Sermon for December 29, 2019
It is not your usual Nativity scene. The Holy Family, Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus have their own cage with barbed wire overhead. This is the Nativity scene displayed outside a Methodist Church in Claremont, CA. You can imagine the comments received. Many have been supportive of this jolting scene which contradicts the traditional carol “Silent Night”—‘all is calm, all is bright’. This scene is not meant as a lawn decoration but a declaration of support for the many migrants who have entered the country illegally and have therefore experienced confinement and family separation. The pastor has stirred up controversy by posting the imprisoned Holy Family on the church’s facebook page. The critics complain the scene is more politically motivated than scripturally accurate. The pastor of the congregation responded to her critics by saying “This Nativity Scene is not political, but theological.”
This is the First Sunday of Christmas. Many will think the holiday is over and need a break after a busy time of gift-buying, cookie-baking, family gatherings, and special meals. Some may be thinking that soon in the New Year it will be time to put away holiday decorations. Many homes have Nativity Scenes portraying the infant Jesus surrounded by shepherds and angels. But the pastor of that Methodist Church is challenging us: what is the theology or the inspired Scripture’s teaching about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem? This Sunday and the next will help answer that question.
Today’s Gospel reading is disturbing. Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream to not just leave Bethlehem at a leisurely pace, but to flee. They were to get out of the country and seek asylum in Egypt. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were now refugees running for their lives because of a tyrant, King Herod. His troops were marching into Bethlehem on a search and destroy mission, which is to destroy the child Jesus. Why would Herod do this? Earlier the visit of the Three Wisemen came to Jerusalem after a long journey. They were following a heavenly sign, a star, which they interpreted as signifying the birth of a new King, the King of the Jewish people. This caused Herod to be frightened. He figured he was the King of the Jews. A sly tyrant, Herod wanted to use the Wisemen as spies and locate Jesus so he could also come and worship him. Of course that was a boldfaced lie.
The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and tell him anything. So after they worshiped Jesus and gave their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they left Bethlehem by another route.
When Herod realized he was duped, he flew into a rage. There is nothing more dangerous that a frightened angry tyrant. His troops were ordered to kill all boys in and around Bethlehem, two years old and younger. Herod didn’t care about how many would die; he was obsessed with killing the newborn Jesus. Because of the angel’s warning, Jesus and his parents were protected. They were not protected by an entourage of angels, but by becoming refugees, fleeing deadly state-ordered violence. But so many were not protected as we heard in the text, the sad and haunting words, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
We cannot explain why the innocent are not always protected. What Herod did is what frightened tyrants have done throughout the ages. I recall the terrible massacre that took place in the African nation of Rwanda in the early 1990’s. One tribal group went on a rampage against another tribe. There had been a history of grievances. The ones who carried out the slaughter began to dehumanize their victims, calling them cockroaches. Not just thousands, but hundreds of thousands died. I recall the scene of frightened people seeking refuge in a church, praying, hoping it would be safe and God would protect. But the church was not sanctuary and God did not intervene to protect and innocents were killed. I guess all we can do is to try to understand the Rachels weeping for their children throughout the ages, refusing any comfort for their loss is pain beyond any consolation.
There was a recent story in the New York Times about a man seeking asylum in the United States. He is from Cuba and a highly trained medical doctor. He was sent to Venezuela to work among the poor. He began to be critical of the regime in that country which he felt was the cause of so much poverty and suffering. This displeased the Cuban government and so he was recalled and faced discipline. But he went instead to Mexico and is now waiting for his asylum case to be heard. He found a refugee camp and began serving as doctor and is paid $30 a day for seeing about 50 patients a day. He set a boy’s broken leg and sent him to hospital. When the boy returned the doctor would come and check on him. But he did one more thing. He bought the boy some model racing cars to lift his spirits. What can we do for people dealing with untold heartbreak and sorrow? We can’t change what has happened to folks, but we do not have to walk away either. Like that doctor in a refugee center, he offered more than his healing skill, he knew it was important to lift the spirits of the hurting. Maybe we can find ways to lift the spirits of those going through a difficult time.
I return to that jarring Nativity Scene showing Mary, Joseph, and Jesus imprisoned in cages, and the pastor’s insistence that this was theology and not politics. We find important theology, interpretation and understanding for Jesus’ birth in the reading from Hebrews. This letter develops the theme of Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest, bridging the gap between heaven and earth caused by our sins, and also bridging a gap of our understanding of God by our questions about why innocents suffer. Hebrews answer is to have us look at Jesus’ birth in so many words: the pioneer of our salvation had to become a flesh and blood human being to truly enter the human experience of suffering and death. Jesus had to become fully like us in every way so to help us, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, Jesus is able to help those who are being tested.” Life is full of tests and temptations that challenge faith in God. But instead of fearing God’s disappointment or even anger when we question God about suffering, Jesus is not a faultfinder and critic of human frailty, but a merciful and faithful priest. Related to this theme is what we read further in Hebrews “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.” We can be angry, even furious with God, but we can present those deep feelings with boldness before God because Jesus has assured us that heaven’s throne is a throne of Grace.
Jesus would also accept the sacrifice of the cross as an act of atonement meaning the throne of Grace is not some gilded chair up on heaven, but Jesus who is grace or gift ever for us now and not against us. Hebrews gave the good news of powerful grace: Jesus experienced death on the cross to destroy the one who has power over death, that is the devil, and free those who were in bondage because of a fear of death. It is hard not to be fearful of death since it is still wielded by tyrants and those who hate and have no respect for the sanctity of human life. But now, what overcomes the fear of death is faith, to place our death in Jesus’ hands. By faith inspired by his being our faithful and merciful high priest, we trust Jesus to lead us from death to life. And this text calls us to hope in this hurting world, that we await the final destruction of the defeated devil and the forces of evil. We are people of the resurrection: because Jesus was raised from the dead, we know we too shall be raised to enjoy a new creation of no more death and devil or evil.
John Mark Hicks tells the story of his son Joshua who was born with an incurable, genetic disorder. It was his son’s wish to someday ride the school bus with his older sister. At last the day came when Joshua was old enough to ride the bus to school. On that first day Joshua entered the bus with joy and excitement. But a few weeks later Joshua showed no signs of joy when the bus came to pick him up. It was becoming an effort to talk Joshua into going to school. One day, while accompanying his son to the bus, John understood. As his son, because of his medical condition, limped across the aisle looking for a place to sit, he heard the cruel sounds of those making fun of him. It broke the father’s heart. John went before the throne of grace and poured out his hurt and anger: How could God allow his son to be hurt in this way; How could God allow the strong bully the weak; why couldn’t Joshua been born healthy; why should Joshua’s probably short life be filled with weakness, hurt, and rejection? John Hicks writes that in the midst of his anguished prayer, he felt God say to him, “I understand—they treated my Son that way too.”
Jesus was portrayed as a helpless and vulnerable infant in our gospel reading today, fleeing for his life just hours ahead of Herod’s troops. This teaches us that Jesus would be no stranger to human cruelty. The lesson from Hebrews explains theologically, “the founder of our salvation would be made perfect through suffering.” So whatever your condition, you are not alone. Jesus is faithful and merciful, a gift or grace for you, showing you and me the way of his mercy, never to abandon us.