A couple of years ago, around when that terrible tsunami hit Japan, I had a nightmare that night...of Micah slipping out of my arms...
Just the vividness of that dream--so real--was enough to haunt me even today. But I can only imagine, I can only dream for a few hours, what it must have been like for the people of Japan who lost children (228,000 lives, including children), or for anyone who has lost a child.
One year ago, at this time of the year: the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. 28 mothers or fathers lost their babies. Christmas letter from a dear family friend. She lives in Connecticut, one town over from Newtown, and she wrote about going Christmas caroling to one of the mothers, who lost a child on that terrible day.
In our “black and white” Gospel text this morning, the First Sunday of Christmas, get this -- violence, horror, tragedy. This text is referred to as the slaughter of the innocents, perhaps the most horrifying Gospel text in our 3-year rotation! Herod orders children under the age of 2 to be killed, just to make sure. Joseph is warned in a dream...the Holy Family becomes emmigrants, refugees on the run. (Just ask Eva Schneider in Hungary or any number of emmigrants how terrifying it is to leave your homeland.) What is going on here?
For those who might not know: our children have been coloring our bulletin covers for Advent and Christmas; but today, the pictures on the cover are black and white -- no color. The poinsettias, even this beautiful tree are dying, just on the 4th day of Christmas. Can you smell it? Hopefully tragedy has not struck you or your family as extremely as the Gospel of Matthew and I are describing here, but maybe some glitter and tinsel has been swept away for you too?
Perhaps some branches are slumping (in your life), some flower petals withering a bit?
Yet, we hear anew this morning that with and in tragedy, God is still present, not barely present, but deeply present -- with those who are suffering, with those who have lost a child, with whose who must cross borders and live apart from their home country, with those who are plagued by night terrors...
We hear anew this morning that with tragedy, comes opportunity: an opportunity for the Gospel to be proclaimed,
- violence of Newtown -- my friend in Connecticut talked about her pastor’s last year -- life-long pastor: “hardest year of my ministry” -- he was proclaiming the Gospel, along with that faithful congregation, singing to that grieving mother, “No ear may hear his coming, but in the world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
- The gospel is proclaimed in the midst of tragedy.
- to all who have no safe place, no place of peace, no restful nights.
When tragedy strikes, this also an opportunity, for God’s people to pay attention (even during the night)...
* Joseph paid attention, even during the night
- Even during the darkness, even during the winters of our lives, don’t miss the whisper of God’s angels, even in your dreams, and don’t miss the knock of the refugee at your door. We don’t know how the Holy Family was welcomed as immigrants in Egypt.
- But we must pay attention to how we treat those from other countries, who have come knocking, how we welcome them, in our day, [pause] for there is Christ.
When tragedy strikes, there is opportunity to proclaim the Gospel, to pay attention (even during the night), and finally...
When tragedy strikes, this is an opportunity for God-with-us, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ, to work for good in spite of evil all around. Christ goes right to the pain, remember?
God is born in the filth of a stable, made known to the underbelly establishments, those sketchy, thug shepherds -- the type of people that smash windows for fun. God chooses to become just as as poor as the poorest, just as dirty as the dirtiest. And in our Gospel narrative this morning we’re reminded again if we want to see God-in-Christ, look to the immigrant, the alien stranger...traveling through unfamiliar land, maybe your land. The face of Christ is truly in the least of these. God gets close, remember?
Even when unspeakable violence occurs. Horrific natural disasters. Diseases, addictions, even in every-day struggles. God-with-us, Emmanuel, has not abandoned us, but rather, Christ is right by our side.
We’ll sing together at the offering “Cold December Flies Away”: “In the hopeless time of sin, shadows deep had fallen. All the world lay under death. Eyes were closed in sleeping. But when all seemed lost in night, came the sun whose golden light brings unending joy, brings unending joy, brings the hope, highest hope, of our hope’s bright dawning, Son belov’d of heaven.”
You well know, that Christmas doesn’t magically take away all our pain and sorrow. Sometimes our greatest challenges are yet to come. But God’s people know that through the gift of Jesus‘ birth, God has come near. And in that holy presence, this mystery of the ages, this love divine, excelling all other loves, comes peace -- peace that passes all understanding. Deep abiding peace, that starts from within. Peace that carries one through tragedy and loss, peace that carries one through their own mistakes and shortcomings: forgiveness. Peace that breaks down walls, and unlocks front doors, peace makes enemies into family -- that’s the peace that passes all human understanding. Peace that makes immigrants into dear friends.
In this Christ-child comes, not magical happiness not a perfect world right before our eyes, but the deep abiding faith and trust that God’s got us, that the salvation of the world ultimately has already been taken care of, that our souls have permission to calm down and as the hymn goes “David’s harpstrings [the other broken-and-yet-redeemed shepherd of the Bethlehem], hushed so long, shall swell our jubilee of song.” For God is here. To Christ be the glory. Amen.