Sermon of the Week
The Shadow Side of Christmas.
Keywords: Flight to Egypt, Refugee, Shadow Side of Christmas, Light of Christ, Les Miserables.
In the Gospels, most of the stories about Jesus
explore his adult ministry, not his childhood.
Mark famously starts the story
sometime around when Jesus and John the Baptist are maybe 30 years old,
while the Gospel of John opts for a more philosophical and theological start.
So during this short season of Christmas,
there are only a couple of options for us
if we don’t want to rush too quickly through Jesus’ early years.
There’s the story about the magi,
the scholars who saw the heavenly portent
and rushed to find out what it could mean.
We’ll look more closely at that next week
when we explore the themes of Epiphany.
There’s the story of Simeon and Anna,
respected and holy people who saw the infant child
at his presentation day at the Temple,
and couldn’t contain their excitement about what he was to become.
That story is in Luke.
Luke also tells us about Jesus as a tween
Jesus who wondered off one busy morning in Jerusalem
and had his parents in a tizzy trying to find him.
There he was, in the temple,
listening to the teachers and asking them all sorts of hard questions.
That’s about it.
The next time you see Jesus in Luke he’s an adult,
ready to be dunked in the river Jordan by John the Baptist.
The only other story about Jesus as a Child is this one,
which follows the story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew
and so it is a little bit out of order for how we’ll be dealing with it,
but if you have heard and remember that story
the important context to remember
is that the Magi went to King Herod first, right,
in an effort to find out what was going on
and King Herod told them to report back to him
“so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
which is about as clear a foreshadowing for what was to come
as there is in Scripture.
What follows is today’s assigned reading.
Let’s turn our attention to the second chapter of Matthew
as we listen for the Word of God.
13 Now after [the Magi] had left,
an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream
‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt,
and remain there until I tell you;
for Herod is about to search for the child,
to destroy him.’
14Then Joseph got up,
took the child and his mother by night,
and went to Egypt,
15and remained there until the death of Herod.
This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,
‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,
he was infuriated,
and he sent and killed
all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under,
according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
19 When Herod died,
an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt
20‘Get up, take the child and his mother,
and go to the land of Israel,
for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’
21Then Joseph got up,
took the child and his mother,
and went to the land of Israel.
22But when he heard that Archelaus
was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod,
he was afraid to go there.
And after being warned in a dream,
he went away to the district of Galilee.
23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled,
‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
And may God bless to us our reading,
and our understanding,
and our applying of this word,
to how we live our lives. Amen.
I’ve made it fourteen years now
as a pastor without bringing up the musical Les Misérables
as an illustration in my sermons.
I’ve been seeking to avoid it.
There are a couple of reasons for that, good reasons, I think.
It is one of the most successful musical productions of all time,
doing far better than the novel by Victor Hugo that it is based upon,
which itself is considered one of the best novels of the 19th century.
But because of that, and because it is widely loved by a lot of preacher types–
because it explores themes of loss, redemption, guilt,
fear, hope, responsibility, sacrifice–
there was a decade or so
when preachers all over would be talking about it all the time.
So I have avoided it as being a bit too cliché.
Also, maybe a sermon doesn’t need that Master of the House joke? Right?
Ready to relieve ‘em of a sou or two…
But it is also true that it is my favorite musical,
for all the reasons described,
and the confession of the day is that it is possible
that my college girlfriend caught me
walking across campus, ostensibly alone, I thought,
belting out with rather overdramatic emotion
a rendition of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables…
and though she rolled her eyes at me,
she still had the bravery to marry me and become my life partner.
She’s home sick today,
but if she were here, she’d nod in agreement with me, I’m sure.
This all came to mind a few weeks ago
when we were watching one of those fundraiser specials on PBS
where they were broadcasting a version of Les Mis during a pledge campaign
and I was reminded again how much I love this musical.
So I want to just briefly talk about something that often doesn’t get talked about
when sermons bring up Les Mis.
