The First Sunday after Christmas
December 29, 2019
I am so glad to see all of you on this Sunday after Christmas, the strangest day of the whole year. I want to take advantage of the strangeness of the day—a fifth Sunday, the last Sunday of the year, spitting distance from 2020—by keeping my talking short and hearing what you all have to say about it all. Christmas is a snowglobe of a holiday, isn’t it; sometimes it feels like the sparkle and swirl is the product of being picked up and shaken, and we’re not sure what to do while everything settles again. But at least we are in it together.
There’s a tension, I think, between the days that are special—Christmas, Easter, a wedding, a birth—and days that are ordinary—that is, most of them. Christmas is a towering holiday because what happened on that day is so important: A child was born who is the Messiah, the Lord. But it can be hard—it’s hard for me, anyway—to integrate that towering holiday into the life we continue to live. Christ’s birthday is a party, and then we go back to real life, of which the Christ-child may or may not really feel like a part.
I don’t have a neat trick for that; I am sorry if I led you to expect it. For what it’s worth, I think integrating an understanding of God into the whole of our lives is really the work of a lifetime of formation. What I have this morning, or rather, one thing the scriptures have brought us this morning doesn’t so much address the issue of our integration of God the Son’s entry into the world as step over it, into the reality of what that entry was like, and what it tells us about God.
Some denominations celebrate today the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those babies and toddlers in and around Bethlehem that Matthew tells us were slaughtered by Herod in an attempt to kill the infant Christ. They’re considered martyrs not by will but by deed: they died for Christ without choosing to, and precious in the sight of the LORD, says a Psalm, is the death of his holy ones. Scripture does not forget them, and the Church does not, because they mattered. Jesus teaches his followers later that no sparrow falls to the ground apart from his Father, and we are worth more than many sparrows. And how often yet are innocents killed for the sake of power? How many children dead in DHS custody under the header of national security? How many hundreds and thousands dead in bomb blasts for our foreign policy and others’?
We should recognize the weeping heard in Bethlehem, which echoed the weeping Jeremiah heard in Ramah after Babylon sacked Jerusalem, which echoed the weeping of Jacob’s wife Rachel, who longed for children. Jesus was born into a dangerous world, as all babies are and have been since the first baby: a world full of ambient danger: germs and famine and accident; and just as full of acute danger: of hatred and the will to power, of the embrace of death as a means to an end. From the moment of his birth to the moment of his death, my friend Ben observed, Jesus was very close to state power and the death it could impose at any moment as a way to maintain itself. It decreed where he was born, sent his family immediately into exile in a land strange to them, killed his agemates, affected where he would grow up—Joseph heard the name of the new king of Judea and moved them to another province—followed him throughout his ministry, and executed him.
This is the way God chose to come to us, the world God loved and chose to redeem. The Incarnation, the humanness and Godness of Jesus Christ, tells us about how God chooses to be near to us, the vulnerability and suffering God accepts for our sake. The name Jesus means “The LORD saves,” the title Emmanuel means “God is with us.” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, not in some place sealed off from threat of harm, but wide open to the harm of the world, as we are. For our sake.
“For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,” says the letter to the Hebrews, and since “the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things.” He came among us as one of us, not in a metaphorical way but in the realest, most literal way there is. Hebrews says God did it this way to bring many children to glory (we’re the children); the Word of God becoming one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, means that he is our brother and also, and this sounds the same but is different in an important way, that we are his siblings. Jesus was human as we are human; God is our Parent as God was Jesus’ Parent. We are all children of God, again not in a pleasant metaphorical way but in the sense of adoption and shared right to inheritance, and Jesus is our brother not because we feel close to him but because we share a Father, and everything that may happen to us happened to him, too.
It’s easy, I think, to see the Incarnation of the Son as the first time God came this close, because the person of Christ is so tangible and means so much for us, but it would be a misunderstanding. Look at Isaiah: “he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them.” We read this as a prophecy about Jesus, God With Us, and our redemption through him, and that’s true; but this is also in a place where Isaiah is recounting God’s way with Israel throughout that history: “he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” The love of God for the world that is behind the Incarnation, the helpless baby in a strange place and the teacher and healer and the man on the Cross, is the love for the world God has had since God made it and declared it good; the nearness of God to us in the Incarnation is the choice of a God who has always been near to God’s beloved people.
As it happens, the Hebrew in that last verse is strange, and if you read multiple versions, you’ll find them quite different. If you’re curious about the reasoning for them, please ask me about it after the service. But the upshot is this: Our pew Bibles, the NRSV, says “he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel that saved them.” Another translation says “he became their savior. In all their affliction was no affliction,” or, “he did not afflict them”; this interpretation says that distress and affliction are not from God, and indeed the nearness of God to us in the next verses about redemption and carrying through mean that even in affliction we are held up by God and cannot be ultimately shaken. And most common translation says “in their affliction he [that is, God] was afflicted”: that in the suffering and distress this dangerous world visits upon us, God has always been suffering with us; that God’s redemption and carrying of his chosen people have never been from a distance, austere and untouched, and the suffering of the Son for our sake and the anguish of the Father at the pain of the Cross and every cross is of a piece with God’s tender heart for God’s people. “The angel of his presence saved them,” this version says, a phrase used nowhere else in the Bible, and understood to mean not a created angel, but the presence of God Godself.
This is all to say that as far back as Isaiah, and even further, is the understanding that God has always been very close, has always held God’s people in his hands, and has always hurt for them when they hurt, and continues to do so with us today.
Since the earliest church Christ has been a scandal to the world: It did not seem right that the word should be made flesh, that the Son of God should be subject to the indignities and fragility of a body like ours. It did not seem right that God should enter into a world that kills children and stones prophets. Yet this is how God has always been with us, since first Abraham heard God’s call. And Christians have insisted on the rightness of it, the redemption not just of the spirit but of the body, the preciousness of us, warts and all. The deaths of God’s holy ones, chosen and unchosen, are precious in God’s sight as human lives are precious in God’s sight, precious as God’s only Son, our brother, born to us this day. That’s what I think. Amen.