Sunday, December 29, 2019
First Sunday of Christmas, Year A
Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 63:7-9 Israel saved by God’s own presence
Hebrews 2:10-18 Christ shares flesh and blood to free humankind
Matthew 2:13-23 The slaughter of innocent children
Title: Usurping the Tyrant Within
On the fifth day of Christmas the lectionary gave to us, a bummer of a gospel reading. Wow, talk about knocking us right off our Christmas joy-filled high. If you had one. If you didn’t, maybe you’re happy for the company you are getting with the help of this gospel that describes what we often call the Slaughter of the Innocents. As King Herod, threatened by the news from the searching magi that a new king for the Jews has been born, the tyrant orders the slaying of all the boys of Bethlehem who are two and under. In the midst of our Christmas celebrations, this stands as a reminder (as if we needed one) of the kind of world that God has sent the Son into. Also, a reminder of just how much saving this world of sin needs.
All twisted Christmas Carols aside, our hearts break as we hear this story that is filled with pain and fear, violence and sense-less killing. Jesus, of course is spared, but in the end, he will not be. There will come a day when the hate and tyranny of the world will catch up with him and he, innocent though he may be, will also be killed.
Matthew knows that this is an on-going struggle between Creator and creature. It is not lost on him that another deliverer was saved from a mass killing of infant boys. Perhaps you remember the story. During the time that the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, a prophesy was shared with Pharaoh that a baby was to be born who would lead the slaves into freedom. To stop this from being fulfilled, Pharaoh ordered all baby boys to be killed at birth. But Moses was spared and set afloat in the waters of the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the child and raises him as her own. And we know (because we’ve all seen the movie), Moses did lead God’s people into freedom. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses. Later, as Jesus takes to the Mount to offer his Sermon, it is an echo of Moses climbing Mount Sinai to receive the law. Highlighting the links to the past, Matthew again and again shows that there is continuance in God’s saving actions. And yet, in Jesus – who is Immanuel, God with us, the Incarnate Word of God – there is the ultimate deliverer – saving us from slavery to sin and from death, and there is the ultimate law giver who calls us to a law based in love, grounded in God’s love revealed in Jesus, and calling us to love of one another, even enemies, and love ourselves.
But just as God’s saving work continues, so tyrants will continue to plague and persecute, oppress and obliterate, but God will continue to work through the powerless – babies and simple peasants – to shame those who think themselves all-powerful.
Perhaps this slaughter of the innocents – a familiar story to some – has some extra bite this year. After all, there seems to be a rise in tyrants around the world these days. Real tyrants and wanna-be tyrants. And the innocents continue to suffer at their hands. An innocent reporter is killed when he enters his own country’s embassy. Innocents by the thousands are killed by the spread of terrorizing hordes. Bombers continue to target innocent victims. (Another horrible incident in Mogadishu yesterday.) Innocents caught between warring factions are killed. Innocent children die in the custody of our own government. Children suffer separation from their parents. And of course, how many innocents have died – in schools, synagogues, churches, malls, night clubs – all in the name of freedom to bear arms? We can add to our list the suffering that occurs when an innocent is subjected to therapy that will work to deny them their identity – essentially killing them.
It would be very easy, in the current climate, to turn this day into finger pointing at those tyrants who do these things or order their minions to take these actions, wherever they may be, whoever they may be. Easy to threaten them with the wrath of God. Easy to feel superior to them for not succumbing to the dark side as they have. Easy to turn this into just another us/them divide that are so rampant in these days of division.
And while it might be enough of a takeaway from today, from this story of Herod trying to rub out Jesus, to be reassured that God wins in the end. And that though Jesus suffers as we do: is a refugee, must live in a foreign land, must run from tyrants; he still comes through for us, save us. Yes, that could be enough to reassure our hope in the one that is victorious, even over death.
But, I think there is more to be gained here. To be learned and to be lived from this day of tyrants trying to spoil our Christmas.
For just as we believe that all have sinned and fall short of the grace of God. (No point in playing that – “well, at lease I’m not as bad as Herod game.”) We all have sinned and fall short. And we know that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. So, we must admit the truth about ourselves. I’ll do it for myself. You can for yourself. I’ve got some Herod in me and it must be dealt with. It would be nice and so easy to keep Herod at an arm’s length two thousand years long. And it would be safe and so satisfying to self-righteously condemn him and all those other life-stealing tyrants who fill our news, those who do things that I would never do. But I can’t. I can’t do that as a child of God and disciple of Jesus.
Luther spoke of the Old Adam in us all: that sinful part of us that must, by the grace of God, daily die so that Christ might live in us. But I think, in our American context, in this country of a seemingly autonomous citizenry, where each individual glories in the God-given inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we might do well to see that in our self-ruling, too often our Herod teams up with our Adam. It is not only creature that rebels against Creator, but earthly king competes against heavenly king. For I must admit that there are times that I want to prevent the newborn king from taking his rightful throne – that being my heart. There are times that my inner Herod, feeling threatened by this loving messiah, pay little regard for the wellbeing of the innocents. And there will be plenty of times in this New Year ahead when the tyrant will rear his ugly head and tell me that I won’t be satisfied if I follow the rule of Jesus. Think of what Matthew has in store for us as we focus on his gospel this year: turning cheeks and walking second miles, cutting off offending hands and plucking out eyes, seeing Jesus in the face of the least of these, the homeless and the refugee, joining them in their suffering. That’s hard, even painful. My inner Herod would have quite the different approach in all these situations.
But let us be warned: for remember that Herod rules from fear and fails. In the end, his slaughter of the Bethlehem babes did not satisfy him. He was not successful in defeating the one he perceived as enemy. But Jesus, the homeless and refugee king who did not come to fight Herod, nor Pilate, not religious leaders, wins the battle he came to fight. He defeats that ultimate tyrant- the one who had the power of death, who held our lives in slavery by the fear of death. And in that defeat of death, we are most completely satisfied. As Isaiah proclaims: “He became our savior in all our distress.”
In the days ahead, in this new year, as we face the tyrants– both internal and external, who will seek to exert their ruthless rule and call us to fear instead of to faith, and who will work to entice us with earthly palaces and decadent feasts, let us look to the babe of Bethlehem, the new born king, who has no need of earthly home or army or even grave, and who rules with mercy and love and satisfies us with his own life in word and sacrament. Again and again, come back to the manger, to these days of Christmas, that he might be born anew each and every day, by the grace of God taking his rightful throne and displacing the Herod in each of us, that we might, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be truly satisfied. Lest those tyrants keep us from experiencing the joy in life; even the fullest of joys that comes to us in the birth of our savior Jesus.
Allow me to suggest a prayer to draw us off our throne and bring us back, kneeling in the stable. It is found in one of the carols that we sang the other night. Please join me now by turning to hymn 279, and let us pray together using the words of the fourth stanza:
Oh, holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel! Amen
The Rev. Mark Erson,