Return to Sender (A Sermon)

This message was preached on December 29, 2019 at the Paris Presbyterian Church, where I serve on staff.

Matthew 2:13-23

As we gathered for our Christmas Eve service on Tuesday and celebrated with our families the rest of the week, we reflected on the Charlie Brown Christmas version of the story. Angels and Shepherds, Mary and Joseph, Wise Men from the East. We sing Silent Night. We light the candles in the darkness. But we do our best not to dwell on the darkness that makes our little candles visible.

If our retelling of the Christmas story last week was like a Charlie Brown holiday special, today’s Scripture is more like a horror movie. A vision in the middle of the night, waking Joseph up from his stupor. Immediately hearts start to pound as we follow this young, vulnerable family on the uncertain journey to Egypt, hiding at every suspicious noise. Looking behind themselves constantly, hoping that one of Herod’s men was not close enough to catch them.

Our hearts are torn in two by the cries of the mothers and fathers who lost their newborn children at the hand of the despotic Herod. We feel relief that baby Jesus is not among them, that God has protected this fragile hope through his brave parents. But what about all the collateral damage in this cosmic battle? Surely none of those grieving parents would find an ounce of reassurance in the news that one newborn baby survived.

For the month or so preceding Christmas, we found ourselves in the season of Christmas preparation. Gifts were inquired about (“what is it that you would like to receive?” we asked friends and family). Gifts were purchased, and if you’re like most American households, your front door was surrounded by packaged you ordered from Amazon.com. These gifts were taken out of their shipping boxes and covered with wrapping paper or stuck in a bag with tissue paper, and lovingly placed under the tree, ready to be opened.

At the same time as these preparations for the more “secular” holiday of Christmas were going on, we in our worship and devotional life were preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ once again. We engaged in similar preparations. We considered what we needed to do to draw closer to God and we pondered the ways that God could appear among us this year and truly answer our prayers.

As our gifts were placed under the tree, waiting to be opened, we all waited with eager longing and expectation for the gift of God’s son Jesus.

We were all pretty sure what we were going to find in this “box.” This is one present we all knew about ahead of time. This isn’t our first Christmas. We’ve opened this gift before. We know what to expect. Even still the expectation was building because we really needed Jesus this year.

We all experienced sorrows and struggles this year that we needed Jesus to come into and make right. In 2019, all of us have had some combination of stress with our job (not being appreciated, not making enough money, not having enough time outside of work), conflict within our families (strained relationships with our friends, our parents, our children, and our partners), struggles with our health (diagnoses we were not expecting or recurring problems we thought had been addressed), and more.

In our worship on Christmas Eve, we got exactly what we were expecting. Our prayers were answered. We celebrated once again the birth of Jesus Christ, meek and mild. A precious baby. A sign of hope! We went home Tuesday night with our hearts full of joy. And maybe on top of all that celebration, we’ve also gotten an answer to prayer.

We all felt that prayers were answered when we heard that Mike Morra was returning home for Christmas. And maybe we experienced some of our own personal miracles last week.

The gift of Jesus, this box that has been sitting under the tree all season, this hope we were expecting has been opened.

Inside that box we find the tiny baby.

But lest we’ve forgotten already, this gift of hope also comes with its polar opposite. It’s a mixed bag. Our Christmas Eve service was filled with light, but it’s also surrounded by darkness! Inside the gift we’ve opened this season, we receive both baby Jesus and the tyranny of King Herod.

We should have expected that the answer to our prayers would be this way. After all, the story of the coming of Jesus into the world bears remarkable similarities to the situation surrounding the captivity in and Exodus from Egypt.

As the book of Exodus opens, we hear how God’s provision for the Hebrews in the land of Egypt had been undermined by a new king, one who saw the resident alien population of Hebrews in his land as a threat.

And so, this new king in Egypt decided to put slave masters over the Hebrews to “oppress them with forced labor.” As the people God had chosen to be a blessing to the world continued to grow and become fruitful, as God had promised, they were oppressed more and more.

Eventually, the population became so large and the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, was so threatened that he declared that “every Hebrew boy that is born, you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

There are rulers like Pharaoh and Herod in every generation, willing to sacrifice little children for the sake of the “greater good” or their own narrow political interests. It is always the weak and vulnerable, like the Hebrew babies in Egypt, the children in Bethlehem, and the young migrants at the borders of the nations of this world who suffer at the hands of power.

There is nothing new in this story. We shouldn’t be so surprised by it.

But there’s something else that strikes me about the Exodus story and the Christmas story. See, for years and years, “the Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out to God.”

The Hebrew slaves waited in a season of Advent-like expectation for the one who had made a covenant with them.

They cried out for God to appear in their midst, as we did for the four weeks of Advent.

And finally, if you remember the story, God did respond. He called Moses at the bush that was on fire but would not burn up! There was a sign of hope, an appearance of God anticipating the day when God would appear directly to us through his son.

But what happened? The pain and suffering on the Israelites from their Egyptian rulers increased. They were ordered to make bricks without straw, without reducing their quota.

