“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
I am really fortunate around Christmas because I only have to buy one present. I am not a good shopper. Sharon takes care of choosing all the gifts we need to give. Sometimes she’ll ask my opinion about option one or two, but if I choose incorrectly, I quickly pick up the signal and change my mind.
So the only gift I need to buy, is for Sharon.
I know a lot of you are not big winter snow fans, but Sharon and I like this small company called Vermont Snowflakes. They produce prints and jewelry based on the photographs of Wilson Bentley who took beautiful pictures of delicate, intricate, individual snowflakes. Every year they send us a gift catalog.
As I thumbed through it, a little bracelet of snowflake charms caught my eye. I called in my order and after about five minutes I was all done with my Christmas shopping. The package arrived. I hid it away. Then on Christmas morning I snuck it into Sharon’s stocking.
We all start opening our presents and Sharon is watching all the homeruns she hit with the gifts she chose for our daughters and me. I ask her when she’s going to open her stocking. She reaches in and pulls out the box, opens it up, looks at the bracelet for a couple of seconds, and then tells me, “Randy, you bought the same bracelet for me three years ago.”
I had one thing to buy for Christmas and I messed it up. Wouldn’t it be great if our Christmases could be as perfect as Jesus’ Christmas? Angel choruses, heavenly stars, fancy gifts brought right to the doorstep like gold, frankincense and myrrh. But Jesus had God on His side. Of course there wouldn’t be anything to spoil Jesus’ Christmas.
But just like Luke went out of his way to make sure we understood that Jesus was born as one of us, Matthew does the same in his own way. He tells us the story of the Magi. They arrive in Jerusalem, the capital city, and ask the king – of all people – where the newborn “king of the Jews” was born. Well, if you’re the king, and a paranoid tyrant of a king at that, you don’t welcome inquiries about some newborn king.
Herod tries to trick the Magi and he tells them that when they discover this newborn king that they should return to him with the news. He wants to go and honour the child, as well. But when the Magi are warned against doing this, Herod, the mad, paranoid tyrant that he was, simply orders all of the boys murdered in Bethlehem two years old and younger. If Herod can’t discover the one newborn king, he’ll just kill all the newborns. Problem solved.
This sadistic tragedy is just as much a part of Jesus’ Christmas story as the angels, stars and Magis’ gifts. Joseph must flee by night with his family. The toddler-Jesus is taken secretly to a foreign land. The Holy Family must seek refuge in Egypt, away from this maniac king.
Even when the king dies, Joseph can’t return to his home in Bethlehem because another Herod is now on the throne, and maybe the son is just as crazy as was the father. Joseph must seek refuge far to the north in a nondescript, common, forgettable village called Nazareth.
Matthew writes to make sure that we know Jesus’ Christmas story was far from idyllic. It’s no fairy tale. Christmas tells of a unique birth, but not one without connection to all of us.
Matthew writes for a people who know the harshness of life and the vagaries of powerful people. Matthew’s readers often find themselves at the mercy of events and people far beyond their control. They suffer in many accidental and even intentional ways. Their lives are hard. Pain and sorrow are not uncommon.
To these people, and to us still today, Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ Christmas, a story that lets us know that from the very beginning Jesus wasn’t protected from the world’s accidental or intentional cruelties, that Jesus faced the same reality as the rest of us must.
I think Matthew’s intention is to bring us closer to Christ, and hopefully to each other by sharing this story. Matthew is trying to stress our shared humanity.
We live at a time of increasing division. Another attack on a Jewish family in the New York City area simply because they are Jewish. Stereotypes are shared loudly. We look past our shared humanity and emphasize what separates us. I don’t think we like this kind of world, but we tolerate it and then it becomes more acceptable, that is unless we choose to act and speak differently.
Jesus escaped by the skin of His teeth when the holy innocents of Bethlehem were targeted with violence because of where they were born. This is not a story about Jesus alone; this is a shared story for too many. People are judged all the time not for who they are, but where they’re from.
Matthew’s Christmas story offers us a choice to tolerate the kind of world where this is practiced or to stand up for Jesus and everyone in similar circumstance.
Christmas is the celebration of God’s coming among us in Jesus, and it’s also the challenge of God coming among us in Jesus. What kind of world do we choose? What will we work toward?
Christmas doesn’t shy away from telling us the harsh reality that even Jesus faced, but Christmas doesn’t accept it as inevitable either. And that’s the challenge for us. Will we tolerate the meanness of the world or will we seek to build something better?
The beautiful words we heard Marcia read from Psalm 148 can be heartfelt, but it’s going to take our choice to make them more than a Sunday morning prayer.
Christmas is about the sanctity of the world and all its people. Sometimes it’s harder to see than other times, but we shouldn’t grow so discouraged as to give up because Jesus didn’t, and Christmas promises that He is with us as us.
May our continuing Christmas prayer be that we look for the good in people and in us, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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