Sermon by Bonnee Henry
First Congregational Church, Columbus, Ohio
December 30, 2001
Nothing blasts a chill over our warm, cheery, joyful celebrations of Christmas like reading today's gospel of the "massacre of the innocents." We usually neglect to notice the events the wise men stirred up by their visit to Herod. After all, the coming of the wise men to Jerusalem seems innocent enough. They have heard the "good news" that a child is born king of the Jews, so they arrive "to pay him homage" (Mt. 2:2). All they want to do is worship - that seems innocent enough. Like us, they just want to come to church at Christmas time. Certainly, this is a harmless gesture, one free of controversy.
But, wait. This is not the 21st century. This is not the world in which we live. No! This is Herod's world, and Herod senses sedition. Herod senses a threat to his authority. These wise men must seem like revolutionaries to Herod because they are announcing another king - another sovereignty. This newborn king, the wise men have come to worship is a definite threat to Herod's throne.
There have been other threats to Herod's authority, and they are all dead, including Herod's favorite wife (he had 10), his brother, three of his sons, and at least two grandsons. Anyone Herod perceives as standing in the way of his ambition or anyone who simply irritates his royal pride, Herod kills. This led Caesar Augustus to remark that it is safer to be Herod's dog than Herod' son.
So, now you have the picture. Herod has finely tuned his art of murder, so when he receives word that a possible new Messiah has been born in Bethlehem, he reacts in his normal murderous manner. He has all boys under the age of two slaughtered. Herod is very good at killing!
So, why do we have to hear such a lesson on the first Sunday after Christmas? Christmas is the season portrayed as a time of peace, tranquility, and love. On television, especially in the commercials, we see festive celebrations, families happily re-uniting, and glowing trees surrounded by beautifully wrapped presents. We dream of a "White Christmas," and the churches are filled with pageants, candlelight services and singing of hymns like "Silent Night, Holy Night" and "Peace on Earth, Good Will" toward all.
Christ is born! The world is changed!
So, why dampen this joyful season with the murder of baby boys? Why is King Herod in our manager scene??
Why? Why? Because that's the way the world is!
Whether it is Herod, Pharaoh, or Pilate,
Whether it is Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini,
Whether it is Mao, Chaing Kai Sheck, or Pol Pot,
Whether it is Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, or Osamo bin Laden,
That's the way the world is!
Matthew's story of the flight to Egypt is a wrenching sequel to Christmas. For weeks we have anticipated the birth of the Christ Child. No sooner has he arrived and the wise men from the East have paid him homage, than he is in grave danger.
If there had only been a sign, you know the kind that is prominently posted outside a designated area. It is in big, red letters and reads:
"Danger: High Voltage! Stay Away!"
But, no such warning is permitted in the world ruled by Herod. But. in the world God rules, the warning - to stay away - comes in a dream to one who, like us, stands in a crowd of ordinary people; it includes shepherds as well as wise men. Like Mary of Magdala when she arrived at the empty tomb, Joseph is told "not to be afraid," but to take this Mary and this Child and flee. From the time of the Exodus, desperate families have continually had to flee the Herods of the world. Like the Von Trapp family who had to escape Hitler's Gestapo or the thousands of Cambodian families who had to flee the horrors wrought by Pol Pot, and the families of refugees today in countries like Afghanistan, the Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Somalia, Joseph takes his family and under the cover of night, they flee the terror of their homeland.
So, where is God? Where is God in all of this? Can God be in Joseph whom we know according to prior scripture is planning to leave Mary because he discovers that she is with child? Why does Joseph not go ahead with his plans to dismiss Mary quietly and mercifully? Why? Because Joseph is a righteous man. Even though he must have been profoundly disappointed, he is unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace; he seeks no scarlet letter. Likewise, Joseph receives no adulations for his role in the Christmas event. He is given no voice in the gospels...he never speaks, and unlike Mary, Joseph is not mentioned in the creeds of the church. But, Joseph is a righteous person, a merciful person. Joseph is "not afraid" of the gospel scandal. He marries his pregnant fiancée, which according to Old Testament law was a defiant and dangerous act, he takes responsibility for the child as his own. This lowly carpenter speaks to us with his life. Thus, we can now understand why God chose Joseph to be the legal guardian of Jesus and the husband of the woman who would bear the Christ Child.
Likewise, God chooses each one of us to serve in the real world. We can serve with a smile; we can serve by visiting the sick; we can serve by speaking to a lonely person or befriending a homeless person; we can serve by expressing gratitude, by listening without judging, by volunteering our time. And most certainly, we can serve by prayer. We just have to be receptive to "the dream" and "not be afraid" to act.
Matthew's lesson today reminds us that even in this Christmas season, we are still surrounded by violence, death, and injustice. But, the scripture reminds us that we, like Joseph, cannot hide our Christmas faith behind moments of joy and celebration because the world is full of Herods. The worldly guerilla fighters of sin, death, and injustice attack us constantly~and even though they have ultimately lost the war, they do not observe the Christmas season.
So, like Joseph, we Christians must be receptive to God's message and obedient to God's call. Whether or not it comes to us in a dream - we must act because we are called to act out our Christmas faith.
Yes, we know that the world is full of Herods. We know that Herod hated Christmas because Herod knew that the prophecies of the Messiah were that righteousness and kindness would be more important than wealth and power. But, we also know that Herod could not stop Christmas!!
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