Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the great traditions of Christmas is the sending and receiving of Christmas cards from family and friends. People whom we haven’t heard from since last Christmas somehow track us down, even if we have moved twice since then, and they send us Christmas joy. C.S. Lewis once wrote “Let us make a pact that, if we are both alive next year; whenever we write to one another it shall not be at Christmastime. That period is becoming a sort of nightmare to me!” I disagree with Dr. Lewis, because I love this tradition. And this year, the cards found us again, carrying greetings and letters and pictures of those we love.
I have this second cousin in Minot North Dakota who, several years ago, began sending photocopies of pictures of their family. First it was one picture, then it was a full page. Wow! This year, they must have gotten a digital camera, because all of 2001 has been documented for us. They don’t even send a Christmas letter anymore; they just let the pictures tell the stories!
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What I noticed this year more than any other is how the people have changed. Some families have grown larger, with weddings, births and adoptions. But others – by virtue of divorce or death – are noticeably smaller. Some people in the pictures this year have gray hair…or less hair…or no hair. And the people look older; somehow they got old and I didn’t! But this year, I especially noticed the children who have grown up. Babies that I baptized are now getting confirmed. Kids that I confirmed are now getting married. And our niece Heidi; wasn’t it just last week that we stood at the font as her baptismal sponsors? And wasn’t it just yesterday that I stood before her and Dave, prompting their wedding vows? But it wasn’t yesterday, it was five years ago, and now it is their daughter Kareena pictured on the Christmas card.
They grow up so fast, don’t they? I know it’s cliché-ish, but one day our children are toddlers, walking around the house in feetie pajamas, spilling their milk and breaking windows with Frisbees. And seemingly the next day, they’re off to college. And it all happened so fast, we don’t know where the years went.
Here’s a sidebar to you who are parents of little ones: the cliché is true. Be careful how you spend your time. Don’t spend it all at the office, or on the phone, or even in the bleachers watching their games. Share the journey with your kids. Read them books, teach their Sunday School classes, coach their soccer teams, drive them to their friends’ house. Because before you know it, they’ll be grown up too. Every parent knows it true; every parent. Even Mary and Joseph.
Six days ago, we gathered in this place to celebrate the Savior’s birth. Wasn’t the Baby Jesus precious as he slept in that manger bed? Didn’t our hearts rejoice when we sang “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”
But today, everything is different. We’re still celebrating Christmas; we’re still singing carols and basking in the glow of the Savior’s birth, but Mary and Joseph are fleeing Bethlehem to protect their young son. We’re still in awe of this baby king, but the principalities and powers of this world are threatened by him, and want to destroy him. And it only took six days! Allow me to explain to you how things changed so quickly for Baby Jesus, and how things have really not changed for us in 2000 years.
When Wise Men from the east noticed signs in the heavens that the Savior had been born, they made their way to Bethlehem, by way of Jerusalem. (This is a story that doesn’t fully come into focus until next week, so we’re bouncing around just a bit!) When they tell King Herod about the Savior’s birth, Herod pretends to worship Jesus, too. “Hey, on your way back home, let me know the exact location so I can send a gift or something” were Herod’s last words to the three wise man.
And this is where today’s gospel picks up. The wise men never do come back. In a dream, they find out that the baby’s life was at risk, and they take a different route home. So Herod does a terrible thing: he has all the male infants in and around Bethlehem, killed. And just to be sure he gets the right one, he kills all of them under the age of two, even one of his own sons. There was an idiom around Jerusalem those days which said “In Herod’s house, his pigs are safer than his children.” So today, as we continue singing “Joy to the World” we read about children dying senselessly, and mothers weeping uncontrollably. And these verses, along with other verses in the bible that are almost too painful to read, have come to be known as “texts of terror.” There’s that word again.
You see, terrorism didn’t get invented in the 21st century. Evil people have been perfecting that quality since they got tossed out of the Garden of Eden. Whenever there is an opportunity to stand in the way of peace, or work against love, or insult human dignity, evil people have found a way to do that. Herod figured if he could eliminate a heavenly king at birth, the earthly kingdom would be his. And evil people would dog Jesus all the days of his life.
The dream that the wise men had was also had by Joseph, so he and Mary took their young son off to Nazareth, and this is where he grew up. But that happened quickly, too. One day, Jesus is laughing and playing a backyard game with his friends, and seemingly the next day, he was arguing with the Pharisees. One day he was learning the carpentry trade with Joseph, and not long after that, he was crucified. From wooden cradle to wooden cross in 33 short years. The time went by so quickly.
I know it’s hard to hear this sort of news while we’re still in the Season of Christmas. And this year, with all that has happened, it is especially difficult for us to peek out of our Christmas cocoon and view violence. We’re tired of seeing the pictures of suffering, and hearing the stories of pain. We’re not unsympathetic the anguish, we are simply weary from it. There is a phrase that you will begin to hear that describes our circumstance: “compassion fatigue.” We’ve given as much money as we can give, we’ve cried as much as we can cry, we’ve grieved as much as we can grieve. There’s nothing left.
But there is. Because the Jesus who was born in a manger, and belittled by the religious purists, and hated by his adversaries, and abandoned by his friends; this Jesus came to prove that ultimately, love wins over evil. And apparently there was no other way to show this, except by the life he lived, and the life he gave.
We will leave this place in a few minutes, hopefully encouraged by understanding the purpose of Christmas. But we will go out into a world that is also weary from “compassion fatigue.” Who will tell them that there is hope? Who will tell the world that cold, dark January will eventually give way to spring? Who will tell them that the birth of the Baby in Bethlehem was not the end of the story…it was just the beginning? Only those who know the news can tell the news. And the news is this: the Savior is born, and all is well. Thanks be to God! Amen.
— Copyright 2001, Steven Molin. Used by permission.