Sunday December 29th 2019
Pastor Galen Zook
Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23
First Sunday After Christmas
The “Magic” wears off quickly
Christmas is a wonderful time of the year. The lights, the candles, the music, the trees and decorations and gifts. Time together with family. These are truly sacred moments.
But the magic of Christmas wears off rather quickly doesn’t it? For you, maybe it was when you had to wake up to go to work the next day, or when you were left to do the clean up all by yourself after all of your family members were gone, or when everyone else had gone to bed.
Perhaps the magic wore off even on Christmas day when the kids started fighting (or your relatives of other ages started fighting!), or when the kids said they were bored, and you realized there was a whole week left before they had to go back to school!
Some of us are happy to move on from Christmas. We’re tired of seeing Christmas decorations, tired of hearing Christmas songs. The stores started decorating for Christmas before Halloween, and now that all the Christmas gifts have been unwrapped and the holiday meals are finished, maybe you just want it to all be over.
Historically Christmas was a twelve-day celebration, beginning on December 25th. The period leading up to Christmas is called Advent, where we’re awaiting the celebration of Christmas, and then the period between December 25th and January 6th is Christmas itself, but our society gets it all mixed up. We start celebrating Christmas way too early, skip over advent, and then by the time December 25th is here, we are ready to start packing everything up!
So Now What?
But whether you’re celebrating all twelve days of Christmas, or whether you’ve already put your Christmas decorations away, I’d like to invite us to dwell in the meaning of Christmas for just a little bit longer, and to ask ourselves the question, “So What Now?”
I don’t just mean, “what do we do with our children for the next 4 days until they go back to school?” I mean, how should we live now that Christ has been born? And how do we live out the promises of Christmas in a world where all is not right, where all is not wonderful and magical?
For Mary and Joseph, the magic and wonder of that first Christmas was met soon afterwards by the harsh reality of life, when an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that King Herod was out to kill baby Jesus, and that they needed to flee for their lives all the way to the land of Egypt. Talk about the reality of life hitting you hard!
All of the prophecies leading up to the birth of Christ seemed to indicate that the world would be completely different once the Messiah was born. We read many of these prophecies during the Advent — prophecies of the wolf and lamb living together in harmony (Is. 11:6), prophecies of people beating their swords into plowshares and studying war no more (Is. 2:4. Prophecies about how God would be a shepherd to the people and care for them (Micah 5:4).
But Jesus was born, and tyrannical governors like Herod still ruled in this world. Jesus was born, and yet Mary and Joseph were forced to flee for their lives. Jesus has been born, and yet poverty, and homelessness, and addiction, and domestic violence, and wars still take place. Jesus has been born, and yet there is still sickness, and death and disease.
How do we live in a world in which these things occur? How do we live in a world in which all is not the way it should be, even as we wait and long for the day when Christ returns to make everything right?
The Example of Mary and Joseph
I’m struck by the fact that Mary and Joseph followed the directions given by the angel. They fled to Egypt. A 430-mile journey, with an infant or toddler does not sound like fun for anyone, let alone in a time when there were no cars, planes, trains, or buses!
But they followed the directions of the angel, and they fled. They didn’t argue or negotiate, they didn’t live in blind optimism that everything would turn out OK if they stayed. They listened to the Lord, and they took the necessary steps to ensure the safety of their family.
We have no idea what life was like for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Egypt, or even how long they needed to stay there. In the book of Jeremiah, we see that a remnant of Jewish people had fled to Egypt (600 years before the birth of Christ) and had even taken the prophet Jeremiah along with them against his will (Jer. 43:6-7). By the time of Jesus’s birth, there was a large number of Jewish people living in Egypt — some estimate that over 300,000 Jews lived in the city of Alexandria alone! (⅓ of the total population of the city of 1 million people).
And so Mary and Joseph followed the directions given by the messenger of the Lord, traveled hundreds of miles, crossed international borders, and lived in Egypt until they received word that it was safe to return home. Even when they returned home, they decided to settle in Galilee, in the northern part of Palestine, since King Herod’s relative was on the throne in Judea.
Joseph and Mary didn’t give up on the promises of God. They continued to trust and believe that their son would be the Savior of the world, as the angel had promised (Matt. 1:21). But they were also attentive to the things going on around them, and they took appropriate precautions. They balanced realism and optimism, hope and rational thinking. They lived faith-filled lives, and faithfully carried out the task that God had given them to do, and in so doing they played an active role in God’s redemption plan for the world!
As I’ve been reflecting on the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, I’ve been thinking about how many people in our world today are currently displaced, how many people are currently in a situation where they have been forced to flee for their lives.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency
- We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.
- An unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.9 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
- There are also millions of stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
- 1 person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.
This of course is not just a recent phenomenon. My own ancestors fled to the U.S. to escape religious persecution in Europe in the 1700’s, and many of you probably have ancestors who came to the U.S. fleeing the threat of violence back home, or perhaps simply seeking a better life for their children and grandchildren.
Here in our own city, it is estimated that there are 2,500 men, women, and children who are homeless on any given night.
Not all of them are homeless because they were fleeing dangerous situations, but undoubtedly some are. This past Monday, I received a call here on the church phone from a woman who had been in Baltimore for only two days. She admitted to me that she is a recovering addict, but she said that she had left her home in Pennsylvania because she had been living in an unsafe situation. Someone had promised her a place to stay here in Baltimore, but when she arrived there was absolutely no food in the house. There were numerous people living in the house, including children, but no food to be found. It being a few days before Christmas, most of the places she had called were closed, and some of the phone numbers she tried calling were no longer in service. She said we were the only place who returned her call. We were able to give her and her boyfriend two bags of groceries and several loaves of bread, for which she was immensely grateful.
All of this is a stark reminder to me that we live in a world where not all is not right in the world. Not all of God’s promises have yet been fulfilled. There is still violence and conflict, and as long as there is conflict and violence in our world, there will be people who, like Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, are forced to flee for their lives.
Peace, Hope, Joy and Love
And so how do we live in a world where all is not right, where so many people are forcibly displaced from their homes, where so many children go to bed hungry every night, and where so many people live in constant fear for their lives?
Like Mary and Joseph, we cling to and proclaim the promise that in Christ God is with us, that in Christ God’s mercy, and grace, and salvation are free and available to all. And we look forward to the day when Christ will return to make everything right.
We look to the future with hope, but we also seek to faithfully carry out the tasks that God has given to us in the present. We welcome the strangers, we feed those who are hungry. If Jesus and his family were refugees in Egypt, then surely we can work to provide safety and security to those around us who are vulnerable and dislocated from their homes. We work for the good of our community, and we seek to bring about peace, recognizing that God still uses faithful, faith-filled people, to help carry out God’s plan of redemption in the world.
And ultimately, we point people to the one who loves us and who gave his life for us. We point them to Jesus — Emmanuel — God with us. The one who came to save us from our sins, the only one who can bring lasting peace, hope, joy, and love.
And so this morning, let us open our hearts toward all who are displaced, all those who come to us in need, all those who are discouraged, or depressed, or downtrodden. Let us ask God to help us see the face of Christ in all who are oppressed, in all who are in need of God’s love, mercy, and grace. Let us proclaim the promises of Christmas, and let us with our words and deeds point people to the One who loves them and give his life for them.
As people who have received God’s peace, hope, joy, and love, let’s extend God’s love, grace, and compassion to a world that is still longing to be set free!