Sermon, 1/2/2022: The Power of one Word

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2 Christmas

Psalm 84 Jeremiah 31:7 – 14 Ephesians 1:3 – 6 Matthew 2:1 – 12

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young. Ps. 84:2

I begin my reflections today with reference to the gospel of John which is always appointed to be read on the first Sunday after Christmas, and which I read last Sunday in liturgy. When I was child growing up, it was called the Second Gospel. However, now, except on special liturgical occasions, the reading of that gospel has been replaced by the Angelus. At the close of each Mass, from the rear of the church, the priest would read from John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In himwas life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1 – 4)

You and I understand that words have consequences, both good and bad. And what today’s gospel from Matthew reminds us, is Jesus, God’s Messiah, the Word, is a threat, even before he, as an infant, could articulate his name. If the biblical record be true, even the Savior of the world, the Prince of Peace, was not immune, as an infant, to a life-threatening decision, because of one word, not because of a natural disaster or a raging war, but because of one word: KING! Because of that one word, he became a refugee!

Herod was at war with Jesus, whom he had never met, for no other reason, than that he, Herod, had heard that word, “KING,” used to describe an infant. No one had leveled a physical structure; no one had engaged in suicide bombings; no one, at the urging of Jesus, had built a containment wall, and no insurgents met secretly in the Situation Room and connived to storm Herod’s castle, in order to declare him KING. Yet, Jesus became a refugee, the recipient-victim of one man’s hubris, of one man’s failure to understand the true nature of God’s presence. Words have meaning; words have consequence. Herod acts, causing Joseph and Mary to react.

Many scholars speculate that such a thing did not take place. However, when we read a secular history of Herod and his family, we learn things about him that allow us to understand why it may have happened and why people believed the story recounted in Matthew’s gospel. Moreover, we need not delve into Herod’s history, in order to make a strong case for this account according to Matthew. Thanks to modern technology, we see this ancient biblical event unfold time and time again before our very eyes on television, not as a made for TV movie, but as a real, factual account of events of the day, when populations seek to establish kingdoms of peace and equity.

Matthew’s account is in valuable, because it lays before us that God has many ways to aid us in dealing with the threats and dangers of this world. God did not intervene in a miraculous manner, with bolts of lightning, a burning bush, or an earthquake, in order to save the infant’s life. Any of those means would have really shown the Roman soldiers who was in charge. However, via a messenger from God, Joseph is advised to flee to Egypt, to that country where another Joseph, 1,500 years prior, had been sold, but which resulted in saving the Hebrews from starvation. And a second Joseph, a carpenter, a stranger from Nazareth in Galilee, is given refuge along the way, as well as during his stay by real live individuals. God foiled Herod’s plans, Herold’s deployment of the then world’s strongest army, by using an army outfitted only with the weapon of human kindness and respect for human life. And, so, the vulnerable child survived and grew “in wisdom and years and in divine and human favor.” (Lk.2:52) At the gateway to every liturgical year, at Advent/Christmas, and at every
secular New Year, the church invites us to recall the God who came into this world as a helpless, vulnerable child, as someone dependent on others for his very life. The child and his family model for us what we may do and to whom we may turn, when we despair, feel helpless and abandoned, or are weighed down with needs, cares, rage, or responsibilities. Or, conversely, the tiny hand reaches out to each of us, seeking our help. In the same way, we are called to extend our hand to each other, when the situation so requires and demands. Our hand reaches out in empathy to our fellow beings. We devise just and equitable laws, to protect especially those who have no voice to speak against abuse of power. That child reminds us that all exiles today can find a homeland in the Commonwealth of God which the savior and sovereign is gathering together. As God, through his example of Jesus, offers Peace as an alternative to the Pax Romana of colonial Rome, so does God offer that Peace to today’s outsiders.

As the year 2021 was coming to an end and I was reflecting on events, and as I read this ancient account of the escape and return of the Holy Family, I recalled one of many conversations which I had had with a young Turkish shopkeeper, who managed his parents’ dry cleaners near campus in the town in Upstate New York where I was dean of the college. TJ, as he insisted that I call him, loved to engage me in political and religious discussions—and he did so, it seems, always when I was in a hurry. TJ concluded one of our discussions on religious differences, both domestic and international, with the following observation: “A truly religious Christian will accept another Christian, not of the same denomination. A truly religious Christian is a Muslim. A truly religious Jew is a Christian. A truly religious Muslim is a Jew. A truly religious Jew is a Muslim.” This at- the-time 28 year old fellow, with no theological training whatsoever, had captured the essence of God’s work: namely, the essence of God allows us to find a homeland among all peoples. Young Mr. Osman had formulated the essence of John’s gospel, as well as Matthew’s with his emphasis on escape and return, of exile and refugee and homeland and peace. And the swallow has found herself, a nest where she may lay her young. (Ps. 84:2) And are we not above the sparrow or the swallow, as the Prince of Peace reminds us?

John’s gospel gets it right, even if it uses a language which might seem most at home in philosophical circles or a school of theology. It complements Matthew’s gospel. There is, admittedly, a scent of mysticism to be found in John’s introduction. Yet, in John’s gospel is one of the most positive statements of God’s purpose for the Creation and which will get us through all the Columbines, Oklahoma Cities, Newtowns, Parklands, Wacos, Auschwitzes, Bosnias, Sudans, Syrias, Yemens of the world. John declares: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” God makes provision for our return. The next step is ours: to embrace the gift of new life where God leads us and calls us to find it. We offer our hands to the hand of the tiny child who asks us to be neighbor to him. For he, even as a child, is the God with us who everyday opens and creates new futures and new worlds for each of us and guides us safely through all our lives. My prayer for you all and for myself is that God will be with us all in this new calendar year, as we journey back from our own refugee camps to that Light that does not capitulate to darkness, but beams brightly, to lighten our way and that of all human kind.