Monday, December 27, 2010

Presence, Place, and Promise

This is the message I preached yesterday at Grace Lutheran Church, my internship site. The text is Matthew 2:13-23.

Didn’t yesterday’s dusting of snow make everything look so clean and white outside? It seemed picture perfect. We can hear, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” in our heads. The time we’ve been waiting for has arrived. It’s finally Christmas! It’s so wonderful to be with family and friends. And if children are part of the mix, don’t you just love the joy and wonder they bring to this time of year? It’s so special. It seems like all is well with the world…at least for some of us.
            Others dread this season—the memories stirred up of loved ones now gone, of broken relationships, of missed opportunities, the sheer loneliness of outliving your friends and family.  This can be a time of depression and sadness as well.
            That which is a time of such joy for some may be a dreaded time of terror for others.  It’s hard to imagine such conflicting emotions surrounding the celebration of the greatest gift of all.
            In today’s gospel story we also find conflicting responses to the news of the birth of the Christ child. Prior to today’s gospel passage is the visit of the wise men and their worship of Jesus, their joy in God’s gift. We like that. It fits with all of our warm fuzzy feelings and traditions surrounding this time of year. It’s what we’re comfortable with.
            But right on the heels of this wondrous time of worship with the wise men, the family is brought back to the reality of the times in which they were living. Herod the Great was the ruler. He was known to be ruthless. Herod had murdered two of his own sons and a couple of wives. What would prevent him from killing someone else’s son if he was perceived as a threat to his rule?
          Here we come to the first of 3 sections in today’s reading with angelic encounters in a dream, changes of place, and fulfillment of Old Testament scripture. As in last week’s gospel reading, Joseph receives direction from an angel. He is warned about Herod’s evil plan. Joseph, the obedient hero, whisks his family off in the night to Egypt. Egypt--the place that had been one of OPPRESSION in Moses’ time becomes a place of PROTECTION for the Savior. Why Egypt? “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet…” (v. 15). According to Matthew, it was part of God’s plan.
There are some interesting comparisons between the Israelite’s bondage in Egypt and the fleeing to Egypt of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. In Exodus, babies were slaughtered in Egypt by Pharaoh. Now this family must flee to Egypt to avoid a massacre by the ruler in their own land. In Israel’s past, another Joseph was also guided by God through dreams and brought his family to Egypt. Mary’s husband Joseph did the same thing.
But just because the family was able to escape to Egypt does not mean that they had it easy. They had become refugees in a strange land. Their situation was much like that of people in many parts of the world today who live under the oppression of  political tyrants or forces of nature  that determine where, how, and if they will live.
Forced moves are no fun. Our Savior experienced and knows our pain—the pain of leaving the familiar, friends, and family. Even in these forced moves, God is with us in the new place to be our security and hope.
The next part referencing an Old Testament passage shows just how dark a world Jesus was born into. Angry that the wise men had tricked him and paranoid that one day he would be overthrown, Herod had all the children in the Bethlehem area ages 2 and under killed. When I lived in Bethlehem, I had a daily visual reminder of the pain of losing a child. From my living room window, I could look out at a children’s cemetery and at times witness the mourning as a child was buried.
A number of questions came to mind as I read today’s gospel. At first glance, I was amazed and in awe of God’s protection of Jesus. God showed his faithfulness to righteous Mary and Joseph. That was my response as I initially read it. Upon further reading however, I couldn’t avoid the death of the Bethlehem children. On the one hand there is God’s great faithfulness and on the other hand great evil. I had to think about that for a while. All was not sweetness and light once the Savior was born. His was a light in the darkness and one cannot deny the reality and depth of that darkness. And God was there in the darkness of the babes of Bethlehem, in the sorrow of their parents. God wept with them at their losses. “Rachel weeping for her children…because they are no more” (v. 18) as Matthew quotes Jeremiah. God’s presence is there in the midst of great evil. Ok, but how does that comfort the people who lost their children? This is a tough question and one where there are few satisfying answers. Sometimes things happen that just do not make sense. The problem here is we only see a small facet of the events in time and history. We do not see the big picture as God does. We don’t see the ripple effect of how one event affects many others in history. Is it a comforting answer? No. But we have to trust by faith that God is in charge and even though something evil happened, something good will come out of it.
After Herod died, the angel again appears to Joseph to let him know it was time to move back to Israel. Obedient Joseph did just that. This did not mean that the coast was clear however. Herod’s son who was ruling Judea, where Bethlehem is located, was known to be as brutal as his father. This is the reason Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem.
God again makes his presence known and warns Joseph through a dream. So, Joseph and family make their way to the Galilee and finally settle in Nazareth. Matthew understands the choice of Nazareth to be fulfillment of other scriptures, that Jesus would be called a Nazorean.
Angelic intervention, warnings of trouble, fulfillment of scripture: What does this mean for us? What about those of us in pain from loss, from broken bodies, from being far away from family? We may think it’s nice that scripture was fulfilled, but we may also wonder, “So what?”
There is a red thread of God’s concern, love, and faithfulness that runs throughout the scriptures—both Old Testament and New Testament. That’s why Matthew meticulously connected the happenings of Jesus’ life to Old Testament prophecies.  God warned the listening Joseph of danger. God directed him. God protected Jesus and his parents.
Are our ears open to hear God’s warnings as Joseph’s were? Are we willing to embrace God’s promises? Are our eyes open to see God’s faithfulness in our lives—in the midst of difficult times as well as in the midst of joyful times? Just as God demonstrated his protection and presence in the midst of evil for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, he will do so for us. Are we ready?

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