My Christmas gift from the Revised Common Lectionary Fairy this year was that I had to preach this sermon on Christmas Day. The reason that was kind of a bummer is that the text for this Sunday was Matthew 2:13-23, and that's a bummer because, as you can see if you go read it, it's not a very happy text. As I was researching this text, and talking to other Pastors I found that a lot of people don't preach on this text when it comes up on Christmas. They just pick a different one or preach on something else. I decided to take on the challenge though and this is what I came up with:
I would like to begin my time up here at the pulpit today with a story. I thought that would be appropriate because it is Christmas after-all and stories are so much a part of our Christmas traditions. We’ve got books like “Twas the night before Christmas”, and “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”, movies like “Christmas Vacation”, “A Christmas Story”, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “Elf”… any of the billion versions of “A Christmas Carol” (the muppet version is my Christmas Carol of choice), and how often at Christmas time do we sit around with our families, after the presents are open and while the food is digesting and tell stories of all the years gone by, the funny stories and tender moments that have defined all the years leading up to this one.
Well this is a story about a boy. He was a pretty average boy: he liked to run and play outside and he also liked to play plenty of video games, he liked to watch football with his Dad and watch baseball with his Mom and he absolutely loved Christmas time. Every year, sometime in November it would occur to this little boy that Christmas time wasn’t so far away, that the air was starting to get colder with that little bite to it, maybe it would snow a time or two, the radio stations slowly started increasing their frequency of Christmas songs, the stores were starting to get more and more full of red and green, gold and silver, bells, stars, candles, reindeer, Santas, and even the occasional Baby Jesus in Mary’s arms, and of course they started lighting the Advent wreath at church.
All of these were the signs that Christmas was coming and they were reasons for the boy to get more and more excited… because he loved Christmas. When he was very young he loved Christmas for all the presents… but then he started to remember that only the very special cookies were baked at Christmas time, and food was always a little more special, and his grandparents came into town, and music was always playing in the house. And then as he got older still he noticed that often people were nicer around Christmas time… they would wish each other Merry Christmas when during other times of the year they would hardly even look at each other, and this boy also learned to enjoy the peacefulness of the season: of sitting by the tree when all the other lights were off and soft music was playing somewhere in the background.
So yes this boy really loved Christmas. And he still does, but one year… something terrible happened… in the middle of all the excitement leading up to Christmas one year, somebody told this boy that he was going to have to preach a sermon on Christmas day and the day after Christmas about Herod’s murder of the little children and Jesus being forced to flee to Egypt.
So… in case you haven’t figured it out yet… I’m doing that thing where I pretend to tell a story about somebody else but really it’s a story about me. …. I know it’s a corny device, and I’m sorry… but It’s true…. I am the little boy….and I really do love Christmas. It’s such a wonderful time of year… It’s Idyllic, it’s a time for joy, peace, love and hope; all such positive and wonderful emotions, and even now as a, mostly, grown man, I love the holiday season. But this year I didn’t get to enjoy the joy quite as much because this past week I have been obsessed with this story about Herod ordering a bunch of little boys to be executed, murdered really… all because he’s afraid of this little baby Jesus.
I have been obsessed with it because it’s just not the kind of story that we expect or want, AT ALL, for Christmas, we don’t want to think about this kind of awful stuff happening when we’re basking in the glow of the halo around the Little Baby Jesus’ head. I have been obsessed because Christmas is supposed to be all cozy and warm and wonderful, not bleak and filled with the grief of even one lost child, let alone an entire generation of Bethlehem.
But see… what happens when I’m obsessing about a gospel text is that things start creeping into my head and little things start happening and they make me think about this particular Gospel even though they would just be random meaningless thoughts and events if I wasn’t in the middle of planning a sermon. One of the things that happened is that, as I was driving in my car, the song “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas” came on the radio… and it was a version with the original lyrics: the “In a year we all will be together…. Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow”
Now… I don’t know if you’ve ever really listened to that song but sometime you should, and while you’re at it you should really listen to “I’ll be home for Christmas” …. And there’s a couple others out there too. Like, “Merry Christmas Darling” by the Carpenters which was a holiday mainstay at our house growing up. I say that you should listen to them because I think you’ll be surprised to notice, if you haven’t before, that they’re kind of sad songs. All three of the songs that I mentioned are about being apart from your loved ones… and these three aren’t the only ones in the Christmas rotation that have a bit of a bit of sadness in them. It seems as though, when people aren’t singing about Jesus as a conquering king, they’re often singing about the joy of Christmas that is tempered by the realities of the world that we live in. And they are beautiful songs to be sure but there’s a sort of melancholy in these songs and in a lot of our Christmas Music, and even in the triumphant and glorious songs of the arrival of a conquering king there is an implicit admission that we’re the kind of people living in the kind of world where we need a conquering king.