The story, if you haven’t seen or heard or care about the musical
is about a French convict named Jean Valjean
who was paroled after 19 years hard labor,
who then who breaks parole,
steals some silver from a priest
only to have it given to him when he is caught,
and upon which he builds enough wealth to become a business owner and mayor.
Valjean then has to deal with the ramifications of his choices
when the daughter of one of his employees becomes his ward
all in the context of the revolutionary fervor of nineteenth-century France.
Riviting, right, to have it explained like that?
If you’ve not seen it, you just have to see it to know what makes it so poignant.
What I want to talk about is just a few lines from the musical
that are shared between Valjean
and the police officer that chases him throughout the entire affair, Inspector Javert.
There is a moment early on when Valjean is lamenting the 19 years he spent in prison
and Javert corrects him, to say that he served
five years for his original sentence
and the rest because he tried to run.
Javert sees him as a thief,
a petty criminal,
someone who broke the law and continued to break the law
someone for whom rehabilitation and a change of heart is not possible.
And right after that,
Valjean responds almost instinctively
that what he did was steal a loaf of bread
because his sister’s child was close to death
and they were starving…
Javert responds back
that he’ll starve again unless he learns the meaning of the law…
and with that, the musical quickly moves on.
But in that moment,
you see instantly what led these two to this confrontation:
in his desperation, Valjean would do almost anything to save the life of his nephew.
And just like that,
Valjean’s sister and nephew disappear from the story.
It happens so quickly, that I don’t know if most people watching
give them much of a second thought:
What happened to them? The nephew and the sister.
Did they survive their poverty, their hunger, their destitution?
I don’t know the answer to that question.
Maybe it’s something about which you have to read the book to find out.
I’ve been very, very fortunate never to have been put into that position, though,
by happenstance or by privilege,
where, because of want or danger, I worried about the safety of my children
or even those of my extended family.
It is possible that some of us here in this room haven’t been so fortunate,
but I think most of us have had relatively secure lives, for us and our loved ones,
for which we rightly can be grateful.
But we also should realize that this is not shared by large portions of humanity,
whether in our country or in places around the world.
While Les Mis is driven by hunger and poverty
and petty theft to try to get some bread,
there are Children in many places who live in danger:
outbreaks of disease.
According to UNICEF’s 2019 report on the State of the World’s Children
one in three children are not growing well because of malnutrition or undernutrition,
and in another report,
UNICEF describes a crisis of children
in places like Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic,
the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq, among other places,
where military conscription of children is particularly prevalent.
And I have talked in previous sermons about kids in this country going hungry
struggling without connections or role models in school
dealing with racism or lack of opportunities or a host of other concerns.
We know we’re supposed to do something about all this,
to care for the most vulnerable among us.
And sometimes the complaint is that these kids are abandoned,
that their parents or guardians aren’t doing the right thing for them,
but that’s not really always the case.
Many times their parents are working multiple jobs,
digging out of crippling debt
stuck in horrible neighborhoods,
whether we’re talking about here in the United States or abroad.
Many of them have a Jean Valjean in their life,
someone who is going to do everything they can to try to keep them above water.
Which brings us to a question:
what do you do, when those children are, you know, your children?
What would you do,
how far would you go,
to save your children from terrible danger?
That’s the question
that a friend of mine is posing this week
about this reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
Joseph and Mary were exhausted.
Mary has given birth to Jesus and they’re trying to get their bearings
like all new parents do.
Who is going to take the night-shift? Change the diapers?
Put new swaddling clothes in the manger, whatever those first weeks were like?
They’re in a rental unit somewhere unfamiliar to them
with animals scurrying all over the place,
and they were just entertaining unexpected guests
who rushed in, brought them some gold, frankincense, and myrrh,
and then rushed off
muttering something about Herod.
They were in danger.
Jesus was in danger.
To Joseph, there was this warning:
“Get up, take the child and his mother,
and flee to Egypt.
Remain there until I tell you,
for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
And so they fled,
over dangerous and foreign terrain,
all the way to Egypt, where they waited out the wrath of Herod.
Maybe that’s what all the gold and frankincense and myrrh was for
to pay for the dangerous journey,
to get them to safety…
because you need some means to get that done
and clearly not everyone had them.
