First Sunday after Christmas
December 26, 2010
“Having a Bad Christmas?” (Matthew 2:13-23)
Having a bad Christmas? Hey, this is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year! The hap-happiest season of all! C’mon, get with the program! What’s the matter with you?
Well, maybe nothing. For I tell you, some of the Christmas cheer in our society is as superficial and phony as an artificial tree covering up a bad spot in the living room. It’s just a temporary fix, a forced cheerfulness without any substance to it. It’s “Happy holidays” without the holy days. It’s “Christmas” without either the Christ or the Mass. It’s “Jingle Bells” and “Santa Baby,” but no baby in a manger, certainly not one who came to be our Savior from sin. An artificial Christmas for superficial souls. Thankfully, that Christmas, the world’s Christmas, is just about over. Tomorrow the Christmas radio stations will resume their regular programming, and people will continue to not think about Jesus.
But for the church–for the church the twelve days of Christmas have just begun. We’re on Day Two. And the funny thing about these days after Christmas–they’re not all that much fun! I mean, if you look at the church year calendar, you see that the three days immediately after Christmas Day all commemorate some persons who suffered for the gospel. Today, December 26, is set aside as the festival commemorating St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church. He was stoned to death for preaching the message of Christ and for calling the Jewish leaders a bunch of stiff-necked rebels, which they were. Tomorrow, December 27, is the Commemoration of St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist, who suffered exile on the Isle of Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Then the day after tomorrow is the festival of the Holy Innocents, a pleasant-sounding title for a most gruesome event, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the massacre and murder of the baby boys of Bethlehem. And that text is also the Gospel reading for our service today, the First Sunday after Christmas.
So here, right in the shadow of the Christmas tree, you get three straight festivals for people who suffered and were persecuted for the sake of Christ: Stephen, the martyr in both will and deed; John, the martyr in will, if not in deed; and the Holy Innocents, martyrs in deed, if not in will. Ask them if this season is a matter of rockin’ around the Christmas tree! I think not. No, for them Christmas made their lives worse, not better. Poor and painful, not bright and cheery.
So the tinsel and the garlands must make way for the cross and the thorns. That’s how life in this sin-sick world goes. And maybe you are feeling the effects. Oh, maybe you’re not being stoned to death or exiled or run through with a sword because of the name of Christ. But still, you feel the effects of sin in you and around you. Life isn’t working too well. You miss your spouse who died, or maybe your mother. You’re lonely and depressed. Life is chaotic and crazy. Fighting in the family, visits to the hospital, mysterious illnesses, one on top of another, and they can’t quite figure out why. There’s a coldness in your heart, a spot of deadness that won’t quite heal. How to describe it? Life stinks, in too many ways. Money is short, the expenses keep piling up, and there’s no relief in sight. This is the reality of the post-Christmas blues.
Have I hit the sore spot yet? We all have one, sometimes a whole bunch at once. You ain’t livin’ if you ain’t hurtin’, in one way or another. And a Christmas tree in the living room won’t make it go away.
There is a tree that will make it go away, but maybe not right away. It is the tree of the cross. The baby laid in a manger would be the child fleeing from danger, when King Herod was trying to kill him. Those other kids got caught in the crossfire, innocent victims of a madman’s rage. But the child Jesus would not get away forever. Coming back from Egypt, growing up in Nazareth, and then setting out on his public ministry, this man Jesus would face opposition and danger, time and time again. His hour was coming. And then, in Jerusalem, it came. The cross. Betrayal, arrest, and unjust trials. Beating and flogging. Thorns on the head and nails in hands and feet. No one has ever suffered more unjustly than this innocent man who died on the cross, Jesus of Nazareth.
Suffering is something Jesus knows firsthand. He is the Man of Sorrows, familiar with pain and hurt. In all our affliction, he was afflicted. Jesus knows what you are suffering, better than anyone else, probably even better than you do. Christ knows the depths of human misery, its cause and its effects.
And he knows its cure. The fix–the permanent fix, the one with substance–is what he came to deliver. Jesus deals with, effectively gets to the root of, all human misery and suffering. He does this by addressing the sin problem. The sin we ourselves do, the sin others do to us, the sin we do against God and his creation–this all needed to be dealt with, and Christ did. By offering his life as the comprehensive sacrifice for sin, once and for all, the Son of God delivered the sons of Adam. Sin is atoned for, all of it–sinners are redeemed, you are–by the blood of Christ. Now you have a hope and a future.
It doesn’t always feel that way. It doesn’t always feel pleasant, being a child of God living under the cross. The pains of this planet are all too plentiful around us. A suicide bombing in Pakistan, with dozens of innocent victims. Christians in Iraq and Iran and China having to do their Christmas services under the very real threat of attack. Closer to home, dysfunctional families–maybe even ours. Come to think of it, are there any fully functional families? I sometimes wonder.
So what are we to do? Just moan and groan and wring our hands? No. I sometimes feel like that drill sergeant therapist on the TV commercial. I want to say, “Let’s all chug on over to Mamby-Pamby Land, you jackwagon!” And I think I need to say that to myself. There is a point at which we need to “man up” a bit and stop the pity party.
But that’s not the main point I want to leave you with today. Today, I think, is the time to speak to hurting people and to let you know that it’s OK, even normal, to feel the effects of living in a world gone mad. But at the same, and even more so, I want to remind you that God is caring for you in the midst of the pain. By the way, he often does this through people, so be alert to how you can be an answer to someone else’s prayer, OK? But, dear children, be assured that God loves you with an inexhaustible love.
Having a bad Christmas? Well, we don’t believe in an artificial Christmas for people with plastic smiles and superficial souls. No, Christmas is for suffering people, people with real sins and real hurts. If there weren’t any suffering, there wouldn’t be any need for Christmas. That’s why Jesus came. To absorb and endure the suffering that sin causes in our world, to take it into himself, so that we would not suffer endlessly or without hope. There is care and there is hope wrapped in those swaddling clothes. Care for hurting people. Hope for people with grief, waiting for relief. It comes in the person of that little child, Jesus Christ, through whom we become God’s beloved children.
Dear friends, fellow baptized believers, we are sons and daughters loved by our heavenly Father, saved by our Lord Jesus Christ, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. And as we await our inheritance in heaven, we do so, not with some mere artificial happiness that lasts for a season, but with a real and joyful hope that endures and perseveres, even in the midst of suffering. Christmas gives us that.