I don’t want to preach a long sermon this morning, because I want this Gospel to be in tension with the songs we sing. I want that to do most of the preaching, but I think there is something here for us on this first Sunday after Christmas. You might be surprised to hear such a terrible story recounted on the first Sunday after Christmas, this story of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. We might hope to continue to hear about mangers, and babies, and stars, and angels. In a world groaning with pains of injustice, and evil, and sin, we long to hear and to sing about these universal truths of love, and new birth, and the miracle of God coming to earth. And yet, we are confronted with the gospel of the Holy Innocents.
Our vision, our eyesight, our gaze in these days tends to be big, looking towards the stars at the top of trees, seeing Angels everywhere, and the beauty of lights and ornaments. We are, a bit like the characters in my favorite holiday special, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, in which our vision consists of pageants, and presents, and angels, and big, beautiful trees, so engaged in the beauty of the season that we tend to miss the scandal, the particularity, the shock of what happens in the Christmas story and its aftermath.
And Christmas, more than any for me, has been something that I have needed. Having lost some of my dearest loved ones, like many of you, this season is more blue than bright. And this year, like a few years ago in Sandy Hook, we have been confronted by the eternal truth of this story of the Holy Innocents. For the last few months, we have witnessed the beginnings of an emerging national conversation about race and criminal justice, led by the deaths of at young black men across the country. Then, just a few weeks ago, in Peshawar-Pakistan, 146 holy innocents were slaughtered by religious extremists. And just a week ago, two police officers were killed while sitting in their car in New York City. Holy Innocents. All around us. Darkness, and death, and disaster. As Lucy said to Charlie Brown: “It’s hopeless.”
Or is it? What I have always needed around Christmas is a Linus. Someone who can narrow my gaze, show us the messiness and brutal beauty of Christmas. And that’s what Matthew’s story does this morning with this terrible story of young children being murdered, it reminds us that the gloss and glimmer of the season often actually serves to move away from the miracle. While we are focused on these grand concepts of hearing about hearing about God in flesh, about God with us, Matthew’s gospel story reminds us that the Christmas story is not simply about God coming to earth, but as my former teacher David Lose wonders, about God coming “into the more private pain of ruptured relationships, lost loved ones, loneliness, illness, job loss, or depression. Or maybe it’s just that we get caught up in the day-to-day routine of making ends meet that we have a hard time imagining that God could possibly make a difference in our world. Sure, maybe we believe in God in general, but sensing God’s presence – let alone seeing God – in the nitty-gritty of our mundane lives.” Matthew’s gospel reminds us that Christmas isn’t about God coming to earth, but about witnessing the God who comes to earth for us and for our sake and for our salvation.
And one of the things that Matthew’s story has in common with Linus is pointing out the unexpected places that Christmas emerges: crappy little trees, a misfit pageant, and the consistent mess that is Charlie Brown. Instead of big, beautiful, and majestic, Linus always points Charlie Brown to the small, the darkness, and the specific and unexpected. And Matthew does that three times in our Gospel this morning too: using three stories to change our vision to the unexpected, difficult, and unworthy places in which this little baby announces the coming of God into our midst for our sakes.
Matthew beings our gospel by telling the story of what we now call the “flight to Egypt.” One of the two greatest stories in Jewish religion is what? The Exodus, the story of Moses, another baby who was escaped to Egypt, and who lead the Jews out of slavery. Yet, what all the Jews expect of a Messiah, and what we expect, would be a Messiah who comes triumphantly from Jerusalem, and at the least the Holy Land. The scandal of the story is that the Messiah, even with the Jews and the Temple no longer in slavery or exile but in Jerusalem, has to go to Egypt of all places, just to be safe.
The same Egypt of the Pharaoh, of the long slavery of the Jews, of the Exodus, and of the rival religions of the near east, becomes the refuge of God. Think about that. Egypt as the refuge of God. Again, our vision isn’t allowed to be general and universal, but specific and surprising. The Messiah comes, and heads immediately to the land of one of Israel’s darkest times and greatest triumphs. Unexpected and shocking. Again, just like Linus does, we are moved from simply a nice story to the coming of God into the most unexpected places.
Then, Matthew turns his attention to Herod and Herod’s fear and sin, and his murder of children in Bethlehem. While some have made this number large, the number was something more like ten or twelve, which feels a lot like the many school shootings that we have felt reverberate through this country, more killings of Holy Innocents, ever since Columbine to Sandy Hook. But instead of this tragedy being merely senseless and evil, Matthew again imbues it with God’s presence, connecting it to this deeply important cry of Rachel from the prophet Jeremiah in the times of the second of the two major stories of Israel’s history: the return of Israel from exile in Babylon.
More than that, Matthew’s use of Rachel’s cry assures the promise of this baby having the last word on the lives of these innocents, these little ones, wherever they might be found, instead of the evil that fell them. Jesus’ birth promises that this God will be found amongst the pain and suffering of the world, working wonders of redemption.
And finally, following the death of Herod; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus return to Israel, but oddly head to Galilee and Nazareth. And you might wonder, why is this important? Why is it important that Jesus is regarded as a Nazarite? Because Galilee, known in the first century as the Galilee of the Gentiles was a land that was occupied by the Assyrians and Nazareth was an unimportant backwater town with only about 500 residents. When we expect a Messiah, we talk about beauty, majesty and power, we would look to places like Rome, or Jerusalem, and Washington D.C. And yet, this Messiah comes into the world, for us and for our sake, from the places of the dispossessed, the gentiles, the outcast and the sinner.
And this is the point, that in Christmas, our vision is narrowed, but not to places of power and majesty, but to the unexpected lowliness of this baby. Nelson Trout, the first African-American bishop in the American Lutheran Church, once said that “In Jesus Christ, God stoops down very low.” Instead of looking for heights and majesty, saying “Glory to God in the Highest,” we should be singing something more like Linus says to Charlie Brown around this time of the year: “Glory to God in the Lowest.”
I want to feast and sing and party for another week, loud enough to keep the reality of the darkness out, because even as much as we practice it this way, Christmas isn’t about self-deception. And yet. And yet. The deep truth about Christmas is that not even massacres, wherever the darkest dark can be found in our world and our lives, is outside the grasp and grace of this God who comes to us in Jesus.
Over the last few weeks, scientists have been fixed their gaze on the stars, and the potential of life on Mars. An interesting and vital scientific work on this desolate and cold place years away from our own planet. Yet, in the meantime, news of life here on Earth might have been missed. Scientists have been sending cameras to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, and you know what they found? Under the darkest, coldest, and most inhospitable conditions known to Earth? They found life, and life abundant, new species of fish and shellfish and eels. In looking towards the unexpected, what they found, of course, was life. And maybe they should be our Linuses, serving as our parable this Christmas season.
That maybe even in the darkest places of our world, and in the darkest places of our own lives, we will have our vision changed, to be able to gaze upon this baby, and see that this God comes for us, bringing light and justice and joy and salvation to the Egypt’s and Nazareth’s of the world, the dark places in our own midst, the Peshawar’s and Ferguson’s of the Holy Innocents, and the Herod in our own hearts.
Rejoice, Rejoice, brothers and sisters. This baby isn’t merely another well trod story of a god trying to come to earth. This is the story of the God of Israel, who comes to earth in a particular baby boy named Jesus, in the midst of a real and tragedy filled world, from the backwaters of occupied territory, bringing light into the darkness of the Mariana trenches of our lives, coming for us and for our salvation. And that, is the kind of good news that this world desperately needs.