Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas January 3, 2016 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Do our experiences make us who we are, or is our nature fixed before we are even born? Are we products of the currents of history or the forces at work in the present? With Matthew, you don’t have to choose! He’s got all the bases covered. Which makes sense, since he believed that God created all those things anyway, so when God is operating in the world, we should expect that to involve crossing human boundaries and defying worldly expectations.
The most obvious human boundary in today’s Gospel is the border between the Roman provinces of Judaea and Egypt. Crossing it the first time was an act of justified fear. Herod killed members of his own family, so when yours caught his attention, holy or not, you got out of Dodge while you still could.
The geographical border also constituted a religious, ethnic, and cultural one. The Holy Family was leaving their extended family to take refuge among people who looked different, spoke a foreign language, and practiced a religion which their own condemned. That these people showed them hospitality while their own people wished them death was an irony surely not lost on Jesus, Mary, Joseph, or Matthew.
Maybe Matthew made the whole thing up to make theological points. It’s true that Matthew wrote with an agenda of highlighting the connections between Jesus and Jewish history, tradition, and prophecy, and in a few short verses he makes profound and fascinating parallels between Mary and Miriam, the spiritual champion of the Exodus who also famously broke into song, praising God for mighty acts of salvation and justice. Between Joseph and the Joseph of Genesis, who also led the people of God into safety in Egypt. Even between Jesus and Joshua, the leader of a new generation whose deep faith and perfect obedience to God made him worthy to bring the people into the long-promised new life with God.
It’s also true that while there is little evidence beyond scripture to support the historicity of this story, there is abundant evidence that denying the historicity of Gospel stories is a cheap way to get television airtime and book deals, especially when you are someone who should know better. I don’t mean to demonize the skeptics, just to express my frustration at disingenuous arguments from ignorance. What is clear from objective academic study is that the books we call Gospels were written within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, and the writers sought out, considered, and recorded stories from, and for, the people who knew him best. Other people who also knew, loved, and followed Jesus accepted some of those books as, well, Gospel, but rejected competing books because they didn’t sound like the Jesus they knew. And don’t you just hate it when people try to sell you lies about someone you care about. The Gospels are deeply human stories, both internally and in the story of their writing and acceptance.
And this story certainly sounds like the Jesus we know. It sounds like a family story that Jesus’s parents would have told and retold, a very Jewish story of keeping faith and hope and identity alive despite losing everything and becoming a refugee, an alien, an outcast. Maybe that family story shaped and enlivened his entire ministry, giving strength in the face of conflict, giving personal weight to the commands to serve the poor and outcast. Maybe when Jesus said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” he meant it in a sharply personal sense. Maybe this story is the incarnation told all over again, experience meeting love as humanity meets divinity in Jesus.
Being a Christian is all about meeting experience with love. Loving God, loving our neighbors, loving our enemies. Loving your enemies isn’t just an act of obedience to Jesus, it’s also worth the trouble because when you manage the feat, it robs your enemies of power. Understanding that someone is lashing out because of their own inner turmoil, their own fear, anger, disappointment, or frustration, and not because you’re wicked or a failure, is a great relief. It doesn’t make the other person’s behavior okay, or relieve them of responsibility, but it does prevent your reaction from damaging your soul and can sometimes lay the groundwork for reconciliation.
And don’t get me wrong, when Herod has it in for you, run first; try to understand later. But that’s rare. And God is still operating in the world, helping us cross boundaries and improve upon our cynical expectations. Like the Holy Family found refuge in Egypt, you might find that people who don’t seem to have much in common with you are actually good people, deep down, and they may show you great hospitality if you make an effort to connect with them. Like the Egyptians welcomed the Holy Family, someone who intrudes in your life may be coming from a very difficult or dangerous place and, again, may be worth welcoming and getting to know.
Following Christ makes him take on flesh all over again in our own hearts. It brings him into the world all over again. If I had to work in a year-round Christmas shop I would go crazy in fifteen minutes, but I’m all for trying to live in the Christmas spirit in this way all the time.