A sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23 for the Second Sunday After Christmas Day.
A couple of years ago I received a Christmas card with this image on the front. It may look familiar to you. It’s called “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” and it’s a painting by French artist Luc Olivier Merson finished in 1879. It resides permanently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This isn’t the typical scene for a Christmas card, of course, and the person knew me well because, if she hadn’t, I would have received a nice Hallmark card with angels or a cleaned up scene of the manger or the like. If you know the biblical backstory, this scene—certainly a Christmas one or we wouldn’t have read it this morning on the Second Sunday after Christmas—reminds us of the darkness in the story. Of Herod’s intense anger. Of fear.
Melissa and I were married 18 years ago this past week. Even though we weren’t Episcopalians or at a liturgical church at the time, we wanted readings from Scripture that reflected the Christmas season, and in working with the minister who presided at our wedding, Harold Bussell, we selected this text. Our dear friend who was to read it asked us a few times if she had the correct verses. Were we sure we wanted this lesson—including the bit about what Herod did to the baby boys back in Bethlehem that was conveniently left out by our lectionary committee—to be read on such a happy occasion? We simply assured her that we did.
We got a fabulous sermon on our wedding from Harold, assuring us that even though weddings brought great joy like Christmas, we would not escape difficult times. The vows we made on that day would mean that we would be in it together no matter what came, that we would be with one another. While I wish I could say that we’ve only had Hallmark card experiences during these past many years, I would simply be lying to you and also to myself. We’ve been to Egypt and back on more than one occasion, but we’ve been with each other through it all. And God has been with us too.
So this painting draws me in when I see it. It holds my gaze and I remember my wedding and the years since that time and the true meaning of Christmas. Writer, Kate Benedict, reflecting on this painting penned these words:
“The child Jesus gives off the painting’s only light, and the eye finds that light automatically, following it, finally, to the blind, uplifted head of the sphinx itself. Stark, modern, terrifying, it is an extreme image, suggesting the dark night of the soul. They are experienced by anyone who quests, the dark nights when something vital in you sleeps, something feral in you starves.
“Yet the implication of the painting is a hopeful one. Merson shows us that the divine child shines whether one’s eyes are closed or open. In the depths of the dark night lies the promise of morning when, having rested, the Holy Family will wake and move on, leaving the blind sphinx of an old order behind in the dust. However unendurably a dark night plagues us, however much it keeps us from our urgent endeavors, still it may be the vital interlude when the divine child of inspiration makes itself manifest.”
I mentioned those three left out verses rather obliquely. Someone at a desk somewhere decided that they’re a bit too painful to hear during Christmas because it’s not what we want Christmastide to be about so he cut them out, but they are a part of the biblical narrative. St. Matthew writes, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘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.’”
Joseph, Mary and Jesus escape under the cover of night having been warned in a dream to flee. These other families face unspeakable horrors. Where was God? Why couldn’t God do something for them too? Certainly warning them so they could band together to fight off the Romans would have been something God could have done for them. We want the cleaned up version of this scene too. We want the Hallmark version of the Bible.
This week a mentor sent me a link to an amazing sermon from the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, former Dean of Chapel at Duke and current Vicar of St. Martin’s-in-the-Field, London. In it he describes how much we want God to do things for us.
But, he writes, “’for’ is not the way God relates to us. God does not simply set the world straight for us. God does not simply shower us with good things. God does not mount up blessings upon us and then get miserable and stroppy when we open them all up and fail to be sufficiently excited or surprised or grateful. “For” is not the heart of God.
“In some ways we wish it was. We would love God to make everything happy and surround us with perfect things. When we get cross with God, it is easy to feel that God is not keeping the divine side of the bargain—to do things “for” us now and forever.
“But God shows us something else. God speaks a rather different word. In Matthew’s gospel, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” And then in John’s gospel, we get the summary statement of what the Christian faith means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.” It is an unprepossessing little word, but this is the word that lies at the heart of Christmas and at the heart of the Christian faith. The word is “with.” And that word, he suggests, is the most important word of the Bible. With. We celebrate the birth of Emmanuel. God with us.
In the bleak mid-winter, I wish I could say that God will solve all your problems. Or that your loved ones won’t suffer. Or that the trouble you are facing financially or with your teen or with your parents can simply disappear if you have enough faith. But I need only look at that painting and recognize that even Jesus’ own family faced challenges and anxiety too. Yes, they escaped death when they made it into Egypt, but that meant living as exiles, as refugees for a few years in a place completely foreign to them with a different language and culture and foods and certainly away from friends. (Remember, in Matthew’s gospel the Magi don’t come to Bethlehem until Jesus is a toddler and he’s now at a house. Surely Mary and Joseph made connections with others there.) And those friends may well have lost a child in Herod’s rampage. And they have to keep changing their plans due to this trouble—they intended to return to Bethlehem yet they are sent to Nazareth instead.
But God is with us. In Egypt. And back in Bethlehem. And in Framingham and Marlborough and Southborough, too. And we are called to be with people too. Not to try and fix all their problems—we can’t—or to hope that a donation will change everything for them—it won’t. Rather we live into Christmas by being with them, by working with others, so that they are not isolated in this life, even and especially if it means simply being present with them.
I close with a poem by civil rights leader and theologian Dr. Howard Thurman titled, “The Work of Christmas.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.