Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Okay, if y'all would all take out your bibles and open them up to the gospel of Matthew, chapter two, beginning at the thirteenth verse....
A priest friend of mine in Vicksburg told me she begins all her sermons that way. The congregation wasn't too sure about it at first, and perhaps most still aren't. But recently, she told me, after a year and a half of encouraging people to open up their bibles, she was met at the church doors by a parishioner with a wide grin on his face and a tattered leather bible in his hands....
Like many Episcopal churches on Sunday mornings, we use these little bulletin inserts as our bibles. They have all three readings, the psalm, and the collect of the day (a prayer that helps lead us into worship) - it's actually a helpful resource for folks who have trouble hearing the readers or who like to reflect on the readings throughout the week. But sometimes I think these inserts do us more harm than good. We get locked into the words printed here, with little or no reference to the scriptural contexts from which they were lifted - to what came just before or just after the passage, or, in today's case, to what was mysteriously left out of the middle.
When verses are omitted from a reading, it's often because they're repetitive or because they digress from the main focus of the passage. Sometimes, I suspect, they're omitted because they're difficult.
Listen to the piece our printed gospel reading leaves out, just after Joseph has obediently followed the angel's warning that the infant Jesus is already in danger, and that Joseph must take Mary and Jesus and flee from Bethlehem. Remember that the wise men, secretly commissioned by Herod to report on the whereabouts of the baby boy, had also been warned in a dream not to trust Herod, and so they took the long way home, bypassing the king. The missing verses read: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; because they are no more.'
We would have read these verses if we had gathered here on December 28. They tell the story of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by King Herod in his furious effort to rid himself of the one child who was rumored to be king of kings and lord of lords. We did not gather here, but many of us were probably gathered with family or friends or coworkers watching television that day, still numb from learning that many tens of thousands of holy innocents - children and adults - had died just as swiftly and violently in the thundering waves of the Indian Ocean.
Perhaps, had there been no earthquake, no tsunami, perhaps we could have let the readings remain as they were designated. They describe God's power and determination to save us, to wonderfully create and yet more wonderfully restore us, to guide us in the way of peace and safety, to bring us home, to make us glad. It is still Christmas, after all, when we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It is still the season of herald angels singing, of joy to the world.
But it is an advent carol, I think, that names a deeper truth about Christmas - a darker truth, perhaps, a truth born out of December 28 and now also born out of December 26. The carol reads, "Now comes the day of salvation. In joy and terror the Word is born." Joy and terror. Mary and Jospeh rejoiced in the birth of their son. So did angels and shepherds and wise men. So did we. It was a night of celebration, of glory to God in the highest. A night of joy.
But the parents of the rest of the baby boys in Bethlehem were horrified by the death of their children. So were the compilers of our lectionary, perhaps. So are we. It was a night of weeping, of wailing and loud lamentation. A night of terror.
In joy and terror the Word is born. In joy and terror we live our lives. The joys and terrors come in all shapes and sizes, don't they? Sometimes we make them happen, sometimes they happen to us. Sometimes we barely notice the ripples, sometimes they crash over our heads and threaten to consume us.
The terror unleashed by a power-hungry king and the terror unleashed by a rushing wall of water aren't of the same making - one is by intent and the other by chane - but their impact is the same. Lives are lost, hope is drowned in salt-water tears.
The deepest, darkest, and, I would submit, the most wonderful truth of Christmas is that Jesus was born in a stable in a world that is anything but stable. A world in which people are driven by fear to violence, in which even nature itself seems, at times, cruel. In joy and terror the Word is born.
In joy and terror God became God-with-us. For all the terror we experience, for all the terror we create, Jesus was God's response - Love come down from heaven. God-with-us, God-among-us, God-in-the-midst-of-and-so-intimately-knowing-our-joy-and-our-terror. Jesus was God's response to us.
The world didn't suddenly become a better place the moment Jesus was born. Sickness didn't vanish, injustice didn't disappear, tectonic plates didn't stop shifting, people didn't become nicer overnight. Some, like Herod, were so threatened by Jesus that they responded to Love-come-down with unthinkable violence.
They say that tragedy brings out our best and our worst, and we know it's true. We do our worst when we act out of fear that there isn't enough to go around. Herod was afraid that there wouldn't be enough power to share with another who claimed to be king of Jews, and so he slaughtered all who might have grown up to be that king. In southeast Asia, as in so many other times and places when homes and business are rendered vulnerable by tragedy, there has been looting, scrambling for resources that might run out before they get to everyone. We do our worst when we act out of fear that there isn't enough to go around.
We do our best when we act despite our fear that there isn't enough to go around, despite our fear that acting will deplete what little there is, despite our fear that it will cost us everything. Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife, but he acted despite that fear. He and Mary were surely afraid to take their newborn son on a perilous journey through the desert to a foreign land, but they acted despite that fear. We have heard countless stories of men and women afraid their strength was running out who still reached for the hands of others in the swirling waters. Of residents and tourists in tsunami devastated areas who shared what small supplies of food and water they could find in the rubble. Of people all over the world who, with holiday bills piled up on the tables, have written generous checks to aid organizations.
Isn't this what Incarnation is all about? About God giving it all despite the risk of losing everything? Jesus was born into a world where bad things happen - sometimes by intent, sometimes by chance, but where bad things happen. He was born in a stable. He was born to parents who couldn't scrape together enough money to make a proper temple sacrifice. He was born in a country ruled by a cruel and violent king. He was born into a people who would betray and crucify him, the holiest innocent of all.
And what was God's response? It seems that our very worst brought out God's very best when the first light of morning shone into an empty tomb. At the late service on Christmas Eve we read from the beginning of John's gospel the deepest, darkest, most wonderful truth of Jesus Christ: What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
In a stable, surrounded by instability, light came into the world and has not been extinguished. Indeed, the darker things become, the more brightly the light seems to shine, although the light itself does not change. See for yourselves at home. Light a candle in a bright room, and then one by one turn out all the other lights. Close the curtains. Lay a blanket across the space at the bottom of the door. The darker you make the room, the more pronounced will be the candle's flame. Darkness itself cannot extinguish light - only we can do that. Will we? Will that be our response?
Or will we do our best to be the light of the world that Jesus has called us to be? Will we do our best to carry the light of Christ into the darkest places of the world, into the darkest places of our own lives, so that all may see the love of God so deep and wonderful that it risked everything for us?
Joy and terror. There are still Herods out there. There is mourning. There is sorrow. There are still hurricanes and tsunamis. It is dark. But it is precisely into this dark place that Jesus was born so that God might know our darkness and we might know God's light. May that light bring out the best in us. May we not be afraid to give it freely. Try this with your candle at home - from your single candle, light another and see that the light does not diminish from being given away. It increases. So it is with the light that has come into the world. Amen.