This message was delivered on the First Sunday after Christmas 2018 at Eldersville United Methodist Church.
Matthew 2:13–18, 14:1–12
I appreciate the dedication that has brought you to worship today, even on the Sunday after Christmas. The Sunday after Christmas is a time for us to consider the consequences of the Christmas message.
On Monday and Tuesdaywe celebrated the good news that a child has been born to us! The King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Word on which all creation was spoken into being has come into the world. Hallelujah!
It’s appropriate for our celebrations to continue. After all, the Christmas season continues all the way up to Epiphany on January 6th. Don’t put your Christmas decorations away yet! Today is only the 6th day of Christmas!
Yet, as we worship in reduced numbers on this awkward Sunday between Christmas an New Years when many people are still traveling and thinking about everything except church, today is an appropriate day for a little reality check.
What did Jesus’ birth at Christmas really accomplish? How did the world react to the good news we’ve been spending our week celebrating.
We all know what ultimately becomes of this little child born in a manger—he’s baptized, he teaches and heals, he calls 12 disciples to participate in his mission, and then… he’s killed by the Romans on a cross. Not exactly what we would expect to result from the grand entrance at Christmas. This baby is, after all, the prince of peace, the mighty God himself!
But anyone who has spent any time with Matthew’s verison of the Nativity knows that death doesn’t even wait that long to rear its ugly head into the story.
After the small child escapes with his young parents to Egypt as a refugee from Herod’s evil power, all the male children under two who remained in Bethlehem were massacred.
A “reality check” alarm goes off in our heads. We can remain in our cheap-joy filled sentimental Christmas celebrations no longer. Evil is on the move right as the story beings.
It may be uncomfortable for us to deal with so soon after the celebration, but Fleming Rutledge explains it this way: “The great theme of [this season] is hope, but it is not tolerable to speak of hope unless we are willing to look squarely at the overwhelming presence of evil in our world. Malevolent, disproportionate evil is a profound threat to Christian faith.”
So let’s do it. Let’s take our eyes off the cute baby in the manger for just a second to shoot a piercing glare at the forces of evil in our world and scream in their faces: not today, Satan.
We don’t have to look far.
We can meanacingly on the number of mass-casuality events this past year that have only deepened our divisions while silencing the voices of the dead. We can look at cancerous growths in the bodies of those we love with fists held high and our battle faces on. We can stare down those who have abused and created harmful work environments for God’s children. We can look at those who have used their power to cause human suffering rather than alleviating it.
Not today! We exclaim, but our voices fall on deaf ears. There’s always a new evil in our world for us to condemn. And evil seems far more organized than the resistance. The forces of sin, death, and every kind of evil hold seats in congress. They entertain us. They tell us how to think and who to hate. They sit in executive suites and oval offices. They hold the innocent in prison and serve as judge, jury, and executioner on the street. Evil is well organized in our world!
And, oh yes—let us not forget—the forces of evil even hold a place in our hearts.
Yes, the forces of evil have killed worshippers in the Tree of Life synagogue. They have taken out journalists like Jamal Khashoggi. They have left children to die of hunger and thirst while celebrating a job well done. They have sown discord in families and divisions in churches. In big things and in small things, evil has accomplished a lot just in 2018!
The Gospels remind us that this is nothing new. Evil killed a multitude of children while it was trying to extinguish the hope given by baby Jesus and evil took John the Baptizer’s head and nailed Jesus to the cross.
We know some of the names that perpetrated this evil. We know the name of the gunman at Tree of Life. We know the leaders of the Saudi Government who silenced their critic. We can point fingers at border patrol agents and world leaders and bring any who abuse their power to justice. We can convict those who have abused children and harassed adults.
The problem with all this finger pointing is that, eventually, we will have identified a lot of evil without recognizing anything about the enemy. We will get stuck identifying human enemies.
And if we’re in the business of identifiying humans who commit evil by comission or omission, we’re going to identify basically every living person on this earth.
Pointing our fingers at people like King Herod, like we could reasonably do in this story in Matthew 2, would only get us so far. You know why? Because that Herod was followed by another one. And another. And another.
Our Scriptures attest, this battle is so much bigger than any one person. If we spend our time trying to identify human enemies, we’re going to miss a lot of them. Uncover one agent of death and a million more will wait in silence for their moment to pounce.
There is a bigger cosmic drama at play, bigger than any Herod of this world and any one tragedy.
