[Picture: Anno Domini (Flight into Egypt), by Edwin Long, Public domain]
Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the second Sunday after Christmas, 1/5/2020. The texts for the sermon were the day’s gospel and Old Testament lessons. To read the Bible texts for the second Sunday after Christmas, click here.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.
I’m quite sure about the beginning part. And I am even certain about forever. But on a day like today, it is that three-letter word now that troubles me.
Things began so well. Gabriel came to visit Mary and bring her Good News. Happy Annunciation. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Merry Christmas. Wise men traveled to visit Him. Blessed Epiphany.
But in a relatively short amount of time, Jesus’ story takes a frightful and unsettling twist. An angel tells them that Jesus is in imminent danger. Herod is about to search for this Child to destroy Him, and so, they are to bring Him to safety in Egypt.
Once Herod learned that he had been duped, that the wise men did not return to Jerusalem as he had instructed, he became furious. In his rage, he was quick to shed blood – lots of it. In his rage, he reached out his sword-filled hand, and aimed at the nearest solution. In his rage, he flung patience and discernment to the side, and wrought vengeance.
But Matthew’s Gospel is not chiefly concerned with the pitfalls of evil leaders prone to violence. There are newspapers for that.
Matthew’s point is to show Jesus as the Messiah, the One promised in the Old Testament. This is why he includes two direct OT prophecies in connection with the story.
Jesus is Israel reduced to One. And so God has called Him out of the land of bondage. (Hosea 11:1) Furthermore, Jesus is the divine Comfort that Rachel, in her profound grief, refuses. (Jeremiah 31:15) The mothers and fathers of the Holy Innocents are not comforted in the moment either. Their hopes have been crushed. Christmas is over. The ball the father made for his young son lies still in an empty corner, where it will remain. In one murderous night, their greatest happiness has been stripped away from them. The fact that Jesus lives does not immediately relieve them of their pain and distress.
And it doesn’t seem fair at all, does it? Jesus is carried off in the night, and the baby boys of Bethlehem are slaughtered. Why did their boys have to die for Jesus?
This is the question that grief asks. In the language of tears, groans, and wailing: where is God now? Why does He seem so withdrawn?
Perhaps you have felt a bit of this over the last few days. We are still in the tide of Christmas, and the dawning days of a new year. And so far all we have to show for it is Iran catching proverbial fire; Australia catching actual fire; and a world so filled with anxiety and tension, that the only distraction is betting which one will burn down first.
Where is God now? Why does He seem so withdrawn? What was the point of Christmas if God goes into exile in Egypt? What is the point of Jesus being King of the Jews and King of all creation, if He refuses to act like a king?
Now is a good time to recall that things are not always as they appear. The Child in the manger does not look like God in any way obvious to men. That same Child on Mary’s knee does not seem to merit worship from the wise men. When He grows up, He’ll look like anyone else, as the prophet Isaiah wrote:
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground:
he hath no form nor comeliness;
and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. Isaiah 53:2
The real King of the Jews does not act like Herod or Archelaus. This won’t be clear for another 30 years. When Jesus ascends to His cross-shaped throne on Golgotha, when Jesus has all the world’s hate and violence and pain thrust upon Him, when all the world goes dark, then we will truly know our King.
Then we will see what was hidden in grief and mystery: the innocents of Bethlehem did not exchange their lives for Jesus’ life. He is the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world. (Revelation 13:8) And so it was His life given in exchange for theirs.
They appear to have died, and yet they are alive in Christ. What Herod meant for evil God used for good. Herod delivered them to heaven: to peace and joy beyond measure. They praised God not by speaking, but by dying. Their lives were emptied and filled with His. They had no complaint. Their parents were the ones left grieving.
The baby boys of Bethlehem, like Jesus, were circumcised. They were marked with the promises of God. They were marked for suffering now, and joy forevermore. You have been marked the same. Thus, St. Paul writes to the Church in Colossi:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. Colossians 2:11-12
You were buried with Him in baptism, there you received the sign of the cross both upon your forehead and upon your heart; for you are redeemed by Christ the Crucified. You are marked by His cross, and you suffer under the cross in the world.
But there in Baptism you were also raised with Him, through the faith God has worked in you. And so just as you are marked with the cross, your suffering is marked with hope.
Jesus is risen from the dead. Rachel has received her children back safe and sound. She has received her Comfort, and her voice, with the voice of her children, the martyrs, and the babes of Bethlehem, take shape in words you can hear and share now: “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Your glory.”
In the manger, Jesus’ glory is not obvious. On the cross, Jesus’ glory is not obvious. And now, in these days since His side was pierced, His glory is not obvious in the world, because His Kingdom is not of this world; it is within you – for you are temples of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19)
And so, in your life and in your death, in your suffering and in your thriving, as the children of God, delivered from the land of bondage to sin, who receive even now a taste of the Feast that has no end, you boldly proclaim this truth hidden in mystery:
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.