God Gets It

THE 2nd SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS, JANUARY 2nd, 2022 MATTHEW 2:13-15, 19-23

How much did you spend on Christmas this year? Well, if your true love has been giving you the gifts demanded by the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, then your true love is either very rich – and you should marry them immediately, unless you are already married to them, in which case you should be really nice to them and smother them with gratitude for the rest of the year, or your true love is by now in a whole heap of debt. Because the pandemic’s effects on prices has been especially severe for the items in the song. Today is the ninth day of Christmas, so your true love has given you nine ladies dancing. Now, as it happens, this is one of the cheapest of the twelve gifts. Because the minimum wage has not increased, the cost of ladies dancing has not increased in the last year. Unless, they are from the New York City Ballet, who probably get paid rather more than minimum wage. I hope they do, anyway. Likewise, Lords a-leaping have not had a pay raise (but they’re Lords, they don’t need one), nor have drummers drumming or pipers piping, unless they are in the musicians’ union.

According to PNC Bank’s Christmas Price Index, (yup, if you bank with PNC, they are spending your money researching the prices of the 12 Christmas gifts in the song) the birds in the song have undergone hyper-inflation. Two turtle doves will cost you 50% more this year, coming in at $450. Those three French hens? They’re up 40% to $255. And the six geese-a-laying saw prices soar 51% in the past year. Overall, buying all of the gifts in the song would cost $179,454.19 this year, a 5.4% increase. And your true love would be stuck with 178 birds and may well stop your true love being your true love.

But let’s not talk about Christmas in the past tense. Christmas songs may cease on the radio on December the 26th, but here in the Christian Church we keep going until January 5th. So, pour yourself another non-alcoholic egg-nog and enjoy Day 9 of Christmas 2021/2. I love Christmas. Maybe too much. Perhaps if I were a bit more balanced about it, I wouldn’t get so emotionally low when it ends. Re-entry is hard. When I was a child the creators of midwinter magic convinced me that Christmas was perfect. That peace would be on earth and there’d be good will to all, that whatever I wished for would be granted, and miracles occurred on every street, not just 34th. But the Christmas story that we tell each year – the stable, the shepherds, the angels, the magi, the holy family in the stable, it’s – how shall I put it – incomplete. And because it is incomplete it is misleading. It lacks something. Without him the Christmas story is missing some context, He’s there in the Gospels, but he’s never in the pageant. His shadow lurks over the manger, but you never see it in the Advent calendar. His power hovers over the stable, seeps into its wooden walls, but he never gets a mention. Now, if you think, it’s church so I must be talking about God and I’m about to use some well-meaning cliché like ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’, then I’m going to surprise you. The someone whose presence is all over the nativity story, but whose name is seldom uttered is the antidote to the sentimental season. If you want to avoid the New Year blues, put the Herod back in Christmas.

And when we do, we see the birth of our Savior with new perspective. We balance the hope and the wonder and the glory of God’s Incarnation with the horrific truth that in Matthew’s Gospel this quickly becomes a murder story. A serial murder story – of children. We’ve read just now the discordant din of the clash of kingdoms. The Prince of Peace is born with a target on his back. Herod’s attempt to assassinate him leads to the murder of an unknown number of babies. In the depths of indescribable pain the healer of humankind arrives.

“After the wise men had left,” says Matthew, “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”

This is a text that elevates and dignifies people on the move. One of the tragic hallmarks of our age is the mass migration of people fleeing war, persecution, hunger, or poverty. Even now, this Christmas, we pray for the safety and relief of people moving north from Central America into North America, from the Middle East and Africa into Europe. Between mouthfuls of Christmas pudding, we’ve heard about the brooding humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, where many millions of people are experiencing early starvation. I’m not a politician, and even if I were I wouldn’t share my analysis of global migration from a pulpit. I’m a pastor, and all I can say is that 2,000 years ago, the baby who grew up to be our Savior was himself a refugee fleeing a tyrannical government in the arms of his parents. And this fact makes us kneel in humility. It forces us to pray, to give, to have compassion, and to urge our leaders to work for a global solution to this appalling feature of our modern world.

