Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
December 28, 2008
We stand with eyes toward the east,
awaiting the rising of the star,
and pray that love shall become flesh
and dwell among us;
and that compassion shall be born in human hearts.
We celebrate the discovery of fact
in the garment of legend.
Let every cradle be visited by the three
good monarchs of Faith, Hope, and Love.
Then Christmas is with us always,
and every birth is the birth of God among us,
and every child is the Christ Child,
and every song is the song of angels.
To celebrate Christmas is to attest
the power of love to remake humankind.
May we be renewed in the love which can save the world.
- Edward Ericson
Well, it’s a funny kind of day, liturgically speaking. Jesus has been born. The angels have quieted down. Shepherds have gone back to their shepherding. Matthew’s kings recently began their trip, watching a star, and Herod hasn’t yet delivered his violent edict. It’s a little like the week between Christmas day and New Year’s day, the celebrating not quite over yet, decorations still around, a few cookies left. By next Sunday we will have begun to reenter the world of work and taxes and cleaning and putting away this and that. Mathew’s kings will be close to the stable, Herod will be gearing up, and Mary and Jesus will be about the work of raising a baby, either in Egypt or Nazareth, depending on which version you read, Luke or Matthew.
Both Matthew and Luke, in telling the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, used ominous examples to describe the powers of darkness that had taken hold in Israel. From Matthew we learn that Herod’s rage and jealous paranoia drove him to kill all the children of Israel under the age of two so that he could be sure to destroy the one child who would end his reign of terror. But Joseph had dreamed of this threat and escaped into Egypt to protect the baby and his mother. There is no historical account anywhere of such a slaughter of innocents - no evidence that such a terrible thing ever occurred. But Matthew’s story foreshadows what we know to be true - innocents die when powers and principalities are threatened.
Luke’s version of the story is no less disturbing. We know of the angels who sang with joy and the shepherds who ran to the stable and we know Mary pondered the enigmatic events in her heart. But what is less familiar to us is Luke’s undercurrent of how this messiah would completely overturn the system of oppression that had taken hold in that region in that time. The mighty will be made low and the prisoners will be freed from the jails of poverty. God will trample weapons underfoot and the weary will find rest and the weak strength. And at last, the old guardians may depart in peace. Which is what Simeon wanted to do. He had waited for the Messiah and at last, upon seeing the baby Mary and Joseph brought to the temple, at last, his eyes had seen the salvation God had prepared through this child, and he could die in peace.
Matthew told a story rich in symbolism, woven to illustrate the points Matthew believed to be most important about the arrival of the Messiah. Luke’s version brings us strong images of injustice being overturned and justice coming from the least likely places, power found in humility, poetic images of just how, exactly, the mighty will be brought low by the presence of this remarkable human being. Matthew had a strong interest in demonstrating Jesus’ genealogical link to David’s kingdom by repeating Israel’s history in the movement in and out of Egypt. He painted a vivid portrait of a vicious monarchy, Herod’s, being threatened by the monarchy whose arrival was considerably less violent and more gracious. Luke described the new monarchy as being the means to bringing back justice to a people who had been living with injustice for a long time.
Human experience as described by Luke and Matthew is subject to interpretation, just as human experience is today. Our fears or desires influence how we interpret experience in powerful ways. We can be easily misled by the smallest of things, “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”, so Scrooge warns. We can convince ourselves into believing almost anything, driven by the powerful forces of self-justification, embarrassment, greed, or fear, longing, despair, hope. Scripture is filled with stories of human experience as it encounters the divine presence and all of it is subject to interpretation. Over and over the Bible describes the clashes of will between God’s children and God. There are moments of clear understanding with unmistakable communications directly delivered. But there are also moments of veiled communications from which faithful people must draw their own conclusions and plans for behavior and action.
For example, Simeon, old, righteous Simeon. I think of his hanging on to life until he could see the Messiah with his own eyes. I think of his daily trips to the temple in expectation and hope. I wonder how soon after he saw the baby Jesus he actually died. I wonder at his words to the little family, foreboding words about what this child would bring to light. I wonder if he foresaw that the baby Jesus would grow to confront oppression and poverty and smugness and self-righteousness and violence and blood-shed and that in so doing, he would himself be put to death in violence in a futile attempt to contain the will of God. Simeon believed he saw God’s salvation when he laid eyes on the baby Jesus. He looked for a king and when he saw Jesus, he saw one. Did he realize God’s salvation would not bring peace? Did he know that the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart would pierce the hearts of thousands upon thousands of soldiers and civilians, perpetrators of violence and innocents alike? How could he now depart in peace when he foresaw that this child, this incarnation of God would be so violently opposed, challenged, and eventually murdered? And, worst of all, appropriated by a culture craving emotion without the work of interpretation.
So many Christmas celebrations later, so many holy nights and telling the story of the manger and the shepherds and the star and the magi, so many children dedicated, so many protective parents, so many frightened despots, so many innocents lost, so many soldiers, so many wounds, so many prayers, so many pleas to God in heaven, “now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation”. So much looking for a king to do the work for us.
Well, the happy dawn has come and gone and “we stand with eyes toward the east, awaiting the rising of the star, and pray that love shall become flesh and dwell among us; and that compassion shall be born in human hearts.” May it come to us, this love. Amen.