The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the Second Chapter
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children. she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Merry Christmas, right? Does your Nativity set have figures for this part of the story? I went though my Nativity set box again, but I just can’t find the paranoid King Herod figure and the troop of murdering thugs to put out. My set seems to run out of figures at the part of the story with Wise Men and their camels. But here in the Gospel for today is Herod and his murdering troops, showing up on the fifth day of Christmas to chase the Holy Family off to Egypt and slaughter innocents because he felt tricked by the Wise Men.
I have to admit, I really struggled with this lesson. One powerful and cruel person forcing a family to leave their home strikes very close to my experience. In my last Lutheran congregation it was one man who decided that he was going to run the congregation. Not the pastor and not the council and not the whole congregation either... just him. When I told him that’s not how things worked he told me yes it was and he would starve me out. He would make sure people stopped giving so they couldn’t keep paying me and I would have to leave and that’s just what he did. This lesson is hard because it first reminds me of that painful experience and THEN I feel guilty for feeling that way because even though that experience was terrible, and he was terrible, nobody died. I think, I should really just get over it... but it’s hard.
Then I struggled with this lesson because I read somewhere as I prepared for this sermon that in those days, Bethlehem was only about one third the size of Rockport... so, about 1000 people total, so ALL the children under 2 killed would have only been about 20 which is still horrible but not the tens of thousands that is sort of tradition. Then I remembered that 20 is also the number of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary and so 20 still seems like way, way too many.
Then I struggled with this lesson because not having a home of your own, bouncing from place to place and knowing there is an approaching yet unknown date when you will be asked to move again is something I have come to relate to very much in the last year and a half. Then that same guilt from before happens again because we actually do have a nice place right now. Our moves here in Maine have not happened under mortar fire like they do for real, modern refugees. We didn’t have to leave with just the clothes on our backs. All our things haven’t been destroyed by a bomb or missile attack; they are just in storage in Lincolnville. We don’t live in a tent in a refugee camp in the desert of Turkey or Kenya among the more than 10 million refugees in the world. We live on Norton Pond and the power is even on.
I’ve struggled with this lesson because on the one hand I feel like I can relate and on the other hand I have absolutely no right to complain. I’ve struggled with this lesson not because it shows how cruel the world was 2000 years ago, but because the world seems just as cruel today, over 2000 years later. I’ve struggled with this lesson because even though I think our country should be better than this, there are innocents around us every day who pay the price for those who, like Herod, fear loosing their power; who think they can only be successful only if everyone else is a failure. So, one in five children in our country don’t know where their next meal will come from and 1.6 million children experienced homelessness in our country last year and at least 194 children have been shot to death in our country since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown.
I’ve struggled with this lesson because when I look around at our world today, I find that I am tempted to say something like, if ONLY we could have just ONE family being forced to flee in the night to safety and if ONLY 20 children died... THAT would be wonderful! Wonderful? Really? No! Not wonderful! Still horrible! I’ve struggled with this lesson because it makes the world back then, my personal world and the world we all live in now seem so painfully dark and it feels like God is absent. So, Merry Christmas?
Actually YES! Merry Christmas! Because mixed in with all the very real horror and pain there is light that shines into every one of those dark and painful places. Mixed in with all the very real hurt and guilt and suffering that happens in each of our lives to one degree or another is God’s infinite, loving and transforming presence.
In the lesson God sends an angel to advise Joseph but not JUST in Israel. God also sends an angel to advise him in Egypt. Like all of Scripture, the story for the characters way back then is good, but the metaphor... what this story means for us now... is so much better. What this means is that God can, and even more importantly God DOES, go with us EVERYWHERE!
Egypt becomes a powerful metaphor for everywhere we would rather not be: A refugee camp, a hospital room, a prison cell, watching a loved one die, waiting for a box of food at a food bank, lying in an operating room, hiding in a locked down classroom, visiting your spouse in a nursing home, sleeping in a homeless shelter, loading the moving truck one more time, standing on the median holding a sign that says “Any help for my homeless family is appreciated.”
Not only is God with us in whatever “Egypt” we might be facing but this story tells us that when we listen carefully we will hear that God is guiding us back to where we belong. It is not God’s desire that anyone stay in those broken and painful places. It is God’s desire that everyone and all of creation come home.
It’s not news that my family’s life here in Maine has been a little more “Egypt-y” than we had hoped it would be when we moved here. But this congregation, all of you have been God’s messenger of hope for us in the last year and a half. You’ve helped us, hugged us, cried with us and cared for us in overwhelming and miraculous ways that have really helped restore a bit of my faith in the church.
It is true that our world, even 2000 years later, is still a world where twisted people hurt others for profit and power every single day. BUT, it is also true that THAT is not how God intends the world to be and over time, working through prophets and truth tellers and people willing to listen to God’s guidance and people willing to trust and hope and work in ways that give of themselves selflessly, God will bring us home from every single one of our Egypts... back to the Promised Land God created for us in the beginning.
So when you and I find ourselves chased by the madness of this world, may we listen carefully like Joseph. When we find ourselves in any kind of “Egypt” may we trust enough to offer our bodies and minds like Mary and when we look out into the world or deeply into our souls and see only darkness, may we all come together and shine the life changing light of Christ into each others lives here in this congregation and in our community and our world. May what the prophet spoke be fulfilled through us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it!” Amen.