The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Christmas 2—Year B; Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
The church gives us three ways to go today…We could read the first part of Matthew 2 and hear about the wise men making their trek from the East to come and lay their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh before Jesus before giving Herod the slip and making their way home by another way. Or, we could read the latter part of Luke 2 and hear about Jesus ditching his parents in Jerusalem when he was 12 years old (this is the personal favorite of the youth in my weekday Bible class). Or, we could read from the second half of Matthew 2 that picks up the story after the wise men had left that tells of how Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. And that’s the one that seems most important to hear today.
It’s a hard story, a brutal story. It’s a story that we don’t want to come crashing into our Christmas holidays; after all, we have invested a lot of time and energy in trying to create good, happy, peaceful memories during this festive season. But in spite of our efforts to recreate a living Norman Rockwell portrait, the world goes right on being the world, and there is something really important about hearing this story from Matthew right smack in the middle of the Christmas.
We are real familiar with the shepherds, and we know all about the wise men, but this story about the flight into Egypt is less well known. So, let’s set this story up.
King Herod is on the throne, and when those wise ones from the East, magi they were called, came to him in search of the one who’d been born king of the Jews, he got pretty rattled because he was the king of the Jews. This was definitely a challenge to the order that was working perfectly well for him. He called all the chief priests and scribes together and pumped them for all that they knew about where the Messiah was to be born. That was easy—the Messiah was to be a descendent of David, so it had to be Bethlehem, David’s hometown. Then Herod secretly called for the magi—and you know, when secrets and power come together, not good stuff is about to go down—Herod sent those magi to Bethlehem and told them to search diligently for the child, and when they found him, to send back word so that he could go and pay him homage, too. Do you believe ol’ King Herod? Nooooo.
Well, the magi followed the star—they didn’t follow Herod’s instructions, but they stayed tuned into their deepest wisdom and stayed with the star—and that star led them to the house where Jesus was. They entered and saw the child with his mother Mary, and they knelt down before him, and paid him homage. Then, they opened their treasure chests, and they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. So far, so good. We know this story, and it’s gone off without a hitch.
And then came the dream. A dream that warned them not to return to Herod, and the magi were, by definition, wise, so they actually listened to their dreams instead of dismissing them as the weird stuff that happens when you eat too much Christmas dinner. They listened to that dream, and they left for their own country by another road.
Uh oh. Here’s where it’s about to go south. How do you think Herod will respond? Oh, not good.
And the greek indicates just how not good this is going to go. When Herod saw that he’d been tricked, and the greek here has a sense of feeling mocked to it, so it’s not just that the wise men went home another way, but Herod adds a malicious intent to their decision—for Herod, by going home another way, those wise men weren’t just taking a different route, but they were mocking him, and if you are an insecure ruler, nothing can trigger you more than feeling like someone is mocking you and your power. And when those feelings went from Herod’s belly to his head, he became infuriated. Again, the greek is sharper—ἐθυμώθη λίαν—it translates something like “he became exceedingly beyond measure incensed, enraged,” and that great old phrase “he became wroth”—“intensely angry.” So, Herod became exceedingly beyond measure intensely angry—got the picture? Can you touch that kind of a place in yourself? Ever been that mad?
And so, Herod sent and killed all the male children 2 years old and younger who were in and around Bethlehem according to the time that he had learned from the magi.
What Herod didn’t know is that there was another person who had also come to trust his dreams, Joseph, and right after the magi had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him, clearly, “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.” Joseph had already been brought up short and changed his life’s course once because of a dream; he wasn’t about to second guess this dream. He got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.
This is a harrowing account. An absolute ruler with absolute power who feels threatened and mocked and will slaughter innocents to protect that power. It was heartbreaking then, and it’s heartbreaking now. There are way too many stories being played out across our world where children are being sacrificed in ways that defy any sense of human decency. Children as pawns in games played by people possessed with the desire to get power, increase power, or maintain power, and who will do anything to keep from losing power.
