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On the Way to the Holy Night: And in His Name All Oppression Shall Cease

(a sermon for December 29, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on Isaiah 63:7-9 and Matthew 2:13-23)

And so… the baby was born.

Speaking as one who’s been there three times, I can say with some assuredness that when you’re a parent awaiting the birth of a child, especially if it’s your first, you tend to be filled with this hopeful, awe-filled and all-encompassing sense of great expectation!  That is to say, everything in your life – and I do mean everything – suddenly becomes about that coming moment when that child comes into your world.  You’re checking out potential baby names, you’re getting a nursery ready, maybe you’re taking childbirth classes, and you’re daily watching and feeling for telltale kicks from within mother’s womb.  But mostly, you wait, and over those seemingly endless weeks and months of waiting you dream: about what it’s going to be like having a baby around the house, for pete’s sake (!); about who that baby’s going to look like or “take after;” and about what she or he will grow up to become.

So much anticipation (!); and yet it can’t even begin to measure up to that ultimately indescribable moment when at last the baby is born, you’re holding it in your arms and you’re quite literally enveloped with all joy and wonder at the miracle of life.

But then, after the baby is born, something else happens… simply put, you become a parent!

You bring this child home and suddenly, your lives have become all about taking care of this living, breathing little bundle – holding it, feeding it, calming it, changing it, cleaning it – and it’s everything, and nothing like you expected it to be (I remember so well that one of the most terrifying moments of my young life up till that point was the first time I gave my first born son his bath)!  I mean, you’re still filled with wonder over this child but now it’s combined with all the concerns that go along with taking care of a newborn.  Moreover, everything that was considered normal in your life radically shifts: mealtimes, sleep patterns, any semblance of time management, and most especially your own personal list of priorities.  You somehow learn how to configure the straps of a baby car seat, you find that you never go anywhere without extra diapers and a change of clothes, and you discover that the baby’s binky/blanky/luvvy/bear is not only your child’s best friend, it’s yours as well!

Mostly, though, after the baby is born you get serious, don’t you?  You start to worry about a great many things: the sound of a cough, the changing in the rhythm of breathing, or the appearance of a rash that puts you on alert and sends you to the pediatrician in the wee hours of the morning.  You become mindful to the point to the point of obsessive about “baby-proofing” every potential danger in your home and every item that ever comes into contact with your child must first be cleaned and sterilized, often more than once.  But while you’re vigilant about everything you can fix you also become acutely aware of all the real world dangers out there you can’t control, from skinned knees and hurt feelings to childhood disease and an ever-threatening and encroaching world. Yet even then you still do everything in your power to protect your child from anything and everything they inevitably will face in life.   And you do it because it’s not about you anymore, it’s all about the baby; it’s always about the baby!  And when it’s your kid in trouble, short of becoming a raving maniac, you’ll do just about anything it takes to keep them safe from harm.

It’s a lot, to be sure, and more than a little unsettling, moving from this blissful state of expectation to an anxious and ever-heightened state of preparedness; but this is what happens, you see, after the baby is born.

Even – and most especially – when the baby is Jesus.

Actually, I would agree with David Lose who says of our gospel text for this morning that “it’s too soon… it comes too soon… [because] after all, we just celebrated Christmas.”  And truly, it was just five nights ago that we were all there at the manger with Mary and Joseph, gazing with adoration at their newborn child: the Christ child, this one for whom we’d waited and watched and prepared for so long. It was an amazing, beautiful and hope-filled night, and who could blame us for wanting to tarry there at the nativity just a little longer; perchance to stand shoulder to shoulder with shepherds, or to kneel with the magi at his cradle even as the angels’ song lingers in our ears.

But sadly, Matthew will have none of that!  For no sooner do those wise men leave “for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12) everything changes.  Suddenly, an evil king – threatened by this child “born king of the Jews” (2:2) – flies off into a jealous, angry, violent rage, innocent children are being slaughtered, women throughout Bethlehem are weeping after the manner of Rachel in ancient prophecy, and the holy family – Mary, Joseph and the Christ child – are forced into the role of refugees, fleeing to Egypt for their very lives.

