— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
(Summary of the visit of the magi – “the scholars”– story…)
After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.”
Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”
Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:
“A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.”
Later, when Herod died, God’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: “Up, take the child and his mother and return to Israel. All those out to murder the child are dead.”
Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother, and reentered Israel. When he heard, though, that Archelaus had succeeded his father, Herod, as king in Judea, he was afraid to go there. But then Joseph was directed in a dream to go to the hills of Galilee. On arrival, he settled in the village of Nazareth. This move was a fulfillment of the prophetic words, “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:13-23 as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message).
What a day it was! February 9th, 2001, the birth date of one Elizabeth Louise Prim, also known as Bess. We worked hard to get the nursery just right. Anne Forrest, Bess’ mom and my wife, worked hard throughout the pregnancy to stay healthy so as to give Bess a running start. The doctors stayed in close contact and all was prepared. At 8:00 a.m. to the minute Bess came into our world! It was a great day!
Bess was breach (which, I am a little embarrassed to say, I did not know what that meant – for anyone else who may not know it means she had her head up rather than down). Because she was breach and could not be massaged into the normal position, Bess was delivered by C-section. One person, Dick Pruett, said we sang “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” and Bess was just following directions! We wanted a more natural birth, but this was the safest way for Bess to make her entrance since she insisted on keeping her rear end as opposed to her head close to the ground.
There are a few advantages to a C-section. You get to name the date – within reason; so, family and friends and church can make preparations. And on that morning we were mentally ready. We made a video the night before to show Bess what a difference a day can make. We were prepared because we knew the date and the time the birth would begin.
Yet, as they took Anne Forrest to the surgery room, they handed me a gown and a mask and told me to put them on. All of a sudden my heart started to beat really fast and my breathing became shallow. Great, I thought, I am going to faint. Slow down…breathe…calm yourself…and I started to put the robe on. One leg went into the suit no problem. As I tried to get the other leg in, however, I was hopping around and nearly falling over. It would not go in. The nurse came in the room. “Are you ready?” she asked. “Not exactly,” I said. “I can’t get into this thing.”
She looked at the suit and took out her scissors and started cutting the pants leg to make it go over my shoe. As she is cutting she is telling me this has never happened before. And then it came clear – I had put one leg in the right place, but the other leg I was trying to fit into one of the sleeves of the suit. Ha! Ha! Ha! The nurse got a kick out of it, and the entire surgical staff and my wife about to go under the knife were laughing as I came into the room where Bess was to be born! It was the one helpful thing I did that day – help my wife to laugh.
I think I’ll always be sentimental about Bess’ birthday and Will’s birthday which would follow about 19 months later. It was such an emotional day, such a glorious day, such a miraculous time!
I suspect that Joseph and Mary felt sentimental about the day of Jesus’ birth. I bet they relived the little details of that special day. They probably told the story over and over again of how he cried, of where they were and who was there, of how nervous they were, of how comforted and overwhelmed they felt when they saw that he was healthy…all of it lodged in the hearts of Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph. It was a tender time for them.
This season, the Christmas season, is ripe with tender emotions, with sentiment. Family, friends, candlelight services, George Bailey finding ZuZu’s petals, the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes, Ralphy shooting his eye out, Linus telling Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about, Ebenezer Scrooge learning from the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Christmas bathes us with warmth and sentiment.
Then on this first Sunday after Christmas day – this year only four days later – Matthew and the Christian liturgical tradition thrust us into this narrative filled with darkness, violence, murder, and fear. The gospel and the tradition in which we are coming to life will not allow us to bask in a false world of pure sentimentality. These sacred stories face, head on, the human tendency toward destruction. And Matthew gives it to us layer upon layer.
No Jewish mind or heart could hear this story of Mary and Joseph having to escape into Egypt because of a power-mad despot without also thinking of Moses being spared by the actions of his faithful family from the murderous rage of the Pharaoh who ordered the deaths of all Hebrew male boys. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were a new Moses family to lead the people out of the bondage of slavery into freedom.
While this story is an abrupt intrusion into our Christmas cheer it remains a story we need to hear. God enters into the human situation even in the darkest of places, even in the harshest of fears, even in the deepest of hatreds. God in Jesus is breaking down the kingdoms built on violence and fear and building new ones built on peace and love.
After a time Joseph, the faithful dreamer, was told to return to Israel. Herod was dead, and his death made it safer for the holy family to return home.
The safety would be short lived, however, because there are always Herods in the world. There will always be people who want the world to bend to their twisted notions of power. There will always be people who live in fear and strike out in order to establish their place, and little children and the poor will always be the most to suffer.
Over and over and over again God raises people up who believe in the deepest truth, the most profound reality. Over and over again God raises up a Moses to lead the people into the land of milk and honey, the land of life built upon the enduring love of God. Herod is always out there, but we do not have to make alliances with him. Herod’s world of fear, violence, and hatred will be toppled, if the Christmas story is to be believed, by a little baby conceived by the love of God and who grows up to be a man who fully embodies God’s grace and peace even as Herod finally finds him and nails him to a tree.
So, we can be sentimental at this time of year, but it is a real mistake to think that following Jesus is all warmth and light. To reduce the Christian faith to such notions is to reduce the church into a greeting card company. To let pure sentimentality be the driving force of our experience of the faith makes for a shallow pool that really doesn’t do much in the way of carrying abundant life.
On the way home from the hospital with Bess – after everything had gone really well, except for the wasted surgical gown – we had Bess all bundled up and safely strapped into our new mini-van and were headed for the sweet, loving warmth of her freshly painted nursery. We were on 17 north just crossing the White County line when we pulled up behind a truck driving very slowly with a tarp loosely strapped over its load. We drove for a while before we realized that the loose, dark stuff that was flying out of the truck and bathing our new mini-van was not something we wanted to have all over the car carrying our sweet and defenseless baby girl. I was first introduced to this stuff when my office window was open one Spring after the field that surrounds this church was fertilized. The chicken industry is really amazing in its utilization of every by-product! As we were driving home from our miraculous birthing of Bess we were being showered with chicken… excrement!
It is always best to remember the whole story…
the good, the bad, the sentimental, the harsh.
And here’s the gospel truth – God is in the midst of it all.