The First Sunday After Christmas
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Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:13-23
The Escape to Egypt
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “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.” 14 Then Joseph[a] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
The Massacre of the Infants
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[b] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[c] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
The Return from Egypt
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph[d] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
- Matthew 2:14 Gk he
- Matthew 2:16 Or astrologers; Gk magi
- Matthew 2:16 Or astrologers; Gk magi
- Matthew 2:21 Gk he
Sermon: “Making Christmas Work”
Well, we made it through another one—another Christmas, I mean. How did it go for you and your family? Did everything go according to plan? Was everyone happy with all their gifts? Was it the carol-filled, candle-lit, lovefest that appears somehow, somewhere, in every Hallmark Christmas movie?
I’m guessing not. Sometimes, Christmas just doesn’t “work” for us, as this clip shows.
Christmas Story Clip
The Bumpus dogs almost destroy Christmas in Ralphie’s world. It’s saved only by dinner at a Chinese restaurant and the mangled Christmas songs sung by the waiters there. It’s not the way you’d expect a Christmas movie to end.
It’s like that with us. The Christmas story, the real Christmas story, is about life. That means things can take unexpected, even dangerous, turns. How does Christmas really work?
One place to find some of the answers is, of course, the Internet. There’s even a website called “How Christmas Works.” Here are some of the most-asked questions and their answers.
Christmas Question number one: “Why do people give presents on Christmas Day?”
The tradition goes back, people say, to the gifts the Magi brought Jesus. The truth is that no one swapped fancy wrapped Christmas presents until the late 1800’s. 1867 was the first year Macy’s in New York stayed open till midnight on Christmas Eve. 1874 was the first year for special Christmas window decorations. Here in America, Christmas presents have more to do with Macy’s than Magi.
Christmas question number two: “Is December 25 really the day Jesus was born?”
The short answer is “Probably not.” We know Christian leaders back in 336 set the date on December 25 to compete with a pagan Roman holiday celebrated that day. Keeping Christmas at first meant just a simple church service. Over the years, though, Christmas grew and took over other holidays in other countries.
Christmas question number three: “What are the 12 days of Christmas?”
They’re the days between Christmas and Epiphany, January 6. That’s the day we celebrate the Magi bringing their gifts to Jesus. The only reason anyone cares about those twelve days now is because of a long, annoying song.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas,” probably started as a memory game. A leader sang the first verse, the first child in line sang the second, and so on. When someone missed a verse, they dropped out.
Some folks want to drop out of Christmas altogether, not celebrating it for either personal or religious reasons. If enough people felt that way, would Christmas go away?
If you know your scripture, you know that Christmas almost didn’t happen in the first place. In Matthew’s gospel especially, danger and death are everywhere in the Christmas story.
For starters, you don’t take your wife—nine months pregnant with God—and pack her on the back of a donkey or mule for a 120-mile-long trip over bad roads through worse country.
If you must do something that crazy, try to arrange for a place to stay when you get where you’re going. Don’t just wander into town and hope that there’ll be room somewhere.
Worse, yet, Jesus was born in a manger. Think about everything we do these days to make sure babies survive. Back in Jesus’ time, many didn’t, even under the best of circumstances. Being born in a manger didn’t make the odds any better.
What about the Magi? A star in the sky wasn’t enough of a roadmap. They ended up in Jerusalem. There, they ran into Herod, one of the most paranoid, bloodthirsty, ruthless rulers in the world at that time—and that’s going some.
It wasn’t enough that they told him a new rival was born. They helpfully pinpointed the place and date, too. As we heard in today’s scripture, just to be sure this baby didn’t survive, Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys the right age in and around Bethlehem.
The church still shudders at the bloodshed on December 28, the fourth day of Christmas. It does so, not with four calling birds, but by observing “The Feast of the Holy Innocents,” set aside to remember the children who died, now considered the first Christian martyrs.
You see, Christmas almost didn’t happen. The truth is that it often doesn’t happen today. Oh, we go through the motions. We give presents, send cards, shop, eat too much, go to parties, and all the rest. That’s not Christmas. That’s the holidays.
If we find Jesus at Christmas, we do it despite the holidays. God protected the Magi by sending them home a different way. Joseph, warned in a dream, took his family to Egypt till the political scene cooled down.
We have to do the same, friends. We have to find Christmas by another route. Getting there may mean leaving behind some of the things that make us worried, busy, and nervous, preoccupied with the holidays, not Christ.
At our November fundraiser this year, we watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Some of the language is rough, a few of the scenes are gross, and there’s nothing religious about it. That’s the point.
Chevy Chase plays Clark Griswold, who’s determined to have the perfect family Christmas. What he hatches instead is a holiday disaster that includes fire-breathing snow saucers, burning Christmas trees, French-fried cats, fighting relatives, a kidnapping, SWAT team assaults, exploding sewer gas and, yes, a squirrel.
Clip, Christmas Vacation
That’s not how Christmas works. Christmas only works when we set up the Christ child as the promise and priority of our lives.
The Bible story paints Jesus as a refugee fleeing a nation marked by political violence, someone displaced in his own country even after the violence at least partially settles down.
Though he avoids murder by Herod, Jesus doesn’t escape death by the state. Thirty years later, Pontius Pilate, an official of the Roman Empire, passes Jesus’ death sentence. Like Herod, Pilate does so to hang onto his power and remove a threat.
The Christmas story, the real Christmas story, shares its message today in a world still willing to sacrifice the lives of the innocent on the altar of power. There are still families on the run today. Even now, the weeping of parents often isn’t enough to win mercy for their children.
The things God cares about most don’t take place in Washington, Moscow, London, or any other center of power. The things that really matter happen in refugee camps, detention centers, slums, and prisons.
The Christmas story isn’t set in a palace surrounded by proud and mighty, but among the poor and humble whose lives the powerful see as worth little or nothing.
The church and find our voice only when we remember that, as the Gospel of Luke puts it, God “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”
The Christmas story is the prelude to a much longer story, one that dares to say that Jesus’ suffering served a purpose, that when the state ordered his death, God was at work.
Through the death of the truly innocent one on the cross, God emptied death of its power, vanquished evil forever, and opened the path toward that day the angels sang of, the day when all people will walk God’s path of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.