We’ve said before that Matthew’s version of the nativity story is much more cut and dried than that of Luke, and certainly much more somber in tone. And yet, I dare say that Matthew manages to move us – quite dramatically, in fact – from the anticipation of Advent and the revelry of Christmas to the real world that the Christ Child came to save!   The baby’s been born, that is true, and it is glorious; but the world into which Jesus has been born is one filled with pain and suffering: a world where terrible things happen every day; a world of evil where palaces are often the places of corrupt power; where the righteous cower in fear and the innocents suffer… a world, when you think about it, not all that different from today. Truly, the weeping and wailing so prevalent in this morning’s scripture clashes with the songs of glory love we’ve been singing all throughout this season, but then again, even as we were gathered for our Christmas Eve rituals of worship, song and candlelight we were acutely aware that sadness and suffering was even at that moment in our world rearing its ugly head.  Evil, you see, is a hard and fast reality in a sin-filled, broken world; such was the case at the time of Jesus’ birth, and so it continues now.

For you see, to quote pastor and self-described online “homilist” Bass Mitchell, even though as indicated in this morning’s reading, Herod did die, the fact is, Herod’s spirit lives on, “still haunting every little town of Bethlehem, every city, every nation… for Herod is not just a long dead king, but represents the very real presence of evil in our world, evil that still seeks the destruction of innocents, of goodness, of light…”

“Herod,” Mitchell goes on to say, “is alive and well in the violence and crime that each year does untold harm to children… each time a child is physically and sexually abused… every time hunger and disease claim yet another innocent… Herod lives.”

One thing we need to understand about this horrific story of the slaughter of innocent children in the region around Bethlehem is that it represents a much larger story of evil and of death, and of how the seat of power in the world fights against God’s intention that peace and justice is to rule in the hearts and lives of the people.  It’s a story that’s as old as time; indeed, innocents have been dying since the dawn of history and corrupt power continues to run rampant even unto our own time.

So given that hard core reality of life, friends, how is it, then, that we can be so bold as to sing those words of the carol, “And in His name all oppression shall cease?”

Well, that, dear friends, is where the good news of the gospel enters in; this incredible good news that after the baby was born, the story didn’t end.

For what we find in this passage and throughout the gospel story is that whatever atrocities the Herods of this world might commit, God is ultimately in charge; that whatever discord and evil surrounds us in this life God does provide for our needs.  It’s all there in the story of the Holy Birth and its aftermath: in a dream, God motivated the magi not to return to Herod but depart to their own country by another route.  And it’s an angel of God who not only inspires Joseph to take Mary as his wife and raise the child as his own, but also in that moment of impending danger motivates Joseph to rise up and get them all out of town!  And even after the death of Herod, God continues to lead the family of Jesus to the place where they would be safe, to where Jesus would grow “and become strong, filled with wisdom… and the favor of God,” (Luke 2:40) eventually beginning a public ministry along the Jordan River and the Galilee seaside.  From the very beginning, you see, God had a greater purpose in mind; and not even the evil of this world could vanquish it.  Even many years later, when on a cross, it seemed as though a hurting and hurtful world had finally brought darkness back into the world and defeated all of what was ever good, even then evil could not conquer the Son God, the one whom by dying rose to new life!

God, you see, will not give up; God will not give up on the love he has for his creation, God will not give up on the world as he has envisioned it, and God will not give up on you and me.  In spite of the evil of this world and despite our own burgeoning faithlessness, friends, God is faithful.  It might involve a warning to get up and flee the danger at hand or it might be the clear directive to stand our ground; but God will always seek to guide us to exactly where we need to be, nudging us towards the places of living where we can be of the most use to God’s purpose for us and for the world.  Even as the world and its evil seeks to vanquish our spirit – even in those times when for whatever reason we let it happen – God’s not giving up.  Because with God, it’s always been about us… just like a new parent would do anything to preserve and protect and to love that new baby in her arms… that’s how God embraces us… and that infinite love begins and abides and triumphs… in Jesus.

Our readings for this morning remind us that birth, however joyful, also involves pain; that freedom costs, and that the struggle with that which is evil in our world goes on.  But we are also assured that God has promised to take care of us; that God is a God of love who shows us what love is most about, and does so in the life of Jesus Christ our Lord.  What is it that we read in Isaiah’s prophesy this morning?  “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  It’s that same presence that continues to carry us today.

Alas, our time at the manger is nearly at an end for another year and we go back to the world with all its uncertainty and danger.  But the good news of this Christmastide and always is that we are not left to return to “life as usual” alone, but carried and strengthened by God’s own presence in Jesus, who is truly our Emmanuel; that’s important for each of us to remember as we move forward.  In fact, I would suggest to you this morning that maybe the best thing we can do in this new year – and new decade (!) – ahead is to purposefully open our ears and our hearts to hear those heavenly words of warning and leading that might just be offered us, so that we might claim the power of Jesus Christ himself in order to overcome whatever evil and discord may surround us, and speaking both as persons and as a people, we can rejoice in the assurance that “in his name, all oppression shall cease.”

