Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
On Christmas Day, my dear friend Craig sent out a Facebook post about his choice for music as the holiday wound down. He said: “I don’t know enough about religious matters to know if Christmas evening is an appropriate time to listen to Kim André Arnesen’s ‘Magnificat,’ but I am, and it’s just a glorious recording.” Providing a link, he concluded: “Here’s the fourth segment from it. I hope you enjoy it.”
It is a glorious recording. I did enjoy the music—and because Craig’s love and knowledge of music matches that of many here, I recommend the work to all of you.
Of course, because I like to think that I do know a few things about “religious matters,” I replied to Craig’s post, saying that Christmas evening—or just about any time—is an appropriate time to listen to the “Magnificat.”
It is, as you know, part of the Christmas story, this Song of Mary in chapter 1 of the Gospel of Luke. In fact, we heard those words in worship just last Sunday.
Catching a glimpse of the new possibility that God is bringing about, Mary speaks of deep human hope—and deep human fear:
God has shown strength…[and] scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
These words are, as Nancy Rockwell says, “a political manifesto…[showing] evidence of deep thought, strong conviction, and a good deal of political savvy.”
They are strong words. And on Christmas evening, especially this year, we just might need strong words.
We read from Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus not only last Sunday but also on Christmas Eve. As we continue to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation and the meaning of Christmas for our lives, this morning we turn from Luke’s Gospel to Matthew’s.
Now, you know that, generally, I don’t like to mix these two Christmas stories. These two different books—Matthew and Luke—tell two very different stories in order to make two different theological statements. And those distinct affirmations can get muddled or lost when we combine them, as usually happens at Christmas. Luke focuses on, as one person put it, “the meaning of the manger,” while Matthew is interested in “the significance of the star.” In Luke, Joseph and Mary travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem, while in Matthew, Bethlehem seems to be their home.
Luke tells us nothing of the murderous King Herod whom we heard about in the reading from Matthew this morning. But listening, perhaps you could hear a common thread that runs through both Gospels.
Both speak of the danger of Christmas.
Herod seems to sense this danger better than others do.
As Matthew tells the story, after the birth of Jesus, after the Magi had come with their gifts—and we’ll hear that story next Sunday—an angel—a messenger of God—appears to Joseph.
You’re familiar enough with the stories of the Bible—and you’ve heard me say it often enough in sermons—to know that when an angel appears, the message is usually one of encouragement: “Do not be afraid.” Luke’s Gospel tells us that those were the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary. And in Matthew’s Gospel, these are the words an angel speaks to Joseph when he finds out that Mary, to whom he is engaged, is expecting a child. “Do not be afraid.”
The way of those who seek to follow God will be uncertain yet that way is certainly held in God’s care. Do not be afraid.
I love that message and I love preaching on it.
But that is not the message we hear from the angels this morning. That is not the message that comes to Joseph after the birth of Jesus.
Instead Joseph is told: “Get up. Escape.”
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
In recent years many have heard this story of the Flight to Egypt with new ears. They have reimagined Mary and Joseph and Jesus as a family of refugees—fleeing danger, even death, in one country for safety in another.
This morning then, I am reminded of those words from “Home,” a poem by Warsan Shire, the Somali poet, born in Kenya, who lives in London:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
Danger drives our world’s refugee crisis. It is a reality that is ages old. Home in Bethlehem was the mouth of a shark. “So Joseph got up, took mother and child by night, and sought refuge in Egypt.”
With this story, Matthew asserts that the One whose birth we mark at Christmas is seen as a threat by the rich and the powerful. And as such people hold tightly to what they only tenuously have, they become a danger to others.
The global refugee crisis continues. More than 70 million people in the world today have been forcibly displaced from their home, seeking refuge either within their national borders or beyond. Violent political actions all over the world have created waves of refugees and displaced people, unable to return home for fear of their lives.
Some have made their way to Iowa. Over the years our congregation has supported refugees from Vietnam and the Republic of Congo. I don’t need to convince you that one way we live out our faith is by offering such support. And this work is becoming more crucial even as it becomes more dangerous as the voices of power speak loudly against refugees and immigrants.
Tyler Anbinder, a historian at George Washington University, recently wrote that “Over the centuries, nativists [in the United States] have leveled 10 main charges against immigrants: They bring crime; they import poverty; they spread disease; they don’t assimilate; they corrupt our politics; they steal our jobs; they cause our taxes to increase; they’re a security risk; their religion is incompatible with American values; they can never be ‘true Americans.’”
And here’s his point: “No American president before the current one has publicly embraced the entire nativist worldview. This president has made every one of these charges. He has attacked and scapegoated immigrants in ways that previous presidents never have — and in the process, he has spread more fear, resentment and hatred of immigrants than any American in history.[i]
It would have been easy to avoid telling this story this morning. I was free to choose a different text. Or I could have done what many other ministers in many other churches do—either take the day off or simply have the congregation sing a lot of Christmas carols.
It would have been easy—but we don’t usually go for easy here.
So instead we are reminded that the world has changed only slightly since the time of Herod. As one person put it recently: “We live in a world in which political leaders are willing to sacrifice the lives of others on the altar of power. We are forced to recall that this is a world with families on the run, where the weeping of mothers is often not enough to win mercy for their children. More than anything, this story calls upon us to consider the moral cost of the perpetual battle for power in which the poor tend to have the highest casualty rate.”[ii]
This story comes as a bracing dose of reality in the middle of our Christmas celebrations, but I do not tell it to bring despair. I tell it so that we might remember that the good news of Christmas is to be found not in the halls of power, not in the towers of the rich, but among the poor, among those on the run, among those detained on our southern border, among those seeking safe passage through unwelcoming countries. We find hope as we remember that Matthew’s story is summarized when Mary tells of God bringing down the rulers from their thrones and raising up the lowly.
So Esau McCaulley wrote this past week: “This is how the biblical story functioned for my ancestors who gathered in the fields and woods of the antebellum South. They saw in the Christian narrative an account of a God who cared for the enslaved and wanted more for them than the whip and the chain. For them Christianity did not merely serve the disinherited — it was for the disinherited, the “weak things” that shamed the strong.”[iii]
The danger of Christmas leads us to the hope of Christmas.
Having found safety in Egypt, Joseph and Mary and Jesus stay there until the death of Herod. Then an angel appears to Joseph in a dream once more.
The message? It is still not: “Do not be afraid,” as much as I would like it to be.
It is, once again simply: “Get up, take the child and his mother”—and return to Israel.
But the danger is still very real. Herod’s son has succeeded him. New threats replace old ones. And those who live in danger, those threatened by racism, sexism, homophobia, greed, and grasping power continue to be God’s concern and should be our concern as well. We follow the One who was himself threatened as an infant, who sends us out as sheep among wolves, urging us in our thinking and our acting to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
This then is the good news of Christmas. There is danger. And there is darkness. But there is a light shining in the darkness that the darkness does not overcome. Let us live accordingly.