Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
The combination of appointed texts for this week scrambles praise for God’s wonderful deeds with the suffering of Christ and the terrifying night escape of the holy family.
Joy, pain, fear, lament and despair all factor into these readings. The emotional range is expansive when we move from Isaiah to Matthew, as God’s people laud God for salvation and the mothers of the innocent weep inconsolably at the murder of their children. God’s salvation history is inextricably bound to the world’s history — with all its messiness, cruelty, violence and chaos. The infant Jesus, like babies born today, enters a fallen creation fraught with danger, as Matthew’s Gospel makes unavoidably clear.
Would that this story from Matthew – of a family with a newborn fleeing imminent violence in the night, uncertain of their future – did not resonate so loudly in our day and time. Would that we might read this account of a poor family, persecuted and afraid, with no choice but to take to the road with nothing but the clothes on their backs, not sound as if it were taken out of this morning’s headlines. How I yearn for the day when the slaughter of the innocent harkened back to a dark time to be lamented and not a current reality to be combated. We are not, however, in that place. There are nearly 26 million refugees in our world. Today, 14 million people are at risk of starvation in Yemen. Almost 38,000 people have died due to gun violence in the United States so far this year. And the U.S. has held a record number of migrant children in detention right now: 69,550.
History continues to crush the vulnerable. Matthew could write his tragic story right now, anywhere in the world. Families still run for their lives. Children still fall victim to the evil machinations of the powerful. Jesus still suffers at the hands of government officials and Rachel still weeps without ceasing at the death of her children. What, then, do we say of this transforming inbreaking of the divine that comes with the birth of Christ, the Incarnation of the holy, Emmanuel, God with us? Does this radical coming of the Most High God into this morass of human happenings make no difference?
By no means. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that with the Incarnation, Jesus became like us in every way. The birth of Christ marks a turning point in salvation history when God takes on all of our frail, finite, fallen humanity. Nothing is off limits to the reign, the power, the glory, the redemption of the Lord. Nothing. We pray for our enemies — not only because Jesus tells us to, but because we believe that God has the power to change them and the course of their lives. We visit those in prison, not only because Jesus tells us to, but because we believe in his saving power, in his forgiveness, in his redemption of all people. We welcome the stranger and care for the widows and orphans — not just because God commands us to, but because we know when we do, we are tending to no less than Jesus himself. We weep with Rachel and all those who weep, not only because that is the Word we get from the One we follow, but because we know Jesus weeps with them and us, too. Nothing is God-forsaken. Jesus Christ enters the world in order to save it, in all its beauty and hideousness, its glimpses of mercy and its gratuitous viciousness. Now we know God loves creation enough to intervene with no less than the Son of Man. Now we know God’s will for us is nothing less than reconciliation, abundant life and saving grace. Now we know without question that our God stands on the side of the vulnerable, the poor, the weak, the exploited, the infants born with no worldly goods in places fraught with chaos, ruled by genocidal dictators, born in borrowed cradles, swaddled in scraps of fabric and pressed to the chest of terrified parents trying to keep them alive at all costs.
Now we know this. What, then, shall we do?
President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Brian Blount, in a Union Matters podcast, speaks of faith and public life, the role of the church in the public square. In the interview he notes that Jesus touched the untouchable, breaking rules, in public, in order to create a new kind of community. Blount continues: “He’s making a point about what community looks like and how we must challenge rules that push people out of community if we’re going to represent how we understand God is breaking into the world to create a new kind of community and the kind of community that Jesus anticipates in the future, where we’ll all be together and God’s future reign. Jesus, his goal was to create that future reality in the present moment. I think we’re called to do that as well. … Well, what will it look like? What do we think our relationship with God will look like in the future? And if we can anticipate that, how do we emulate that in the present moment?”
The birth of Jesus, the coming of Christ into the world, reveals the will of God for all creation: one of reconciliation and not estrangement, peace and not violence, mercy and not cruelty, forgiveness and not shame, grace and not punishment, love and not fear, tenderness and not terror, service and not power, generosity and not hording, welcome and not banishment, abundant life and not certain death, goodness and not evil, justice and not exploitation, liberation and not captivity, beauty and not blight, hope and not despair, community and not isolation, joy and an end to all that causes inconsolable weeping. We know this, without question, with the Incarnation. What, then, will we do to create, to participate, to emulate the reign of God in this present moment?
- What difference does the birth of Jesus Christ make in your life and how do you exhibit that difference in the world?
- Where are the innocent being slaughtered in our day and time? How are we responding? What are we doing about it in the name of and for the sake of Jesus Christ?
- When have you been inconsolable? Who remained with you during that painful season? How can you sit with others in those spaces?
- Why is Herod so threatened by the birth of Jesus?
- We are told in Matthew of Joseph’s multiple dreams where he gets divine messages and heeds them. How does God communicate with you? With your congregation? How do you listen for and discern God’s will?
- Pray the headlines this week. Pray for those who weep, for the innocent caught up and suffering as a result of events beyond their control.
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