Because This Is What Our World Is Like

Posted on

Jesus came into this world full of pain, suffering and death in order to bring God’s healing and saving power into our lives.  He became one of us so that his gifts of light and life might fill our world with strength and hope and joy.  He came into our world to wake us up to life and to one another and to the bonds of love and mercy that are meant to join us together in holy friendship and community.

1st Sunday of Christmas

Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-23

December 29, 2013

Peder Stenslie

I hope all of you have had a blessed Christmas.  I know, of course, that the oft repeated wish to “have a merry Christmas” is easier for some than others.  We have a sense of how things should be at Christmastime.  There should be family present… good food on the table… warm and friendly conversation… lots of good food… and a general atmosphere of peace and happiness.

That expectation can make it hard for you students who are incarcerated here.  You are away from home, family and friends.  You are confined to your cottage while the world around you celebrates.  You are left alone to wonder, “What does the future hold for me?”  It can be hard to connect with the popular image of Christmas… it can be hard to have a merry Christmas… in a situation like that.

Others of you have felt this week painful losses that you have suffered over the past years.  Images or memories of how Christmas is “supposed to be” or how it “used to be” can evoke very painful thoughts and feelings.  It can be very hard to find or feel Christmas joy.  It can be hard to have a merry Christmas.

So what do we do?  Maybe we come to church on this 1st Sunday after Christmas seeking help to restore our hearts and to renew and reclaim that joy we know is supposed to be found in this season.  We come today, looking to our faith and our church to help us find and feel joy… and, wham! We are blindsided by this shocking and terrifying Gospel.  Why, on this day of joy following the birth of Christ, do we have such a disturbing text?!

The short answer is that the truth of Christmas is much more deeply hidden and entangled in the darkness of this world than popular images and North American experience suggests.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is hunted by the pathetic, power-hungry, puppet-king Herod.  And because Herod can’t locate Jesus, he goes nuclear.  He orders the killing of all young children in and around Bethlehem… with the thought that, “If I kill them all, then certainly the infant Jesus will be among the dead.”  In the wake of the incredible Christmas gift, a slaughter of innocents takes place… a wave of terror and pain washes over the world.

Why?  I can offer no other answer than it’s because Christ is born into a world full of sin and human suffering… a world where such terrible things happen.  Christ was born into our world… and this is what our world is like.

The slaughter of innocents has never ceased.  It continues today all over this world.

This month in the Central African Republic many hundreds of civilians have been killed as armed militias have attacked civilians.  Violence in that country has created hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom are suffering from hunger and malnutrition.  In the meantime, Muslims and Christians throughout the country are huddling in mosques and churches trying to save themselves from vigilantes.

This month in Syria hundreds of civilians have been killed by terrible weapons called barrel bombs dropped from government helicopters.  That civil war has created 2.3 million refugees who are suffering and (in some cases) dying in temporary camps set up in neighboring countries.  Fifty percent of these refugees are children under the age of 17.

In our rich North American society, the basis for Christmas joy often gets confused.  Chestnuts roasting by an open fire… Christmas lights, Christmas parties and cheerful Christmas songs about sleigh rides and Santa Clause may all create a nostalgic sense of happiness; but they have absolutely nothing to do with the purpose and work of God begun in Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

The true basis for Christmas joy is that God, in Christ, comes to share the human experience… our joys and trials… and most importantly, our deepest suffering and pain… in order that he can be with us as our savior.

The lesson from Hebrews today repeats three times two important points about Jesus.

First:  Jesus has become human in every respect, so that he can call us brothers and sisters.  God, “for whom and through whom all things exist,” has come to share the same life as us, to know the same things as us.  God, in Christ, is fully and truly one with us.  That is an amazing thing to consider.

Second:  Jesus has done this, not because he longs for human friendship, but so that he can know and fill and share everything in our lives.  God has stepped into our flesh and into our mortal world so that he can be the savior of this world.  He becomes human so that he can deliver us from the sin and death that holds our world and our lives in bondage.

That is a wonderful thing to know.

Today’s Hebrews lesson spells out for us two important names of Christ that tell us who he is:  Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” and Jesus, which means “he saves.”

So often we associate Christmas with coziness, pleasantness, warmth… and other happy things.  We forget that, though it is indeed cause for great joy, it is a work of God that takes place under the long and dark shadow of death and human suffering.  It is, for God, a hard and painful work, done out of love, but at terrible cost.  This work of God brings great joy and eternal life to us, but it does so by God wrapping himself in human pain, and subjecting himself to the terrible powers of sin and death.

That isn’t really cozy at all.  It is beautiful, but it’s dark and difficult.

Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us of that fact.  It foreshadows the crucifixion.  The innocent children in and around Bethlehem were targeted and killed by those dark impulses and powers in our world that care for nothing but their own self-promotion.  Eventually, these same impulses and powers would hunt down and kill Jesus.  On the cross, Jesus becomes a brother to those slaughtered children, suffering the same hate, sharing the same pain… and passing through the same death.

From the moment he entered this world, Jesus had a price on his head.  He was a marked man.

Yet he will always be — in our darkness and danger — Jesus, “the one who saves.” In order to do that, he comes into our world… he gets into our skin… invades our hearts… truly becomes “God with us,” Emmanuel.

Jesus came into this world full of pain, suffering and death in order to bring God’s healing and saving power into our lives.  He became one of us so that his gifts of light and life might fill our world with strength and hope and joy.  He came into our world to wake us up to life and to one another and to the bonds of love and mercy that are meant to join us together in holy friendship and community.

May God draw our lives… yours and mine… into his mighty work of salvation.  May Jesus be born in your heart and mine, darkened as it may be by pain and suffering… by sin.  May he work in these broken and sinful hearts of ours true Christmas joy… Christmas light… Christmas life.

Amen.