The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Christmas II—Year C; Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23. Video.
We’ve had all this momentum toward Christmas. All the preparation. Whether it was shopping, or getting ready to travel, or preparing food, or learning music, or decorating the sanctuary—a lot of energy getting ready for this birth and all the celebration that surrounds it. And now all this activity is winding down as we turn back toward the normal rhythms of our lives. We’ve had the huge event and are left to wonder, “What now? What next? Where do we go from here?”
The scriptures do not leave us hanging; they tell us in painful detail exactly what comes next. If we had any illusions about beatific scenes of mother and babe and adoring wise men being the happily-ever-after ending to this story, this morning, Matthew takes that script and says, “Not so fast. That’s not the world we live in.” The world into which Jesus was born looks a whole lot like the world we inhabit as the calendar turns to 2016. A world with its share of brutal dictators scared to death of losing their power, so scared that they will unleash unimaginable violence on the most vulnerable in their society—read the horror that got unleashed by Herod in the three short verses omitted in the reading from Matthew this morning.
In this season when so much of our news has revolved around the worldwide refugee crisis, especially those fleeing the war in Syria, can we just sit with this story from Matthew on the quite literal level? We no sooner say our goodbyes to the wise men who have come to celebrate the birth of this holy child, then an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” So Joseph got up, and took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until Herod died.
Before we consider any policies with regards to refugees, could we just sit with this passage for a good long while and contemplate our Lord’s first days, weeks, months, and years of his life? Jesus’ father, Joseph, gathered up his family and fled by night to another country to escape the violence of a brutal dictator who was terrified of losing power. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were absolutely dependent on the kindness of strangers in a foreign land, and Jesus doesn’t make it to his adult life and his amazing ministry without the hospitality of the Egyptians. And he and his family don’t just reside there for days, or weeks, but it’s years. As Christian people, this story has to be in the forefront of our imagination as we grapple with these complicated questions before us as a country. Sometimes, that first, plain meaning of the scripture really is that plain and provides the place where we need to wrestle. So, in the coming week, I invite you to sit with this story from Matthew 2, but add back in verses 16-18.
There is another level on which this story is operating, and it is deeply personal. Ten days ago, we marked that God had been born in our flesh. There is this divine spark that has been birthed in us and that divine life is starting to grow. It seems there are a lot of new grandparents in our midst as of late, and I heard one of them remark that in those first few days and weeks of life, the child changes so much every single day.
So, how is this divine life inside of you growing and changing every single day? Can you feel it? Can you see it? Can you sense it? This hope that has been implanted in your being, can you feel how it is taking shape? To see the dignity that resides in every human being because God has become flesh in us, to be a people of profound and deep hope who actually believe that the impossible is possible with God, this is a dangerous thing in a world that thrives on cynicism and fear. Are we conscious enough, awake enough, to pay attention to our dreams? Can we hear that angel of the Lord say to us, “Get up, take the child and everything that would nurture that child, and get thee to Egypt?”
In other words, do we understand that there are plenty of forces in this world that would like nothing better than to destroy the dignity and hope that has been born in us. God has taken all the love that birthed creation itself and poured it into our frail flesh. We are filled with a love that surpasses understanding and that much love will always be a threat to those in power because love that deep and broad can always outlast fear. But for that love to have a chance to grow into the full stature of peace and nonviolence and compassion, it has to have the space to stretch its wings and fully expand.
As this new year begins, I would ask you to think about the forces in this world that seek to destroy what has been born in you. How is an angel of the Lord trying to get your attention? Where is your Egypt, that safe space that God is calling you to go, so that you may protect and nurture this burgeoning divine life inside of you?
This isn’t about escaping the brutal forces of the world forever—that angel will come back to Joseph and tell him when it’s time to go back home. Yes, Herod will be gone, but Herod’s son is waiting to fill his shoes. Joseph, and we, aren’t called to escape to Egypt forever, but only for a time. This is about a season of strengthening the hope and divine life that is within us so that we can embody that hope in a world where brutal forces still hold sway.
St. Paul understood this rhythm—I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you… Paul understood that wisdom and revelation are always a work in progress; it’s always a process of coming to know, and for Paul, that coming to know is intimate, it’s relational, it’s coming to know the Beloved. Paul understood that it’s always a process to have the eyes of our heart enlightened; and it’s always toward a purpose, toward the goal of knowing what is the hope to which he has called you.
If ever there was a time when the world needed us to be people of hope, it is NOW. But as any of you who have been around a baby know, growth and development take time and space and environments that will nurture something so tender. At this moment in the life of our world, what could be more tender than the divine hope that has been squeezed into our very human flesh?
What is the hope to which he has called you? If you are heeding the angels in your dreams, if you are keenly aware of those places and spaces that will nurture what is growing in you, over the coming year, you will discover the hope to which he has called you. And in the process of embracing and strengthening that spark, hope will move from a call to a way of life.
Welcome to 2016. Amidst the celebration, there are still the likes of Herod, and fear and a brutal taste for power are still far too present. Be Egypt for another. Find Egypt for yourself. HOPE has been born in you, and in me, and in every human heart that can make the space for it, and the world needs desperately for this HOPE to have a chance to grow. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 3, 2016