Along with this sermon, a prayer for the new year was offered by Jonathan Sledge during worship on this final Sunday of 2013. Read it here.
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
Part one of the Christmas story is that sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful, filled with goodness and grace, and of unexpected moments of great joy and unimaginable hope. Part one offers us angelic voices, bright lights, guiding stars, shepherds who keep watch for us and wise ones who bring gold sparkling gifts to us. It reminds us of those moments in life when all is good, when we are held in safety and in light, when we find peace within us and all around us. Part one is that feeling we have when all is right with the world—when we can see that love is bigger than hate and good outweighs evil. I love part one of the Christmas story—the part that gives me glimpses of hope, peace, joy and love. And I don’t know about you but I need part one of the Christmas story. I need to know that sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful – even magical, filled with goodness and grace, and those unexpected moments of great joy and unimaginable hope. And so I am grateful for part one of the story.
But it is not the full story; and today Matthew reminds us that there is a part two of the Christmas story. And part two of the story is that sometimes life is hard, gritty, disappointing, and filled with heartache. The continuation of the Christmas story that Matthew tells on this first Sunday of Christmas is heavy and dark. He tells of the treacherous journey that Mary, Joseph and their newborn take in the days following the birth which includes “a grim account of wholesale massacre and night flights to safety [that] would seem far-fetched were it not for similar atrocities and tragedies happening right now in our world. How many families, for instance, are being dislocated in Syria even as we gather for worship. And how many children are being starved to death around the world as we finish up or throw away holiday leftovers. And how many families, perhaps some even in our congregations, are contending with their own private sorrows and hardships only exacerbated by expectations for a perfect Christmas.” So while the part of the story that Matthew tells may be dark and difficult, it isn’t even a little bit far-fetched if we really think about it.
I have thought a lot about Matthew’s part two of the Christmas story in these recent days of Christmas. I have thought about it as I have read the stories of the people whose lives got harder yesterday because of the end of federal unemployment benefits. For many Americans the end of those benefits means the difference between being able to stay in their homes or becoming homeless. For other families it means the difference between putting food on their tables or having to go from agency to agency asking for food assistance. I have thought about Matthew’s part two of the Christmas story as we have witnessed in recent days legislators vote to cut food stamps, leaving the 16.4 million American children who are living in poverty hungrier this Christmas season than they have been in years. And I have thought of this heavy, dark part of Matthew’s story as I listened last week to Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston advocate requiring primary school children who receive free lunches to work for their food, cleaning school floors and bathrooms so they will not become morally soft.
But it’s not just those big, complicated hard social issues that have me connecting with Matthew’s part two of the Christmas story. It is also those moments of standing by the bedside of a dying woman and watching and listening as her adult daughter tries to comfort her in her final days. It is watching that adult daughter hold back the tears as she tries to reassure her mother through a transition that is, at best, surrounded by the greatest cloud of unknowing we humans can experience—the experience of death and dying. Matthew’s part two takes me to a hotel room where I sit with an elderly couple whose home of 45 years just burnt to the ground. It takes me to that place of wondering how a good person, whom I knew as a gentle, compassionate and caring person, could end the life of one of his best friends.
So while the story Matthew tells may be dark and difficult, it isn’t even a little bit far-fetched. Which is why, of course, he tells it. To let us know that in Jesus, Emmanuel, God did indeed draw near to us, took on our lot and our life, and experienced and endured all that we do – disappointment, fear, violence, even death. All so that we would know that we are not alone – that we do not suffer alone, fear alone, live and die alone.
And that is what I call part three of the Christmas story. The part that says that through both the good and the hard God is present, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through all of life.
Last week, I had a real Christmas moment. As odd as it might sound, it was, for the first time in a long time, a moment when I truly believed with both my head and my heart that God is present, holding on to us, comforting us in all of life.
The moment came as I was standing by the bedside of dying woman. I was preparing to say goodbye to her after having a good visit in which we talked about her life—the beautiful and wonderful, filled with goodness and grace moments as well as the hard, gritty, disappointing and filled with heartache moments. As I leaned over to say my goodbye, holding her hand, she looked up at me and said, “It’s been nice knowing you. Thank you.” It was a tender moment and I knew that she meant what she was saying. As she closed her eyes, I said, “Daphne, you know this season is about the promise that God is with us in all life. I want you to know that right now, where you are, God is with you and God will not leave you alone.” She nodded slightly. At that moment, I knew that my words were not just something that I had been taught to say by the bedside of someone dying. They were not mere words of wisdom from a pastor who has stood by the bedside of other people dying. They were words that I believe. And when I heard them, I knew, not with my head or simply within my heart, I knew with my very being that they were true and real and beyond any logical explanation. God is with you and God will not leave you alone. In the good, God is with you blessing you and celebrating with you. In the hard, God is with you holding you and comforting you. For the first time in a long time, my whole being knew that truth.
Many days, I struggle with holding on to my faith. I see all the pain and evil in the world. The Herods are always present, and I struggle to find a place within my faith to reconcile the problem of evil with a benevolent and just God. But it’s not just the pain out there in the world. There is personal pain—the pain of thinking and feeling that I’m not a good enough parent or partner or pastor. There is the persistent feeling that I should be doing more or being better at what I am doing. Some days, Herod is not just out there in the world somewhere wreaking havoc. Sometimes Herod is the voice within my head telling me that I am not good enough, or strong enough, or smart enough. In those times, it is hard to believe that God is present, holding on to me and comforting me. But for a moment this past week, I experienced the third part of the Christmas story—that part of the narrative that says that through both the good and the hard God is present blessing us with the promise that God will stay with us through all of life. God became flesh, incarnate in a human being—a baby, to make real to us that God is with us always—in the beautiful and wonderful, filled with goodness and grace moments of life and in the hard, gritty, disappointing and filled with heartache moments of life.
In the midst of the hard, dark and heavy “part two” of the Christmas story, Matthew gives us hope and good news. He bears witness to the promise that “God is with us.” Period. Always. In everything.
We need not be discouraged by the Herods of the world or the voices of Herod within us. They have always been a part of the human story. But just as real within the human experience is the promise that we are not alone, that God is with us holding us and comforting us and blessing us through all of life’s moments.
And so, as we draw near to the eve of 2013 and the hope of 2014, I leave you with this poem by Howard Thurman titled, Now the Work of Christmas Begins.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among [people],
To make music in the heart.
Now may the work of Christmas begin and may God bless you in the new year.