Sunday, December 26, 2010

Out of Egypt

Comments and constructive criticism always appreciated!

Isaiah 63:7-9
I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, "Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely"; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Hebrews 2:10-18
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you." And again, "I will put my trust in him." And again, "Here am I and the children whom God has given me."

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Matthew 2:13-23
Now after they had left, 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 was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t know that it’s quite fair: we’ve just gotten done with Christmas; the presents are opened, the dinner has been eaten, we’ve rested and enjoyed family, watched a television special or two, perhaps, and we’ve reflected on the birth of Jesus, the angels and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and little baby Jesus in the manger…
and all of a sudden, we’re confronted with a horrible drama, a shocking dose of reality, an event church tradition has called “The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.”

To be honest, I approached this reading with some fear. I’d rather spend the Sunday after Christmas talking about the first chapter of the Gospel of John, how “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” How “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Who wants to talk about the murder of infants and toddlers, not just the day after Christmas, but ever?

But, you know, one of the most dangerous things we as Christians can do with Scripture is to keep the parts we like and ignore the rest. At best, we become like Will Farrell’s character in “Talladega Nights,” preferring to pray to, and I quote, “tiny infant Jesus...” or “…little baby Jesus, who's sittin' in his crib watchin the Baby Einstein videos, learnin' 'bout shapes and colors…” or “…8 pounds 6 ounces baby Jesus, new born, not even spoken a word yet.” At worst, we become like that church in Kansas that goes all over the United States picketing the funerals of soldiers, convinced that God hates America.

So we have to deal with this reading, just as we have to deal with all the parts of Scripture which make us uncomfortable or which aren’t clear to us. And in dealing with this particular passage, one thing that becomes clear is that, while it would be nice to rest in a Jesus for whom at least his birth could be held in a protective bubble of spiritual perfection, the Scriptural accounts of the birth and life of Jesus never stray far from the grit and pain and uncertainty of the reality of daily life.

Yes, God transcends reality. God transcends time and circumstance. But God also deals in reality. God is with those of us who on Christmas sat in a warm living room, drinking hot apple cider while the kids opened presents, and God is also with those of us who on Christmas were homeless, trying to survive another cold day in the rain and snow. God is with those of us who on Christmas stuffed shredded wrapping paper in plastic bags and wondered why the kids ignored the shiny toys to play in the boxes, and God is with those of us who spent the day disarming another IED on a dirt road outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. God is with those of us who spend this hour on the day after Christmas in our familiar house of worship, and God is with those of us who, because our churches in Iraq have been bombed and our friends and relatives killed, are living in France, trying to make sense of it all.

God deals in reality, and the reality of human existence is that, to one degree or another, at one time or another, our reality includes uncertainty and pain and suffering. Our reality includes horrors like the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.

Herod, a jealous, power-mad tyrant knows that a prophecy has been fulfilled. Those magi who passed through a while back were supposed to drop back by and tell him where this new King, this pretender to the throne, was living. It would have been a simple process, send a couple of soldiers to the house; kill everyone there, no muss, no fuss. As time passed, though, it became more and more apparent that these Gentile magicians had no intention of living up to their end of the bargain… which meant that, somewhere in or around Bethlehem, there was a child who would someday take his throne from him, and that simply would not do.

Isn’t it an odd twist that the God who came to save us needed to first be saved from Herod?

That part of us which is like Rickey Bobby from “Talladega Nights” might have wanted a “Chuck Norris Jesus” or a “GI Joe Jesus With the Kung-Fu Grip” to step in and take care of Herod, but the sad and stark reality is that this Jesus, this God-with-us, was a baby, a child, and as such he needed protecting.
Like the children of Israel during the long-ago famine, Jesus had to seek refuge in Egypt, out of the jurisdiction and reach of Herod. And like Moses, Jesus had to come out of Egypt when the time was right.

Yet the innocents were still slaughtered, and even today, in parts of the world in the grip of poverty, disease, war or famine, the slaughter continues. I wish I could come up with a nice story or a clever turn of phrase that would make this all sound better, but there isn’t one. God deals in reality. God deals in our reality. Through Jesus, God entered in to our reality. More than that, in Jesus God has chosen a whole new way of living to win us salvation. This new way does not run away from the violence, doesn’t gloss it over, but faces it. Neither does God resort to the old way of doing things, which is to fight force with force. God will not stop the madness by getting caught up in the same madness. We don’t meet Terminator Jesus in the Gospels. No, God gives us a totally new way to live. In Jesus, God stands in the face of violence and continues to love. Love. God has come into the midst of the madness, and through a suffering love has begun to pioneer a new way for us.

If we have this new way, then one has to ask, why is there still violence? It could be that it’s like the joke where an atheist said to a Christian, “If your God is so all-powerful, ask him why he allows killings, starvation and homelessness in the world?” To which the Christian replied: “I would. But I’m afraid he might ask me the same question.”

Reverend Paul J. Nuechterlein’s answer is a little different. He says violence still exists “Because love refuses to violently snuff it out. Love only knows love… When those who stand for the old way of doing things, like Herod… are confronted with this new possibility, they strike out with all that they can muster. But Christ-like love is the power of love that can stand tall in the face of it. And we who are called as disciples are called to follow in this new way of love. Perhaps the best news is that God, in becoming a human being, took on our human nature and has begun to transform it, baptize it, so that we are able to follow in the way of Christ.”

Our second lesson from Hebrews speaks of Jesus' coming into the flesh to save us -- not some angels, but us. Jesus came into the flesh, to share in our life! To be personally and completely identified with the very things which make up our realities.
It says that 'he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might pioneer for us a perfect way of salvation through the sufferings of our human reality.' Not around them, or over them. But through them. Our Hebrews passages concludes, “Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

God knows what our reality is. Not in a way that a distant, uninvolved deity might know – a theoretical, theologically-justifiable and quantifiable, doctrinal kind of knowing. God knows, because God has been here. God has done this. God is with us! And because God has been here, done this, and in the Holy Spirit is still with us, we can face the realities of our day, and, where possible, begin to transform those realities.

I don’t have a whiz-bang sermon conclusion today. I have questions, things to ponder as we begin to move away from Christmas and toward the New Year. As we ponder these questions, perhaps the answers will inform the direction of our discipleship in 2011.

There are areas in our life where we may feel that the armies of Herod have come through, leaving death and destruction. Jesus has been there.
How can that knowledge, and the presence of God-with-us, help us to begin to transform those realities?

When we look to the realities of our day, the suffering around us that doesn’t necessarily touch us, but that we read about in the newspapers or see on TV, how can the knowledge that God is with us, and the power of the Holy Spirit in us, help us to begin to transform those realities?

How is God calling us out of Egypt?

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