Creekside Church
Sermon of December 29, 2019

"The Other Side of the Story"
Matthew 2:13-18

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning, and merry Christmas! You may have recycled the wrapping paper and finished the left-overs and started to take down the Christmas decorations, but as far as the Christian calendar is concerned, this is the Christmas season -- the 12 days between Christmas on December 25 and Epiphany, or the arrival of the wise men on January 6. We have been getting ready for the birth of Jesus -- including celebrating his birth with a special service on Christmas Eve -- but there’s more to the story.

Only the gospels of Matthew and Luke include accounts of Jesus’ birth -- I’ve noted already that they include different details: Luke recounts an angel visiting Mary to tell her that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, Matthew has an angel visiting Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, Luke has angels and shepherds on Christmas night, Matthew has wise men following a star to Bethlehem. For most of us, these different gospel accounts co-exist peacefully. We refer to both, and welcome all the characters to be part of our nativity sets -- even though they don’t all appear in any single gospel. The information which we have immediately following Jesus’ birth differs in some more dramatic ways: Luke has Mary and Joseph taking their baby to be dedicated at the Temple and crossing paths with two elderly folks, Anna and Simeon, who have been waiting in hope for the Messiah, and can now go in peace because they have seen him. Jesus then returns to Nazareth and grows up.

Matthew tells a different narrative; one which is much more difficult to incorporate into our Christmas celebrations, but which is also part of the story: I believe that difficulty makes it significant, which is why I want to look at it more closely this morning. But before we go there, let me tell you another story by way of introduction. I hope we can agree with the folk wisdom which says, “There are two sides to every story.” It would probably be more accurate to say that there are at least two sides to every story. A rabbi had spent the day in his office at the synagogue and came home at supper time. His wife asked, “How was your day?” He said, “Oi. It was difficult. The Goldsteins are fighting. Mrs. Goldstein was at the office all morning complaining about her husband, and I listened and said, You know, you’re right. That sounds very difficult. And then after she left, Mr. Goldstein called and talked for 2 hours about his wife, and I listened and said, You know, you’re right: I can tell this is very hard for you.” And the rabbi’s wife said, “That sounds terrible, but you can’t just say the same thing to each of them. They can’t both be right.” And the rabbi said, “You know, you’re right . . .”

What we hear in Matthew story is the other side of the Christmas story -- I believe it’s a side of the story we need to hear, because it’s a story which is part of our stories, whether we want it or not. Our text begins in Matthew 2, after the visit from the wise men -- Matthew 2:13 says “After they had left,” and they is the wise men. You’ll remember that the wise men’s first stop in Israel was Jerusalem, a few miles away from Bethlehem at the palace of Herod, the Jewish puppet ruler of the Roman Empire. The wise men innocently show up looking for a baby boy who will be the king of the Jews, and unwittingly set a tragedy in motion. They find the baby Jesus, pay him homage and leave their gifts, and then head home, bypassing Jerusalem. Herod is desperate to find the child who is born to be the king of the Jews so he can kill him. Murder in royal families and political appointments is not uncommon, especially among the Herods, but this one takes a particularly ugly turn: since Herod doesn’t know which baby or exactly how old he is, Herod orders every baby boy two years or under to be killed. An angel of God had already warned Joseph to take his family and flee to Egypt; and fortunately for us, Joseph was a man who listened to angels, even if it meant gathering up his family in the middle of the night.

But what about those families left in Bethlehem? They didn’t get any warning, they didn’t flee to safety and their innocent sons were killed. What is that agony and grief doing in the middle of our lovely Christmas story? And here’s an answer: I doubt if you will find it satisfactory, because I don’t. The story of the death of those baby boys is in the Christmas story because it’s true. It’s horrific, it’s painful, we don’t want to hear it, and it’s true. And if we are honest, we know it’s true because we have seen it happen: perhaps it has even happened to us. Maybe not literally the death of a baby boy, but the death of a child of any age, or other losses which are too profound for us to imagine or make sense of. Sometimes these things have happened at Christmas time, but even if they didn’t, there are memories tied to our Christmas celebrations.

Mathew doesn’t give us any interpretation of the killing of these babies: he simply tells the story. It isn’t the first time Jewish boys have been killed -- you’ll remember Pharaoh’s treatment the Hebrews in Egypt -- and it won’t be the last time. Matthew doesn’t linger on the pain, although other authors have spun stories off from his account. Matthew lets us figure out how to deal with it, and maybe we never will. What is true about this story is that the most wonderful and transcendent parts of our lives -- the birth of a child, the coming of a Savior -- co-exist with pain and despair; sometimes with pain and despair that is so great that we don’t know how we will go on. If bad things have to happen, we’d really rather that they happen to someone else -- of course we would. None of those families who were left in Bethlehem deserved what happened to them. They had not sinned any more than anyone else; God didn’t need a host of baby boy angels; it was not God’s will. Herod was a power-hungry, paranoid ruler who knew that the Jewish people hated him for working for the Romans, and he didn’t care what he did to the people, as long as he stayed in power. God did not strike him dead for the terrible act of ordering the death of those babies: we know from the historical record that Herod died about six years later, and it was not until then that Mary and Joseph felt safe enough to bring their son back from Egypt.

I do not know why God allows evil to exist -- or heart disease or auto accidents or cancer -- but to deny that these things exist is futile: this is the world we live in; this is the story we have been given. For me, Matthew’s account of the killing of babies in Bethlehem is confirmation that Jesus was human; were it not for the intervention of an angel and Joseph’s swift response, Jesus could well have been killed by Herod. Later in the story of Jesus there will be a political execution and Jesus will choose not to call on God’s angels to save him. This is an early chapter in a story which will not pull any punches: Jesus will be killed, intentionally and painfully, and God will allow it to happen.

Of course, we know the other side of that part of the story -- that Jesus’ death was the key which unlocked the power of sin and death, that Jesus’ death is the pathway to forgiveness and redemption, that the baby that Mary delivered will be delivered into the hands of evil and his death will deliver us. We know Jesus’ story; what we don’t know the other side of our own stories. I understand that if you are in the midst of despair, no sermon will take that away. That is not the purpose of this sermon. I’m not here to dismiss the pain of those Bethlehem families or to say that they just need to get over it and move on. But there is always more to the story -- God is not finished. If we are fortunate, and if we are willing to let them in, there are people who can simply be present, who can listen and not tell us how we ought to be feeling or that we just need to keep busy. I know there are people like this at Creekside -- this is who we are called to be and how we are called to minister to one another. It may not be the joyful fanfare of Christmas Eve, but it is an inseparable part of the Christian story; it isn’t a sanitized story, it’s a true story that acknowledges that sometimes terrible things happen and we are powerless to stop them.

Next week we will circle back to Bethlehem and the arrival of the wise men -- this is a happier part of the story, before we hear the weeping of the mothers in Bethlehem. I believe it is right for us to celebrate the joyful parts of the story, and to celebrate with gusto when we can -- I have it on good authority that there will be some special cakes for our fellowship time next week. But if life were only celebration, it would not be authentic. Every day is not Christmas; some days the truth of our lives is painful, even during Christmas. Especially during Christmas. But let me remind you that Emmanuel, God-With-Us is still with us. God is not finished. The body of Christ cares for all its members. There is still another side to the story. May God bless you and keep you. Amen.

 

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