Regular reading of the Bible can teach us many things. It can teach us patience and piety, maturity and morality, history and hope. If we are diligent and honest with ourselves, it can also lead us to an inescapable conclusion: Christianity is a weird religion, one that is much weirder than many of us would like to admit.
Today’s gospel lesson is an excellent example. For centuries, God’s people had lived in varies levels of poverty and oppression. They prayed and pleaded with God to send them a mighty deliverer, a Messiah, to rescue them from the brutal tyranny of a series of interchangeable despots. God promised to do that, and in fact does more.
Last Tuesday, we celebrated the initial fulfillment of that promise, we marked the anniversary of God taking human form and coming to provide just the hero that God’s people, that we, needed. We celebrated the miracle of miracles, that our hero – God, mind you – arrived in the conveniently portable shape of a tiny, pink little baby.
On Christmas Day we celebrated the arrival of our King, accompanied by the voices of angels and the prophets. 12 days later, on Epiphany, we will celebrate the arrival of the mysterious, foreign priests who verified what we already knew – a King has come who will rock the very foundations of the world, and this new King has the very blessing of the Creator.
These two moments, the arrival of the awaited hero and his recognition by the wise astrologers, are two of the high points of the Christian year. They are second only to Easter and Holy Week in their majesty and significance. The King has come! God’s people will be delivered by the mighty hand of the Messiah.
One problem: at the moment the mighty grasp of the Messiah is the tiny, pudgy grip of a newborn – and the well-wishers and celebrants have moved on. It’s the “morning after,” a phrase which is as apt a description of the human condition as we are likely to find. The party’s over. It was great fun while it lasted, but now all the laughter gift giving are just fond memories. It’s time to get on with the tedium of life.
Mary and Joseph, who have been incredibly faithful despite some pretty tough curve balls from God, are left to care for a Messiah in diapers, a mighty savior who cannot walk, talk, or feed himself.
It would still be a pretty good story if it ended there. New star in the heavens, God becomes flesh, virgin birth, throw in some sojourning shamans, exotic gifts, a big celebration, and then lower the curtain. Unfortunately, that is just what we are tempted to do with the Christian faith. Mary and Joseph had every reason not to believe in or trust God, but they did anyway – and they were richly rewarded. Likewise, today it is a lot easier for us to come up with 100 reasons not to believe in God than it is to come up with 10 reasons to believe.
Yet people still walk the aisle. They still join churches. They still accept Jesus as their savior, and when they do we throw a party called a baptism. In an elaborate ceremony, symbolic of death and rebirth, we remind them and ourselves that things will never be the same again.
Then what? The morning after. Sometimes I picture new Christians standing, dripping, in the baptistery – the sounds of congratulations and Amen’s ringing in their ears – watching while everyone files out of the sanctuary. They are left there, wet and alone, wondering what to do next. What do we care, after all? They’re saved and going to heaven – a new creation in Christ – so everything should just take care of itself, right?
Well, everything was not taking care of itself for Mary and Joseph. Not long after the big party, after everyone had given their gifts and gone there merry way, it turns out that our infant Savior is in big trouble. The bloodthirsty king of the region is after him, so God steps in to act.
Now this is where we start to realize that Christianity is a lot stranger than we give it credit for. Thousands of years of human history have finally come to fruition in the birth of the very Son of God. He is a baby, which is a little strange, but babies are cute so we can live with that. He is in danger, which is not strange at all, because it’s to be expected that the petty tyrants and dictators of the world will hate Him.
It’s not strange that God gets involved. Jesus is, after all, divine and crucial to the hope of humanity. But, what does Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, at whose voice mountains crumble do? God calls to Joseph in a dream and says, “Run! Run away! Go hide!”
Poor Mary and Joseph. After enduring the stigma of unwed motherhood, they probably thought the hardest part was over. Yet it turns out that for them following God doesn’t just mean enduring insults and mocking laughter. It means saddles sores and a long, dusty road away from everything they found familiar, with an infant deity who thankfully is not old enough yet to say, “Are we there yet?”
And where, exactly, does God tell Joseph and his family to go? Egypt! The land of the Pharaohs. The land of slavery and oppression. Egypt is the place God’s people had escaped. They’d been there and they didn’t like it. Yet God, who presumably is powerful enough to protect one little baby from a wicked king, sends the hope of Israel running back to the very place Israel had escaped from.
Perhaps baby Christians and the baby Christ aren’t really that different. Becoming a Christian, after all, seems like a pretty big deal. As life decisions go, if any of this stuff matters, it’s the most important one we ever make. Yet afterwards and even now how many of us find ourselves back in the places we’d least like to be. How often do we feel like we are running when we should be fighting, taking two steps back for every one forward? How often does the world seem too tough for us?
