Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Angels Hung Around

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9
Matthew 2:13-23

I hope all of you had blessed and love filled Christmas day and are enjoying both leftovers and loved ones in the days that have followed.

Watching Christmas movies with my family, I’ve heard a lot of “this is what Christmas is about” from the characters on screen. Christmas is about truth, about love, about taking a chance, about family. I’ve enjoyed listening to all these statements about what the season is supposed to be, what it’s supposed to inspire in us, because I think they all are speaking to this feeling many of us have, this feeling deep down that Christmas is special and during this season all wonderful things are possible.

We long for Christmas tide to be full of nothing but joy and warmth, moments we can capture on film that we can look back upon when times are challenging and remember the glow of Christmas.

Sometimes we do get Christmases full of glow and love and nothing else. Sometimes we don’t. And even when we have the perfect Christmas, a gentle fresh snow on the ground, all our loved ones together without any of that pesky squabbling, the perfect Christmas ham or turkey or veggie platter that everyone salivates over… Even when we do have this perfect Christmas, you and I know that the feelings of warmth and love don’t last as long as the fruit cake and good tidings don’t ring in our ears all year long.

What happens? The world happens. Too much family togetherness brings up old grudges; those who have trouble feeling close to others are reminded of their isolation during the season that emphasizes kinship; violence erupts even as we worship the Prince of Peace.

The Christmases we experience which turn toward the harshness of the world follows in the unfortunate tradition set by the very first Christmas. Even the first Christmas, accompanied by proclamations from angels, did not usher in an eon of warmth and happiness. The shepherds came and went, as did the wise men, and this child whose birth was lauded by the heavenly chorus finds his life threatened.

Jesus is still a babe who is learning to sit up, eat solid foods, talk, and already the establishment is terrified of him. Herod—determined no king other than him should reign—sends out the troops under his command to eliminate any threat.

Eliminate any threat. As though a child who can’t yet speak is a threat to anything other than a good night’s sleep.

An angel of the Lord sends a message to Joseph to escape. The Holy Family bundles up and get out of Israel and headed toward Egypt. Jesus escaped but there were so many children who did not.

Just like the child Moses who escaped the wrath of Pharaoh when so many other Hebrew children did not, Jesus slips into the night with his mother and father and finds himself in Egypt, the land from which the adult Moses led his people. Just as we celebrate Moses’ journey down the river Nile in a basket, we celebrate Jesus’ escape from Herod’s wrath. How can we, though? How can we celebrate Jesus’ good fortune when so many others suffered?

This is the question we deal with every day. How do we praise God when the little children in this world are suffering? How do we rejoice that some are saved when others are lost?

We celebrate the birth of one child even as we look around and see children facing death – death from hunger, violence, need beyond anything we can comprehend. We see children of God of all ages fighting against the darkness of loneliness, self-doubt, loss of direction, anger, and so much more. Just like in the village of Bethlehem, the Herods of our world are seeking out the innocents for destruction.

This is the hard reality of Christmas, one many of us face in different ways. We want to first find the joy and warmth the season is supposed to bring and then remain in this sacredly serene feeling for the rest of the year. But it never happens that way. We want to praise God for all the good God has done and not be challenged with our praise of the Lord with the truth of evil in this world. But it never happens that way.

Instead of eternal bliss, rather than uncomplicated praise of a god who guarantees only good things to his or her followers, we have this messy and mysterious God who, when we follow, promises something else entirely.

Our Christmas story has been filled with visions and visits from angels. After the Christ-child has been born, the angels hung around, watched after him and his family. We could celebrate this part of the story – the presence of angels – but that isn’t what our text is about, that isn’t what Christmas is about, isn’t what our God is about.

God’s promises are more complicated than visions from angels or perfect happiness – and yet in some ways so much more simple. Isaiah reminds the people of his time and the ages to follow what it is to follow this God, what it is to trust in God’s promises, what and how it is we celebrate Christmas.

“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.”

It was no messenger or angel but God’s presence that saved them.

This—this is what Christmas is about, this is what we celebrate in the midst of the dark of our world.

The story of the massacre of the infants, of the innocents, isn’t just a story of a miraculous escape for Jesus and his family. Jesus escaped death here, yes, but we know what awaits him 30 or so years down the road. This story proclaims to us from the beginning what we will come to know so well throughout his life – Jesus is with us. He is subject to the pain and injustice of this world, he is victim of hatred and prejudice, and through him God is with us in all our suffering, in all things.

It is because of the God we know in the person of Jesus Christ that we can dare to say that even though the infant Jesus was not in Bethlehem when Herod’s soldiers came God was.

Jesus is God with us, Jesus is our salvation, our saving story. Through the person of Christ, God loves us, pities us, redeems us, and lifts us up into to the divine presence.

Through the person of Jesus Christ we know that though the world is not full of bliss, though the glow of Christmas fades and our troubles may seem here to stay, though something as horrific as the murder of these children is proof of the darkness, through Jesus we know our saving story.

Being a follower of Christ isn’t about escaping the clutches of evil… I wish it was. Following Christ can be about that- Jesus wants us to be free from evil, murder, but it’s more complicated.

The promise we have as a Christ follower comes in God’s presence among us – a presence we have known in the person of Jesus Christ and the life-giving and moving Spirit.

Even when our family squabbles, even when we can’t find any more Christmas cheer to light our days and nights, even when the worst we could imagine – beyond what we could imagine – happens, we can take comfort, find our cheer, find our hope in the knowledge that God is with us.

God’s presence gives us hope—hope that things can improve, may improve, will improve, slowly, too slowly to be sure. Hope in something greater than us, hope that what we know and see here and now is not all there is, is not God’s full kingdom, not yet. Hope that once we have departed from this place there is togetherness with God, our salvation, our hope, a togetherness that banishes all tears, all death, all pain.

The Christmas story is full of amazing signs and visions, the glory of God shone through the heavenly chorus singing “Glory to God in the highest!” and the story of Christ’s first days ends in brutality for so many of God’s innocents.

But above all the angels and beyond all the brutality lies the good news - “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.”

Rejoice in cheer, rejoice in sorrow, rejoice that wherever you are, God is with you. Amen.