Sermon – December 19, 2015 – Blue Christmas
Let us pray.
Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more”–that prophecy from Jeremiah, quoted from the end of the Gospel passage we just heard, is probably not what you expected to hear at the end of the Christmas story. We often think of Christmas as the epitome of innocency, as a quaint tale centered around a perfectly pretty little birth. We call to mind doe-eyed children eagerly dashing off letters to Santa Claus and hurriedly unwrapping presents under the tree. We imagine hot chocolate and eggnog and cookies, ice-skating and playing in the snow, caroling from house to house and stockings hung by the chimney with care. But Matthew’s account of the Nativity closes not with a celebration of innocency but with the end of it—with the death of children so young they barely even lived, at the hands of a brutal dictator drunk with power and concerned only with himself.
As you may already know, the Bible contains not one but two Christmas narratives, and those very different narratives diverge from one another quite a bit. On Christmas Eve, we usually read from the familiar account by Luke—the version in which Jesus is born in a manger because there is no room in the inn, in which the shepherds were living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night, and in which there suddenly appears a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace among those whom he favors!” Luke’s take on Christmas is decidedly positive. The angel announces to Mary that she will bear the Son of God and Mary reacts with great astonishment and joy, singing triumphantly about God’s power and might. Later, upon hearing about and witnessing the birth itself, the shepherds and angels overflow with excitement and glee. In Luke’s mind, there is no question that the birth of this Jesus Child is something good.
Matthew, though, doesn’t seem quite so sure. Suspicion and premonition hover like a dark cloud over the entirety of Matthew’s story. For Luke, Mary’s pregnancy is an occasion for rejoicing and delight, but, for Matthew, it is something to worry about, something which could potentially end a relationship and bring about a divorce. Matthew’s version also invokes a tyrant, called Herod, who goes unmentioned in Luke’s telling. This Herod figure, as the King of the entire Jewish territory of Judea, chafes at the idea of a rival king being born in Bethlehem and deliberately deceives the wise men as part of his effort to stop this upstart king in his tracks. The great massacre of the Holy Innocents, which forces Jesus and his family to flee to Egypt and causes the death of all children in Bethlehem under the age of 2, is the final result of his cruel and paranoid machinations.
If Luke is the Hallmark Christmas special of the Nativity Story, then, Matthew is the House of Cards set in Bethlehem. And I’m guessing that few of us are in doubt about which is closer to reality. After all, we turn on the news every day to see political figures twisting situations for their own personal gain. We know of more than one instance in which a mysterious pregnancy has raised quite a few eyebrows. We have lamented, time and time again, when innocent people have been tragically and unjustifiably killed. This is the stuff of our lives. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been visited by a throng of wonder-struck shepherds lately or come across the multitude of the heavenly host singing their hearts out. From my perspective, at least, Luke exhibits pie-in-the-sky thinking. As far as I can tell, we live in a Matthew world.
The promise that Matthew gives us, however, is that none of the darkness, none of the tragedy and none of the injustice that we know prevents the Savior from being born. Into the pain of our conflict, into the depth of our sorrow, into the hollowness of our doubt, Jesus comes quietly, unexpectedly, and without presumption—a Child so modest that at first we don’t know what to make of him, a Treasure so hidden that the wisest diviners in the world can hardly find him, a Creature so elusive that he escapes the grasp even of an all-powerful king. Matthew assures us that Jesus is not out of our reach, somewhere else. If Jesus could be born then and there, Jesus can be born here and now.
I came across a poem recently that makes this point well.
Let the stable still astonish: [it proclaims]
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: “Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
be born here, in this place.”?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
and says, “Yes, let the God
of Heaven and Earth
be born here—
in this place.”
Indeed, in the broad expanse of the wider world and in the more intimate chambers of our own selves, there is much to lament this Christmas. There is much to mourn and to cry over, to critique and to dismiss, to worry about and to fear. But even as you honestly reckon with the devils that press upon your every side, I ask you to try not to surrender your hope—to look for the angel who comes to announce good news; to search the skies above for a star of promise; to prepare your heart to receive unexpected gifts of love. If you listen carefully, if you pay attention, if you open yourself up, you just might notice that Jesus is being born.
 By Lesley Leyland Fields, http://www.leslieleylandfields.com/blog/slieleylandfields.com/2012/12/can-stable-still-astonish-and-6.html.