And what really got me thinking and obsessing is that there must be a reason for our songs to be this way. Music is art and art tends to show us a little bit about ourselves. So if our Christmas songs have some sadness in them there must be some sadness. But that doesn’t really fit with my childhood picture of Christmas. I have liked Christmas my whole life because of the happiness, and even though there were different things making me happy, whether they were presents, or cookies, or music, or family, or friendliness, or enjoying the first Christmas morning with my lovely wife, there was still the persistent feeling that Christmas is happy.
But here’s the rub… if Christmas is happy, and Christmas makes everything all better. Why do we read today about these terrible events? And why do we still need to have our beautifully sad Christmas music.
Well the ugly truth is…. That Christmas doesn’t fix everything. It makes us feel better for a little while and helps us to remember the good in the world but it doesn’t make all our troubles go away. And the real bummer is that no matter how badly we want Christmas to take away all the evil in the world… for Good… that just isn’t how it works. That kind of Christmas is the one that John the Baptist was waiting for. Remember a couple of weeks ago, we were in the middle of Advent and JTB, (that’s John the Baptist) asked if Jesus was really the Messiah. “Are you the one that is to come, or should we wait for another?” John wanted Christmas to take all the evil away, that’s why he quotes Isaiah: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.” But that isn’t the way Jesus arrived, Jesus showed up as an infant, just like we all do and he didn’t conquer anybody. That isn’t how Christmas works.
Realizing this is… unpleasant at best… but when you do you have three options the first is to just throw Christmas out the window and go live in a cabin out in the woods because there’s no hope (let’s just go ahead and throw that one out immediately) the second option we have is to pretend that Christmas does make everything all better and to ignore, if only for a day, all the problems that are still out in the world, this is the option that we might see some people taking, for example that line in “Have yourself a Merry little Christmas” that goes: “Until then we’ll just have to muddle through somehow….” Get’s changed to: “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow” There’s just a slight difference in mood there. And you know there really isn’t anything wrong with that change. It works for some people to just focus on that triumphant line, it may work for some of you, and you may be just as happy to ignore the sadness that Christmas doesn’t take away.
But there’s still sadness out there and for some of us it doesn’t work to just ignore it. We might try to, but it just comes creeping back in all at once or a little bit at a time, and if we don’t have a better understanding of Christmas we might get confused and frustrated…. And sad…. And obsessed.
I told you earlier that I was obsessing about this… about the sadness that is still in the world and about the fact that our Christmas story for today is about infanticide. And then remember I said that two things happened while I was obsessing: the first was about the songs, and the second is where we get our good news and our hope for today. Somebody else who was thinking about this same Gospel text asked me “What good is Christmas?” That’s a fair question right? And really it’s the same question I was asking, I just hadn’t stated it so clearly. If Christmas doesn’t fix everything, well then about Christmas makes me happy? In light of everything that still goes on in the world and in light of this terrible crime that is committed by Herod today, and in light of the fact that Jesus and Mary and Joseph had to run for his life, and then couldn’t even come back to their home but had to live in a different part of Israel, what should make us happy about Christmas?
Well… I will first say this… we SHOULD be happy about Christmas…. Christmas is every bit as glorious and triumphant of a day as you and I always thought it was. It may not be because Christmas makes all the evil go away, but that’s not what Christmas promised to do. Christmas only every promised us the little baby Jesus, but before you go thinking that there’s any reason for disappointment let’s talk about what that means.
When Jesus was born on that first Christmas… something really truly remarkable happened. God became absolutely and fully a part of this world. God made a sort of bridge connecting this world of ours with God. That’s all a bit of theological magic that means something very simple. It means that God did not give up on us. It means that everything that ever happened to you is a part of something because God chose to make this world part of God and to make himself part of this world. So whenever you feel sad and alone, or afraid, or angry, or happy, or even just OK it is all a part of a world that is intimately connected with its creator.
You are not feeling anything in isolation, you are a part of something much bigger than yourself and that means that there is something much bigger than all those feelings of sadness. Jesus was the whole universe, all of creation, in one man… and he became forever a part of this world because he was born into it just like the rest of us. And there may not be a purpose for the evil in the world and we may not be able to find a greater good out of the evil, but if God was so invested in this that He was willing to become that invested in us than we can believe with absolute certainty that our lives are not just some tragic accident, lived alone.
So remember this tonight when the stars are out. Walk outside… look up into the depths of the night, find the moon or a star and watch it… And remember that God came into the world on this Christmas day as a human just like any of us, and remember that because of that, you are a part of that universe and you are connected to it just as it is part of you. And as long we still have that promise of Christmas we will always have a reason to hope and a reason to be happy.
So please….remember that Jesus has been born so that you will never have to suffer or rejoice alone… and most of all “Have yourself a merry little Christmas…” From now until “all our trouble are miles away…”