A Christmas test: Rank, in order, your favorite incidences of the Christmas story: For CPA and IRS fans, it’s tax season in Bethlehem; for the ethereal and other-worldly, you may choose angels; for the agrarians, shepherds; for any of us, a young couple, a manger and their baby; lowing cattle (not in Luke, but in a favorite Christmas carol); a star; wise men. Once they drop off their gifts, adore, and by-pass Herod to go home, Christmas should end. A ruthless, paranoid little king killing babies two and under around Bethlehem has no business in our nice Christmas. These stories give us a bad reputation: “Look at what your God lets happen – sends Messiah and a bunch of innocent children die.” Maybe the church – and your priests, like me, have done a poor job awakening God’s new life in you – nurturing us to be agents of divine love that finally defeats evil – which evidently isn’t that compelling a strategy. God actually trusts and empowers us to battle evil, hatred, violence in this world. So who likely goes missing in this equation – God or us?
God intervenes – sends Joseph a dream with an angel visit: “Take the Holy Family to Egypt.” They go, cross the border, and become political refugees. Egypt had a checkered relationship with the Jews through history. Remember Joseph – Technicolor coat musical, dreams, jealous brothers, sold as a slave, ends up in Egypt and lands a nice government job to manage a famine, and saves the world and his family. A few centuries later, a Pharaoh, who has no idea how the Jews got to Egypt, goes paranoid, fearing the Jews have grown too numerous. He orders the murder of Hebrew boys. Sound familiar? God saves baby Moses – who will free God’s chosen from Egypt, just as God saves Jesus and brings him out of Egypt to free us and all creation from the slavery of sin and death. Jesus’ flight to Egypt is called a “fulfillment story.” I admit it would have been nicer to end Christmas as the wise men ride off, Mary and Joseph watching Jesus play with his gold, frankincense, and myrrh, wondering: “Don’t they have a Toys R Us back in Persia?” God now fulfills exodus by raising up one mightier than Moses – for the entire creation – where God has been taking this project all along.
God doesn’t come to save a nice, polite world that will welcome him. That’s not the world we live in. How many families threw leftovers out when Milwaukee children went hungry over Christmas? Who among us will hold up the lives of Laylah, Sierra and Bill as valuable and important – or welcome children and families who need safe places to escape tyrants and certain death? God expects more of us than just showing up at church occasionally. The world into which God comes – is overrun by fear, paranoia, senseless killings, disposable children – colliding powers. And it still grinds on. This brutally honest story says behind the mess people make of this world, God still saves and redeems us. Only by faith can we see it. In Jesus, heaven’s invasion of earth has begun, and Christmas says, don’t just watch – join the story of what it means when we really believe God is with us.
Herod dies. An angel visits Joseph again to say it’s safe to return home – except Herod’s son now rules, and that’s no improvement. One more dream sends the holy family to Gentile infested Galilee, not the ideal spot from which to launch a messianic career. The family settles in a farming village called Nazareth – so small historians can’t even find it. Yet Nazareth was known – as a place where nothing good can be found.
It’s really an incredible story. Its truth does not rest on whether we accept or reject if or how God comes to us. Faith makes uncommon sense, not common – that’s why people miss it. No one – friends or enemies, would ever have thought to look for Messiah in Nazareth. Kings once knelt before him as a lowly infant in a manger. One day he will kneel to wash the feet of his kin – the humble and lowly, the refugees and dispossessed. He just was not the sort of Messiah people expected – or wanted. More important than any title we give him, God comes in this child, to us, as a person. Jesus then brings us to God – redeemed, adopted, “beloved, children of God.” That’s what Christmas means. God comes – to transform us, make us fit for the divine cause come to earth, as forces for God that resist and oppose the evil in this world with love and mercy, and bring light and life.
Christmas doesn’t end when the tree comes down, music and decorations get packed away, and holiday “sales events” end. The child becomes an adult, preaches God’s mercy, forgiveness and grace given for all, gets killed for it – and for his efforts God raises him from death to show us death isn’t what common sense says it is. Christmas continues when the risen Lord draws us all into this story, raising us to new life, not once, but over and over – in the midst of the challenges, defeats and evil of this world. Whether life is full of joy and goodness right now, or it’s disappointing, difficult, and overshadowed by sadness and grief in this season – the light of divine hope still shines – hang on.
Matthew tells of Christ’s birth, knowing how the story ends – well, to a point. I doubt Mary and Joseph could figure out how the story of their child would end. Christmas doesn’t end until God brings earth into heaven. Christmas is God doing just that – through us, among us always and with us forever. In this simple story and child – eternal love draws us to a life where there is no more suffering or death, only light, love and joy. It can be a rough journey getting there. But by God’s grace, we will and we do. So, if some of you want to continue saying Merry Christmas after decorations come down, I fully understand. And I will know you braved the snow and ice to be here – faithfully, this day.