Behind all the evil that we can identify in our world is the one cosmic reality that the Scriptures call by many names.
Put on your 3D glasses and see in a new dimension what is hidden from our eyes.
Go back and look at the nativity scene with spiritual vision and see what surrounded the pregnant Mary, in the process of giving birth, (Revelation 12) “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.”
One woman in Louisiana became an internet sensation, and the object of her neighbors ire, a few weeks ago when she put up inflatable dragons in her yard for Christmas. One neighbor spoke for the whole neighborhood when she said, “your dragon display is only marginally acceptable at Halloween. It is totally inappropriate at Christmas. It makes your neighbors wonder if you are involved in a demonic cult.”
I understand what the angry neighbor was trying to express, but I think they got it all wrong. We need to put the inflatable lawn dragons back in Christmas! John the visionary tells us the dragons were right there at Jesus’ birth, hovering over our little nativity scenes ready to snatch the Christ child alive.
This cosmic reality has many names when it appears in the story of Scripture. John sees it as a dragon. Ephesians 6:12 calls these forces, “the rulers, against the authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” We might also call this spiritual reality sin, death, satan, the accuser, the adversary, the prince of darkness, or the devil.
In the face of all this evil, Jesus taught us to pray, “deliver us from evil…”
And this is why the Christ Child has come—to bring power and glory that will wipe out evil for good!
Philip Yancey writes, “From God’s viewpoint—and Satan’s—Christmas signals far more than the birth of a baby; it was an invasion, the decisive advance in the great struggle for the cosmos.”
Jesus came into our world to fight a war that’s been a long time in the making.
It was this mission that led Jesus from the manger to the cross, where the forces of evil thought they would dispose of him for good.
Our world is full of little crosses, marking the deaths of infants, young men and women at war, families fleeing violence, and all who suffer under the weight of death’s rule. And Jesus came to join them by dying on that big cross, suffering along with all of us. That’s why Matthew juxtaposes Jesus’ birth with the stark reality of sin, death, and evil. This is why Jesus came!
The nativity begins the great war between the worlds.
On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of the savior. We celebrated the birth of God among us to take a hands on approach to sickness, sin, and suffering. And now, as we wake up from our sugar comas into the reality of the world, we come face to face with the enemy that Jesus came to deal with.
The dragon of evil is on the prowl, even if its only visible in some lady’s yard in Louisiana.
The good news for us now that we’ve had our reality check is that Jesus doesn’t just deal with these enemies one-by-one. Fighting against evil is, for us, a never-ending game of wack-a-mole. But Jesus came to uncover the whole thing. Jesus came to overthrow the power of sin, death, and evil once and for all. This evil is bigger than any of us. We can’t do anything about these forces alone. But Jesus has come to shine a bright light, to release us all from our bondage to sin and the weight of the fear of evil.
The dragons might appear menacing in the dark, illuminated by their own light, but when the big light comes on and the power behind the dragons is switched off, we’ll see this evil for what it really is.
The difficulty we face is that while the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter are significant and decisive moments in this conflict between the worlds, the battle still wages on.
The struggle continues. Herods still sit on their thrones. Children are still massacred and abandoned. Families just like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus still flee from their homes to escape a life under the rule of evil’s latest embodiment.
The decisive turning point of the conflict has come, but evil still lurks everywhere we turn.
So what do we do?
Paul, in Romans 12:15, tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” We rejoice when evil is exposed and sin-sick souls find redemption. Any day when sins are confessed and pardon is given is a great day for us and a terrible day for Satan.
And yet, the other part of that call is to “weep with those who weep.” We weep with Rachel for God’s children who are killed and who suffer in destitution. Yet, as 1 Thessalonians 4 puts it, we “do not grieve as those who have no hope.”
When tragedy strikes, as it did last year and will in the next year, let us see it for what it is—the latest appearance of the powers at work for the destruction of the world. When tragedy strikes, we will grieve and weep as those who know human pain. But we will also celebrate the work of Christ on our behalf in birth and in death. We will look to the heavens with our heads held high, knowing that the day of the Lord will come, bringing an end to the rule of evil, sin, and death in our world. We will sing the songs of salvation today and every day, remembering what Christ has done, Christ is doing, and Christ will do for us and the whole world.
The Christmas Carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” puts this response into song:
God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Truly, Jesus has come to set us free from Satan’s power. What better comfort could there be?