The episode came to be known as the Slaughter of the Innocents,
the command Herod gave to his legions to kill all the children two years and younger
out of his concern that Jesus would be a threat to his power.
It is such a painful story,
properly eliciting wailing and lamentation
and it is almost unimaginable, to be honest.
At least two of my more creative preacher friends
have promised sermons this week on this passage
with the sermon title “The Empire Strikes Back,”
maybe in an effort to get us to feel the depths of the issues at play here,
but I am most struck by this motivation
to do whatever you have to do
to take care of the people you love
the danger you’ll undertake
the things you’ll give up
the sacrifices and risks and God knows what else
when it’s the only thing you can do to keep your children safe and alive.
This is a Christmas story,
maybe not the quiet, tranquil account of the birth itself
where cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
the little lord Jesus, no crying he makes…
maybe not the amazement of Simeon and Anna at his presentation in the temple
maybe not the stress of parents searching for Jesus,
lost at the temple like I was once lost
as a second grader at a shopping mall in Des Moines, Iowa
but a Christmas story nonetheless…
Mary and Joseph fleeing with their baby boy
to escape the murderous rage of a tyrant
who was dangerous enough to kill a lot of kids instead.
This is a glimpse into the shadow side of Christmas,
the world into which Jesus was born,
one where some parents have to flee to get their kids to safety
and where some kids don’t make it.
I guess this is timely, since we have a refugee and immigration crisis in this country.
We’ve radically reduced the number of refugees we’re admitting,
along with making both legal applications for asylum
and migration of every sort difficult, mainly along our southern border.
Those who think all that is a good thing really don’t find it convenient
when people talk about Jesus as a refugee,
so they want to challenge the notion.
I mostly roll my eyes at these stories,
because the people who are debating it often don’t read the texts themselves
or know much about what they’re arguing about.
For instance, I caught about five minutes of a discussion about this
on a cable news program until I heard one of them say
“Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for the census…
they were following the LAW to go there…they weren’t refugees”
and realized that they hadn’t even read this story in Matthew
about the escape to Egypt by cover of darkness.
Or some will say that they were two different provinces of the roman empire
Judea and Egypt,
so how could that be migration…and they’re all missing the point.
It’s a bit anachronistic to be using the label, honestly,
because ‘refugee’ requires an understanding of modern nation-states,
but can we just cut through all of that
and ask the question: what would you do to save your child from terrible danger?
And when you ask that question,
and you see what Mary and Joseph had to do,
you clearly see the resemblance to our modern problems,
and the moral judgment that comes with it.
We live in a world where kids are hungry
and grow up in dangerous places
and for some of them their parents flee for their very lives
to different nations far, far away.
That’s a world into which Jesus was born,
a world that God seeks to make right
the shadow side of Christmas,
into which Jesus the Light of the World shines.
It is a story of resistance to these principalities and powers
that take advantage of the poor, the vulnerable, the hurting.
It is an affirmation that God is at work
through one just like them: poor and vulnerable,
a little infant,
who would shake the halls of power
and show us all a more powerful form of love.
Like any infant, the rest of the story has to be unfurled
and we have to watch what God is doing through him,
but here, at this moment,
we have to marvel at the grit and determination of his parents
and join our prayers with all of those who seek a better life for their kids.
The Christmas Story asks us to join along
with the shepherds,
Simeon and Anna,
Elizabeth and Zechariah,
all of those who see something special going on here
to bring about that Kingdom of God
where the conditions that cause so many people to seek safety
might be made better
where peace may prevail
where hope is overflowing like a waterfall.
That vision is the light of Christmas
brighter than the darkness of these long Winter nights.
And if we have eyes to see it,
we can find our own place beside the manger
our own work alongside Jesus
as he leads us into God’s future.
May we commit ourselves to making the world better
for all the children of the world
for the sake of the child born to us this holy season.
May it be so.
Image Source: Saint Joseph leading the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, followed by Saint James, on the flight into Egypt … an Ethiopian artists’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015, found at http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2015_01_03_archive.html)