First Sunday of Christmas
For it became him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the author of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
The joy of Christmas Day is really rather fleeting on the calendar of the Church. On December 26th, we remember Stephen, the first martyr, who died proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to the leaders in Jerusalem. On December 28th, we remember the Holy Innocents, the children in Bethlehem who perished at the hands of King Herod.
When we hear this story we visualize a massacre, with the blood of many babies running down the streets. It is unlikely, however, that this would have affected that many children. Bethlehem was a small town; the surrounding area was not heavily populated. The only historical recollection of this event is found in the passage from Matthew. Josephus, who was not afraid to tell of the horrible cruelty done by King Herod, does not mention it at all. It was a minor event in the history of Israel, not worthy of report.
That does not reduce the horror of what happened in Bethlehem. If only one child perished by the sword of fear and jealousy, it was one too many. Herod was little more than a puppet king and would be long dead before a baby could rise to the throne, but he was unwilling to take the risk. He knew enough – the place and approximate time of birth – so when the wise men did not report the baby’s whereabouts, Herod took decisive action. He ordered all the children who might have been born in the right place at the right time to be killed, certain that he had taken care of his problem.
However, 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.
The cynical among us might ask why a loving God would allow such things to happen. 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 when we have to flee evil or make changes in our life.
I doubt that many of us have had to run away from a vicious king who is willing to kill innocents to save his throne, although it is possible that some reading this are displaced for similar reasons. Most of us know the freedom of living in a country where the politicians are bound by certain laws and by the other authorities. We can not really understand this kind of fear. However, we are brought to places of uncertainty in our lives. As a military family, we never knew when we might have to move or where we might have to go. We spent months uncertain of our future and then when faced with the move we were not always excited about where we had to go. Each time, no matter how horrible we felt about leaving old friends and facing uncertainty, we knew the presence of God.
To a teenage girl, a five hundred mile move to another state can be like the end of the world. To a spouse with a decent job, a move can be frightening – will there be a position in the next place? What will we do? To a student who is comfortable in his or her classes, a move to a new school can be difficult. For those experiencing these things, it can be heartbreaking and painful. Why would God allow this to happen? Each time, however, we have discovered the joy of discovery. We’ve made new friends. We have adapted to new schools. We have found new things to do with our time. We’ve found a home and happiness. And we have learned to trust God.
I remember when we were getting ready to leave our home in California. Things were up in the air, no decisions could be made. We were afraid that we would not be able to sell our house, but we were also afraid to start the process too early. What if we did not have to leave? What if we sold the house to quickly? What if we didn’t sell the house at all? We did what we could. We prayed. We worried. We wondered. I began to suffer from the stress. I was getting sick with the fear of the future I could not see or control. I finally gave up. I told God to take control. He did. Everything fell into place. Our move was smooth. Out next assignment was a stepping stone to even greater things. We survived. Most importantly, we saw God’s hand on our life and we experienced God’s grace.
It still bothers us. How can we move so quickly from birth to death? Why do we remember Stephen the day after Christmas and those babies just a few days later? We do so because in those stories we are reminded that the whole purpose of Jesus’ birth was to die on the cross. It is easy for us to get stuck in the manger, to see Jesus only as that tiny baby and the gift of His life. It is easy to read the stories in the scriptures about His ministry and accept only that He was a good teacher and miracle worker. It is easy to set aside the cross and believe in Jesus only as a model for our godly life. A great many Christians do just that, especially those who only hear the stories of the Nativity and the Resurrection during their two trips to church each year (at Christmas and Easter).
The prophecies of the Old Testament tell us that Jesus was so much more. He was the horn of salvation, the refuge for God’s people, the atoning sacrifice which would finally overcome sin and death to give us true life. The writer of Hebrews explains it for us, “Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, he also himself in like manner partook of the same; that through death he might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver all them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” Christ came in flesh to overcome death and fulfill the prophecies such as that which is written in Isaiah, “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.”
A few years ago when we were living in Little Rock, we had the privilege to see the Space Shuttle as it was traveling from the west coast to the east coast. They try to land the shuttle in Florida whenever possible, but sometimes the weather just does not cooperate. They have other landing sights across the country that gives the controllers some flexibility. On this particular occasion, they had no choice. It was necessary to land the shuttle on the west coast.
