December 27, 2015 | Matthew 2: 13-23 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
Both my children were born with the assistance of a doula (a labour coach.) Thank goodness for that because I knew nothing about supporting someone through the arduous task of giving birth and I knew even less about being a parent at least not the first time around. Because I was so ignorant of what I was getting myself into, when my partner Brenda was in labour the first time around and the doula told me to go to bed and get some rest because I was going to need it for the next night, I responded by asking “why? Aren’t we going to have a baby by tomorrow night?” thinking perhaps the labour was going to go on for a couple days. To which our doula replied “yes, you are going to have a baby tomorrow night and you’re going to need your energy to take care of it.”
Even though our doula was right about needing my energy to care for our new baby, the truth is that for me at least, those first few weeks after our firstborn came into the world it was as it we were living in a bubble. I can remember napping when the baby napped, which was often, and enjoying the company of family and friends who brought food over to the house to help us in those early days. And I distinctly remember not wanting to know or really even caring about what was going on in the rest of the world. All of our energy went into caring for and treasuring our beautiful little new arrival.
Here we are a short day and a half after the Christ child has been delivered into the manger and I’m thinking most of us are in that same kind of after birth bubble. The tree is still up and decorated. If we’re lucky there’s one or two shortbread cookies left in the tin and enough turkey to make leftover sandwiches until new year’s. If we’re not boxing week bargain shopping, we’re likely curling up by the fire with a book or hitting the slopes or taking a brisk walk in the woods, visiting with friends and family, trying the best we can just to savour the holidays and bask in the glow of the angel choir. It’s time for rest and renewal.
The last thing we want is to hear about this morning is how after the Magi had offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh King Herod put a bounty on the baby’s head and went on a rampage slaughtering all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.
This fall our Animate Bible study group spent a lot of time talking about the strange and violent parts of the scriptures and what we should do with them and today’s reading definitely fits that category. Many people who gathered in churches the last couple days who have no idea about this part of Matthew’s telling of the story that ends with Mary and Joseph fleeing their homeland by cover of dark seeking refuge in a country that at one time their ancestors had been enslaved in.
But for the original hearers of Matthew’s gospel this part of the story would have been every bit as important as the part about the Magi bearing gifts. That’s because Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish Christian community. They would easily have recognized in the story of Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt in response to King Herod’s edict to rid the country of all children under the age of 2 and then their return back to Israel as an echo of their own story, the story of the exodus in which the Hebrew people once living under the vicious rule of the Pharoah were delivered to the promised land by Moses. They would have known that the writer of Matthew’s gospel was setting Jesus up to be the new Moses.
But we don’t have to have that particular story in our bones to recognize this story we heard this morning because we have seared in our collective conscious the image of another child and his parents fleeing their homeland seeking protection from a bully of a ruler. We can still see his limp little body hanging in the arms of the Turkish police officer who recovered his lifeless body from the water. We don’t need to know the story of the exodus, in order to know about mothers weeping inconsolably over the loss of innocent children, or the miracle of birth interrupted by the harsh reality of the world around it, because that’s our story too.
If it’s not a story about refugees and innocent children we weep over, it’s countless other tragedies and life challenges we mourn. We know that not every baby gets born in a bubble like so many of ours do, we know there is much grief and pain to tend to and we long for respite and relief from it all, but the world keeps telling us there is more work to be done.
All of which might leave us asking. What happened to the part of the story where we were told this baby, born in a stable is the child that changes everything? What has changed? Is anything different in our world?
The way Matthew tells the story, the world doesn’t get cleaned up, sanitized and made presentable just because the Christ child is born. According to Matthew, in the birth of Jesus God becomes one of us and lives among us, just as we are and just the way it seems we always have been.
What changes is that we have a new beginning, another opportunity to claim the truth about ourselves and about our world. And that truth we can choose to claim is that the Christ light for which we have waited and longed for in these months has been born not in a stable or in a story from some place long ago and far away, but right here within you and within me.
This light, this love that has been born within us is a very powerful force of life. Is has the capacity to lure and transform us and our world, but it is also vulnerable and fragile, just like a baby. It needs to be cherished and cared for and protected.
In these postpartum days of rest and renewal poised at the threshold of another new year we might want to ask ourselves just how are we going to cherish, care and protect the light and the love we have received in this season? We might want to consider (as a church or as individuals) how we can be a place welcome for those who are seeking a safe refuge.
Last night we had dinner with friends who told us about a series of questions their young adult son spontaneously asked them on Christmas Eve. Gathered around their family advent wreath as they lit the candles of hope, peace, joy and love he asked What are our hopes for our life together as a family? How can we have more peace in our relationships with one another? How can we bring more joy into our family gatherings? How can we love each other better? Then they lit the Christ candle and he asked how can we be more like Christ?
What do you think our world would look like if we asked each other those questions on a regular basis?
If you really are too weary from your labours to be asking such deep questions on a lazy Sunday morning, despite all the doom and gloom of this morning’s scripture reading there is still one more piece of hope embedded in the story, a faint whisper of God’s voice. And it has to do with all the dreaming that goes on in the story. No less than three times, Joseph is warned to take his wife and child to a safer place. Once when he is told to go to Egypt, then when he is told to return home and lastly when he’s told not to go back to Bethlehem because another cruel ruler had taken Herod’s place on the throne, but rather to go to the town of Nazareth.
You see, while we are sleeping, while we have put up our feet to rest, God the one we call the source of life and the source of love and all the forces of good in the world are still actively at work. When darkness and shadow are all about, the light of the world is still alive, a source of guidance and encouragement, wisdom and strength presenting itself to us in vivid dreams and quiet whispers. And if we attend to those whispers and voices in our waking hours they guide us in the way of peace if we choose to let them do so, and sometimes despite our less than perfect choices.
In the words of poet Jan Richardson:
When we are spent from the labor and longing to rest in our deliverance,
when we hunger to stay in the celebration and crave a lasting sabbath,
you tell us this is where our work begins.
For the labor that is never over, give us strength;
for the healing that is ever before us, give us courage.
May our resting be for renewal, not forever;
and may we work for nothing save that which makes your people whole.
** Jan Richardson, Night Visions