Those still basking in the soft lift and warm embrace of the Holy Night might well be shocked that a mere five days later we are reading this passage from Matthew. If it is not your habit to read the daily office or celebrate the various feast days in your personal devotions, today’s story might seem out of place. It should not. The day after Christmas we celebrate the witness of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Two days after that, Friday this year, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Their sacrifice is noted in today’s reading from Matthew. Herod, enraged that the wise men did not return to tell him where the newborn king of the Jews was to be found, orders that all the males under two years of age be killed. Talk about being in open rebellion against God. Yes, for those engaged a bit more in the life of the Church, the reading makes sense. After all, we need to cover nearly three decades by the time Lent rolls around.
As is so often the case, we need to be reminded that, while here on earth, the mountain top experiences do not last for very long. Worse, the higher the mountain top, the deeper the valley seems when we descend. I suppose we could argue that the Easter experience is a bit higher than the Incarnation experience, but neither achieve their own full significance apart from the other. It seems appropriate then that the accompanying valleys seem all the more deep and dark, does it not? After all, the wonder of the birth of our Savior must be tempered by the way in which we will be saved from sin and death. That Baby over whom we coo will grow to be the Son of Man who dies on the Cross for all our sakes.
I think the readings push us along because of the temptation we might all have to sit in the “stable” and just gaze on the Babe lying in the Manger. It is a wondrous event. God became Man. As the song says, the hopes and fears of all the years were met in Him that night. But our Lord came for a purpose. Our Lord came as part of a plan. He entered a world which rejected HIm. Though it was created through Him, the world failed to recognize His person and His significance. In fact, had not the angels announced and sang His birth, it would have been entirely overlooked. But is not the only aspect of His life often overlooked by those of us who call Him Lord.
I must confess that my wife was way more faithful than I when we first met and were first married. She probably still is, but I like to think that she has smoothed out my edges. One of our early fights about God involved her prayers over tests and papers. Karen prayed about that stuff. I would tell her that God had important things to worry about, things like gravitational forces, peace in the Mideast, death, upon which He needed to focus. I seriously doubted that He cared a whit whether she got an A or an A- or, gasp, a B+ on a test or paper. How shallow and powerless was the God of my own image in those days? Some of you are nodding; you have heard this story and my response to those claims now. God cares deeply about the “small” stuff in our lives. Better still, He is able to keep galaxies and suns and planets in their courses while He helps us face the big and small things in our lives. Let’s face it. If He could not multitask like that, He would not exactly be worthy of our worship, would He? I mean, if He was just like men on earth--unable to multitask--would any woman follow Him?
The reading from today in Matthew might seem a bit aimless: Joseph takes the Holy Family to Egypt, comes home again, and moves to Nazareth. In between, a king kills some babies and toddlers, a long-dead mother cannot stop sobbing, and a new king has ascended a throne. The details of this passage are not likely to become a movie anytime soon. Think, however, of the comfort and joy they should offer both to the believer and to the one who does not yet know the Lord. Our passage begins with a real threat to the Baby Jesus and His parents. Herod will brook no opposition to his throne. In fact, Herod was serious enough about doing away with such threats that he killed two of his own sons! Ever felt like the world was out to get you? Ever felt like you could not really trust others? Ever felt like other people might betray you? You are in good company with our Lord. Ever wonder where you are going to live? Ever wonder how you are going to support your family? Ever wonder if you will ever get to see your family? You are in good company with our Lord and His mother and father.
One of the lessons of our Gospel lesson today is the fact that our Lord truly understands the cares and concerns of our life. He could have remained on His celestial throne and watched us flail impotently at our circumstance, but He chose to come down from heaven and work to redeem us. He became one of us. The mystery of the Incarnation is that God would become human and subject Himself to all the trials and tribulations of our humanity. His story is that He understands our cares and concerns. He understands our fears, our worries, and our doubts not just because He is an interested observer, but because He came and dwelt among us! He has lived facing the same threats and worries as we face daily. Our God is a personal God. He understands what it means to have to move about. Like those in the military and other careers, His family moved about. He understands what it means to pick up and leave one’s family and friends behind and start the process of creating new ones He knows what it means to be persecuted, truly persecuted, because people drove Him from His home. Life is hard. Rachel’s lamentation reminds us of that. And our Lord’s willingness to subject Himself to such a life reminds us of just how personal He really is, and how much He truly loves us.
As Christians, we need to remember that, until His return or until He calls us home, the hurting continues. We know this, but sometimes we forget. Death still stalks us and our loved ones and those in the world with us. People still hunger. People are still suffering from violence. And yet, in those threads of misery come the woven tapestries of God’s healing. I found myself this weekend taking leftovers from Jan’s memorial to battered women and children who really do wonder from where their next meal will come. Here! In the Quad Cities. You and I might think of all that food as leftovers, but those ladies and children saw them as anything but. Coldcuts, casseroles, fruits and veggies -- they were a well-timed feast in their eyes. That is the Lord we serve! That is the God who pitched His tent and dwelt among us! That is the God who is in the process of redeeming all things in His well-beloved Son! That is the purpose of the Baby whose birth we celebrated this past Tuesday night. He came that we might become His priests, His glory. Thankfully and mercifully, He has worked in His Church something beautiful and glorious. Now get back to work! The world needs to hear the message of hope He has planted in your heart! The world needs to know that He came that they might have life, and have it abundantly!