The problem with this situation is that the shuttle can not fly on its own like an airplane and there is only one site that is able to launch it into space. They have to somehow move that shuttle back to Florida. So, the lift it to the back of a 747 and it is carried piggyback all the way home. On this occasion, continued bad weather made it impossible for the pair to make the entire journey. There are few airfields are large enough to accommodate these aircraft, but Little Rock is one. They decided to land the plane until the next day, to protect the Space Shuttle.
It is an awesome sight to see, these two mighty machines attached as they fly through the air. The shuttle is completely dependent on the crew and the strength of the 747. During an interview, one of the pilots said, “It rattles a bit, and if it fell off we would know.” He said this in jest, but they are always aware of their precious cargo and take great care to protect it along the way. The pilots who carry the shuttle to Florida do all they can to get it there safely. The shuttle is never left alone because it can not get anywhere on its own power.
Neither can we. Our Lord God Almighty is our Savior and He does great and wonderful things for us. He leads us home to be with Him. He is compassionate and kind, merciful and just. He cares about our cares and carries us through our trials. He loves us and by the blood of Jesus Christ and for His sake, He has redeemed us from our sin.
It is hard to hear the stories of the Holy Innocents or the story of Stephen and think that they have been saved. Stephen was stoned to death. He was the first to be martyred for having faith in Jesus Christ. The faithful do not always get saved in the flesh. The salvation we gain in Christ is not a saving hand from the world. The Gospel message we bear is not accepted by the world. They do not want to hear that they have turned from God or that their sin will come back on them. They do not want to know that they are in need of salvation. It is hard for the people of today’s world to accept that Jesus died for their sin, especially since most people consider themselves good enough, or at least better than others. Tell a non-Christian (and even many believers) that they killed Jesus and they will scoff at the idea. How could someone living in twenty-first century America have anything to do with the death of Jesus Christ?
Our sin put Jesus on the cross. Our separation from God is the very reason that He was sent to be born in that stable in Bethlehem, to risk life in this dangerous world and to be the atoning sacrifice to overcome death and the grave. Will we still die? Of course we will. We may even die at the hands of our enemies. In Christ we can face death with the hope of eternal life. In this hope we are called to live a different kind of life. It is a life of trusting in God, knowing that He is in control even when we aren’t. It is a life of sharing the Gospel even when speaking might be risky. It is a life of choosing forgiveness and mercy over revenge and taking matters into our own hands.
We went to see the movie “Sweeney Todd.” The story of the demon barber of Fleet Street is horrifying. Sweeney Todd had a good life, but it was all taken away from him by a cruel judge. After fifteen years he was able to return to his home, but he arrived home with a great deal of anger. When he discovered that there was no hope, that the life he knew was truly over, he vowed revenge and in revenge he thought he found hope. He murders many in his quest to destroy the life of the man who destroyed his. In the end, he discovers that vengeance stole love and his very life.
We might ask why men like Stephen and babies had to die. God does not mind our questions. He joins us in our tears. He mourns with us that the world is full of evil. But instead of choosing to live a life in which we take matters into our own hands, we are called to live a life of praise and thanksgiving. We can face the possibility of suffering with the knowledge that God has indeed heard our cry and saved us. He sent Jesus Christ, not only to model a godly life but also to bring us the hope that only comes through death and resurrection. His purpose for coming was first and foremost to die.
Jesus lived an amazing life. He walked in the world with power and authority, granting healing and forgiveness to those who believed. He lived as a model for us today, so that we might follow and life the godly life. All of this is pointless, though, without the cross. On that cross He set us free from all that has us bound in this world so that we can be all that we were created to be. We can’t walk holy without forgiveness. We can’t live godly without grace. We are called by that grace to speak the Gospel to our enemies, telling the story of Christ no matter what suffering we may face. Despite the persecution we might face, we are called to tell the story of God’s love and sacrifice to the world.
How easy it is for us to get caught up in the cares of the world, even those that really have no value. There are situations in life that need our attention, that need to be resolved with hard work. Most of the things we worry about are really pointless. They can be dealt with simply and quickly if only we would let go. I suppose what it really takes is putting everything in perspective. Can our worry change the situation? Can it make a difference to someone else? Will the world be a better place because of how we dealt with the situation? Most often the answer to these questions is no. Most often we would do well to let go and move on to more fruitful work. Most often we would do more to turn to God and ask Him to remove the worry so that we can accomplish something that will really make a difference in the world.
Our little troubles are really insignificant when we consider the amazing things God has done. He has created the entire world and everything in it. He has redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He has brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. If only we would spend some time each day just praising God, singing songs of adoration and admiration like we hear in today’s psalm, we might realize more quickly how inconsequential our troubles really are.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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