Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Nothing will prevent God from His saving purpose in Christ...

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas A, preached on Sunday, December 29, 2013.

    So here we are, a few days after Christmas, and what we have in the lessons is the tail end of what we will hear next week – the departure of the Magi and the rage of Herod that killed the first born sons of Bethlehem under the age of three.  It is strange on several levels – what we hear is out of chronological order, it is the same as the feast day which was yesterday on our calendar, and it is such a sad and tragic story that seems totally out of place for a people gathered in the afterglow of Christmas.
    But here we are.  We just finished singing “O Jesus, So Sweet, So Mild” and here is a story none of us want to hear but we have all experienced – sadness and loss during the season in which we are supposed to be joyful.  It is a jarring tale of injustice in which a raging tyrant strips the first born sons from their mothers’ breast to kill the King the Magi came to worship.  What seems to be only tragedy is, in reality, the story of the unrelenting love of God that has enemies but will triumph for the sake of all who live in death’s shadow and with the sorrow of grief.
    God's work has enemies.  It has always had enemies.  It will have enemies until the old creation passes away and the new creation is ushered in upon the last day.  That means that we have enemies.  The church has enemies.  Faith has enemies.  Life has enemies.  This comes as no surprise to us but we hate it.
    In the midst of life, we encounter death.  In the midst of joy, our voices are raised in sorrow and despair.  This we know. This is the reality of life after the fall of Adam and Eve.  But what we often miss is that in the midst of death, God reveals His life.  In the midst of our sorrow and despair, He issues His call to joy.
    God's story is always set in death.  It was a world of death into which Christ was born.  Women who died in childbirth, children who died before adulthood, and men who routinely died in what we might call middle age.  Death is not the exception but the rule in our world – at least until Christ was born.  He lives for the sake of the Holy Innocents and for you and me.  He lives to end death’s reign and to kill death once for all.
    Death reigned in Herod.  His heart was filled with death.  His was a brutal reign.  He was a man seemingly without conscience.  In a whim of rage at the betrayal of the Magi, he vainly lashes out to kill the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem but missing Jesus.  It was a terrible act in which somewhere between dozens and perhaps a hundred little boys died because they could have been Jesus.  But it is not unusual.  Not then and not even today.
    Christ was born to do more than die; He was born to overcome death itself.  No raging tyrant will thwart the plan of salvation God laid from the foundation of creation itself.  Christ was born to die but not as an infant victim.  No, He was born to die as the Savior who willingly offers Himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and its death.  This is Christmas, too.  This is why we are here!
    Christ is shielded from Herod.  The angel warns Joseph to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.  The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem could not flee and they became the first martyrs for Christ.  Christ fled not to escape death but so that He might confront death in the fullness of time, the right moment.  He flees not in fear but for the very day of His destiny and choosing, the appointed time – just as in the fullness of time Christ was born, so in the fullness He dies.
    The plan will not be short circuited.  God is acting to fulfill the prophet’s promise.  One step at a time.  He is shielded from one Herod only to meet another, shielded from this death in order to meet death not as a martyr but as our Savior.
    Christmas never takes place in a vacuum.  It does not happen in one of those sealed snow globes we love to shake. Christmas unfolds amid real life with all our enemies, all our troubles, all our sorrows, and all our death.  God’s purpose and plan will not be derailed – not even by His enemies and those who seek to wrest the kingdom from Him and from us.
    The surprise of Christmas is not that death is all around us but that even death cannot prevent God’s purpose from unfolding in Christ.  This is the hope that attracts us like a magnet.  Here, in the midst of sorrow and suffering, in the midst of darkness and death, hope and joy are hidden and we rejoice in the midst of this all because of Christ. 
    Life still wears the face of suffering and death.  Life still wears the masks of grief and despair.  They are not put on hold for the holidays.  This is the time of year we feel most acutely the distance of miles and those missing from our celebrations because of estrangement and death.  But here is Christ.  Here is joy.  Here is hope.  Here is the One who lives to die and whose death gives us life – from the seemingly innocent victims to the guilty sinners who make our skin crawl.  Christ is come for us all but to meet our enemy death on His terms, in the appointed place.
    The voices of Ramah refuse to quiet their grief until death itself is undone.  That is the surprise of Christmas.  The Christ Child will not be Herod’s to kill but lives to die at the appointed time, for us, for the whole world, for sin, and to end death itself.  This is our hope.  This is our peace.  This is our consolation.  This is our comfort in sorrow.  This is the end of all grief.
    We Christians are not immune from sorrow but we are not overcome by it.  We will die but that death has become a tool in the hands of our Savior to lead us to eternal life.  We grieve but not as a people without hope.  So we meet life's darkest moments with the joy that they cannot thwart God from His appointed purpose and from the plan of salvation that brought Christ to us in flesh and blood.   Amen.

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