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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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Sing We Now of Christmas: For Poor Ornery People Like You and Like I

I Wonder(a sermon for December 28, 2014, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; fourth in a series, based on Matthew 2:13-23 and “I Wonder as I Wander”)

“I wonder as I wander, out under the sky…”

In truth of fact, those words that open our carol for today say a great deal about how this particular song came to be: it’s actually a song that was “collected” by a man by the name of John Jacob Niles, a singer and composer of the classical, operatic tradition; but whose real passion was for folk music, particularly music from the Appalachian Mountains where he was raised.  Niles quite literally spent years, mostly throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, wandering through the hills of that region; traveling from town to town looking for undiscovered folk songs, making sure that those songs got written down or recorded before they or the traditions surrounding them were lost forever.

Probably the most well-known of those songs is the one we’ve just sung; and as the story goes, John Jacob Niles first heard “I Wonder as I Wander” in a backwoods village in rural North Carolina, sung by a little girl dressed in rags and sitting on a park bench.  It was 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, and this was a town mired in the poverty of those times; in fact, Niles wrote later that it was as though the modern world had never even found this place.  Yet it was here and in the solitary voice of a child that he heard perhaps the most beautiful fragment of music he’d ever encountered; and he was immediately moved to walk up to this little girl and ask her to sing it again so he could get the words down on paper and learn the melody.

Of course, this was a young child singing and as was typical, she didn’t know every word of the song; in fact, there was a verse or two she really didn’t know at all!  Clearly it was a Christmas song; simple in form but deeply spiritual, and very thoughtful; but what impressed Niles the most was that not only did this song embrace the wonder of the nativity, it also seemed to linger on the image of the cross and of the sacrifice of a child grown to become a man who willingly died “for poor ornery people like you and like I.”  Niles noted later that this was a song in which “soaring happiness and unparalleled sorrow somehow mingled as one;” and as he heard this little girl singing it, it seemed as though the song had been written for her.

The truth, however, was that the little girl couldn’t even tell Niles where the song had come from; only that she’d heard her mother and her grandmother sing it.  John Jacob Niles spent most of the rest of his life trying to find exactly where that song had come from and to learn the rest of the words; but he never able to find the answer.  So in fact, the song that we sang today is actually made up of the fragments of words and melody that were sung by that little girl, with additions composed by Niles himself: his choral arrangement of this piece is one of the most beautiful and often performed choral works in the world.  Ultimately, however, it’s the message of the song that lingers; this is one of the relatively few Christmas songs that implores us to look beyond the manger, gazing ahead to the real reason for the child’s birth. This is a song that reminds us that though he shouldn’t have had to, this one who was born king of the Jews willingly ran headlong into the kings and kingdoms of our world and faced all the pain and blood and violence of this life; and did so for all of us “poor, ornery people” in the name of love.

And lest we forget, friends; or choose not to see it, this is a truth – a truth of Christmas and a truth of faith – that was revealed early on.

Even if you’re well versed in the whole gospel story, hearing this morning’s reading aloud does have kind of a jarring effect, doesn’t it?  I mean, for weeks now we’ve been immersed in the wonderfully sweet and idyllic details of the story of Christmas:  of the baby Jesus born in the manger, of sheep and shepherds hearing the songs of angels in the sky above them, of wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It’s the image of the crèche that we carry with us and the stuff of just about every Christmas Eve service of worship; and in all honesty, most of the time we leave the nativity at the point when Mary’s pondering, the shepherds are praising God and the wise men are returning home by another road!

The trouble is, it’s also at this point that the story of the birth of Jesus takes a rather grisly turn, one that we tend to forget, and perhaps even want to ignore, in the Christmas season: the part that tells of Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt with the child, along with the so-called “Slaughter of the Innocents,” in which Herod the Great, King of Judea, so threatened by the birth of a baby he feared would eventually seize his throne, dispatches his troops to murder all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem; all of this, as Matthew relates it, being the fulfillment of prophecy.  It’s a hard piece of scripture to hear, and an even harder one to read aloud; as quite literally one moment we’re hearing the beautiful songs of angels in heaven, and the next we’re subjected to the horrible, wailing sounds of mothers who have lost their children in the midst of unspeakable carnage.

