Matthew T. Phillips

Back to the Grindstone (Matthew 2:13-23)

The First Sunday of Christmas (A)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina

13Now 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.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and 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.”

16When 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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “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.”

19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“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.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But 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. 23There 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.”

Matthew 2:13-23 NRSV

So this is Christmas

Welcome to Christmas. Does that sound a little strange? The world has started shifting back into its normal gears, and Hallmark is preparing Valentine’s Day displays while the Christmas cards nobody wanted are relegated to the clearance table.

Perhaps it’s a little clearer to me this year because the idea of waiting and anticipating was especially present for me during most of Advent, and Christmas came at the end of a unique and very special couple of weeks, including a wedding and honeymoon. On the morning after Christmas, my new wife and I got up, she went to work, and I sat in front of my computer, trying to think of ways to stall from writing a sermon, all the time trying to step carefully around the boxes of textbooks for the new semester on my floor. It was a rude reintroduction back into the world as I knew it before, and it didn’t take long for a feeling of routine to set in.

Maybe the transition seems a little more difficult too because there was something different about Christmas this year. Radio stations started playing Christmas music during Thanksgiving week, with explanations like, “in this troubled time, Lite 102.3 brings you some peace and joy with the sounds of the season.” I struggle with whether that’s a good thing. It seems like there’s no way the day could fulfill all of the expectations this hurting world placed upon it. Maybe it did provide some relief, though. The Bible passages we shared this month all pointed toward the coming of Christ, and like that music on the radio, got us looking ahead instead of backwards. Constant updates about action in Afghanistan that punctuated the news before had trouble getting through that screen of Christmas music. The relief was nice, but it seems to be over. According to the Christian calendar, which never matches up very well with the calendar the rest of the world uses, it is still Christmas, but even here in church the tone of the season isn’t stars and mangers, meek and mild this morning.

The holiday we share

Much of the way we understand Christmas comes from years of tradition, but not necessarily Christian tradition. The world doesn’t like Easter, but it’s the big deal for us. The world does seem to like Christmas, though. When Rich and I met earlier this week, he mentioned how amazing it is that the secular world has embraced a Christian holiday. The themes of peace and joy sound good, and the world co-ops them right into the mainstream.

In fact, Christmas becomes entirely about peace and joy. When we talk about the place of Jesus in the holiday, we use the peace and joy-filled narrative in the gospel of Luke:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…. Mary … great with child… swaddling clothes… manger… no room… in the inn.

Selected from Luke 2:1-7 KJV

We all love that beautiful story, but compared with other things in the life of Jesus, it doesn’t get all that much press.

Christmas is little more than a footnote in the gospels according to Matthew and Mark, and is completely absent in John. One of the keys to reading the bible is reading it a book at a time and only reading the book you’re on. So let’s just read Matthew. Joseph found out Mary was going to have a baby, an angel told him to stay with her. Jesus is born in the second half of one verse at the end of chapter one. No stable, no manger.

But there were wise men. The wise men go to find Jesus by way of Herod, the political king of the Jews. Herod’s not real happy when someone asks him where his replacement, the new king, is being born, so he tries to enlist the wise men as spies. They do find Jesus, but go home a different way. Herod realizes his plan didn’t work out, so just to be sure he gets rid of this appointed king, he kills every male baby in Bethlehem. Warned by an angel, Joseph and Mary escape with their baby, only to come back after the all-clear is sounded, this time headed to Nazareth.

Thrust back into the real world

This part of the story doesn’t get told on Christmas Eve, and I’ve never seen it as part of a Christmas card representation of the wise men, but the violence in the story is not all bad. If Jesus had come into a world where the worst thing that happened was a full hotel, it would be much harder to understand him as part of our world. He didn’t, though. Jesus came into a world where people murder innocent children to preserve their power. Where parents have to flee their homes to protect their families. Not the world of nativity scenes, huh? It’s much more like the world of the evening news.

That comforts me. Even before Jesus could walk by himself, he was surrounded by the kind of stuff that scares us. He didn’t live a sheltered life. Even this world that has started swirling around us more quickly than we can understand is not completely different from the world in which Jesus lived, and he understands it. Strange that violence makes us feel more comfortable and more connected.

Has the world changed any?

I wonder how the wise men felt, though. They came all this way to greet a new king—a new day. They came with reverence, offering the nicest gifts they could find to bring. They didn’t find what they expected. If they had anticipated a baby, I doubt they would have brought jewelry and perfume. They arrived to be greeted by ultimate peace, and I think they were bright enough to understand that this child was more special than any king to date, and they were excited at what he would bring to the world. When they had soaked up as much holiness and wonder as they could, they exited the old barn, and right away had to think of a new way to go home to avoid the evil king Herod.

What a rude awakening. They must have been disappointed to return to the same old stuff just after Christmas, kind of like we are. The world doesn’t look any different, or at least not enough different. What was it that we were so excited about a couple of weeks ago?

