Happy Second Sunday of Christmas!
We still have two days left in the Christmas season and today we turn our attention to the other nativity story. We have spent plenty of time with baby Jesus, angels and shepherds the last few weeks. That nativity story, the one with which we are so familiar, is from the Gospel of Luke.
Today’s story of the nativity is Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth. And it is very different. While Luke’s story of the nativity is appropriate for, say, ABC Family channel, Matthew’s version is more of an HBO situation.
In Matthew’s version, angels don’t appear to any shepherds. Instead, three Zoroastrian priests, wise men who study the stars, have observed a strange star they have never seen before. They somehow figure out that this means that the child who will be King of the Jews has been born and so they travel to Jerusalem to find him.
When King Herod and the rest of Jerusalem hears of their inquiries, their reaction is not to throw open their arms to welcome this holy infant. Instead, they are thrown into fear.
And isn’t that a painfully honest human reaction?
King Herod likes being in charge. The people of Jerusalem like stability. They’ve had enough conflict. The last thing they need is a new king jockeying for power. A new king is not necessarily good news.
These wise men will not be dissuaded, though. Even though Herod tries to gain their trust so he can find and eliminate this threat to his power, the wise men outsmart him and go visit Jesus anyway. But when they visit him they bring three very strange gifts.
First, they give Jesus gold, which symbolizes his kingship. They recognize his authority, even if the world doesn’t.
Second, they give him frankincense, which symbolizes his divinity. These wise men, who aren’t even from the Jewish tradition, recognize that the Christ child is of God.
Finally, they give Jesus myrrh. Myrrh was traditionally used in the burial of the body. This third gift is almost a foreshadowing of how Christ will be received into the world. Instead of a joyful birth narrative, here we have three strangers both worshiping and grieving God born into the world.
And immediately following this passage, we get the horrible story of the slaughter of the innocents. Herod, hoping to eliminate the threat in his kingdom, orders all children younger than two years old murdered.
Jesus is born into a vile, vile world. A world in which thousands of children are sacrificed for no reason other than one man’s quest for power.
We recognize this world, because it is not that different from our own. We are too familiar with the way murder and killing destroys families and communities. We have experienced it in our own town and watched protests around the world. We have mourned Hannah Graham, Alexis Murphy and Robin and Mani Aldridge. We have mourned with black communities and with police officers. We have watched in horror as Boko Haram and ISIS have terrorized our brothers and sisters to the east.
We live in an adult world filled with violence and pain. We need a God that can handle complexity, handle our sin, and see the good in us despite all the evidence to the contrary. We need a God that can handle those in power, whose goodness can overpower the evil of the corrupt.
And so Matthew gives us his nativity story. A story that reminds us that God knew exactly what he was doing. He was sending his Son to be born in a world filled with corruption and violence. But God didn’t fight corruption and violence with political power or more violence. Instead, he chose an ordinary faithful girl from a faithful family. He chose an ordinary faithful fiancé, who would do the right thing even when his first instinct was to back away.
And together Mary and Joseph managed to birth the Son of God into the world. And protect and raise the child with all the strength and wisdom he would need to do his terribly difficult job.
Even in the midst of a vile and corrupt world, with God’s help ordinary people managed to birth light into the world.
No matter how overwhelming our world may seem, with God’s help we too can bring light into the darkness.
My sister, Marianne, spent part of a summer in Sierra Leone doing teacher training a few years ago. She made some good friends there and keeps in touch with them through Facebook and email. I have been so struck by friends of hers like Samuel Sesay, who sent his family to the US so they would be safe, but stayed behind to help serve his community. He tells stories of so many faithful Chrsitians facing the darkness of this terrifying disease, but remaining home so they can deliver supplies, help enforce quarantines, and lead worship services for communities in real crisis. Christians like Samuel are bringing light into darkness. Hope into what must feel like a hopeless situation.
What’s wonderful to me is how many of you are the faithful people of our generation, birthing light into the world every day. Bringing Jesus with you as you parent, grandparent and foster parent. Bringing light with you as you care for an aging spouse. Bringing light with you as you interact with patients, clients and students. Bringing light with you as you pray for peace and fight for justice.
Bringing light into the world is hard work. But it lightens our load when we remember that it is not our job to generate the light. We are not mice on a wheel trying hard to create enough energy for God to show up.
God is already here, waiting to bring love and light into our lives.
No matter how dark it might appear to you, God is here, ready to share his light with you.
Thanks be to God.