December 23, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
Wasn’t it just Christmas four days ago? Didn’t we all just get to visit the manger again, sing all those wonderful carols, feel aglow in the wash of twinkling lights and glimpses of angels fluttering overhead? But now Matthew, fresh off his exceedingly short birth narrative in chapter 1 and then the Magi story at the head of this second chapter, gives us THIS story? Clearly the Gospel writers were not nearly sentimental enough. It’s still “the holidays” after all and we’re not quite ready to let down from all the good times and Normal Rockwell-like dinners and all the Currier & Ives moments by the hearth.
Yet there it is: the neck of the woods that first welcomed God’s own Son, Jesus, was rocked some while after his birth by the deaths of many infants who were about the same age as Jesus, give or take a few months. Matthew 1 told us that this little one would be Immanuel, God with us. But God no sooner arrives “with us” and the worlds of many families get turned upside down through the tragic, brutal murder of toddlers and infants who had done nothing wrong but who very much found themselves in the wrong place and at a profoundly wrong time.
It was Herod who went crazy, of course, and of course that stands to reason as Herod was crazy just generally. To put it mildly, the Magi had most definitely set a spark to a very bad powder keg. “You’d be better off as one of Herod’s pigs as one of his sons” the Caesar himself is said to have once remarked after hearing that the paranoid man on the throne had wiped out yet another heir apparent whom Herod regarded as being altogether too eager to take his father’s place on the throne. Herod definitely was one of those nutty loons who fancied he might just live forever—he didn’t—and so would brook no rival to his position.
A ”king of the Jews” was out there somewhere, the astrologers from Baghdad had told Herod. Who knows where these pagans got their theology from but weird and discredited though their pseudo-science was, they got that much right. Alas, they had no GPS to help them on the final leg of their journey and so they stopped off at the palace for some help. Surely the palace would have some experts who could lend a hand to help them find the king. It’s not clear how much actual help they got—it was again the star that re-appeared and led them the rest of the way to Jesus—but first they had tipped off the wrong man.
Fans of the Star Wars films may remember that in Episode 7 The Force Awakens we were introduced to the fallen son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, a troubled man named Kylo Ren. Twice in that film, Kylo Ren threw a meltdown hissy fit after something did not go his way. He activated his light saber and–even as he screamed “Noooo, Nooooo, Noooo” over and over–he used his laser sword to slash through walls and computer consoles, causing all around him to scatter. I imagine this was Herod after hearing a new king has been born.
And so it was that after having just punched a few holes in a wall and after having kicked the cat clear across the room, Herod managed to smooth back his hair, wipe the furious sweat off his brow, straighten up his royal robes, and re-appear before the Magi with the hollow words, “Well, good luck to you, gentlemen, and once you find the king you’re looking for . . . um, er, let me know where he is. I have a little something for him myself. Can’t wait to give it to the little fellow . . .”
God was several moves ahead of Herod and so the Magi are tipped off to scurry back to Baghdad by another way. Once Herod figures out he’d been out-foxed, he kicks a few more walls and throws another hissy fit before issuing a dark decree: kill all the babies in this area of a certain age and with luck, we’ll take out this wannabe king while we’re at it.
“The first martyrs” they have been called, those babies who were run through with Herod’s bloody spears. The title doesn’t really fit since a martyr is literally a “witness” who dies on account of not recanting his or her witness to the reality of Jesus as God and Lord. The babies in question—and their parents for that matter—had in fact never heard of Jesus, had no faith to profess or recant. All they could do is suffer a cruel fate for reasons many of those parents may never have come remotely close to figuring out.
Why? Why must the world react to the advent of the Christ with violence? Then again, why not? Let’s admit that this is a horrible story. But let’s acknowledge that every day the news is filled with the same thing. Oh, maybe not in direct response to Jesus or the Gospel but the children of Aleppo have been dying for a long time now. So have children in and around Bethlehem; in Juba, South Sudan; in Darfur; in . . . well, you fill in the blank. It’s not difficult to do.
If a preacher is brave enough to use this text so soon after Christmas, it will not be difficult to look back on the year just gone by and see it as another bloody year of travail, murder, suffering, sorrow. This part of Matthew 2 is not the exception to the rule in this fallen, broken world. It is the rule. The fact is that Jesus and his parents barely escaped with their lives, and the Christmas story cannot really be told in all its brutal fullness without acknowledging that even the very salvation of this world could not come without being surrounded by the very mayhem and evil that Jesus came to fix.
