December 25, Christmas Day I:
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
Every Christmas Eve we get to hear Luke’s beautiful, pastoral version of these events…the angels, the shepherds, the little Lord Jesus…
And we miss out on Matthew’s very different story.
Which is not so bucolic. It’s full of dreams and portents, intrigue and political power plays, violence, death, and narrow escapes.
Luke’s version, if read carefully, is much richer and juicer than the idyllic patina that our culture tends to put on it, but Luke’s version often seems more like a Lifetime/Hallmark Channel special; and Matthew’s version is more like HBO.
Matthew’s version focuses on Joseph and a series of dreams.
When he hears about Mary’s pregnancy, he’s about to divorce her quietly to avoid scandal, but an angel appears to him and tells him what is to come about. And Joseph follows.
After the birth, Herod sends the wise men out to gather intel about this prophesy surrounding the Messiah, so he can eliminate the threat to his own rule, but the Magi are also warned in a dream not to return to Herod.
In another dream, Joseph is warned to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt, to become refugees to escape the terror Herod then inflicts.
Terrified of the rumors about the Messiah, Herod—like some 1st century Voldemort—orders the death of all the children under two in and around Bethlehem.
With the Holy family on the run in Egypt, Herod eventually dies, and Joseph is told in a final dream to return to Israel, but to stay away from the new ruler of Judea and to lay low in a town called Nazareth.
It’s not the “happy happy joy joy” “away in a manger” narrative that we’ve come to expect on Christmas. But it’s important, because in many ways it seems more real.
The world we live in still reverberates with these all too familiar images of tyrannical rulers and fleeing refugees—with echoes of Isaiah’s tramping warrior boots, and garments rolled in blood.
2015 was a year of Freddie Gray and Black Lives Matter, of the growth and spread of terrorism in the Mid-East, Africa, Europe, and at home, a year of 353 mass shootings, a year of refugees, and fear-driven rhetoric on the campaign trail.
This is the world we live in…the world of Matthew.
But we also live in Luke’s world, because in the real world children are also born, and loved, and cared for. Refugees are helped off boats and taken in. People speak out against hate and fear. There is hope, and the light does shine in the darkness.
Matthew and Luke remind us that Jesus was born into both of these worlds.
He was born into a world of imperial powers and brutal occupations.
When Herod the Great died in 4 BCE there were uprisings all over the Jewish homeland…
And Rome sent 3 legions—about 18,000 elite troops, accompanied by about 2000 calvary, and 1500 auxiliary infantry into the area, not to simply to put down the rebellions… but to punish the population.
The historian Josephus writes within a few years of when Jesus was born, the town of Sepphoris, about 4 miles from Nazareth was burnt to the ground, and the inhabitants reduced to slavery by these Roman troops…thousands were probably put to the sword, and many more fled. [Borg & Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth]
Jesus was born into a world of tramping warriors…and garments rolled in blood…
That’s the world that is the backdrop to both Luke and Matthew…A world not so different from ours.
And that’s the real blessing of Christmas. That’s the good news of the nativity.
The good news is that God doesn’t wait for things to settle down to show up.
God enters that world—God enters this world—our world…
God dives in…God enters in the midst of chaos….fully and completely…and with astonishing vulnerability…and reminds us that there is another way…a better way…a way of peace, and justice…of love and sacrifice and service.
God enters the chaos fully and begins immediately to work to bring about that change…that redemption…by inviting others into that work…shepherds, a young mother…a not-quite-sure-about-it-all father…the parents of John the baptizer, and John himself…fishermen…tax-collectors…wise-men and disgraced women…sinners…you and me.
God enters our violent world and invites us to take part in God’s work…of bringing peace…offering comfort…providing solace…invites us into the great work of redemption…of reconciliation with all people…with all of creation.
Our world is chaotic and hard and fear-filled…it is still a world of tramping warriors and far too many garments rolled in blood.
And it’s also a world of people reaching out…and crying together…and laughing together…caring for one another…standing up for one another…helping and giving and loving.
We live in both of those worlds…And so does Jesus…
And it’s in this world…this real, broken, dark, damaged, beautiful, radiant, hope-filled world…where we welcome him tonight…welcome him as a child…welcome him as a refugee, welcome him as the Holiest of Innocents…
Welcome him and hear his invitation to enter into his life…to join in his work of redemption…of shining the light and scattering the darkness, of bringing peace and goodwill to all people.
May God bless your hands, your hearts and your lives this season…May you be a light in the darkness. Be a force for good. And may the blessings of Christ, the vulnerable, the incarnate, the Holy One, be upon you, and strengthen you be a light for others this season and always.