Matthew 2:13-23, Jeremiah 31:7-17 Philippians 1:12-18
The Incredible Good news.
The birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem was received as wonderful news by many of the characters in the original stories the Christmas story. And the story of the Christmas season retold over the centuries has been just that. The songs we have sung are resplendent with the theme. They contain the words – Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope, and hundreds of such words.
The words to the Shepherds were: “I bring you tidings of great Joy for all people, for unto you is born this very day a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
The angel choirs broke out into singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth Peace and to good will to all people.”
The message to Zechariah & Elisabeth was filled with promises about their son John, “You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth… He will turn many of the people of Israel to the lord….” This same couple were given promises about Jesus as well. “God has raised up a mighty Saviour. We shall be saved from our enemies, so we can serve God without fear.”
Promises were given to Mary & Joseph too: The angel said to Mary, “He will be great and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his Ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob, and his Kingdom will never end.”
And when the Wisemen arrive they look for a King whose star they have seen, and to whom they want to give homage. The promise is he will rule Israel. They come to bend the knee in early allegiance and give the first gifts of that first Christmas.
The Old Man Simeon knows he can now die because he has received what was promised. He sings his prayer, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared… a light for the Gentiles and glory for your people Israel.”
The Christmas story is filled with hope and anticipation, with promises to all of a better future.
The Incredible Bad News
But that is not the whole story. If a New Day has dawned, it is not obvious to those who lived in Bethlehem or Palestine or around the world. The great good that had been promised, looked like it had been cut short before it was even born. Look with me, as Paul Harvey says, at the “rest of the story” to give us the whole truth about Christmas. For within days of the birth of the baby the troubles began.
The Refugee family
Within days or a few weeks of that remarkable birth, Joseph & Mary find themselves fleeing for their lives with their infant son. This newly wed couple and their baby become refugees. Homeless people. Cut off from family, from friends, from comfortable surroundings, from their own language and their own people. They flee over an international border into a foreign country.
The Holy family become undocumented aliens in a strange world. They go down into Egypt. The place filled with memories of that long-ago slavery. Perhaps they feel like outcasts, in the land of their former bondage. And for the next few years they are always looking over their shoulders. For they are Fugitives, escaping from the long arm of the law and the power of the house of Herod. Even when Herod is dead, they still fear discovery. When they relocate back to Palestine, they head to the backwoods area of Galilee, not Bethlehem, to try to be as invisible as possible.
The days and nights after Christmas are filled with dislocation, distress and more trouble than they had ever experienced before the Good News had been promised. For this family, life was tougher in the new age of the world, than it had been in the old.
The Destruction of the innocents
That was true, however, not only for the family of the newborn baby. It got very difficult for others. Because of his birth, before any apparent good can be accomplished, evil raises its ugly head. When Herod hears of the birth of a king, instead of coming to offer his allegiance and his letter of resignation, he descends on the village in a campaign of unholy terror. His soldiers are led in a search and destroy mission to hunt down any babies or toddlers they can find in Bethlehem and the surrounding country side, and to slaughter them. And before that fateful night is over, the terrible deed has been done, and any new life in that village is terminated in savagery. Instead of the voices of Joy, there is the sound of lamentation and bitter weeping.
Parents and Grandparents, brothers and sisters, are devastated. The entire town plummets into grief. Their lot in life has become death. Life is now more grim for them because of the birth of that baby. The Christmas event has increased the difficulty of their days. The days after Christmas are days to be remembered in infamy.
A sword shall pierce your own heart (Luke 2:35)
But the pain is not only for the days that immediately follow Christmas. The pain goes on for many years. When Mary & Joseph meet the old man Simeon, his words are words of exultation – and words of warning. He speaks to Mary. “The child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel. And he will be a sign that will be rejected … and a sword shall pierce your own heart.”
