Matthew 2: 13-23
Good morning, and grace and peace. The Tenth Day of Christmas . . . and my true love gave to me “ten lords a-leaping!" Which sounds like an appropriate gift indeed for us here, with so many Anglophiles in the St. Andrew’s circle, on a day when the final season of Downtown Abbey is to begin on Public Broadcasting.
As most of you know, I like to keep counting all the way through the rich 40 days of this season of Incarnation, subdivided as Christmastide and Epiphany, up to February 2, Candlemas, Feast of the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple—which this year because of a very early Easter will actually come in a kind of overlapping of the calendar of the Church Year after we have already begun to shift gears into the three weeks of “Pre-Lent.,” Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. When our focus will begin to turn from the great theological language of Incarnation to center on the Doctrine of Atonement. Incarnation, about “who Jesus is,” and Atonement, about “what Jesus did.” The Nature of Christ. The Work of Christ. Completely inseparable, of course: the unified message of the Gospel, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
In any event, this Sunday it’s still very much Merry Christmas!, and Happy New Year!-- though as we hear this morning St. Matthew carries us along some of the shadowy pathways through the story of the Birth of our Savior.
Years ago Ruth Cover of blessed memory told me a story which I love to retell, partly just because it is such a pleasure to remember Ruth and her wonderful sense of humor. So many of you have heard it before, though I bet you’ll smile as you remember it, as I know I do. I’m not sure this was something that happened to her when she was teaching in our Church School back in the 1960’s or 70’s, or perhaps a story that she had been told by someone else. But the story is an Advent or Christmas season Sunday School art project-- the second or third graders are given some drawing papers and crayons and asked to create a picture of their favorite scene from the Christmas Story. The results perhaps fairly predictable. Lots of Shepherds and Angels, Holy Family in the stable, the animals, the Baby in the Manger, the Three Kings, the Bethlehem Star. But then one boy at the end of the table has spent his time working energetically, and when the teacher looks over his shoulder she sees something that looks like a Fighter Jet shooting across a blue sky, with giant flames exploding out of the engines. “Didn’t you hear the assignment, Johnny?” The teacher asks. “Yes, he says.” “But this isn’t part of the Christmas story.” “Sure it is. The flight into Egypt! – and look, in the cockpit, that’s Pontius, the Pilot.”
In any event, part of the Christmas story that most years doesn’t make it to the Pageant. We remember how Matthew brings us to this point.
Matthew’s Christmas doesn’t contradict anything we remember from Luke, but there are lots of things he remembers that Luke didn’t tell us about. At the beginning of Chapter 2 Matthew introduces us to these Wise Men from the East, who have seen a new star in the sky, which they interpret as meaning that a new king has been born to rule in Israel. They come to Jerusalem, and make official inquiries that lead to old King Herod hearing of their arrival, and after some worried consultation they are sent along to Bethlehem, King David’s city and the place where the Prophet has said the long hoped-for Messiah would be born. Herod is clearly worried that this might be a hint that there is some rebellion percolating, a challenge to his authority and the legitimacy of his dynasty, and so he asks the Wise Men to return to Jerusalem and to let him know what they have found.
Of course the Wise Men do come to Bethlehem, guided by the Star--which is now moving along before them--rejoicing “exceedingly with great joy” when they finally find Jesus and Mary and Joseph. And after the presenting their three symbolic gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they are, we are told, warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem, and so they head home a different way.
That’s how we get to this morning’s readings. Which seem to me to be so haunting perhaps this year in particular. The Wise Men have slipped away, but Joseph, just like his Old Testament namesake at the end of the Book of Genesis, the one with the Technicolor sportcoat, is a man who dreams meaningful dreams. God speaks to our Joseph in a dream, and just as Joseph in Genesis brings Israel his father and all his brothers and their families down to Egypt as a place of refuge and safety in the time of famine, so now as the guardian and protector of Jesus and Mary his Mother this Joseph is given an urgent warning, and is called as well to Egypt as a place of refuge, narrowly escaping the murderous rage of Herod, who has realized that the Wise Men have slipped away and who then decides to nip any potential problem of a birth in the royal line of David by ordering the Slaughter of the Innocents. Something we are told from other historical sources was entirely in keeping with his ruthless exercise of power. Another part of the story missing from most Sunday School Pageants. That horrifying cry of the Mothers of Bethlehem echoing through the centuries.