Now at this point, it should be said that there are a great many biblical scholars and archeologists who debate whether this event actually took place; and who wonder if perhaps this was something that Matthew added to the story to pull all the prophetic words together; because frankly, there’s just not a lot of historical record regarding all of this.  We do know, however, that Herod was a bloodthirsty king who killed anyone – including members of his family and even at least three of own sons – whom he feared might someday challenge him.  It is said, in fact, that on the day that Herod died about two years later, he’d arranged for a large number of people to be rounded up in Jerusalem and summarily executed; so that even though he knew there’d be no one who would mourn his death, he could die knowing there would be mourning nevertheless.  In other words, Herod was an insanely jealous killer: even the emperor Caesar Augustus knew this, and said of Herod that being a pig in his house was safer than being one of his sons.

So the fact is, this slaughter of babies in Bethlehem would at the time have pretty much been seen as business as usual for Herod the Great, and most do agree that this almost certainly would have been his response to any infant born as “king of the Jews” who would eventually rise to power; and I suppose that’s what makes this part of the nativity story so horrifying and utterly unthinkable, to consider that this massacre of innocents came about as surely as the star’s light rested over the manger.

Which, when you think about it, is kind of the point, isn’t it?

The point is that it did happen, and just that way; and it happened for a reason!  You see, what Matthew does by including this account of Herod’s atrocities is not simply to connect the dots with biblical prophecy, but to offer up a very deliberate reminder of the kind of world into which Jesus was born.  The hard truth is that the brutal face of Herod hangs over the whole Christmas story like a funeral pall.  What we see in this monster of a man Herod is abject cruelty and an utter disregard for human life; which, if you follow the biblical story, is what’s revealed again and again throughout scripture, and truly, in and through all of human history!  What we have here is a very graphic reminder that the Christmas story does not, in fact, end with Mary and Joseph and the little baby Jesus going home to Nazareth to live happily ever after, but that the story merely begins with his birth; it’s the first part of larger story of who God sends this beautiful baby into a broken and merciless world, so that that world could be saved through him.

Admittedly, this is not how you and I would prefer to “wrap up” this story on the Sunday after Christmas, and I dare say it’s not anyone’s real idea of what the angels were proclaiming when they sang about “good news of a great joy that will come to all the people.”  But friends, I’m here to tell you that this morning’s gospel is good news indeed; for what it proclaims is that Christ has come to save us; that Jesus, our Emmanuel has been born in the midst of the real world: our real world.  And as Thomas Long has written, “not even evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as the murderer of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save.”

To save “poor, ornery people like you and like I” was always God’s plan, beloved; it has been God’s purpose for us from the very time of creation: a plan and purpose fulfilled in a beautiful babe born into a shocking and violent world.  Christ was born and, quoting poet Ann Weems now, it happened “even in the face of hatred and warring – no atrocity too terrible to stop it, no Herod strong enough, no hurt deep enough, no curse shocking enough, no disaster shattering enough.”

Of course, our reading this morning ends on a somewhat happier note, with an angel coming to Joseph in Egypt after two years to tell him that since Herod had died, he should return with Mary and Jesus to Israel; though even then, you’ll notice that even then there’s the threat of Herod’s surviving son, Archelaus, and so the holy family ends up in Nazareth so not to call attention to themselves.  Just another reminder that there will always be Herods in this world; but this is why Christ has come, and in truth why even now Christ continues to enter into a world of tyrants and fear and of children consumed by war and poverty.  For it is still in God’s plan, still God’s purpose to give this hurting world LOVE… LOVE in the person of Jesus Christ… LOVE that sacrifices all to reconcile that world to its creator… LOVE for poor ornery people like you and like I.  It is the love of the cross; the very shadow of which is found in the manger, and which can be seen if you’ll only look for it there.

And it’s good news – the best – which needs to be proclaimed!

After speaking last week about roses blooming in the cold and dark of winter, I was reminded of another, similar holiday flower: the bloom on a Christmas cactus, a beautiful little flower that pops up amongst the thorns of a desert cactus, but for only a day or so once a year, or perhaps even only once in a lifetime; talk about a fleeting moment of wonder!  But it’s a flowering, you see, for which to truly rejoice; because even though the day after the flower goes away and the desert sun continues to burn, nonetheless the cactus remains; no less the wonder than it was before, with the richness of its life still dwelling within so it will bloom again.  Beloved, Christmas – true Christmas – is the same way; the true flowering of Christ’s coming goes on even though the season of our celebration is drawing to a close.  Indeed, the greatest beauty and wonder of Christmas is in Christ himself, and in the good news that is ours to receive and to share today as we wander along the varied journeys of our lives.

Yes, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus our Savior did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I… I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”

There is so much wonder for us to behold, friends; may we continue to be filled with this wonder today and into the New Year, so much so that nothing less will do than for us to go tell it on the mountains, over the hills and everywhere!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2014 in Christmas, Jesus, Love, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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