First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
December 29, 2019
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Matthew 2:13-23 (NRSV)
Now after [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When 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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“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.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Welcome to the first Sunday after Christmas. The Psalm reading for today is telling us to join with all of creation to rejoice and be of good cheer. But, it’s the first Sunday after Christmas – a day that always feels so “ho-hum” after reveling in angel song and Alleluias and Silent Nights and candle light. The wonder often feels a bit flat. The only thing that is often left to ponder in our hearts is the reality that the decorations will need to come down some time.
Gifts all unwrapped and put away
Those odd or mis-fitting ones will soon be returned and exchanged
The Christmas dinner leftovers are almost all gone
There’s not as many lights on around town and the stores are already displaying Valentine’s and St. Patrick’s merchandise
Visiting family and friends have returned home
The shepherds have left Bethlehem and gone back to their flocks
The angels have ascended back into their heavenly abodes
Even the wise men have climbed back up on their camels and headed back east
All we’re left with is a few Christmas cookies, and the holy family, their odd gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and Joseph’s dreams.
It’s the post-Christmas let-down
It’s the time of reality check that reminds us that we can’t stay in the height of glory all the time. Moses had to leave the burning bush and come off the mountain. We can’t stay in Bethlehem and expect angels every night. Life has to get back to normal-ish at some point.
We’ve turned the page of the story of Jesus from his birth to his infancy. With this new chapter, things are very different. They’re ….anti-climactic, sad, even frightening. We discover that Jesus is still a threat to Herod who seeks to destroy him no matter what. Herod’s plan “A” was to have the wise men come back to Jerusalem and confirm the new Messiah’s location. But plan A didn’t work because the wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to Jerusalem to let Herod know where to find Jesus. Herod had to go to plan B – destroy all the babies in Bethlehem. A gruesome, horrific part of the story of young Jesus’ life.
It’s a harsh reminder that things don’t often turn out the way we think they should. Things don’t always turn out the way the world says they will. There are even times when things don’t turn out the way God intends them. So God often has a plan B. And a plan C. And a plan D. Sometimes it feels like we’ve made it all the way to God’s plan Q with all the things that seem to go contrary to the way we thought they should.
Think about how life has turned out to be so different than what you thought it would be years ago – or even last week. Careers that are different than what you had expected. Marriage and family different that your original plans. Health concerns that are not quite what you thought they’d be at this time in your life. Even the world around us is different than we thought it would be 40 or 30 or maybe even 10 years ago. Even the church is well into plan B or C or D or more.
The story of Jesus’ troubled infancy is a reminder that even God’s plans don’t always work out the way they start. Our sacred stories are full of do-overs and plan B’s. It kind of takes that belief that God has everything neatly planned out and brings it into question. God may have planned to have had the Holy Family go to Egypt but I don’t think the slaughter of all the babies in Bethlehem was part of that plan. Rachel wasn’t the only one weeping in Bethlehem that day. I think God’s tears were there as well. It’s why I get very bothered when I hear people say, with all the best intentions in the world, “God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.” I have yet to encounter a God of Jesus who planned the death of any child because the parents could handle it. I can’t imagine, nor do I want to worship a God who planned for slavery to happen because a certain race could handle it. Cancer… for all of us who have struggled with cancer, either ourselves or our loved ones, I really can’t sing praises to a God who says dishes out those crazy cancer cells to certain people because they can handle it.
The God I can worship is the one who recognizes that life is full of challenges. I can sing praises to a God who admits that creation is not perfect and evil is present and people do stupid and mean things. I can believe in a God who recognizes the really hard stuff and sticks around to see us through. That’s the plan God has for this world – that God is and will always be part of it.
God’s ultimate plan A is that we are not left alone, no matter what plan we’re on.
Even though the angels had left, there were still heavenly voices that spoke to Joseph – again, in a dream, the same as when he was told to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife. The same as the one that spoke to the wise men to tell them to go home another way and not return to Herod. The same that would later speak to Joseph to warn him that one worse that Herod ruled when it was time for them to leave Egypt. God was not going to leave Jesus and Mary and Joseph alone in the face of this unfolding threat from the powers of the world.
God has a way to continually re-work the plan because creation is full of things that would thwart God’s big plan of being in relationship with us and all of creation. A relationship not just when this life is over, but a relationship every day of our earthly life. A relationship that isn’t just about being with us when things are going great and we are full of joy but a relationship that hangs in there through the really, really hard times, when all that can be done is to cry. A relationship that isn’t always about taking away the tears but crying with us, laughing with us in times of joy, swearing with us in times of frustration, wondering with us in times of uncertainty, dreaming with us in times of hope.
The Holy Family made it to Egypt and then to Galilee. The child grew and became a grown up. He preached powerful sermons. He healed those whose diseases kept them separated from family and culture and faith. He fed the hungry, abundantly. He taught and loved. And the powers of the world were threatened by his power of love and they crucified him. But God’s plan A held firm when he rose from the dead.
There is nothing that will thwart God’s plan A to be in relationship with us and all of creation. It may not always work out as we think it should. There will be challenges in life. But, through it all, God’s plan A holds true. May that eternal presence of God bless you this day and in the coming year.