Lectionary blog for Jan. 1
The First Sunday of Christmas/Holy Innocents
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148;
Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
When my boys were little, they loved Richard Scarry’s Christmas Book. It is a book with no words, just pictures. It shows a traditional New England or Midwestern town going through the Advent season. There are pictures of families decorating the house, and baking, and eating cookies and pies.
It shows the town workers putting up lights and decorations downtown, and Sunday school folk at Christmas play practice, and Santa Claus in the toy section of the department store. There is a scene of candlelight communion at the church and a Christmas Day multi-generational family dinner followed by the opening of gifts around the tree and a blazing fireplace.
Throughout December, the boys would sit on my lap, and we would page through this book. The last page was a panorama showing Christmas trees out by the mail-box to be picked up by the garbage man, people going to work, city workers taking down lights and decorations, kids getting on the school bus, etc. etc. When we got to that page, the boys loved to slam the book shut and shout at the top of their lungs, “BACK TO NORMAL!” Christmas Day 2016 has come and gone and we have to ask ourselves, “Has the celebration of the birth of Christ, the observance of Christmas, really changed anything? Or was it just a brief interlude before we collectively get back to normal?”
Looking at our story from the Gospel of Matthew, it’s hard to see where the birth of the baby Jesus has improved anything for anybody. Mary and Joseph have gone from a happy couple planning a wedding in their village to outcasts whose baby was born in a spare room in a strange town. And now, their life gets even worse; they have become “illegal aliens,” “political refugees,” “strangers in a strange land.” They are hiding from cruel King Herod, who has indeed been changed by the birth of Christ but not in a good way. He has become more and more paranoid and bloodthirsty, taking out his anger and his fear on the innocent, little children of Bethlehem.
At first glance, it does not appear that the first Christmas has done anything but make matters worse for everyone involved. Where’s the good news in that? Again, we must ask: Has the birth of the Christ child changed anything, or are we always and forever back to a numbing normal?
This sense that things have not improved is not just in the Bible, it’s the world. It’s on TV and the internet; it’s halfway around the world and in our own backyard. The slaughter of the innocents, including children, through violence, sickness, starvation and neglect continues unabated. Is this the normal we come back to after the warmth and glow of Christmas? Did the birth of the Christ change nothing?
We must remember that the birth of Jesus was a beginning, not an end. For many people, the month of December, the time leading up Christmas Day, is “the Christmas season.” For them, Christmas Day is the end to which all preparations have been directed. When Christmas Day comes and goes, Christmas is over for them.
But for those of us who follow the church calendar, this is not so. We know that the time leading up to Christmas Day is not the Christmas season; it is Advent, a time to prepare for Christ to come to us. The Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and continues until the Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas.
The church calendar teaches us an important spiritual lesson: The work of salvation, of rescue, of change is a gradual work that does not happen suddenly in us, nor does it show itself to all people in the same way and at the same time. The work of God in Christ takes place slowly— Christ changes us and works in, with and through us to change the world.
I once heard professor Tony Campolo tell a story about one of his students. Tony required his sociology students to volunteer at a downtown Philadelphia rescue mission. There was a man at that mission whom Campolo called “Joe.” He had once been a homeless drunk, but he had gotten “saved” and got clean and sober and then got a job. Joe also was a very caring and compassionate man who spent a lot of time at the rescue mission helping others. He willingly did the grunt work—mopping up vomit, scrubbing toilets, feeding people who were too sick to feed themselves; he was the “Mother Teresa” of that rescue mission.
One night, Campolo preached what is sometimes referred to as the “Sermon before Supper,” a brief worship service before the free meal is handed out. Most of the guests endure it, just waiting until it is over so that they can eat. But this night, one man responded to the sermon by coming forward to the pulpit and kneeling down to pray out loud. He cried out to God: “Change my life; make me like Joe; make me like Joe; make me like Joe!” One of the sociology students was kneeling with the man and whispered in his ear, “Don’t you think it would be better if you prayed: Make me like Jesus?” The man stopped praying and looked at the student and said, “This Jesus, is he like Joe?”
Christmas comes and Christmas goes, and year after year the world returns to its normal pace. But, if indeed the Christ child has been born in us, it is the beginning, not the end. We can never return to normal ever again. We have received the grace to be like Jesus, to be like Joe, to be like the godly, caring and compassionate person God made each and every one of us to be. We have been changed by God, and we are invited by God to go into the world with the love of Christ living in us so that the world might never be normal again.
Amen and amen.