When the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her she would bear a Son and he would be Great and all those wonderful things, I bet she didn’t expect it to turn out like this.
First, having to travel, heavy with child, and then give birth in a strange place, far from home, with all sorts of strange people turning up and with even stranger messages and gifts. And now, fleeing for their lives. To the land of bondage. The land their ancestors escaped centuries ago; the escape they celebrate every year in the Feast of Passover. A land of bondage but also a land of refuge.
I know, I just switched gospels there. In this gospel, Matthew’s gospel, God communicates with the Holy Family through Joseph’s dreams, not once or twice, but four times. Mary’s pregnancy (and the identity of her child) is revealed to Joseph in a dream.
The magi follow a prophecy and a star to the birthplace of the King of the Jews, after an unfortunate stopover at the court of King Herod. They, too, are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go home by a different route.
And that’s where we like to end the story. Exotic majesty and mysterious gifts and glorious stars.
But today, we hear about what comes next, while still avoiding the worst part. This is the dark side of the Christmas story, the part we don’t like to hear. Maybe it’s because it reveals the darkest side of humanity, the dark side of ourselves.
The Magi’s stop in Jerusalem unleashed the powerful, jealous violence of Herod. Even more troubling to our sensibilities, to our souls, though, is that there were people willing to carry out Herod’s terrifying order. It’s chilling.
Whether or not the details are true, if this particular event actually took place in history, the story makes us squirm because it is true. It tells us the truth about human beings – this same atrocity has been carried out countless times in human history. That’s what is so chilling about this story.
And yet, it is what gives us such hope in this story. It is into precisely that world that God chooses to be born into real human life. And then, almost immediately experiences some of the worst of what humanity has to offer and the family must flee for their lives (in a dream, again - an angel warns Joseph) while children are slaughtered behind them.
They are fleeing, in danger, not because they are poor or outcast or because they are Jews. No, they are political refugees. They are fleeing because of the prophecies and the promises of God; because Herod is afraid.
Because of what Gabriel said to Mary, “He will be great, he will be called Son of the Most High. He will be given the throne of David and will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his reign will have no end. He will be called the Son of God.”
Because of what the angel said to Joseph in his dream, “he is the one who is to save his people.” Because of what the magi asked, “Where is the infant king of the Jews?”
While Herod was struck with fear, Mary pondered all these things in her heart. I wonder if she was thinking, “What have I gotten into?”
Now, I want you to stop and think about this, because it is utterly amazing. God chose to be with us in all the mess and horrors of real life, as well as the joy of living in a real family loved by a very human mother and father and friends in a community that knew him from infancy.
Jesus doesn’t escape or avoid the hard realities of life: the pain, the hardship, the poverty, the persecution or any of the rest. Jesus dives into the darkness and draws us into the love of God.
Jesus comes, not to conquer, not to fix, not to change human nature. Jesus comes to show us just how very much God loves us. He comes to show us how we can be in relationship with God, how to live, how to love our neighbors.
Jesus comes to show us the kingdom of heaven – what God desires for us what God dreams for us. Jesus comes to turn us back to God.
Jesus comes to show us God’s vision and that God is with us, helping us in all that we do as we persevere in resisting evil as we seek and serve Christ in one another and love our neighbors as ourselves as we strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being. ….. the promises in our baptismal covenant.
That is why we sing, as we did in the sequence hymn,
Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her king.
Let every heart prepare him room
and heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the world! The Savior reigns.
Let us our songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy.
He rules the earth with truth and grace
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love.
And wonders of his love.
Joy to you, this Christmastide.