But if you cannot or will not do that—if you insist that the advent of God’s Messiah stay ensconced in a pretty and twinkly narrative of all sweetness and light—then you are missing the real punch of the narrative, not just of the Christmas story but of God’s wider story that gets narrated from Genesis 1 through to Revelation 22. It’s a brutal world God came to save. It’s a world a holy God would have had every right to turn his back on—as he nearly did once in a time of a great flood—but God stuck with the world anyway. He made a promise to save. God knew it would not be easy. Not by a long shot. God knew that it would never work to wait for his creatures to get their acts together and meet him halfway, or a quarter of the way, or a tenth of the way, or a micro-fraction of the way. God was going to have to do this bloody work himself and the Slaughter of the Innocents is proof positive of both the long odds God faced and at the same time the very reason the work had to be done by God’s Son in the first place.
A popular John Lennon song that often gets played around this time of the year has as its refrain “A very merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.” But who are we kidding? The new year will have plenty of fear even as the old year did. We can wish it were not so but . . .
The Good News that emerges from the Horrible News is that even as Herod’s evil did not undo God’s plan or wipe out God’s Christ, so God is still marching on toward that day when a child will lead them and when God will declare “Behold, I make all things new.” We cannot do that. God can. God will.
In the Movies for Preaching part of this website, Roy Anker highlights the excellent film The Innocents. The title of the movie is clearly designed to evoke Matthew 2. The story is set in post-World War II Poland in a convent that has experienced grave evil. Invading Russian soldiers had repeatedly raped the hapless nuns in the convent, resulting nine months later in one pregnancy after the next by women who had sworn themselves to chastity. The Mother Superior of the convent tries to help but, in fact, makes matters much, much worse and inadvertently perpetuates the bad momentum of the evil done to them.
Yet through a series of events and people—heroes both likely and very unlikely—the kingdom of God bursts through in the end. Like Matthew 2, so also here: God is not undone by the evil that threatens our lives. If we cannot possibly explain why such horrid things happen to innocent people and babies, we can at least rejoice that God is not evacuated from the scene due to human evil. In Christ, there will be healing. In that is all the hope of the Gospel.
Author: Stan Mast
The Old Testament reading for this First Sunday after Christmas is a delightful little snippet of poetry commemorating what God has done to save his people. It’s neat and clean and lovely and it fits this liturgical season perfectly.
The only problem is that its context is anything but neat and clean and lovely. This recital of God’s kind and praiseworthy deeds is part of a prayer for deliverance that is part of a community lament (Isaiah 63:7-64:12). And just before this recital of salvation, there is a bloody picture of God coming to judge Edom which serves as a representative of all the nations that oppose God’s chosen people. “I trampled them in my anger…, their blood spattered my garments (verse 3).”
Immediately after all that bloodshed, the poet/prophet speaks of “the kindnesses of Yahweh.” The juxtaposition is jarring, but it fits the pattern of judgment/salvation that runs throughout Isaiah and the Old Testament. God can be either tender or tough, compassionate or crushing, depending not on God’s mood (this is not about a temperamental God), but on God’s covenantal faithfulness.
In his lovingkindness (Hebrew hesed), God has said to Israel, “Surely, they are my people (verse 8).” Yahweh called Israel to “walk before me and be blameless (Genesis 17:1).” He promised to bless those who blessed Israel and to curse those who cursed them (Genesis 12:3). So it was throughout the centuries. Opposition to Israel meant terrible judgment from God and sinful rebellion by Israel meant stern chastening for them, followed by loving restoration.
In our text, the prophet reminds a chastened and restored Israel of all the kindness God has shown them over the centuries (and possibly in the recent past if the provenance of this text is post-Exilic). Scholars differ on the question of dating this text, largely because of the long controversy over the authorship question ( Deutero-Isaiah and Tritero-Isaiah). Though some scholars think a discussion of that issue is crucial to preaching on this text, I would encourage you to focus on the words, not on the possible author.
Here Israel is being called to remember all that God has done for them. His kindness is measured not in emotion, but in deeds, actual historical actions on Israel’s behalf—“the deeds for which he is to be praised, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel according to his compassion and many kindnesses.”
Central to all those good deeds was entering into covenant with Abraham and all his children throughout their generations back in Genesis. “Surely they are my people.” Everything flowed from that cutting of the covenant. Later verses in Isaiah 63 recall the Exodus as God’s most dramatic saving act (cf. verses 11-13). And God led them through that vast and howling wilderness providing for their every need (verses 13-14). And depending on how we date this particular part of Isaiah, the return from Exile might be in the prophet’s mind as a “deed for which Yahweh is to be praised.”