Strange religion, and a strange God. And it gets even stranger. While God-in-the-flesh and the faithful parents of God are hiding in one of the most feared parts of the world, we learn just how terrible Herod was. Herod was known to be gruesomely violent, so much so that what we learn of his actions did not even warrant mention in the voluminous and detailed histories of his atrocities. Nevertheless, particularly compared to the joyous celebration we just witnessed, Herod’s actions stand as a black mark on the pages of our faith.
Herod was so threatened by the possibility of another kind of king, one who ruled by love and sacrifice, that he slaughtered every child under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. This is where Christianity really makes no sense.
The Messiah has come. God is with us. We are delivered! And yet, innocent children…toddlers and infants just saying there first words or taking their first steps, are murdered senseless by a demented tyrant. Why?
If God is so powerful, if Jesus is really worth following, why? If God is powerful enough to take on a human body, why doesn’t God protect our bodies when we drive our cars or go to the hospital. If God can save our souls, why doesn’t God save our friends’ lives or protect our families from disease? Why?
Bethlehem welcomed the Messiah just as we are asked to welcome Christ into our own hearts, and learned that doing so we are not saved from grief or loss. Some argue that the important thing to remember is not that God allowed these babies to die, but that God protected the hope of all humanity in Jesus. I’m sure that worked for everyone but the parents, who wouldn’t have minded being let in on Joseph’s dream of warning.
But they weren’t. Accepting Jesus, turning to God, repenting and seeking forgiveness…they don’t fix anything. Doing these things changes us, and starts us on a road every bit as miraculous as the one Jesus followed. But it’s every bit as dangerous too, and filled with just as much grief. It is, I think, no accident that shortly after his birth and coronation of sorts at the hands of the foreign magicians, we find our savior hiding in a strange land while the violence of the world continues unchecked.
That’s why it’s our story too. That’s how we know he’s our Savior. Some people gripe that the stories of the Bible are too incredible, too miraculous, for a sane, rational person to believe. But the stories of Jesus, if we’re honest with ourselves about who we are and how the world works, are too real and too honest not to be believed. There’s confusion and doubt, weakness and fear, there’s death and grief.
Above it all, through it all, somehow, there’s hope. Joseph, like his many-times-great-grandfather Jacob, is still a dreamer; and after Herod’s death God tells him in a dream that it is time to come out of Egypt and return to the Promised Land. Yet even still Joseph was afraid, so instead of returning to Judea another dream causes the two young parents to head to the most inaccessible backwater they can find: Galilee.
I wonder, if years later, as Jesus was growing into a teenager, Mary ever looked around and wondered, “How did I end up in Galilee?” Perhaps I’m particularly sensitive to this because I live in Snellville, and I often (particularly when I have to give my address to someone from out of town) say to myself, “How exactly did I end up in Snellville?”
For the parents of our Messiah, it all started with dreams about angels and a virgin pregnancy; and then it got really wacky. Poverty, then fear, led them to places they would never have imagined. Ultimately, though, it was the hand of God leading them exactly where they needed to go, whether it made or makes any sense at all.
Perhaps that is part of the excitement of the Christmas season. The story of Herod reminds us that on Earth we can never fully escape the shadow of fear and violence. Yet there is so much expectation, hope, and possibility around the birth of any child and particularly in the birth of this one, holy child. Where will Jesus go? Where will the story take us? What’s on the other side?
Perhaps we should make that part of our catechism for baptism, as we the newly born in Christ seek to follow in the steps of the newly born Christ. Do you know where God will take you? No. Do you know if you will be safe? No. Do you know where you will end up? No. Will God go there with you? Yes.
How do we know? Because God has already been there. God didn’t just stick around for the party. God was there the morning after, wrapped up in traveling clothes, perhaps even disguised as luggage to fool the guards, marching off into the unknown to hide among hostile strangers. God has been there. Watching others suffer unjustly. God’s been there. Returning to a longed-for place of hope and promise, only to find things are worse than before. God’s been there too. And God did it all as a helpless child relying constantly on the love, support, and protection of others.
How could we follow such a God? All the others are much sexier, after all. Especially the unnamed ones like money, power, drugs. They make you feel safe and secure, strong and mighty. Why follow a God who was once a scared little child?
Because money, power, drugs only exist to hide who we really are – scared little children hiding in places we don’t want to be. The good news? Wherever we hide ourselves. Wherever our Egypt, wherever our place of dark fears and danger, wherever our refuge and safety, wherever we end up (even in Midtown Atlanta in the heart of the Bible Belt), God knows the way to meet us there because God, our loving Creator, has already been there before.
In the name of the One who formed us from the dust, who transformed us into new life, and who bears us into the future, Amen.