The place of refuge for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus is Egypt. That’s ironic. Until now Egypt was a symbol of slavery – their own people’s slavery many centuries earlier. Now, Egypt is a place of safety – the sanctuary for the Holy Family. This infant is transforming Egypt from a land of captivity into a new place of liberty. He is only a few months old, but he’s already redeeming the past. Imagine what he’ll do when he grows up. Our pasts can be redeemed. Places where we fear to go can become sanctuaries of peace. Where is the place you fear to go – in your mind or in your physical world. Maybe this ninth day of Christmas God has one more gift for you – not ladies dancing, but the transformation of the painful place, the cruel place, the place of captivity – into the place where the Savior lives.

There’s something about this baby. People eagerly seek him. Some because they want to pay homage, and some because they want to kill him. This child is already becoming a steppingstone to heaven for some and a stumbling block for others. Even now the wheat is separating from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. The mere presence of Jesus brings out people’s true colors.

And the true colors of Herod were a tartan of green for envy, yellow for cowardice, and red for blood. So narcissistic and paranoid was Herod that he killed one of his nine wives, her mother, and two of his own sons, whom he suspected of plotting against him. He built fortresses throughout the kingdom so he would never be far from a place of shelter if someone tried to overthrow him. He even gave orders that when he died all his political prisoners should also die, so that the entire nation – even those who opposed him – would mourn. In the Chronicles of Twisted Sovereigns, Herod the Great has a chapter all to himself.

In the English county of Northamptonshire there are several ancient parish churches that have been decorated with wall paintings. These murals depict biblical scenes, and were a great teaching tool in times when people were illiterate. There, on the wall was a scene from scripture. Now these paintings have faded and eroded over time. I was rector of one parish that over 500 years has lost so much pigment that unless someone told you, you really wouldn’t be able to say what it depicts. There’s one, though, that has kept its paint very well, and the picture is still clearly recognizable. It’s in the village of Croughton, and the mural is the scene of today’s Gospel reading – Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus making the journey to Egypt.

Of course, it’s impossible to date these murals with complete accuracy, but art historians reckon that this mural was painted shortly after the year 1310. Why this scene? Of all the stories in the Bible that you could paint on the wall of a church to teach and encourage the congregation, why would you choose the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt? There are a thousand more inspiring scenes. So, I did a bit of research on the decade that began in 1310, and I discovered that in the middle of that decade Northern Europe was struck with a terrible natural disaster. It’s called the Great Famine. A succession of cold winters and cool wet summers wreaked havoc on the food supply. The average life expectancy in England fell from 35 to 29. The price of food doubled. Crime and disease rocketed, and desperate people were driven even to cannibalism and infanticide. This must be the reason. If you are unable to feed your children, if you’ve lost one to malnutrition, of course you’d want a picture on the wall of the parish church depicting the parents of Jesus fleeing with their infant from Herod’s infanticide. You might see in the tender nursing of Mary as she sits on the donkey, and the courage of Joseph as he strides ahead of the animal, a reflection of your own desperate love for your child.

That painting on the church wall preached a sermon more powerful than any sermon we have ever heard. The God of justice gets it. The God of suffering understands. He knows what it’s like to be us, and has taken decisive action in the life, death and resurrection of his Son to end the suffering of humankind.

Are you moving this year? I don’t mean relocating your home. Some of you are thinking about that prospect in 2022. No, I mean are you moving ahead – going somewhere new in your life, opening a door to a relationship, a job, a stage of life, even a time of suffering or loss? It’s hard to talk about such things in the pandemic. Life is so uncertain. 2022 is a closed book. Who can safely predict what awaits us this year? As we stand at the door of the year, there is so much to scare us, so much to make us run. So, know this. You are on God’s heart. Your name is marked on Christ’s hands. You are the apple of God’s eye. Even if you are scared, even if your fear is shouting at you to get up and go and leave this place of pain and grief – Jesus has gone before you. Whether you stay or whether you go, know that Jesus the refugee is with you

About Theresa Wright