May you have a happy and blessed new year, my dear friends…

…and may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2019 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Life, Sermon Series

 

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Pay It Forward

christthesaviormanger02(A sermon for December 29, 2013, the 1st Sunday after Christmas, based on Luke 2:22-40 and Colossians 3:12-17)

It’s interesting, you know, that nobody ever wrote a poem or a holiday song that begins with the words, “’Twas the day after Christmas!”

And that’s too bad; because in a way, these days that immediately follow Christmas are as atmospheric as what comes before, just in a different way!  For one thing, the house is quiet and folks are sleeping soundly; after all, children may still be rising early to play with their new Christmas toys, but at least it isn’t happening at four o’clock in the morning!  All the anticipation leading up to December 25 has given way to afterglow: stockings hang empty on the mantle; the dried up tree stands naked in the corner; all the brightly wrapped gifts that once were piled beneath it are now scattered about the house, the wrapping paper bagged up and out with the trash.  And while there might be a few post-holiday get-togethers yet to come, a few belated Christmas cards come in the mail, and some leftover turkey in the fridge, already there are clear signs that life is returning to normal, with all that’s left for this particular Christmas being the memories!

Still, if you’re like me, you’re asking, it doesn’t have to be over, does it?  After all, it’s only a few days after Christmas; there’s still some Christmas vacation left; and hey, on the Christian calendar, we’re less than halfway through the 12 days of Christmas! (Today’s the day for five gold rings, by the way; so you’d best get to Jared’s straightaway; just sayin’!)  So I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to give up on the season just yet!  Surely there’s a little bit more spirit still to savor, a few more moments to linger at the manger before we have to move on: isn’t there a way for us to glean a little bit more meaning from this Christmas?

Well, I’m here this morning to tell you that I think that there is; but interestingly enough, it comes in leaving the manger behind!  And that’s because for you and I as Christians, Christmas is not the place where the journey ends, but in fact where it truly begins!

Admittedly, it’s easy to forget that; given that our thoughts during Christmas are so focused on what is often referred to as “the Holy Family” – Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child – along with the supporting cast of angels, shepherds and wise men!  That’s the story we tell on Christmas Eve; and traditionally, we end that story at the point in Matthew where the wise men have left their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and then choose to “go home by another way.”  Which is fine, except that the doesn’t actually end there; in fact, here is where is just gets going: with the angel the appearing to Joseph and telling him to flee with his family to Egypt; with Herod calling for all the young children in and around Bethlehem to be killed; a tragic piece of biblical history accurately referred to as “the slaughter of the innocents.”

Now, I realize that this is all pretty heavy stuff for Christmas Eve, but it does point up the fact of how much more there is of the nativity story than we usually like to think about.  And for Christmas to have real and lasting meaning, we need to acknowledge that; and go where the story inevitably goes.

The problem with this, of course, is that scripture only gives us scant information about events following Jesus’ birth; aside from his living in exile with Mary and Joseph in Egypt, and that wonderful story from Luke about Jesus being found by his parents in the temple, we actually know very little about Jesus as a young boy.  But we do, thanks to our gospel reading this morning, get a sense of what is to come for Jesus, as well as what awaits the world in which he was born; and this comes in the response to Jesus’ birth coming from two elderly denizens of the temple in Jerusalem.

The first is Simeon, an old man fervent in prayer and wholly nourished in the teachings of scripture; a man “righteous and devout” who had spent his life in the spiritual hope that God would yet deal gently with Israel by sending the long-awaited Messiah. Basically, Simeon’s story can be summed up in one verse; that he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.”  At the time of his life when he might have been content to dwell altogether in the past, Simeon believed that the best was yet to be; and was confident that a new and brighter day for Israel and all of humanity was close at hand.

And so when he saw Mary and Joseph, who had brought the baby Jesus to Jerusalem “to do for him what was customary under the law,” that is, to have him “dedicated” as holy unto the Lord, Simeon immediately knew at long last that hope was fulfilled; and that this child was the Messiah, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.”  And this is what he says to Mary about it: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed;” and then this, no doubt looking square into the eyes wondering eyes of Mary as he says it, “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

It’s a powerful and telling moment; at a point where most parents are consumed with immediate worries where their child is concerned, here’s old Simeon who knows exactly the destiny that awaits this child Jesus; and by extension, that of his parents; and who bluntly declares the joy of it as well as its inevitable heartbreak.

