on the day after Christmas, we tuned in the downtown Methodist church’s weekly TV broadcast to find a young woman, their pastor to young adults, facing the challenges of preaching this text. She had drawn the short straw this year to preach on the day after Christmas, so she offered a simple proclamation of this strange text about mass murder in the midst of a season filled with joy. So today, we’re facing that text together, too, not so that I can just reuse her insights but because the light of our candles on Christmas Eve fades and the strains of our carols grow faint on the other side of Christmas as the real world creeps back into things and we have to make sense of love and hate in our world.
According to Matthew’s gospel, visitors came to Judea looking for Jesus after seeing a star in the east that indicated that the king of the Jews had been born. They started their search for the newborn king at the palace, where they learned little and only aroused the puppet king Herod’s attention. As they continued their search, Herod asked them to return and give him a full report on what they found, but after they found the child, they went directly home by another road.
So in our reading today, we hear that an angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph and directed him to flee to Egypt with Mary and his newborn son. They got away just in time. Once Herod figured out that the wise men were not going to help him put down this apparent threat to his reign, he decreed that all children in and around Bethlehem under age two were to be killed. As a side note, I think it is important to note that there is no historical record of this mass murder of about twenty children in this small village, but as one commentator puts it, “it is nevertheless consistent with what we know about Herod.” (R. Alan Culpepper, Feasting on the Word) He was known to have his enemies and even his friends ruthlessly punished for crossing him, and that commentator notes that he even commanded that upon his death “political prisoners should be killed so that there would be mourning throughout the land.” With this kind of king holding even limited power, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus remained in Egypt until they received word in another dream that Herod was dead. But Joseph was still concerned – Herod’s son Archelaus was his successor, and Joseph suspected that cruelty and oppression of Herod’s sort rarely skips a generation, so rather than returning to Bethlehem, they made a new home in Nazareth, in the region of Galilee, outside the reach of Herod and Archelaus. Finally settled in to their new home in Nazareth, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus could emerge from the other side of Christmas, yet they surely would not be the same as they tried to make sense of the love and hate they had witnessed.
Matthew suggests in his story that all these things happened to fulfill the words of the prophets and show that Jesus had been through all the trials of the Hebrew people – going down to Egypt, returning to the promised land, and continuing in his own version of exile – so that he could emerge to a new way of faithfulness even amidst the old stories (Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew), an important perspective for his first readers who were most likely steeped in Judaism. But there is something equally if not more important for us in these words to help us see that there is more to Christmas than dreams (and occasional realities!) of a white Christmas, visits from Santa Claus, or even a baby born in a manger.
The other side of Christmas is clear to many in our world, but we so rarely speak of it. Some people find the joy of this season so difficult in the midst of mourning, pain, and loss, as they face the season distant from those they love due to death, illness, or displacement. Others must travel to spend these days with friends and family as is the custom and requirement, only to find even the best-laid plans disrupted by snowstorms and airlines and other complications that we know all too well after this last week. But even these pale in comparison to the millions around our world who face harsh persecution and life in exile more directly as Jesus, Mary, and Joseph did, forced to move from their homes and families due to genocide, suffering, war, and religious or ethnic strife.
And so Matthew also offers us a story that reminds us that Jesus knew the other side of Christmas very, very well himself. Mourning, pain, and loss came right alongside his birth. Strange travels and new homes were part of his experience as an infant. Exile and displacement were his experience from his earliest months. In fact, I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that the prosperity and joy that stand as the ideal for us in these days were far from Jesus’ own experience. Even though he began his days with visitors from far away who brought him fine and extravagant gifts, Jesus lived much of his life like a refugee, wandering from place to place, never completely at home, always waiting in fear of what might come next, surviving only by the power of God to protect, save, deliver, and free.
With a savior like this, whose origins are on the other side of Christmas, in a world very different from our own, it seems to me that we should not get too comfortable on this side of Christmas. Jesus is already on that other side of Christmas, and his life and ministry and death and resurrection all invite us to join him in that world – our world, filled with refugees, homeless women and men, persecuted persons, and victims of every sort of violence and hatred – our world that so desperately needs the work he has already begun to bring comfort and peace and hope and salvation to all.
Our world needs more people to step in and stand with those who are in times and places and situations like Jesus’ – those we know in our lives who find new situations and difficult challenges before them in this new calendar year because of death, illness, or other uncertainty; those in our world who are displaced from their homes or are forced to walk away from their families and friends for their own safety, like refugees in Palestine or Darfur; those whose lives have been torn apart by war, like women, men, and children in Rwanda, North and South Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and even those in our own city and nation who are forced to move from place to place to find work or a safe place to live.
One week from today, the people of southern Sudan will vote on their independence after decades of violence and war have torn their lives apart. Over the coming week, as a step into that other side of Christmas, I urge you to keep the people of Sudan in your prayers, and there are a few suggestions for prayers available on handouts in the auditorium at refreshments today. While there may seem to be little we can do to make a difference in these and other similar situations, the life of none less than Jesus himself demands that we speak up about injustice, call out for life and peace in the midst of death and destruction, pray for a new way to take hold and shape in our world, and step in where we can in whatever way that we can to work for a world where violence is not the final word and God can step in to make all things new.
And so my friends, this is the other side of Christmas – a place where we join God in stepping in to a broken and fearful world as God has already done with boldness in Jesus Christ and pray and work and pray some more for all things to be made new on both sides of Christmas. Lord, come quickly! Amen.