The First Sunday of Christmas (1/1/2017)

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-9 Psalm 148 Hebrews 2:10-18 St. Matthew 2:13-23

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

2:13 Now 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.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and 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.”

16 When 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. 17 Then 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.”

19 When 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.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But 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. 23 There 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.”

St. Matthew 2:13-23, New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Innocents and Innocence

This weekend we turn our attention to a dramatic story about the Holy Family when Jesus was a young child. Two years or so after the birth of Jesus, Magi arrive from the east to honor this newborn King. Herod feigns interest, but he is mostly afraid of losing his throne. The wise men slip out of town without reporting back to Herod (he had asked them to bring back word as to where the new King was born, but they were warned in a dream not to do so), and Joseph, also informed in a dream about Herod’s intent, flees with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

It is a dramatic story, and there are any number of ways to enter into it. We might reflect on the two Josephs (one the father of Jesus, and one the son of Jacob), their dreams and their faithfulness to God. We might reflect on Egypt as a place where God’s people find refuge (the Holy Family: refugees from the murderous intents of King Herod; and ancient Israel: refugees from the ravages of a severe famine). We might reflect on God’s saving action (working through Moses to bring Israel to the Promised Land, and working through Jesus to bring forgiveness and new life to the world).

Yet the middle of the text derails these possibilities. It is quite likely that none of these connections to the Hebrew Bible will even be heard, because of the horrific reaction of King Herod to the possibility that his successor may have been born nearby. The Magi slip away, but Herod soon realizes he has been duped. Acting on a tip from the chief priests and the scribes (that the king should come from the line of David, whose historic hometown is Bethlehem), and information from the Magi (that the star over Bethlehem first appeared about two years earlier), “he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under…”

Jesus is safe, having already been taken to Egypt by his parents. But we find ourselves overwhelmed at the senseless death of these innocent young ones, and the extraordinary pain their families must be experiencing.

On the one hand, we might wish this story didn’t have to come so soon after our Christmas celebration. It was just one week ago, after all, that we gathered at the manger with Mary and Joseph and shepherds and angels, and gazed with wonder at this newborn King. Couldn’t we have stayed with this aspect of the story for a week or two, before the pain and anguish of the world crashes in?

But no. The world does crash in. The birth of the Prince of Peace elicits a murderous response from the King of the Jews. Peace is replaced by terror. Life is replaced by death. God’s will is replaced by humanity’s rebellion.

Yet there is hope. Jesus is well, and will return. Herod will pass away, but God’s presence won’t. Nor will God’s grace. This, after all, is the heart of the Christmas story. No matter how dark the world, the light of Christ will not be extinguished. Not then. Not now. Thanks be to God!

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What do King Herod’s actions tell us about him?
  2. What do Joseph’s actions tell us about him?
  3. How does God work through these two individuals?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What do the ties between Jesus’ story and the Old Testament tell me?
  2. When have I seen someone, like Herod, threatened by the work of God?
  3. How will I stay connected with God’s will and word through my life?