In response the people said to Moses and Aaron, “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

The deliverance the slaves had asked for and been promise turned out to be much harder than they anticipated. And in that moment, they would have done everything to reverse course, get rid of Moses, and suck up to Pharaoh for better treatment.

This pattern continues throughout that story. The people of God cry out to him pleading for rescue. Deliverance comes. And things get harder.

Once the Israelites reach the desert wilderness, the same wilderness Mary and Joseph traveled through with baby Jesus in the opposite direction, they cry out to God, “why did you lead us out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness? In Egypt we at least had food! Here in the wilderness we have nothing. This promised deliverance is anything but. They would much rather have no deliverance at all, thank you very much.

I imagine that many of God’s people, living in Bethlehem praying and hoping for a better day, had a similar reaction. Their prayers were answered. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of David, the one who was to redeem Israel had come. But along with his coming came suffering caused by an evil that would do anything to oppose this work of God’s deliverance.

Yes, the promised redeemer had come. But along with that gift from God came the reaction of an evil King who killed all the babies of Bethlehem.

How many in the days of Jesus would have looked at what God was doing and how evil was responding and thought, “we would all be much better off if we left things alone.”

How many of those who received the gift of deliverance, the gift of the newborn Jesus, just wanted to wrap baby Jesus back up and send him back to God where he came from, thinking he was more trouble than he was worth.

Sure, the gift of Jesus is great. But is he really worth the trouble?

The parents of Bethlehem who had lost their children weren’t the only ones who would have wished to make a return on their Christmas gift.

The story, from the ministry of Jesus, in Matthew 8 of the demons and the pigs strikes us as much more humorous. It’s hard to take pigs seriously. But we read that Jesus went into the region of the Gerasenes and freed two men who are possessed by demons, sending them into a herd of pigs. What happens as a result? Well, two men are very happy from being set free, but an entire village comes out to Jesus like an angry mob and “pleads with him to leave their region.”

The gift of Jesus in that case means the loss of an entire town’s way of life. They want to make a return.

Jesus himself says in strong terms, “if anyone comes to me and is not willing to disregard mother and father, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even their own life… such a person cannot be my disciple.”

It seems that Jesus is the present that no one really wants to get because it means letting go of everything else. We might all be tempted to join the Christmas returns line with a large, Galilean-sized gift. Up at the counter, we place Jesus on it and say, “I’d like to make a return. I thought I really wanted this gift, I was excited when I received him, but it turns out he’s far more trouble than he’s worth.”

The truth of the matter is this: when we see evil active in the world or in our own lives, it’s much more likely a sign that God is doing something and evil is trying to snuff it out than it is a sign that God has abandoned us.

When we get more than we bargained for from this gift of Jesus, we might be tempted to make a return. The gift of Jesus is going to upset the status quo and turn our lives upside down and inside out. But when we fully make the decision to follow Jesus wherever he’s going and live in faith and trust that God will provide, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Following Jesus is often going to mean abandoning the safety of what used to be for the assurance that God will be with us wherever we go.

But if we’re going to accept the gift of Jesus Christ, we can’t choose safety and comfort. We have to be willing to live on the margins with Jesus and Joseph and Mary or with the Israelites leaving Egypt—fleeing evil at every turn, trusting in God for everything.

Ask anyone who has made a significant life change—overcoming an addiction to drugs or alcohol, adopting a healthier lifestyle with nutritious food and exercise, recovering from a mental illness, leaving a toxic or abusive relationship. All these things are undeniably good.

We would never tell someone that staying in addiction or in an abusive relationship is a good thing. The comfort offered by that kind of status quo is deadly. But we’d also be lying if we didn’t acknowledge that adopting a new way of life is going to mean catastrophic change to friendships, finances, and daily routines.

New life is, quite often, surrounded by death.

The path to healing through Jesus Christ is hard.

The whole world cries out at the pain that comes as the forces of evil in our world are opposed.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Rulers like Pharaoh and Herod and Addiction and Illness and Abuse and Sin and Death are always going to do their worst.

Like always, we have a choice.

Will we let evil rule and keep Jesus wrapped up in his nice little box? Will we return Jesus to his sender? Will we choose safety and comfort, even if they come at great expense and undermine the foundation on which we stand?

Or will we open this complicated, holy, transformational, and troublesome gift of Jesus Christ and let him live in every part of our life, challenging and vanquishing the forces of sin wherever he finds them at great cost?

The waiting of Advent was and is hard, my friends. But the true way of Christmas is even harder. This gift of Jesus Christ might just mean that we lose everything else.

Mary and Joseph lost all opportunities for a peaceful, calm, ordinary life. And we will too if we take this Jesus seriously.

But the word of assurance and comfort is this: whatever we face in this journey of discipleship, the best news we have is that God is with us

God is with us as he was with the Israelites in Egypt and the wilderness

God is with us as he was with Mary and Joseph seeking refuge in a foreign land.

God is present today with all who today call upon the name of the Lord for help.

The way is hard and uncertain. Foes wait around every corner. But God has never and will never abandon us.

It is in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that we receive this word and trust it in faith. Amen.

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