Second Sunday after Christmas – January 5, 2020 – Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 – Trinity, Winchester
Paraphrasing Charles Dickens’s famous first line, it is fitting to say, “The wise men had left, to begin with.” Today’s Gospel tells us of the events following the departure of the Magi.
This might seem odd seeing as how tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany. That’s when we celebrate the coming of the Magi, “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles,” as it were. But today, on the Second Sunday after Christmas, we have chosen—one of three options—to read Matthew’s account of what happens after they depart.
Sometimes we get a bit out of order; that’s fine. The underlying—and everlasting—truth remains the same. And so Matthew tells it: an angel appears to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and Mary, and flee to Egypt. Remain there until further notice. King Herod is searching for the child so that he can kill him.”
So Joseph takes his family to Egypt by night, and there they wait until the angel again appears to Joseph saying, “Get up and take the child and his mother to the land of Israel. Those who were seeking to kill the child are dead.”
So Joseph takes Jesus and Mary toward Israel, but he is frightened to learn that Herod’s son is ruling there, so they go instead, at the Lord’s instruction, to Nazareth in Galilee.
By his own admission, Matthew includes this information in his Gospel account to validate the biblical prophecy that calls both for the Messiah to come “out of Egypt” and to be “a Nazorean.”
It does far more than that for us today. This morning we are arrested by the story’s striking violence. (Violence which the lectionary people have edited out.) A king is killing children in order to find the one child about whom it has been said, “He has been born King of the Jews.” This tale of violent human desperation seems to undermine the divine message of Christmas.
Today’s collect tells us that God became human in order to wonderfully restore the dignity of the human race he created. By virtue of the miraculous incarnation we share in the divine life. As we said on Christmas Eve, such a heavenly gift can seem to be at odds with the human wickedness apparent in Herod’s response.
On the one hand, we are emboldened by God’s grace. We share in his divine life by virtue of the fact that he sent his only Son to become one of us. On the other, we are saddened by depraved human response. A black-hearted despot seeks to take the life of the One who gives us that promise.
There is indeed a tension, a peculiarity, a confusion about all of this. However, it’s not that surprising that we should end up feeling some uncertainty about the events surrounding God’s drawing near.
How else are we to experience it? With perfect clarity? I dare say it would make even less sense if it all made perfect sense! We do not—we cannot—all of the sudden understand the miraculous ways of God.
Matthew’s account of these events reveals this good news: even in the dark, violent reality of the human story—a reality in which rulers do all that they can to cling to power—God chooses to become one of us, to give us all a glimpse of true salvation.
What’s more, God will never let us go. In the miracle of the incarnation God became human so that even in our humanity we may be made like God, at least, insofar as we can be in this life.
The Apostle Paul says it this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
God has adopted us all by grace in Jesus Christ. That has been made clear in the incarnation. Good Christian friends, rejoice! There is no greater gift. You didn’t have to do anything to earn it. In fact, there is nothing that you could do to earn it, but God gives you this gift anyway.
Alas, even in our joy we must admit that there is perhaps one problem with the gift. Not God’s problem, but ours. This adoption that God has designed for us through Jesus is not ours alone, but everyone’s. That, too, can be hard to reconcile.
That means Jews, but it also means Gentiles. Those who keep the law, and those who don’t. That means the free, but it also means the slaves. Those who can do what they want, and those who can only do what they have to do. And that means you, but it also means Herod. Those who gather in the promise of grace and love, and those who summon violence and brutality out of fear.
How do we deal with the fact that the gift of grace is available to all? I think the answer to that has a lot to do with understanding the true nature of being human, which God understood completely through the incarnation.
Imagine that you have been as evil as Herod. You’ve not killed innocent children, but perhaps you’ve misbehaved in other ways, even metaphorically, in your heart or mind.
The scandalous message of the incarnation is that God loves all of us, even the worst of us. Could there be anyone worse than Herod? It’s hard to imagine that. Could there be any just as bad? Yes. Indeed, human history is littered with them.
Even though we may want revenge on such dastardly people, God does not. Instead of revenge, God desires redemption, the redemption of everyone. No matter what, God will always love you.
The Herods of this world continue to break God’s heart just as they have for millennia, but each time they infect this earth with their evil, God finds a new antidote for redemption. Even in the worst of times, God still triumphs.
Up until this point I’ve been making my case using Matthew’s gospel account, but to sum it up I want to turn to Luke. In chapter six verse 35 Jesus tells us something especially fitting in light of today’s lesson. “[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Even though such a divine trait may be beyond our human understanding, it makes perfect sense to the God that feels nothing but love for those created in the divine image.
All you need to know is this: No matter how awful, hateful, or terrible his children turn out to be, God is the kind of parent who loves them, seeks them out, bids them return to the fold, and throws a big ol’ party to celebrate when they finally come home.
For that we can only say, “Thanks be to God” . . . and perhaps, “Merry Christmas!”
Photo: Nativity Window, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri.