Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas Secrets - The Cross under the World's Madness

Preached on Sunday, December 28, 2014

Scripture reading: Matthew 2:1-18

Photos Taken near Mattawa-Desert Aire: December 2014
I probably shouldn’t say this but, when my mom watches the news (which she does most of the time), when she sees something or someone she doesn’t like, she is likely to shout, or turn it off, or at least change the channel. She might walk out of the room.
Even if we don’t do this, we can understand the feeling.
It’s the same way with watching and listening to the world. Sometimes I want to shout at it, and turn it off, or make it stop. We live in a world that deserves to be shouted at, and turned off.
Matthew’s story of the massacre of the boy babies in Bethlehem shows us just such a world. The whole Bible shows us such a world: dictators, governments which kill innocent people, lying leaders, secret meetings. We have just read about this in the Gospel.
If there had been radio, and television, and the internet in Bible times, there would also have been something like CNN (the Cable News Network) and Fox News. And there would have been news junkies thousands of years ago.
The Bible shows us that the God who made the world and keeps it going is a sort of world-watching-news--junkie-God. He watches and listens to the world twenty four hours a day, seven days a week; and he’s been doing that since time began.
I think the Bible shows us God having shouting scenes with the world. It even shows us scenes with God throwing stuff at the screen of the world. But there are no “turning the whole thing off” scenes with God. There are no “walking out of the room” scenes with God.
God’s way of watching and listening to the world is not like one of us sitting in a chair and looking at a screen. God’s way of watching and listening is that God became a baby in the news we would like to shout at and turn off. That is how God watches and listens to the news of this world.
God became a baby who “had a price on his head”. God became a baby whom powerful people wanted killed at all cost.
In all of the news that we hate, in all those things about life that we hate, God watches and listens to it all like a baby in a massacre. By being here with us like this God makes the world a very different place than what we think it is.
Eventually, when Jesus grew up, the powerful people got their way, but that didn’t end they way they expected. It was God who got his way by being a refugee baby. It was God who got his way by being a man on a cross. That is where our life and our salvation come from. That is where our strength and our faith come from.
The people who estimate such things estimate that there may have been between twenty and forty babies killed by the soldiers of King Herod, in Bethlehem and its vicinity.
Bethlehem was a small place. Twenty to forty babies was a lot.
And Bethlehem was an old place. Everyone there was somehow related to each other. It made their pain all the stronger.
Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem because his people came from there. He had relatives in Bethlehem. Jesus could well have had cousins who were among the murdered babies.
Bethlehem is only four miles away from Jerusalem. If the family ever met together (say, around the holy days of Passover, when they would all be in Jerusalem) stories about the massacre would have been repeated. Someone would have said to the little Jesus, “Jesus, my boy, do you know why you are alive, because of what happened in Bethlehem when you were born?”
The boy Jesus would have known about the dead babies, and his own escape. Jesus would have learned that others had died because of him, and for him. Their death put Herod off Jesus’ track, and so (in a way) they died to save him.
This helps us get a glimpse of how God is involved in the world. This experience of Jesus shows us what goes on in the heart of God who sees and hears everything all the time. God was not simply present spiritually at the scene of the massacre. God was a particular baby, with terrified parents, narrowly escaping from a village where other babies were about to be killed.
God came down from heaven in Jesus in order to die for the sins of the world. But God is very, very close to those sins as a particular sufferer within this world in which he died.
Everything we read about God centers on this. When God created a universe and a world full of his beauty, he did it as a God who would become a baby running for his life in that world. When God led his people out of slavery in Egypt, he did it as a God who would become a baby who escaped for his life to Egypt and then be brought back to Israel as a toddler to save a world from the slavery of sin by dying on a cross.
In all the horrible violence of the Old Testament, the God who led his people through slaughter is the same God who would become a baby carried by his parents away from slaughter in that violent world. God is the victim of everything we want to shout at and shut off.
There is a doctor (Dr. Ian Crozier) who went to Sierra Leone in West Africa this past summer to fight the Ebola epidemic. He ended up getting the disease, and being one of the worst cases to ever survive the disease. Before the end, Ebola makes the body of the infected person bleed all over, inside and out. Even the eyes bleed, and Dr. Crozier has scars on his eyes. But he wants to go back to Ebola country when he has recuperated.
