First Sunday after Christmas

First Sunday after Christmas Series A

December 26, 2010 St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran

Keith Olstad

The texts:

Sermon: Isaiah 63:7-9 NRSV

Psalm 148 ELW

The second lesson: Hebrews 2:10-18 NRSV

The Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23 NRSV

The children’s lesson:

Good morning. I’m so glad that you’re here. Did you have a good time celebrating Christmas?

Has anyone ever said they wanted to wear something just like you have, or do something just the way you do it? Has anyone said they want be able to throw a ball the way you do or yell as loud as you do? What have people said they like about something you do, or wear?

How about the rest of you? Has anyone said anything like that to you?

Do you know that someone is saying that to you this week? Today God is saying to you, NAME, and NAME, and NAME, I want to be like you for awhile. I want to live the way you live, to play games and have friends and eat the same food and live in a house or apartment just like you do. I want to think what you think, and feel lonely, and happy, and mad, and confused, just like you do at times.

That’s why God was born among us as Jesus. God loves you so much, loves each of you, that God wants to live just like you live, so that God can know all about your life, and love you all the better.

Next time someone asks you whether anyone admires you, and wants to be the way you are, you can at least say that God does, because at Christmas God came to live just like you.

The sermon:

Dear friends, grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and from our loving Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christmas is a wonderful time for stories, especially for light, uplifting stories. So Libby and I popped a DVD in the player and kicked back for a good, light story.

The movie involves crooks planning an impossible heist. The thieves are quirky types, but eminently likable—even as thieves. Their dialogue is witty, their planning is ingenious, and they are daring beyond belief. The movie’s star-crossed ending turns everything around: the bad guys are good and the good guys are bad. It left me smiling. It was supposed to. On screen all the right characters were happy, the movie was well done, and we were well entertained.

Then we took a quick, late night run for groceries. The night was cold and dark. The roads were crowded with aggressive drivers. No one in the grocery store seemed anywhere near as beautiful or as rich as the people in the movie. None of them, I noticed, seemed particularly happy.

The movie, you see, was simply a story. It was a “once-upon-a-time….” story that ended the way fairy tales almost always end. The fairy tale ending was cute and happy. But it’s not the way my life goes, and it’s not the way your life goes.

Our lives, after all, are not fairy tales. We face too much disappointment, too much hard work with too little reward, and too much pain and sorrow. Our lives trudge on with too much common, ordinary humanity, broken by too much dramatic human tragedy, too much meanness, abusiveness, and failure. Our lives are not fairy tales!

And neither, our texts this morning tell us, is the story of Jesus. The story of the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior and Redeemer, is no fairy tale.

Oh, it begins with fairy tale qualities. A poor young woman almost loses her man when she gets mysteriously pregnant before they ever make love. But he is a gracious, sensitive type—though himself quite poor—and he keeps her. At the end of her pregnancy they have to travel to Bethlehem. She gives birth to the baby in the stench of a stable, and lays him in a filthy manger. Just the same, the stars shine especially brightly that night, the skies fill with angels singing heavenly choruses, and shepherds come to admire to the child.

While it is not exactly a rags-to-riches story—you might say that it’s more a dirty-rags-to-slightly-cleaner-rags story—it does have fairy tale tones to it. But then when wise men from the east come to visit and give the baby gold, incense and myhhr, the rags-to-riches tones get stronger. The story is becoming wonderfully sweet and sentimental, a fairy tale to bring a smile to your face and a tear of happiness to your eye!

And then it happens. This morning, it happens.

The wise men decide to return home without telling Herod where the baby is. Herod, panicked and jealous, ruthlessly grasps the power of his office. He orders all baby boys in the region killed, just as Pharaoh had once done when Moses was born. So soldiers take up their grisly swords and march into the hovels and shacks around Bethlehem to slaughter innocent children. Wantonly soldiers wrench babies from their mothers’ arms, murdering them in plain view of brothers and sisters, devastating family after family. The mourning wails of grieving families waft for weeks over the despairing hills.

Let us be clear: this is no fairy tale. There is nothing rosy here; there is no swell of orchestral music, no golden hues in a fading sunset. Any tears in our eyes ought to be tears of profound sorrow, accompanied by wails that evolve heart-shattered grief into profound rage. Why must innocent children die? Why must innocent children die?

But Jesus is spared, someone may say. Our Savior, the Messiah, escapes to Egypt because his faithful father heeds the warning of the angel. So the holy family survives. Can’t we just settle for that? Can’t we let the story stay a simple story? Do we have to dash the beauty of the moment in the blood of vile deceit and murder?

Yes, Jesus is spared to grow into adulthood, a luxury the innocent children of Ramah are denied. Then in the prime of his life Jesus is brought to trial under false charges. He is tortured and abused in ways we can barely imagine. Then he is executed in the most hideous manner then known to humanity. Like the children of Bethlehem, he too dies innocent of any crime, only he is abject and emaciated on a cruel tree.

No, this story cannot be—will not let itself be—a fairy tale. It will not allow us to ignore the brutal reality of its cruel edges. The story will not let itself be reduced to fantasy. It is too cruel, too real to be fiction.

So, someone asks, is that why the children die: to keep a story from being too sweet? Matthew even suggests that the deaths fulfill prophecies from old. Is that why the children die? No, the children do not die to prove a point or fulfill anything. Their deaths are utterly pointless. Nor do they die because of Jesus’ birth, or even because of Joseph’s obedience to the angel. They would have died even if Joseph had ignored the angel.

The children of Ramah, the holy innocents, die because of how powerful men respond to news about a new reign of peace and justice for all people. The children are slaughtered because of how humans respond when God acts. It is an age-old story. Innocent children have been dying since humans began recording history. The death of these children around Bethlehem is simply an episode in a much longer tale of abuse and death for children.

And that is why Jesus had to die. In order to live with the children, God had to submit to what children experience. In order to laugh with children and play with children—in order to experience the delight in life that children experience—God had to become vulnerable like a child. Truly vulnerable.

God did become vulnerable. God became a child. God experienced birth just as you once did. God grew awkwardly through childhood, just as you have done. God moved into the confusion and distress of the world, just as you do. God knows about terrorism and atrocities. God knows about transitions in power, abusive government and insensitive leaders. God knows about faltering economies and struggling environments. And when God needed to face death, even a horrendous death, God remained with us, like us, one of us.

It is no fairy tale. It is no mere story. It is as real as you are, and as your neighbor, and as your world. God truly has come among us, Emmanuel.

So be it. Amen.