In all these deeds, Yahweh “became their Savior.” This, of course, is where we can connect this text to Christmas. The birth of Christ was the ultimate saving deed of which all the preceding were types and shadows. He was “Immanuel” who came “to save his people from their sins.” When God chose Israel to be his family, he expected that they would be “sons who will not be false to me… (verse 8).” But, alas, it was not to be, as this prayer of lament confesses in 64:5b-7. Thus, God has been very angry with his sinful children. In the end, however, he has saved them again and will do so conclusively by becoming their Savior in Jesus Christ.
Thus, this ancient recital of salvation history can help us continue our celebration of Christmas, especially because it uses some unusual and dramatic language to describe God our Savior. First, verse 9a says, “In all their distress he too was distressed.” While some scholars translate “distress” as “afflictions” or “oppressions,” suggesting that God entered into our troubles in some deep way, I like “distress” because it implies that God in Christ was actually distressed by what distresses us.
God does not sit far above the fray and then dip down in mercy to pull us out of it. Rather, God suffers with us, experiencing our emotional turmoil and physical pain. I know that this “suffering God” theme troubles those who hold to the traditional doctrine of God’s simplicity, but it surely fits the New Testament hints that God in the flesh suffered in every way we do. For example, he “wept” and he was “a sympathetic High Priest.” On this First Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate a Savior who was like us in every way, including our distressed emotions.
The next phrase in verse 9 is puzzling but promising homiletically; “the angel of his presence saved them.” Undoubtedly, that is a reference to Exodus 23:20-23, where God tells Israel to follow his angel through the wilderness and to pray to that angel, and to Exodus 33:14, 15, where Moses pleads for God’s presence. God responds with that lovely promise. “My Presence will go with you and I will give you rest.” The first text is puzzling because of the command to pray to an angel, unless this is one of those mysterious places where the pre-Incarnate Christ appears on the scene. Long before he became Jesus of Nazareth, the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth as “the angel of God’s presence” to save God’s people. Salvation has always been in Christ alone. Now, of course, after Christmas, the Presence of Yahweh is with us always in the person of the Incarnate Christ.
Continuing to pile up words to help us celebrate what God has done to save us, the prophet says, “In his love and mercy he redeemed his people.” Stephen Reid helps us not to race over those familiar words about God’s “love and mercy,” when he says, “The suffering of God is an outgrowth of the love of God.” In a day when Christians quail over talk about God’s wrath and Jesus suffering a violent death, Isaiah reminds us that the whole drama was driven by God’s love and mercy. We may not be able to understand it all and smooth over all the rough edges, but let’s never forget that we are saved because “God so loved….”
Finally, our text ends with a tender image—a father lifting up a child and carrying that child on a long journey. Later in this long sad prayer of lament, Israel says, “But you are our Father (63:16).” Even though we have sinned terribly and you have punished terribly, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father… (64:8).” This picture of God picking us up and gently carrying us will evoke many childhood memories of being tired or sad or hurt, and Daddy bending down to scoop us up in his strong arms and carrying us. That old memory gives Israel strength, especially when the prophet turns in the next sentence to the memory of Israel’s rebellion and Yahweh’s hard response (verse 10). In the end, God our Savior took little children in his arms and blessed them, even when they had been very naughty children.
So, as I said in opening, this lovely little snippet of salvation history is set in a complicated and difficult context. But then, Christmas happened in a complicated and difficult context. To celebrate what God did in that tiny baby, and to celebrate deeply, it helps to see the darkness into which he came. God’s wonderful deeds are all the more wonderful when we remember how complex his salvation is. “God has become our Savior,” but there’s a lot more to it than that.
The intermingling of God’s toughness and tenderness, his love and the violence that fills the Bible, challenges our faith and tempts us to shave off the rough edges of Scripture. How can a loving God be so violent? I was helped a bit with this issue when I saw the movie, “Taken,” starring Liam Neeson.
It is an exceedingly violent film about an ex-CIA agent with a “special set of skills,” whose lovely but foolish teenage daughter is kidnapped by sex traffickers while she was on vacation in Europe. When the girl drops her phone on which she has been talking with her dad, the kidnapper picks it up. Neeson hears him breathing and asks him to let his daughter go. “If you do, I will forget about this and let you go. If you don’t, I will find you and kill every one of you.” The sneering kidnapper laughs and says, “Good luck.”
Well, Neeson doesn’t need luck. He has that “special set of skills,” which he uses with lethal results. In the end, every single member of the gang of sex traffickers is dead and Neeson frees his daughter. It ends with her in his arms, sobbing in relief.
The movie is too violent for many church goers. But for me it raised the question, how far would I go to save my children if they were in terrible danger? Would my love lead me to violent action? If a sinful father with special skills would risk his life to save his daughter, how much more would a holy Father risk violence to save his foolish, sinful children?
