Dear Working Preacher,
This is a heavy, even difficult story to read just four days after Christmas. If I were the senior editor on this project, I would probably have wanted to close with the scene of the exotic and adoring magi presenting the baby Jesus with gifts on bended knee. But not Matthew. Matthew tells a story that is grittier, more disturbing, but also and ultimately more realistic. And perhaps that’s the main value of reading and preaching this story so close to Christmas.
Because the thing is, Jesus’ birth upset the order. He comes as God’s chosen king, the one who is to bring about the peace, justice, and equity of the kingdom of God. And so all earthly kings who put their own power and privilege first are terrified. Herod is a good, but by no means lone, example. So terrified is he of the promise that God will, in this child, restore peace and justice that he is willing to slaughter the infants of a whole region. So Joseph, warned by an angel, flees this carnage and moves his family to Egypt.
Such a grim account of wholesale massacre and night flights to safety would seem far-fetched were it not for similar atrocities and tragedies happening right now. How many families, for instance, are being dislocated in Syria even as we gather for worship? And how many children are being starved to death around the world as we finish up or throw away holiday leftovers? And how many families, perhaps some even in our congregations, are contending with their own private sorrows and hardships only exacerbated by expectations for a perfect Christmas?
So while the story Matthew tells may be dark and difficult, it isn’t even a little bit far-fetched.
Which is why, of course, he tells it. To let us know that in Jesus, Emmanuel, God did indeed draw near to us, took on our lot and our life, and experienced and endured all that we did — disappointment, fear, violence, even death. All so that we would know that we are not alone — that we do not suffer alone, fear alone, live and die alone. If anything, this is Matthew’s version of the Incarnation, part 2.
Sometimes life is beautiful and wonderful and filled with goodness and grace. And God is a part of that, giving blessing and celebrating with us and for us. And sometimes life is hard, gritty, disappointing, and filled with heartache. And God is part of that as well, holding on to us, comforting us, blessing us with promise that God will stay with us through the good and the bad, drawing us ever more deeply into God’s loving embrace and promising that nothing — not even death — will separate us from God.
So tell Matthew’s story, Working Preacher. Tell of the gifts of the magi and their sudden departure. Tell of the warning of the angel and the slaughter of the innocents. Tell of a displaced family and the fear and insecurity that attended them. And then remind your people that God is not only with the characters of this story, but also working through their triumphs and tragedies in order to work salvation in and for the world.
And then go one step further, Working Preacher, and make them a promise. Promise your people — promise all of us! — that God is likewise with us, holding onto us through the joys and sorrows, working through the triumphs and tragedies that attend our lives — all to share the news of the salvation God has wrought in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The Christmas story begins with the birth of a child. But it doesn’t end until this child has grown up, preached God’s mercy, been crucified and died and then raised again. Actually, it doesn’t end until Jesus draws all of us into that same story, raising us up to new life even amid the very real challenges that face each of us here and now.
This story matters because it tells us the truth: the sometimes difficult truth of unjust rulers and violence and private grief and personal pain and all the rest. But also the always hopeful truth that God has not stood back at a distance, but in Jesus has joined God’s own self to our story and is working — even now, even here — to grant us new life that we may not just endure but flourish, experiencing resurrection joy and courage in our daily lives and sharing our hope with others.
Thanks for your part in telling the whole story, Working Preacher. Blessed Christmas.
Yours in Christ,