The doctor has seen and endured terrible things in this world, but he does not want to shout at it, or turn his back, or turn it off. Well, he does want to turn it off: but not like a TV screen that just goes blank. He wants to go there and serve there to change the world.
The God we worship is a God who does that. We see it in Jesus. God goes into the madness of the world to save it. What do God’s people do?
God could call us to go, somehow, to West Africa, or the Middle East. Or, maybe, in our very safe and sheltered part of the world, there are ways in which the world we want to shout at (the world we want to stop) comes very close to us. There is illness. There is discouragement. There is depression. There is loss. There is grief. There is abuse. There is addiction. There is cruelty. There is neglect. There is indifference. There is conflict and division.
You might see the world you want to shout at damaging someone in your family, or a neighbor. You might see the help, or the change, or the involvement that is needed. You might pray to see the involvement to which God is calling you.
When Matthew tells us about Jesus and his family he gives us connections between what happed to them and what was said centuries before by the prophets. You might say that these are signs that God has a plan in place and, if we only wait, we will see God’s plan take shape. This is true.
Well meaning religious people will tell you to trust God’s plan when you are hurting or struggling. This is good, but there is more. The connections to the prophets in the story of Jesus are usually not meant to tell us that things happen because the Bible says so. They happen because God can be trusted to get involved in a way that comes from his heart.
God called his son, His people Israel, out of slavery in Egypt. (Hosea 11:1) So “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” is about a God who saves people from slavery.
God loves being true to himself over and over again. He loves saving, so he is glad to come out of Egypt as the little son Jesus, for the purpose of saving his people from their slavery to the sins that make the madness of this world.
He called himself out of Egypt, in Jesus, to save all people from the motivation to sin that creates a world that makes us want to shout at the world and turn it off. He called himself out of Egypt, in Jesus, to save all people from the meaningless suffering that makes us want to shout and shut it all off.
“Rachel weeping for her children” is about both grief and hope. (Jeremiah 31:15) Jeremiah spoke of this weeping as the weeping of Israel for her children going off to exile in Babylon. But it is also about God bringing the children of Israel home again from exile. The God who came in Jesus is the God who loves to bring us out of our own exile. Our sins separate us from our true home where we can become the people God created us to be.
The mothers of Bethlehem wept because their loss was real, but the powerful baby feared by King Herod, the baby who survived, the baby for whom the other babies died would die for them. The baby who escaped would grow up to know their pain. He would grow up to be killed, in his own time, as the babies of Bethlehem were killed, by the powers of a world gone mad.
The God who sees and hears all weeping and loss, also feels it and dies for it in Jesus. God, in Jesus, did not really escape the slaughter of this world, and he didn’t even want to escape. What he did was intentional and he did it for love.
This is a calling to us, in this mad world. We belong to a God who chose to belong to this world by his involvement in our creation and in the pain of our salvation.
We are called to be involved, in whatever way God shows us. God chose, first of all, to be personally present, and we are called to be present, and not walk away from the needs that face us in this world.
God, in Jesus, expressed love with great strength. He took care of people and he gave them forgiveness. The early Christians couldn’t do much to change the world, but they took care of people and they practiced forgiveness and mercy. They did this as individual disciples and they did it as a church.
Is there some way that we can show this love to the part of the world where we live. What is there, around us, that needs love? What needs our blessing? What needs our care?
Matthew tells us, in his first chapter, that God came into this world in order to demonstrate that a prediction made by Isaiah was true after all. “They will call him Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
God is “God with us” because he went the all the way with being with us. Our God is a God who makes what he is real to the extreme.
This is one of the secrets of Christmas. Underneath all of this world’s madness, God is with us. God took the madness of this world upon himself so that we could experience his presence in a world that tempts us to shout and turn our backs. There is a steadiness here: the steadiness of a salvation that comes through a God who chooses to be with this world.

God is involved, and we can be involved in this world with him. It’s the very best way to be with him while we are in this world.


  1. Dennis this is the best sermon I've read on the question everyone is asking in today's terrible world. Be careful of your apostrophes ("mother's of Bethlehem") 8-D

    1. Thanks Gordon, and I have corrected "mothers".