The Magi have come and gone, it has been an unremarkable two years for the young child, but now, things are going to become challenging once again. It was a messy entry into the world for Jesus. Unexpected, painful, controversial, scandalous. Things have calmed down for this family in Bethlehem, a family who have found a home to begin their lives. The chances are great that Mary and Joseph still didn’t exactly know what was going on, not only because they have a child and no one is fully prepared for a child when the first one comes, but also because of the odd and difficult way that this child came to be.
While the visit of the Magi may have seemed like a welcome surprise of joy, with them comes unbelievable tragedy and fear and hardship not only for the family but also for all young boys in the region. You see, the Magi didn’t just come to visit the baby Jesus, but they also visited Herod, and brought to Herod’s attention a new king who was born in Judea. Herod didn’t know exactly who it was, but suddenly he is told that this new king was born.
So Joseph has a dream to flee to Egypt, to safety, to live as refugees because Herod is going to seek out the child and kill him. Egypt, of course, was the place of slavery, the place of danger, the enemy. But in a strange twist of events, Egypt becomes the place of safety, the place of refuge, while the promised land is the place of danger. I don’t think that this is just for shock value, but I think that this is significant to show that those who were assumed to be hostile were hospitable, but those who were supposed to be hospitable turned out to be hostile.
It is another act in the story of Jesus turning the world upside down and inside out.
This is not the story of Christmas that we like to imagine, we like to think of peace on earth, but there is no peace in this, in fact, what we have here is the exact opposite of peace.
Here we see a scared and insane Herod who is so afraid of the threat that this child poses to his rule that, when not able to find him, orders all the young boys to be slaughtered, in order to ensure that this child was also wiped out. An angel appears to them yet again to travel south to Egypt in order to flee from Herod’s wrath. So, not only did Jesus come into the world in a family of turmoil, he lived out his first years as a refugee in a foreign land. This certainly isn’t the image of Christmas that we like, or think of, and this certainly isn’t what is supposed to happen to the family chosen by God to bring into the world God-in-human-flesh.
We can truly see in Matthew’s account that Jesus truly did and continues to upset the broken order of the world. People are afraid, upset, frustrated by Jesus’ coming, and this will continue through his life and ministry. Jesus really upset the world. Far from the nativity scenes that we all have around our church, our homes, and other places.
We don’t have the same kind of experience of fleeing a mass slaughter of the innocents, but I wonder if the story is not so far removed from us after all. People have to flee their homes in Syria because of the ongoing war which gets closer and closer to home. Palestinian Christians are continually harassed and threatened by Israeli soldiers simply while they are trying to go to work, and home, and to visit family, and to the market, and other activities of daily living. There are people fleeing war-torn areas of Iraq and Syria and yet many of our politicians are openly refusing to offer refuge to these people in need, these people who are not that different from the situation that Jesus found himself in. Again we see the place that is supposedly hospitable turning out to being hostile.
Even closer to home, we have to deal with children which are disappointed because we could not afford to purchase for them what they truly wanted, we have to deal without disappointments when our Christmas celebration was less than picturesque, when the family was fighting, Christmas dinner was not the spread that we wished it was, with another year of our lives seeming to continue to unravel. We deal with the deep sadness when a loved one is missing from our Christmas celebrations and no Christmas wish can bring them back. We have unarmed children-of-color killed and no one is held accountable.
You see, Jesus didn’t immediately eradicate sin and hurt and pain from the world. Jesus is part of God’s ongoing plan to do this, little by little. Whereas Herod seeks power and might and violence in order to retain power, Jesus chooses weakness, a family who was able to cross a border and live for a time as a refugee, as a stranger in a foreign land, in order to survive. But as we know, Herod died and Jesus lived. Herod faded away and Jesus took the spotlight, far greater than even the great Herod could imagine.
