Scripture - Matthew 2: 13-23
Sermon Preached by Thomas R. Stout
Sunday, December 29, 2013

As I start this sermon, let me ask you a question: When Alex said, at the end of the Lesson, "This is the Word of the Lord"; and you responded, "Thanks be to God", did you really mean it? Did you listen to this Lesson? Who could thank God for such an awful story? It is a hard story to hear, but it is here and it holds a question I have to wrestle with in my own life. Why is this story here? Why is it a part of the Christmas story? Back when I was in the active pastorate, I told a story at the Christmas Eve services. But to find a story that was bright and beautiful and upbeat was quite hard. So many Christmas stories are fraught with human strife and violence. Stuff we do not want to think about when we reflect on the beauty of that first Christmas. But, it is there, the awfulness; and so I ask you to consider with me, why is the awfulness here?

I wasn't sure what to preach on this Sunday, so when I have a problem like that, I usually talk with my spiritual director. When I talked about this with Paul, he said: "Well, Tom, what bible stories come to your mind?" I did not have to look very far, because the Gospel Lesson for this First Sunday after Christmas, as you have already heard, is the story of a journey. Only this story is usually called "The Flight into Egypt". A flight! Some journey!

When I talked to Mary Beth Davis about a cover for the bulletin today, she found the picture that you can see on the front page. Joseph, Mary and Jesus go into Egypt and they come back out. Look at the cover: does it look pastoral to you? It doesn't look real pastoral to me. Look at the weeds and the dust. Look how far back Joseph is. Look at the baby, Jesus, across the lap of Mary on the donkey. This is a picture of a weary journey. Why did Joseph take them into Egypt? Because he had a dream, another dream. The Holy Family had to flee for in Bethlehem they were in peril's path.

From the very first, Joseph had dreams about what to do. And always the angel said, "Do not fear... !" But fear was the constant companion of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, as well as all the other people tied into this tale. It was there. And, yes, the birth narrative is beautiful, and make no mistake, I love it, and I love to hear it each Christmas Eve during the lovely Christmas Eve services that are done here at Westminster. But there is more to the story than just beauty.

So what do we make of these dangers, these fears; and how does this part of the story inform us about our respective journeys of faith and service? I ask this question in light of my own question, which is, as I come up on the end of my journey with you at Westminster, what is God calling me to be and to do next on my journey? And that leads me to ask of you a similar question: To what is God calling you all to be and to do here? Where are things going next for this congregation? Have you had any good dreams lately about what God is calling you, individually and together, to be about in and from and through this place? So, I invite you to look at this story with these kind of questions in mind.

When we look at Joseph, what do we see?

I see a man who is not exactly prepared for the role he is called to take on. Yes, he was going to be a good guy. He was going to do what everybody expected. He was finally going to get married. Then, all of a sudden, there is this pregnant fiancé. What is he to do with her? He wasn't exactly prepared to take care of her, and yet he does. It takes some prodding. It takes a dream and an angel, but he does it. And isn't that sometimes true of you and me? Frankly we are hesitant to do something so unusual. Isn't being a Christian about me and my salvation? What does God call me to be and to do? If Joseph is any example, this story tells us it is about protecting the least and the vulnerable in our family, our community, our congregation, our society. And, frankly, most of us will be hesitant about doing that. Yet, this is the call.

Second, the part of this story that comes after the dream is acted upon is the perfectly awful story of Herod's attempt to kill Baby Jesus. To that end, Matthew tells us, Herod ordered all male children in Bethlehem who were under two years of age to be killed. This is the awful part of the Christmas story. Now, some scholars doubt that it ever happened - no other source from this time period mentions such a slaughter. Other scholars say because Bethlehem was so small, it could have been fewer than twelve children that were killed. But whatever the truth, Matthew's story does not dwell very long on the "sweet joyful" story of the Messiah's birth. Jesus is born not only in a cattle-stall, and homeless, but he is born in to a world fraught with terror and violence. As lovely as our Christmas Eve services are, still there is this reality in our world. Beauty, you see, lives in the same place as ugliness and violence. And that, my friends, is just where God in Jesus joins us. As I face the unfolding of my own journey, that is a comfort for me because there is nothing you and I can face that Jesus does not already know. From the very first where we live he lived also.

The final piece that I would share with you this morning is that this story tells us that for the first 7 to 10 years of his life, Jesus and his family were immigrants. They fled religious and political persecution. Follow the map of their journey:

  • from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of political persecution;
  • from Bethlehem to Egypt because political and personal paranoia;
  • from Egypt to somewhere in Israel -was it finally safe to return?
  • from Israel to Galilee and Nazareth, because if was off the beaten path of history.

Now that is a lot of movement. Four times in ten years. How often have you moved in your life-time? And, do you remember why? And, it is never easy is it? Pack up; what to take; what to leave behind? And, it takes time to establish new relationships of all kinds. If Jesus moved 4 times in 7 years, that is moving every other year! Imagine how that shapes a child's mind and outlook. Few things or people are really secure. Where do we place our faith, our hope, our trust? With something as fleeting as a dream of an angel?

Tony Campollo tells a story from a minister friend of his about a church deacon. He just wasn't doing what deacons are supposed to do. One day the minister said to this deacon: "I have a group of young people who go to the old folk's home and put on a worship service once a month. Would you drive them there?" The deacon agreed.

The first Sunday the deacon did this, he stood at the back of the room with his arms folded as the kids were upfront doing their thing. All of a sudden, someone was tugging at the deacon's arm. He looked down, and here was an old man in a wheel chair. The deacon took hold of the old fellow's hand and held it all during the service.

The next month the same thing happened again. The man in the wheel chair came to the service and took the deacon's hand. It happened the next month and the next and the next. But the next month, the old man wasn't there. The deacon inquired about this and was told: "Oh, he's down the hall, the right side, the third door. He's dying, he's unconscious, but if you want to go down and be with him, that's okay."

The deacon went, and there were tubes and wires hanging all over the place. He took the man's hand and prayed that God would receive the old fellow, and bring him safely from this life to the next. As soon as that prayer was finished, the old man squeezed the deacon's hand and he knew he had been heard. He was so moved, tears ran down his cheeks. As the deacon went out of the room, he bumped into a woman. She said: "He's been waiting for you. He told me he didn't want to die until he had a chance to hold Jesus' hand one more time." The deacon was amazed. "What do you mean?" She said, "Well, my father said, €˜Once a month Jesus came to this place, and he would hold my hand for a whole hour. I don't want to die until I have the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.'"

Ah, there it is my friends. To be the hand of Jesus; to protect the most vulnerable; to be where God's people face the most awful of times, that is the real gift and work of Christmas. That is the journey you and I are called to take. That is the reality we are called to be and to build as we are "church" in this place and time, and on the next part of the journey.