More than twelve days

This is where it gets much more important that we identify with the wise men. We get a little distracted during December, but like them, we usually manage to get to the manger on Christmas Eve somehow or another. And being there, whether in worship, literally in a barn somewhere, or simply pausing to recognize in our hearts that the reason for this holiday doesn’t have anything to do with the mall—being there is important, don’t get me wrong—but it’s the day after Christmas, the week after, the month and year after that define how the holiday works for us.

Like the wise men, we find ourselves back in the same old world on December 26th, but it’s not really the same world, is it? Maybe our problem is that Christmas comes every year. The week before last, Heather and I saw a cartoon Christmas special on TV. We missed the beginning, so I’m not sure of the title, but there was an animated ornament who learned about the family tradition of Christmas. Whereas the other ornaments were kind of cranky, he was much more high-spirited, and even introduced himself in a kind of high-pitched voice, “My name is Noel, and I have a happiness.” He represented all of the wonder and joy of the day and the season, and all of the good, positive stuff that we associate with Christmas. After a long spring, summer, and fall in the attic, he got to come down in late December, get put up on the Christmas tree, and enjoy a wonderful week or so before being stuck back in the attic. For some of us, maybe, Christmas has lost that power to inspire. After several years, the children in this TV special had grown up, and one year the ornament didn’t get put up because the man and woman had lost the energy to worry with a tree. The ornament stayed in the attic through the abandonment of the house when the couple moved away, and didn’t see the light again until many years later when a new family brought the old box of ornaments down to supplement theirs on the tree. Our star ornament was the only one that made the cut, alive with his excitement about Christmas again. But he was brittle, and his hook separated from the body of the ornament, and it plummeted to the ground. The spirit of happiness and joy survived the fall, and was never constrained to the attic, or the glass body of the ornament at all for that matter.

The special is a little cheesy, perhaps, much like a lot of the Christmas specials that were on TV and a lot of the songs that got played on the radio this month, but I think something like that needs to happen to us. It isn’t easy to get Christmas right, because you kind of have to get broken in the world’s eyes. You have to quit worrying quite so much about the fuss over the 25th day of December, break out of the routine of it all, and remember the tiny baby on the other side of the world. Past that recognition, you have to be unafraid of sounding a little silly sometimes, which our TV star Christmas ornament definitely did, and you have to allow something of the holy event of Christ’s birth to change you for good. Not just the joy of the thing. You also need to hear the violence of the day; we know that Christ underwent suffering to save us, but we learn in today’s scripture that the children of Bethlehem underwent suffering just so he might live to the ripe old age of one. You need to hear the love of the day: wise men coming from far away to learn of this new and different king, and a mother and her husband abandoning all they know to flee for the safety of their child.

Christmas resists our understanding. I am sure of one thing though: if there’s any happiness associated with the holiday, for us Christians it must be on this side. Eagerness and anticipation color the weeks headed up to the day, but on the day itself, the world changes. We walk away from the manger and back into our routine like the wise men, but like them hopefully, we walk away with the knowledge that the world can’t be quite the same any more. Despite having seen Jesus, there is far more to be understood about him, and the energy and spirit of Christmas can carry us forward into that task. We must wrestle with what this all means and, as the hymn tells us

…our eyes at last shall see him
through his own redeeming love;
for that child so dear and gentle
is our Lord in heaven above
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.

Cecil Frances Alexander, “Once in Royal David’s City”

In the name of the Father, and of the newborn Son, and of the Holy Spirit who guides us in our seeking, Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Father, Son, and Spirit, we come to you in prayer on this sixth day of Christmas, aware of your birth on earth, and seeking your presence with us. Our needs of healing and guidance were known to you before we even knew to voice them, and yet we lift our prayers to you here in your church as you asked us to do, and grateful for the chance to connect with you.

We remember a hurting world in this Christmas season. We talk about the warmth of the holiday, but we know that the cold, stark lives of many in the world are untouched by heat and warm food, to say nothing of the joy of Christmas.

We ask your care also for our community. We know that we are a blessed people, and we ask for you to help us see how we may carry your light to those around us. Take hold of us; like the old and difficult prayer says, we put ourselves fully into your hands. Put us to doing, put us to suffering, let us be employed for you, or laid aside for you, let us be full, let us be empty, let us have all things, let us have nothing. Help us to have faith so that we might with a willing heart give it all to your pleasure and disposal.

We pray for our families. May we see you in our Christmases and indeed in all of our days so that we might recognize the gift that our families and closest friends are to us. As we surrender ourselves to your will, surely we must change. We know that we are not perfect, but sometimes it is the hardest to change with the people who know us the best. As we celebrate the birth of your son on earth, may he also be born in new ways into our homes, that we might have the strength to be as you would have us to be.

And we pray for ourselves. In a world where the television and the internet bring us everything we could want to know, where everything is explained and interpreted for us, Christmas demands something more of us; it demands that we wrestle with the meaning of the arrival of you in flesh on earth, and it demands also our faith. Give us faith, and give us peace, for it is what we need in the deepest parts of our spirit.

We ask all these things and all that we do not know how to put into words in the name of your son Jesus Christ, born to Mary and Joseph, worshipped by the wise men, and whisked away to Egypt to return to Judea years later, to teach radical love and inclusion, and show us the way to pray by saying, “Our father….”