And then there’s Anna, an elderly woman in the temple; who, every day and every night for as long as anybody could remember had worshipped there with fasting and prayer.  When she encounters this “holy” family, she too immediately begins “to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”  Anna, you see, and Simeon along with her, were people with “a forward look,” people “in whom there burned a great hope.” According to a writer named William Quick, they were “persons on tiptoe, [with] the flame of freedom in their souls, the light of knowledge in their eyes, living in hope and expectation that a great day was coming when wrong would be righted… justice would be done, [and] God would reveal his arm and bring salvation to all mankind,” all of this because “the Word became flesh in a baby born in Bethlehem.”

So what we have here in this continuation of the story in Luke is an affirmation:  a proclamation, actually, that Christ is born; and that the Messiah has come!  That much is clear; but the real question here is, can we imagine what lay ahead?

In one sense, of course, we do know what’s ahead, because we know the gospel story; but think for a moment how full of promise and possibility was the future for Anna, for Simeon, or for that matter, for the shepherds and wise men and all of Israel; all because of the birth of this one, special baby!  For them, there was still this incredible story yet to unfold, and a journey to be shared with this child, who as Luke puts it would “[grow] and [become] strong, filled with wisdom;” with “the favor of God… upon him.” And it would be a journey that would inevitably lead to the cross.

That’s the thing, you see; the story of Christmas might start with the promise of light coming into darkness; it might come to its climax with a child born in a stable and angels singing songs in a starlit sky; but eventually it becomes this story of God’s own son bringing redemption and healing to the world; of the “poor having good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5), about the Kingdom of God bursting forth into life and living, and yes, about a night of betrayal and desertion leading to the greatest sacrifice of love that the world will ever know.  The point is that Christmas is about Jesus; but ultimately, it’s about following Jesus.  And if we’re going to follow Jesus, friends, then we’re going to have to go where Jesus goes; and do what Jesus does.

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie from a few years back, “Pay It Forward,” about this boy who has a plan to change the world: basically put, the plan was that each person should do three good deeds for other people, without any expectation of reward or repayment for that act.  The only requirement would be for those people who received the kindnesses should in turn do the same for others, thus “paying it forward.”  The film depicts in a very rich way how goodness and love grows exponentially when one responds to the blessings they’ve received by offering up blessings to others; and although I’m sure the filmmakers never intended to make the movie into a biblical parable, nonetheless it much describes the way we are called to continue Christmas into the new year and making its true meaning last in and through our lives and living.

And don’t misunderstand; whereas joy and singing and gifts and food and celebrations are never a bad thing any given season of the year, we’re not talking about “doing” Christmas over and over again as we do it every December, but rather embracing the Spirit of Christmas – and the ways of Christ – in our lives and living as our gift to one another and the world.  As Paul exhorts the Colossians in the Epistle reading this morning, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other… and above all, clothe yourselves with love,” and of course, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Ultimately, beloved, the best way we can keep Christmas throughout the year is to model ourselves after the man that the baby Jesus grew to become; to “pay it forward” by seeking to embody what God himself came to earth to show us in love and righteousness.

You know, I have to say that as much as I love Christmas, I think I enjoy these days after Christmas almost as much.  For one thing, and I think you’ll understand, that for a pastor and family the pressure’s off a bit and at least one busy season is finally behind us.  And let me just say that Lisa and I have cherished the opportunity we’ve had to spend a few days this week with our family in the afterglow of Christmas!  But even more than this, I love this “Christmastide” because it really is an opportunity to renew ourselves for faith and action; how fitting it is that it comes in the last week of an old year and the very beginning of a new one; at a time there’s this palpable sense that all things are truly brand new and that the future is wide open, so that Christmas, true Christmas, can last throughout the year.

It is true what the poet Howard Thurman has written:

“When the songs of the angels is silent
When the star of the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are again tending their sheep
When the manger is darkened and still
The work of Christmas begins –
            To find the lost
            To heal the broken
            To feed the hungry
            To rebuild the nation
            To bring peace among people
            To befriend the lonely
            To release the prisoner
            To make music in the heart.”
 

May each one of us, beloved, do the work of Christmas today, paying it forward into the New Year and beyond.

And as we do, may our thanks be unto God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Christmas, Discipleship, Jesus, Scripture, Sermon

 

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