A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas, January 2, 2022
I want to begin today’s sermon by reading the following verses that are left out of our lectionary reading today (Matthew 2:16-18).
“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.’”
These three verses are known as the pivotal event that we commemorate with a Feast Day on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
On either side of this event we have the story of the holy family reacting to the messengers of God, responding to angelic messages for they have yet to be led astray. The family remains the focal point of our Christmas celebrations, and their story remains primarily at the forefront in our Sunday celebrations of this Christmastide as we approach the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Of course, the events laid out in our Gospel today take place following the arrival of the Wise Men which we celebrate on Epiphany, but we only have so much time and so few stories to explore surrounding the life of Jesus as an infant and young person. This makes today’s story of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, fleeing to another country to seek shelter from a tyrannical ruler a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus Christ and a vital piece in shaping the understanding of justice, mercy, of what it means to be a king.
The Feast of the Holy Innocents asks us to consider the reality that Jesus’ birth shakes the foundations of the world. It scares the authority. It frightens Herod and in losing his control, Herod takes the catastrophically drastic measure of executing the children of all families in Bethlehem that met the only criteria of being born within a certain time frame. This is a devastating grasp at power that reflects the reality that Jesus’ birth, his very existence among the people, is enough to shatter all illusions of power and authority that those who desperately cling to it may have. It makes them dangerous, for they will do everything and anything to keep that power. It makes them dangerous today, it makes them dangerous tomorrow, it will make them dangerous when Jesus emerges as a full grown adult ready to take on the mantle of spiritual authority given through faith and faith alone.
We commemorate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, because the arrival of God walking among creation did not come without a great cost. These innocents are martyred for they might represent a loss of power. Nothing they have done, or could have done, would ever have challenged Herod, but Herod determines he cannot take the risk and thus determines that in killing all, he will kill the one that can challenge his authority.
Of course, God sees this coming, and so sends the angels to warn Joseph and Mary to flee.
They flee to Egypt. A different country. A different ruler. A different people.
They are foreigners arriving in a foreign land.
They are refugees fleeing religious and political persecution simply because they exist. Simply because their son might challenge political authority, one day.
In Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s Christmas Message this year, he reminded us of a 1930s campaign by the Episcopal Church. On the poster was a picture of Mary holding the child Jesus and Joseph leading their donkey through the cover of night. On the poster are the words: “In the name of these refugees, aid ALL refugees through interest, friendship, gifts.” I have a small version of that poster here today and invite you to take a look at it as you come up for eucharist or following worship today.
This is a powerful image that calls us to be fully present in this story and truly appreciate the implications of what we’re being told about the holy family.
This story today is not just about the fulfillment of scripture. It certainly points us to those pieces as a point of explanation for these events, but in reading the scripture it’s easy to read those fulfillment justifications as after the fact reasons for this period, rather than a story built out to fulfill certain scriptures.
When we accept what is written today as part of Jesus’ story, it reframes our understanding of how Jesus came into this world, how Jesus was received, or more accurately not received, from the very beginning. And yet, his family flees to a foreign land and is welcomed in. They find a safe place to live out Herod’s life, and in returning, settle in a new region where they are welcomed once more.
The stories of Jesus’ welcome and embrace of the stranger, of the other, of the foreigner, is a foundational piece of his ministry and is informed through this experience of his family from the earliest age.
In hearing this story today, the story of the holy family and their journey away and returning, sandwiching the story of the Holy Innocents, we are faced with a call in following Christ that asks us to consider what it means to welcome the stranger, to welcome the foreigner.
The Presiding Bishop writes about this story following Jesus’ birth and what it means for us as followers of this Christ:
“And all of a sudden the same beauty that surrounded the birth of a child now is tinged by an ugliness of tyranny, the ugliness of injustice, the ugliness of hatred, the ugliness of unbridled selfishness as King Herod hears rumors of a rival to his throne being born and begins plans to execute children to stamp out his rival. In Matthew, that is the context for the birth of Jesus….The Christmas stories are reminders that this Jesus came to show us how to love as God loves…And one of the ways we love as God loves is to help those who are refugees, those who seek asylum from political tyranny, poverty, famine, or other hardship. In the 1930s, Episcopalians did this to love as God loves, and today, ministries like Episcopal Migration Ministries, the work of this church, have helped to resettle some 100,000 refugees as of December 2021. And that work goes on for refugees from Afghanistan and from other places around the world. The Christian vocation as Jesus taught us is to love as God loves. And in the name of these refugees, let us help all refugees.”
We are called as followers of Christ to open our homes and our hearts to the family fleeing.
We are called as followers of Christ to weep for the death of the innocent.
We are called as followers of Christ to protect every innocent that flees, so that they may one day rise up and tear down the tyrannical structures of our world.
We do this in helping the refugees who come to this country from places of political turmoil and ethnic persecution.
We do this in helping the refugees of climate disasters who are displaced, whether externally or internally, from the only homeland they have ever known.
We do this in helping the refugees of broken homes, of unsafe homes, of homes of judgment, violence, abuse.
We do this in helping those who have been abandoned in our own communities. Who in their innocence were exposed to such traumas that their only avenues for survival cast them out from the society, leaving them homeless and abandoned on the street.
Our call in following Jesus is always a challenge, for it is both easy and incredibly hard work.
This call doesn’t begin with Jesus in the desert facing the temptations of power.
This call begins with the child Jesus, fleeing with his family as refugees, fleeing with his family while those who would’ve been his friends, followers, disciples, those innocents, are executed so that political power may be retained one more day, one more year.
In this new year, let us lean into the call we receive today to welcome and aid the family in their fleeing, to name and honor those innocents who have been lost, to strive for the justice and dignity of every human being, to strive for a world that recognizes that same dignity in every person.
Through our faith in Christ, we can live into this call, today, and all days.