A sword shall pierce the heart of Mary. Not just in the flight into Egypt. Not just anxiety that they will be discovered. But 30 years later she will see her remarkable son in trouble with the authorities, and she will see him executed by the state. The whole dream of Christmas, that was sustained for all those years, now ends up with the terrible failure of a crucifixion. On the cross “the hopes and dreams of all the years” come crashing down around her. Mary is wounded to the heart in that fateful hour.
Such a contrast between the promise and the outcome. Such a gulf between what was hoped for and promised, and what transpired in Mary & Joseph’s lives and the lives of his contemporaries. How do we explain it?
Already but not yet
Let Jesus himself become our teacher. When Jesus began teaching his followers, he had to re-educate them. He told them that the Kingdom of God was here already, but not yet. For His kingdom was unlike any they had ever imagined.
He began using the language of the agricultural world.
– He spoke of sowing grain, with some of it not catching on. (Stony ground, Thorny soil, hardened Pathway.)
– He spoke of the mustard seed that is insignificantly small, though give it time and give it God, and it will grow to be enormous.
– He spoke of wheat and weeds both being planted, with both the Kingdom of god and the kingdoms of this world intertwined in long conflict and competition until the end of history.
The military model was different. Most people thought that the Kingdom of God would come like all other kingdoms come. With revolution, with warfare, but this time with the omnipotent God carrying out His program with divine authority. In the military model all the conquerors get good things given to them, and all the bad people pay for the damages. But Jesus says “No! That is not the way it will be.”
The Kingdom is planted in obscurity, – the corn of wheat falls into the ground and dies. Death in the agricultural world always precedes life. The moments of planting look like loss all the way around. Throwing good seed away. But the price must be paid out before the seed can even germinate.
And it is so with the Kingdom of God. It is sown in dishonour in the little village of Bethlehem, and it begins to sprout in Egyptian exile and in the obscure village of Nazareth. It is still developing when he is cut down from the cross. The Kingdom is here already, but not yet fully here. It is planted in Bethlehem and buried in a tomb in Jerusalem. On Easter Sunday and on the Day of Pentecost, the benefits begin to be evident. The Kingdom of God that was sown in dishonour, is now being raised in glory.
But even that is not the end of troubles. For 300 years the church suffers terribly as it grows around the world. Those early Christians were hated and despised, as was their master. But even in the pain of it all, seed is planted and grows in human hearts, and in families, and in communities, and for 2,000 years that kingdom grows causing quiet revolutions in unexpected places.
But what the full effect will be, no one knows yet. But one day “the already, but not yet,” reflected in the prayer
“Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be done on earth as it is in heaven” will be fulfilled. And all that was hoped for will be realized, as it has been realized by all that died in faith and found themselves sharing in His resurrection.
But what word is there in all of this for us?
First, When God’s rule is begun in our lives, there is not always an improvement in our circumstances either. Our relationship with God often brings no advantage, but instead life is often more difficult than it was before. That is the reality of Christian faith. It does not offer an easier life, but a better life, a more authentic life, a more useful life. But often a more difficult life than before. Christian faith is not for escape artists who want freedom from life’s demands. Christian faith is for those who want to gamble their life on God. To be truly Christian calls for courage.
There is a second implication of this post-Christmas reality. The coming of the Kingdom of God is always a costly thing. It was costly to Mary, and Bethlehem, and to Jesus Himself. And first 12 disciples found it costly, costly – but worth it all! The New Testament tells the story of those who extended the Kingdom into the far reaches of the Roman Empire at considerable cost. Church history tells the same story. All harvests are produced by the suffering & dying of something or someone.
It is why the call to be a Christian is not the call to attend a manger scene and participate in a service of stately worship. It is to answer the call, “If any of you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” Those that try to save their lives will lose them, those who are prepared to surrender their lives will find them, and so will others.
As we close out the season of Advent, it is right that we pray a prayer that we may have sung on the first Sunday of Advent. It is a prayer of yearning that the work begun in Bethlehem will be continued in our world, on this day and the days to come. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”