Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sermon for Christmas II

St Luke's, Springfield--Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

OK, indulge me for a little while, because we’re going to rehearse some really basic stuff—“Christianity 101” kind of stuff. This sermon will be short and to the point.

First, God made the world. Whether you believe He did it literally in seven 24-hour days, or over millions of years through evolutionary processes, makes no difference. Either way, God made it.

Second, God made human beings to have a special relationship with Him, unique among all creatures. We are made in God’s “image,” which means that we have the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong, to make rational decisions, and—most of all—to love and be loved.

Third, we—meaning all of us collectively and each of us individually—we have screwed up big time. We have wasted the gift of being made in God’s image. We have inherited what is, in effect, a defective gene, one that causes us to put ourselves, our own big egos, in the number one position, where only God should be. As a result, we suffer. We both suffer and we spread suffering. We are both victims of and perpetrators of suffering. We know fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, and disease. In the end, we will all know death. This is the state we are in.

Fourth, God has never had any intention of just letting this situation be. You see, He loves us too much. We are the apple of God’s eye. From the very beginning, God has endeavored to save us from ourselves. The pages of the Old Testament give us the highlights of Divine efforts on our behalf. God entered into an agreement with a Semitic nomad named Abraham. Abraham would become the father of a great nation, a nation through whom the whole human race would be blessed.

Fifth, sinful human pride attempted to thwart God’s saving activity at every turn. We have been like a drowning man who keeps throwing back the life preserver every time it’s offered. The very nation that God formed and chose to be a light to all nations—even the Jews themselves—scorned God. They went whoring after the two-bit deities of their penny-ante neighbors, and forgot the one that brung ‘em to the dance. They weren’t alone, of course, but they, of all peoples, should have known better.

So what do we have? We have a human race that very much needs to be saved, but which apparently does not want to be saved. We persist in our foolish pride, and appear content to be doomed to oblivion, never to have the vision of God’s face which is the only way we get to experience joy, the only thing that can fill the void—the gaping, aching emptiness—in the center of our souls. Now, if any of us were in God’s place, what would we do? I know what I would do. I would give up. I would press “Delete,” and make a fresh start. Those ungrateful wretches don’t deserve my love. I brought them into this world, and I can take ‘em out, and make new ones that won’t be such idiots.

That’s what I would do. But—News Flash!—I’m not God. And we should all be grateful for that. Yes, God is loving and patient and kind, but the really good news on this Second Sunday after Christmas is that God is also amazingly persistent and stubborn! God perseveres.

Think about it. We’ve got the Holy Family—Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus—hanging around the Bethlehem/Jerusalem metro area while Mary gets her strength back from the ordeal of giving birth in a barn. Jesus is, of course, the ultimate weapon in God’s plan to save the human race from itself—to bring us back into harmony with one another, with Him, and with the whole created order. This is the final assault. This is God Himself landing behind enemy lines. Everything hinges on the birth of this child, and his growing to maturity, so he can bring to fruition the plan kept secret for long ages.

At the same time, we’ve got a group—tradition says three, but it could have been more—we’ve got a group of oriental astrologers chasing some strange sign in the sky that’s supposed to indicate the birth of a king. They stop by Jerusalem to pay their respects to the currently reigning king—Herod—who feels immediately threatened by this talk of an infant king being born right under his nose. So, just to be on the safe side, he orders his henchmen out to slit the throat of every little boy in Bethlehem under the age of two. You know, just to be on the safe side.

In the meantime, though, Joseph has a dream. An angel appears to him in the dream and says, “It’s about to get a little hot around here, so you’d better get out of town. Take Mary and Jesus and get on down to Egypt, until I show up again and give you the all-clear signal.” So that’s exactly what Joseph did. He loaded his wife and child back on the family donkey and headed in a southwesterly direction.

The flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is an oft-overlooked detail of the whole familiar Christmas narrative that is stitched together from Matthew and Luke’s gospels. We don’t even deal with it on a Sunday, except in those years when there are two Sundays between Christmas and Epiphany—and even then, we have the option of choosing instead the story of twelve-year old Jesus getting left behind in Jerusalem. Yet, this easily overlooked detail is a wondrously important sign of God’s constant providential perseverance in His plan to save us. A God who was ready to give up on us never would have spoken to Joseph in a dream. A God who was ready to give up on us would not have done a lot of things that God has actually done. It’s quite significant, for instance, that Egypt is the place where the Holy Family is sent for their brief exile. Their own ancestors had once lived in Egypt—first as refugees and honored guests, later as slaves. It was in Egypt that the Lord worked His most impressive wonders, culminating in the parting of the Red Sea for the people of Israel to walk to their freedom on dry land.

Yet, just days later, those who had been so miraculously delivered were grumbling and complaining against God, and this was only a token of things to come. So it is poetically appropriate that the prophet Hosea would pen the lines, “Out of Egypt have I called my son”, and that Matthew would pounce on this text to illuminate the meaning of the Holy Family’s Egyptian sojourn. It’s as if he was trying to ask, “Does this sound like a God who would give up? A God who would throw in the towel? A God who would start from scratch?” No, it doesn’t. Because that’s not the kind of God we have. That’s not the kind of God who made us and loves us. That’s not the kind of God who took our flesh and shared our nature in order that we might share His nature. That’s not the kind of God who appeared to Joseph in a dream. We appropriately praise God for lots of things. But today we praise God for His holy stubbornness, His tenacious refusal to take our “No” for a final answer. God perseveres. Come, let us adore Him. Amen.

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