WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN
December 29, 2013
OUT OF EGYPT, NOT BETHLEHEM
How many of you have already taken down the tree and put away the Christmas decorations? Some people are very quick about that kind of thing, while others will let the decorations linger into February if they can get away with it. I noticed that WASH-FM was happy to start Christmas music over a month before Christmas itself, but they didn’t play it one minute longer than necessary. On December 26, it was back to whatever their regular format is. Sleigh Ride and Carol of the Bells and Holly Jolly Christmas are all gone until next November.
Actually, it’s still Christmas. You know how we just finished up the season of Advent, with the Advent wreath and the four Sundays in Advent? Well, in terms of the church calendar after the season of Advent comes the season of Christmas, and after the season of Christmas comes the season of Epiphany.
You know how long the church season of Christmas is? It starts December 25, obviously, and goes through January 5. Twelve days! Who would have thought it? When you sing the song about the swimming swans and the golden rings and the partridge in the tree you are teaching yourself some theology.
Too often we close the books on Christmas a little too soon. If Christmas were a movie the angels would sing, the shepherds would find the manger, Mary would sing softly to the little boy, and the camera would pull back on the gentle, peaceful tableau with the star in the sky and the wise men silhouetted in the distance. But that’s not the end of the story. It’s only the beginning.
We know the wise men have to show up, and they do, and they leave their gifts and go on. But let me say a little more about the wise men. They don’t just follow the star and show up at the manger. The follow the star, and then just to make sure they’re on the right track they stop in at the capitol and check in with King Herod. They say, “King Herod, we see that a new king of the Jews has been born. Do you happen to know where we can find him?” Well, Herod was the king of the Jews, and he wasn’t quite ready to retire yet, so he wasn’t interested in any new king coming along to displace him. He told the wise men that he didn’t know where they should look, but that when they found the new king they should come back and tell him so that he could come and worship too. We all know that Herod’s form of worship would have involved spears and knives and a dead baby and probably two dead parents as well.
Eventually the wise men found the baby Jesus, and God warned them in a dream not to let Herod know anything, so they returned to their own country by another path. Herod waited, and waited, and waited, but never heard anything more from the wise men, and that brings us to our reading today.
This is a part of the Christmas story we skip over sometimes. We’d rather think about the one little baby in the manger than the hundreds and thousands of little boys killed by the soldiers. We’d rather have Mary singing a lullaby to her son than all those mothers wailing their grief about their sons. We’d rather think about Jesus in Bethlehem than think about Jesus fleeing to Egypt, a refugee, a stranger.
The prophets may have said that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, but they also said that he would be called out of Egypt. This passage is why Jesus goes to Egypt. This is why Jesus comes out of Egypt to Nazareth, not out of Bethlehem.
I was talking with Darlene yesterday about some of the changes that come with her brother Kenny’s death. After a death there are always people who are touched and who mourn and grieve. A few days later, most of these people will go back to their normal lives. For some, though, for that core group of people closest to their loved one who has passed, there is no normal to go back to They have to figure out what their new normal is going to be.
That’s not just true in death and loss. That’s true for newlyweds.
That’s true for people starting families, or for people starting new jobs, or for people who are moving to a new place. All of those people have to find what their new normal is in their situation.
All of those folks can take comfort from Mary and Joseph and Jesus. They were newlyweds, starting a new family. They were starting new jobs, so to speak, as parents, as husband and wife. Being a parent is different than being childless, and being married is different than being single. It’s a new way of life. As we see in our reading from Matthew, they were moving to a new place. And I’m sure that once they heard the news from home about Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, they were grieving and mourning as well. In all of these things, Mary and Joseph are just like us. In all of these things they have to figure out what their new normal is, how to live their lives from here on out. The birth of Jesus changes everything for them.
Does the birth of Jesus change everything for us? Does the birth of Jesus change anything for us? In my own life, yeah, kind of. I mean, I’ve been a Christian a long time. I sincerely try to follow Jesus. I don’t always succeed. I fall short a lot. I do things I shouldn’t do. I don’t do things I should do. I don’t always treat others right. I don’t always treat myself right. But I try to follow Jesus, and I try to examine my life, and I try to do better so in that sense, yes – Jesus’ birth changes things for me.
But what about Jesus’ birth a few days ago? Have I changed how I live in response to that event, brought to my mind by the calendar and the culture on Wednesday the 25th? I’m not sure anything has changed for me since then. There are things that need to change, I know, but I’m not sure that I’ve thought about what they are or what the changes should be.
How about you? Jesus’ birth took Mary and Joseph to Egypt and turned their lives upside down. How about you? Has the birth of Jesus turned your life upside down? Has it changed anything for you? Has it brought more than gifts and songs and family and warm feelings, as good as those things are? Has it caused you to look for a new normal in your life?
Over at http://www.sojo.net Adam Ericksen wrote about the best way to deal with the so-called War on Christmas. He says that “the best way to defend Christmas is to care about the things that Jesus cared about:
The blind receiving sight.
The lame beginning to walk.
The deaf beginning to hear.
The dead being raised to life.
The poor having good news brought to them.
Christmas is about Christ being born in us, not just on Dec. 25, but on every day of our lives. Athanasius said in the fourth century that in Jesus God ‘was made man that we might be made God.’ What does that mean? It’s the mystery of theosis, or divinization. The best explanation that I’ve seen comes from Teresa of Avila. Her words provide the best response to any war, manufactured or otherwise: ‘Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands. Yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes. You are his body. Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Christmas does not end of December 25th in Bethlehem. The Messiah is called out of Egypt, not Bethlehem. And these thousands of years later, the Messiah still lives in us. The Messiah still lives through us. The Messiah wants to change our lives, today, now. The Messiah wants to give us a new normal, today, now. This is the gift that maybe we haven’t opened yet. But we can, today, now, and it can be the greatest gift of all. Amen.