I think that this is one of the reasons why Matthew told this story, this story of fear, and worry, and insecurity, and unsettledness. I think that this is why Matthew told about all the troubles that Jesus was born into and that his family and he went through. You see, Jesus was born a king, but not the type of King that you and I think of. He was not born in a palace, he was born in a stable. The announcement of his upcoming birth was not heralded with great fanfare, it was whispered in the dark and almost caused a divorce. Jesus was not born privileged to rule, but he was, for the first years of his life, raised as a refugee in a foreign land.
You see, Jesus was not immune from the troubles that we face. Neither Jesus nor his family were kept from hardships or trials. Their life was not cushy, nor was Jesus born with a silver or gold spoon in his mouth. No, Jesus’ birth, in fact, brought about the slaughter of so many young boys throughout the kingdom.
This also gives us another piece of hope and comfort as well. Jesus came in the midst of confusion and turmoil, and difficulty, and if Jesus was present in all of that then, Jesus can be present in all of that now.
So many times, bad things happen, trials happen, and we wonder, why us? Why is this happening to us? Perhaps we may even fear that God hates us. Does this sound familiar? But here is the interesting thing, the circumstances surrounding his birth and his first years were very difficult and challenging. It may not seem that significant to us now, but these are issues of children out of a marriage relationship, infidelity, contemplation of divorce, fleeing for one’s life, and living as refugees.
I can imagine that none of this was really the Christmas gift that they really wanted, but it was the gift that they received. It was not what they planned for their lives, but it was what life dealt them. This is not what they signed up for, but is is what they received. It is like one of those terrible gifts that you just want to give back to the sender, but you cannot.
I wonder if there is something significant here. You see, Jesus came into the middle of a messed up world suffering the pains that it threw at him and his family, Jesus was not spared any of the ugliness of the world, but endured it just like us. But the thing here, is that isn’t not just a he-did-it-so-we-can-too, thing. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize without weaknesses, but was tempted in every way as us, but yet without sin. I think that Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is that we also do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our problems and messed up lives, because he was, from his birth, subjected to the very same problems, and the same messed up life. The beauty of this is that, through this, we are not told simply to keep our chin up, but all of this helps us to understand that Jesus is right with us through our points of trial and turmoil, Jesus is right with us in our anger and sadness and fear and disappointments and insecurities. Jesus is right with us because he wasn’t sheltered from this in his life, but he was put into the thick of it.
Jesus was not just with these people in the ancient world, but is with us today. Even when things are difficult, hard, and seem almost impossible, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent from us, but it could mean that Jesus is right with us.
This is the good news of Christmas, that Jesus came into the world, that God took on human flesh to live with us, and through the holy Spirit, he continues to live with us and in us and through us. This is the promise that God offers to us today, that Christ promises to be with us in our times of fleeing, in our times of fear, in our times of insecurity, in our times of danger, in our times of despair. Christ promises to be with us. The church year starts with Advent and Christmas, and Christmas starts with a baby, but the story doesn’t end here. The story continues as Jesus grows, faces the Devil face to face, teaches, and heals, and shows grace, and calls to faithfulness, and sacrifices himself only to die and rise from the dead three days later. It is this grand story of redemption that we celebrate this year and every year, and this is why we do this each and every year and we ought never grow weary of it. Because God has taken on flesh, not simply out of curiosity or as an experience, but to live and dwell with us in the mess and muck of our lives in order to break us out of our circle of destruction and sin that we are caught in and from which we are unable to free ourselves.
So life contains happiness and joys and celebrations, but it also includes sadness and tragedy and pain and unjust rulers who slaughter young children. But God, in Christ, did not stand at a distance from all of this, but entered right into the midst of it, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. This is the promise and the hope that we have for Christmas. The call to us is to stay on this path that Christ has blazed, to keep the faith, and to join Christ in his redemptive work, and to be a foretaste of redemption for the world. We do this not because we are strong enough to do it, but we do it because we are weak, but Christ is strong, and it is through Christ that this all is able to happen.