Hard not to hear this story just past New Year’s Day 2016 and not think back to the images of the year past. The cities of Syria devastated by bombs and ruthless fighting between opposing armies. Christians and other religious minorities rounded up by gangs of the Islamic State and its affiliates and then brutally murdered, with commentaries provided for YouTube distribution. And an endless procession of refugees fleeing in terror on tiny fishing boats and disintegrating rafts. Fleeing for their lives, for some kind of future and safe harbor. Again, hard not to think of these things as we watch Mary and Joseph and the Child this morning. We should.
And it’s not until some considerable time later, perhaps even several years of living as refugees in some camp or ghetto in Egypt, when King Herod dies, that Joseph finally believes it safe to take the child and his mother and to return not to Bethlehem, where Herod’s son was now in charge, but back to Nazareth, Mary’s hometown, where Joseph apparently had been working some time ago as a carpenter or in the construction trade, to make their home there.
Matthew’s Christmas always feels a little uncomfortable leaning up against the story as Luke tells it. Shepherds and Angels and the midnight birth, the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and settled in a manger bed— in a kind of homey, domestic bubble, warm, romantic, sentimental, almost other-worldly, a story we might read our children before they go to sleep.
But Matthew’s Christmas on this Second Sunday after Christmas is not a bedtime story. Not if you don’t want some squirming, and some uncomfortable dreams. Rated R, for “mature themes.” No visions of sugarplums, but darkness and danger, a fearful escape to a foreign land, the brutal clatter of swords, blood and death and destruction and the weeping of mothers bereft of their little ones.
Hear Matthew’s story, and you’re grateful Christmas comes but once a year. On display, the worst the world has to offer. The absolute worst. Our world unvarnished. Brokenness, betrayal, cruelty, sin and death. Sin and death.
I mean, it’s the holiday season, after all, and time for a break from all that. Right? But Matthew keeps the spotlight right there.
In the 2006 movie Superman Returns there is a scene at the beginning. Superman has returned to Metropolis after many years on some kind of unspecified task far away, I can’t remember the details. A sabbatical. And he discovers that in his absence things seem to have changed. At one time he was cheered as a hero, but now he seems to be regarded more as a problem, a disruption. He wants to be involved, but he is turned away again and again by people who feel like they no longer need the kind of help he can offer. Even his old flame Lois Lane has moved on. A new job, a new boyfriend. And she has this amazing conversation with the Man of Steel. “You seem to think it’s your job to save the world,” she tells him. “But the fact of the matter is, the world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I.”
The fact of the matter is, we don’t need a savior. Well—if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Lois has spoken a bit too soon. Lex Luthor and his evil gang are even as Lois is speaking at work to bring on chaos and destruction, with a full dose of Kryptonite, and things are about to go very bad indeed.
But I recall that scene this morning just to say that if there’s one thing Matthew never will let us say at Christmas, is that we don’t need a savior. This world of ours. You and I. Matthew doesn’t forget and doesn’t let us forget that this is a world that needs saving. That you and I are people who need to be saved. From the darkness around us, from the evil that has taken up residence in us. That’s why Jesus is born. Why he came.
Without Jesus, it’s all Herod, all the time. Deadly Kryptonite. In the wide world. In our hearts. The message to call us to the Table this Second Christmas Sunday, and a reminder as we are sent out into the world. As the angel. “You shall call his name Jesus,” which means savior. Savior. What Christmas is, and to remember just what is at stake here. Really and seriously. Very high stakes for us, if we are tempted to cover that over with a bit of holiday gift wrap. Call him Savior, the angel says. That Baby in the Manger. Because without him we are doomed.