We are so far removed from so much of the world. It can feel like we are resting in the sanctuary of Egypt ourselves. And yet, what of those who didn’t flee, who couldn’t flee, what of them? What of those mothers and those fathers who couldn’t get their families out of harm’s way? What of them?
On this Second Sunday of Christmas, we are confronted, right at the very beginning of Jesus’ life, with the inescapable reality of evil in this world, and anything that tries to sanitize our story and pretend that now that Jesus has come into the world, it is all sweetness and light and never-ending prosperity isn’t in touch with the world that surrounded Jesus then, and surrounds us still.
No, evil is going to be part of this story, and Jesus will confront it all along the way. As he grows in stature and wisdom, he will lay it bare. He will strip off its masks. He will pull back the curtain on those who crush “the little ones” as they are called in Matthew’s gospel, and he will challenge those who lay heavy burdens on those who simply cannot bear them.
So, yes, we rest in the beauty and peace of this season and this space, but Matthew reminds us that we do so with eyes wide open to the reality of evil. For now, Jesus is protected, but in the end, he will lay himself bare and take that evil on fully. On the cross, he will embrace it, and in holding it in love, something truly shifts in the tilt of the universe. Evil still holds sway, but there is a love that is stronger and runs deeper; there is a love that not even evil can break.
And maybe here’s the real challenge of today. What if we didn’t relate so strongly to the peace and comfort we enjoy in the sanctuary of Egypt? What if we saw ourselves as Joseph? What if we could hear God calling to us in a dream, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt?”
Now, let’s start at the intensely personal level. Christmas is all about the awareness that Jesus, God, has been born in our flesh. Can you feel this tender, vulnerable, radiant, divine place that has just been born in your own heart? And the culture is full of Herods that stand to lose a lot if we really embrace the wholeness that has just been given to us. Think of all those industries that make their money by convincing us that we are not enough. Are we willing to get up and flee to a sacred space to protect and nurture this beautiful, tender, radiant God-infused soul that lives in us? Maybe our Egypt is our mediation or prayer, maybe it’s nature, maybe it’s time with loved ones. Can we step up and be Joseph when it comes to protecting the Christ who has been born in us?
Now, let’s pan out a bit and move beyond the self. Imagine the innocent, the vulnerable, people who have no one to protect them, those who fall victim to the powerful—who are they? Picture them. Imagine that Boone is Bethlehem and Watauga County is the vicinity around—which of our vulnerable might be the Christ child that we are called upon to pick up? How might we bring them to a safe place where they can grow and thrive until they, and we, are strong enough to take on the structures and systems that threaten their, and our, capacity to live, truly live, the abundant life that God intends for all of God’s creation?
And let us not stop with Boone. Let us cast our eyes all over the world. Tim Windmeyer and his colleagues at Samaritans Purse are doing incredible work with the refugees of ISIS. How can we join them in their efforts to get these children to safety? We may not be able to go to Iraq, but can we invest our hearts and our prayers in this work and stand in solidarity with them? And these innocents are the world over, including right here across our country. Pay attention to your dreams and to your heart as it gets impacted by the news that comes across your consciousness. Open yourself up to that Joseph space that lives inside of you. Listen, and the call will come, and when it does, take a risk and heed it.
Maybe you are called to get the vulnerable to safety, maybe you are called to grieve with those who continue to lose that which is most dear to them, maybe you are called to go toe-to-toe with the Herods that still reign. I don’t know the dream that God has for you, but God does. All you have to do is be open and listen, and be obedient when it gets revealed.
And this obedience will be costly. At the very least, it will dislocate us; it will move us out of our comfort zone. But as we go into this strange land, remember, you carry the Christ-child with you. God is with you. God is in you. And God’s face will be mirrored back to you in the faces of the vulnerable ones whom God has placed in your awareness and entrusted to your care.
Joseph. There is a Joseph inside of you. There is a time to be still and adore, and there’s a time to move. Open your awareness. Heed the dream. Get up, take this vulnerable life into your hands, and make your way to Egypt. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 4, 2015