Author: Scott Hoezee
The time between Christmas and Epiphany is one of those flex times in the Revised Common Lectionary—sometimes there are two Sundays after Christmas and before January 6 and sometimes just one in case Epiphany falls exactly on the second Sunday after Christmas. So sometimes Psalm 148 is in the Lectionary mix and sometimes it isn’t. This year we have 2 full Sundays, with Epiphany proper falling on a Monday. Hence this year’s Lectionary for the First Sunday after Christmas features Psalm 148. But since the Year C Lectionary had assigned Psalm 148 just last Spring, I will simply link over to that sermon starter and the ideas on “The Ecology of Praise” that I wrote a few months back.
I suppose one thing I could add at this point is that since in 2019 this is the final Sunday of the calendar year, perhaps it is fitting to conclude with a psalm that resembles a well-shook bottle of champagne: when the cork flies off this poem, there is some serious praising going on in an effervescent explosion that involves nothing short of the whole creation!
Also, since this is paired in the RCL with the grim Gospel story of the Slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew 2, perhaps this exuberant psalm might be an alternative preaching text that some of us pastors will choose! On the one hand and as pointed out in this week’s Gospel sermon starter, there is a grim realism to the Matthew 2 story—the horror reported there is why God’s Son had to come to save this planet. At the same time, perhaps it’s good to remind ourselves that in the end this will all result in exactly the glorious praises of all God’s creatures that we see depicted in Psalm 148!
Author: Doug Bratt
Near the beginning of measured time, God created the heavens and the earth. God also created our first parents for fellowship with each other and the Lord, as well as to help care for what God makes.
Adam and Eve, however, chose to do the one thing God explicitly asked them not to do. Then they tried to hide from God while God searched the garden for them until way past dark. Not long after that most of Adam and Eve’s descendants forgot all about God. We got so busy making, growing, buying and selling things that we assumed we no longer needed God.
As a result, God, says Barbara Brown Taylor to whom I’m indebted for some of this Starter’s ideas, “shouted at” us. God used floods, famines, messengers and manna to call people back to himself. God even invaded peoples’ dreams and, if that didn’t work, woke us up in the middle of the night.
People, however, stubbornly chose not to listen. Those God creates in God’s image, instead, went right on hurting and hating each other. People just kept right on rejecting God and worshiping what God had made, including ourselves, rather than God who made everything that has been made.
So what did God do? Christ Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, was, as Paul writes, “in very nature God.” Yet he surrendered his heavenly glory to make himself “nothing,” taking the very nature of a servant. The Son of God became Immanuel, God come to make God’s home among us, to draw us back to himself.
The Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday, however, makes a perhaps even more remarkable assertion. It, after all, insists that Jesus is not only God with us, he’s also God just like us “in every way,” except, of course, that he was perfect. Jesus had to be made like his brothers in every way . . . Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (17).
Both Hebrews’ proclaimers and hearers may be so familiar with that concept that we forget just how shocking it is. That’s why I appreciate C.S. Lewis’ assertion that if we want to think what Jesus’ incarnation would be like, we must imagine ourselves becoming slugs.
Though people didn’t naturally recognize it, we desperately needed Someone to save us from our sins, to rescue us from the punishment we deserve. We needed someone, as our text notes, “to make atonement for the sins of the people.”
Because people can’t save ourselves. In fact, even God’s adopted sons and daughters only increase our guilt every day. What’s more, no other creature can rescue us. Nothing and no one else could bear the full brunt of God’s righteous fury over our sins. People needed a Savior who is truly human and truly God.
So into our rebellious lives and world steps that Someone: our Lord Jesus Christ. He had to be made like his brothers in every way . . . Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. Jesus Christ alone is, in a way we can’t fully understand, both God and human in every way.
On this last Sunday of 2019 (as well as every day), this is great gospel. The Christ whose birth at Bethlehem we’ve just celebrated was, by God’s great grace, like us in every way in order to set us free and make us right with God. So those who have received God’s grace with our faith now have eternal life that includes reserved spaces in the new heaven and earth. Because Christ suffered for us, God will eventually bring Christ’s adopted brothers and sisters to what our text calls “glory.”
Along the way to that glory, however, God has chosen God’s dearly loved people for obedience. By becoming just like us, Jesus Christ has marked the year 2020 (as well as every year) not for Jesus’ followers’ slavery to the power of death, but for joyful obedience to him. After all, because of what Christ has done, God is making God’s adopted sons and daughters more and more holy. The Holy Spirit through God’s Word is transforming God’s children to be increasingly like the Jesus Christ who was like us in every way except that he was perfect.
