First Sunday of Christmas
For both he that sanctifieth and they that are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, In the midst of the congregation will I sing thy praise.
On Christmas morning, the packages are beautifully wrapped and stacked under the brightly it and twinkling Christmas tree. Everything is pristine at the break of dawn. It does not take very long, however, for the perfect scene to become a mess of chaos and clutter. Paper gets strewn all over the floor as new treasures are unpacked from boxes and bags. Empty boxes litter the pathways and bows get stuck on everything. Stockings are tossed aside as the chocolate hidden inside is gobbled up, leaving only traces on cheeks and fingertips.
And then it is over. We spend a month or more in preparation. We carefully choose the gifts, wrap the gifts, put up our decorations, only to have the whole thing over in a matter of minutes. Some presents will barely be a memory, especially foodstuffs which are enjoyed so quickly and then gone forever. By December 26th, so many people are done with Christmas. They want it all to be over. They want to take the tree down and put all those decorations away. But for the church, Christmas begins on December 25th. The twelve days proceed from that moment, not culminate on that day. Our celebration begins with the birth, but there's so much more to the story.
Yet, we find that the birth of Christ is followed immediately by chaos. Our scriptures tell the story of what happened after Jesus was born, after the wise men came to visit. On the day they left, Joseph was told in a dream to go to Egypt: Jesus was in danger. Herod was not thrilled to hear from the wise men that a new king was born. He told them that he wanted to go worship the newborn, too, and asked that they return to tell him where to go. In reality, he wanted to rid the world of his competition.
The wise men were told to go home another way, and they avoided King Herod, but it wouldn't take long for Herod to figure out what was happening. After all, the shepherds were telling their story all over the countryside. They may not have had the internet, but word of mouth is amazingly fast and Herod was bound to hear it sooner or later. Besides, the priests knew the prophecy: the babe would be born in Bethlehem. Herod sent soldiers to take care of the problem, and the innocent babies in Bethlehem were slaughtered. How can we go from the idyllic stable scene to his picture of blood and destruction in so short a time?
But isn't that how life is? We don't become poor slowly. Although it often happens slowly for a long time, we don't know it until that final moment when our world crashes around us. The same is true of drugs or alcohol. Relationships can last a long time, but one small moment or one tiny offense can shatter a lifetime of love. Goodness often becomes chaotic in a heartbeat. And that's what happened around Jesus.
We are reminded right from the beginning that the story of Jesus is not one of idyllic peace and joy. He came to die, but He would not die at the will of men, but according to the will of God. That moment was not the right time. Jesus had a lifetime to live first.
Our Old Testament lesson for today is the beginning of a prayer by Isaiah, asking God to bring the salvation He promised. Isaiah knows that God loves His people and that He is faithful. Whatever they do, right or wrong, God is working out their salvation.
God is in control. He knew the plans of Herod. He knew the dangers that Joseph, Mary and Jesus faced. He knew what risks He had taken by sending His Son into the world as a baby. By dreams and visions, God laid the plan to protect the child. He sent the wise men on another road. He sent Joseph to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. He called them home again when everything was safe. Joseph was still concerned about Herod’s family, so he took Mary and Jesus to Nazareth to live.
The Gospel lesson shows us that God knew all along the dangers that Jesus would face. The prophecies included references to these parts of the stories. Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt did I call my son.” The prophet Jeremiah tells of the weeping mothers, the mourning of Rachel for her children. Isn’t it interesting that even when God did not specifically tell Joseph to take Jesus to Nazareth that is where they went to live? Matthew makes yet another connection between Old Testament prophecy and the story of Christ. We can see other connections, like how Jesus was like Moses, escaping the slaughter of innocents. This just shows us how God has carefully woven His story from the beginning, to bring us to the moment of salvation.
I like the words of Isaiah in this prayer, "In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old." God joined in their suffering. If they cried, He cried. And He listened. He worked salvation for a people who constantly turned from Him, not because they deserved to be saved but because He loved them. It was love and mercy that provided for them.
In the Psalm we see this same theme: that goodness and chaos are often close at hand. The psalmist begins by calling the creation to praise God. The sun and the moon and the stars are called to be part of the heavenly chorus. The earth and all that walks on it is part of the congregation that praises Him. Even the fire and hail, snow and vapor and stormy wind are called to sing! Now I don't think any of those are very pleasant. They are all destructive. Have you seen a home after a fire or a car after hail? The stormy wind of tornadoes and hurricanes has destroyed whole towns? Yet God is glorified even in the destructive forces of nature.
The cynical among us might ask why a loving God would allow such things to happen. Why do good people have to suffer the loss of everything because a tornado blows through? Why do the righteous get sick? Why do children have to die? Why should innocents suffer while Jesus survives? What kind of God is this and why would we worship such a God? We see in this story and others like it, that God is with us in the midst of tragedy. He doesn’t abandon us to the risks we face, He goes with us. Despite the chaos in these stories from our faith, we are called to join in the voices of all creation in praise to God. He has sent Jesus, our Savior, and through Him all will be well.
Will everything be perfect? Will our life be like that idyllic scene of wrapped presents under the tree? No, sometimes it will be like the chaotic moments after with pieces of our lives strewn everywhere. But all will be well because God is there, and He knows what He is doing.
In the story of Christ we learn that Jesus experienced the same sort of struggles that we face. He didn't have an idyllic life. He suffered. He went hungry. He traveled great distances and lived in unfamiliar places. He got dusty on the road and wet when it rained. He lost family and friends to sickness and death. He lived with nothing. Yet He had everything. He was the Son of God, sent from heaven above to be like us. He came to die, but before He died He came to live with us, to walk in our shoes, to experience temptation and pain.
Many Christians would like to go from the manger to the empty tomb. We see them only on Christmas and Easter. They don't want to experience these stories of tragedy. To them it doesn't make sense to worship a God that would play out His story in such a sad manner. Trusting in God means believing His story fully as it is, to see that His plan had a purpose and that His way is right. Without the messy in betweens, the manger and the cross are meaningless.
And because of those messy in betweens, we are His brothers and sisters. Isn't that extraordinary?
A WORD FOR TODAY
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