So God, in Christ, has the first claim on Jesus’ followers’ lives during this coming year. God gave God’s people our gifts and talents for God’s use in our world. Even the possessions we managed to accumulate during 2019 belong to the Lord. So during this coming year God’s people will seek to be obedient stewards of all those good things God has given us.
Of course, following Jesus Christ in this way won’t be any easier in 2020 than it was in 2019. After all, while Christ has freed his adopted siblings from slavery to Satan, sin and death, we still grant them immense power in our lives. Thankfully, then, Christ, our elder brother, understands all this. He was, after all, like us in every way – except that he was perfect.
Of course, Jesus didn’t experience some of the things that come with being female, married or elderly. Nor did he have to deal with dementia or, apparently, other destructive illnesses. Yet Jesus did experience the things that often trouble his adopted brothers and sisters most: rejection, persecution and death. He dealt with all sorts of threats, disappointment and frustration. So God’s people who experience any of those or similar things this coming year can know that Christ has already experienced them and understands our struggles.
Perhaps even more importantly, however, because he was like his followers in every way except that he was perfect, Christ also experienced intense temptation. Throughout his life, but particularly at its end, Satan and his allies mercilessly tempted him. They especially threw everything they had at Jesus on the cross.
What’s more, Jesus at least felt like his Father in heaven abandoned him during much of that assault. Yet he remained faithful to his mission, resisted temptation and saved God’s children from our sins. As a result, Christ is both willing and “able” to help us when Satan and his allies are tempting us.
Of course, even Christians sometimes assume that we don’t need Christ’s help to resist temptation. We’re naturally independent people who are reluctant to turn anywhere for help. But do we need look much further than just the past few days to see how vulnerable to temptation we are? Jesus’ followers profess that by ourselves we’re too weak to hold our own against Satan’s temptations “even for a moment.” What’s more, we also profess that our enemies, sin, Satan and death, which are determined to destroy us never stop attacking us.
Thankfully, Hebrews’ author promises, this Jesus who was like us, even in our temptation, is able to help his adopted brothers and sisters when we’re tempted. When Satan tempts God’s dearly beloved people to swerve from the baptismal vows we’ve made, Jesus Christ helps us. When Satan tempts people to love God and each other with less than our whole hearts, Jesus Christ helps us. When Satan tempts us to break the promises we make to our spouses, children, friends and neighbors, Jesus Christ helps us.
The Jesus Christ who proved himself to be completely faithful faithfully gives his followers the strength we need to resist temptation. He faithfully gives his strong and reliable support, his great and available power. Jesus Christ faithfully keeps his adopted brothers and sisters from spiritual collapse so that he can present you and me to his heavenly Father as God’s redeemed children.
Kim Jong-Il called himself North Korea’s “dear leader.” Yet he was radically different from the people he “led” with an iron fist. A series of droughts combined with Kim’s farming and economic policies intensified North Korea’s decade of famine. South Korean intelligence agencies estimated that nearly three million North Koreans also starved to death over the course of just four years.
Yet even as his followers were dying en masse, Kim Jong-Il, according to the October 30, 2004 edition of Der Spiegel, drove fast cars, gorged himself with gourmet foods and guzzled expensive liquor. While his country plunged into deeper and deeper poverty, he built at least ten palaces, complete with golf courses, stables and movie theaters. Kim also filled his garages with luxury cars, and foreign bank accounts with as much as four billion dollars.
Contrast Kim’s story with the hero of the parable I read a number of years ago. After an incorrigible man died and went to hell, his sad fate worried his friends. When they visited him in hell, his misery touched them even more deeply. So the man’s friends rattled hell’s gates, shouting to whomever might be listening, “Let him out! Let him out!” Their pleas, however, went unanswered. Hell’s great iron doors remained tightly shut.
The man’s friends next summoned a dazzling array of rich, powerful and famous people. All of them stood at hell’s gates, shouting out a variety of reasons why Satan should let the man out of his lonely torture. Some claimed that the evil one had not followed due process when he condemned the man. Others appealed to Satan’s sense of fair play and compassion. The massive iron gates, however, remained unmoved.
In desperation the tormented man’s friends summoned his pastor. When he approached hell’s gates, he shouted, “Let him out. This man wasn’t really such a bad guy, after all. He contributed some money to our church building fund and once even worked at a food pantry for us. Let him out.” Hell’s gates, however, didn’t budge.
Eventually all the condemned man’s discouraged friends and supporters left him. At that point the man’s old father appeared at hell’s gates. He stood there, hunched over and weak. He was only able to softly whisper, “Let me in. Let me in.” At once hell’s massive gates swung open and the condemned man was free.