Wonders of His Love: Compassionate Joy, Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23
First United Methodist Church, December 29, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
It seems as though we ought be able to bask in the wonder of it all for awhile, doesn’t it? It was only a few days ago, we were singing the carols we love so much: “Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” “O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” We think of angels and shepherds, of “deep and dreamless sleep, as silent stars go by.”
We’ve created in our minds a beautiful setting of a young handsome couple and their perfect child, a crude manger softened with clean, sweet-smelling straw, well-behaved farm animals quietly napping around the outside walls of a warm, star-lit stable, even as gentle snow falls softly all around.
And yet we realize that it wasn’t all the quiet, solemn and serious serenity that we’ve created it to be.
We just talked last Sunday about the turmoil Joseph experiences as he tries to appropriately respond to the news that Mary is pregnant and he knows with all certainty that the child isn’t his. And then he has the dream—when an angel of the Lord speaks to him—tells him that the child Mary carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that they are to call him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. Joseph listens, he trusts, and he takes Mary as his wife.
But their troubles aren’t over. There is no time to set up a proper nursery, no place where Mary can settle herself into a comfortable recliner at night to deal with the indigestion that disrupts her sleep. Instead, with Joseph’s help she climbs onto the back of a donkey with a small bag filled with soft fabric and other little things her mother suggested might be helpful for the time when the baby is born. They have this census to deal with, they don’t have a choice right now, but maybe things will settle down a bit after this.
But things don’t settle down. (Do they ever?)
There are the good things, though puzzling: the angels, the shepherds, the strangers who find them by following the light of a star. And then there are the wise men, the magi, the kings, the astrologers, called each of these things at some point, in some translation. They are wealthy men who come from far away, bringing amazing gifts. They follow the star, and stop first in Jerusalem, inquiring as to where they might find Jesus, the child born to be king of the Jews. Herod, who considers himself to be king of the Jews along with everyone else living in the territory, isn’t pleased when he hears this. He calls the travelers to him, asking when the star appeared so he might have an idea of when the child was born. He then sends them back on their way, asking if they would please report back when they find the location of the child: he, too, would like to offer his regards.
The wise men find Jesus, worship and honor him, and offer their gifts. They are then warned in a dream to not report back to Herod. They listen and leave for their home country, traveling a different route.
Joseph now has another dream, and that’s where this morning’s text begins. The angel speaks urgently to Joseph: “Get up and take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Again, Joseph listens: he’s learned that angels who speak to him in dreams know what they’re talking about. He awakens Mary: “Just take what you need, we need to travel light. We don’t have a lot of time and we need to move quickly.”
A crying baby, a frightened mother, and Joseph’s heart clutching in his throat every time he sees a soldier. But the nightmare doesn’t end with their leaving. The soldiers come and babies die, as a raging, jealous king seeks to destroy the one who he believes will someday compete for his throne. By the end of his life, Herod will have killed—among others—one of his wives, and 2 of their sons, as he considered them a threat to his power. He also has his mother-in-law killed for daring to charge him as being unfit to rule, and then a third son who he himself placed into power, though he later changed his mind—so had him killed, too. (Problem solved.)
If Herod didn’t hesitate killing members of his own family, then there is really no question that he would have been bold enough to send his soldiers out to kill those whom he considered eventual threats to his rule, even though they were no more than 2 years old. Historians believe that perhaps 20 male children in Bethlehem were murdered in that attack, and the words of the prophet Jeremiah rang true: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and much grieving, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were no more.”
The family lives as refugees in Egypt—perhaps for a few months—before learning, again from an angel, that Herod has died. They return to Israel and settle in Nazareth, where Jesus is raised. The decision to go there rather than back to Bethlehem was made after Joseph learned that Archelaus now ruled over Judea in place of his father. Evidently Archelaus was much like his father when it came to treachery. Rome eventually removed him from his seat of power because of his harshness—which apparently was severe, since Rome never seemed overly concerned with harsh rule before (particularly when we think of Herod).
In just a few days, in only a few short paragraphs, we’ve moved from sweet serenity to a jealous leader gone mad. We’ve moved from a sweet little baby lying in a manger, to babies murdered and mothers weeping. In all too short of a time, life at its ugliest has effectively swept away all the images of the manger, all the wonder and joy of Christmas.
Or has it?
Perhaps what this awful story does, is it grabs us by the collar, and shakes us out of our tendency to separate Jesus from the troubles of the world, to (in effect) compartmentalize Jesus: of saying—this is holy, this is of God—and this (over here) is real life—this is reality, and God doesn’t have anything to do with these real things, God can’t speak to these real things, to the bad things that happen in life.
But I would respond to that claim, saying that it is the incarnation, the coming of God in the flesh in Jesus, that brings the good and the bad and the challenging parts of life all together. We can see that God gave us a Savior in the midst of the broken and ugly places of the world. God had/God has compassion for God’s people when we’ve been laid low, when bad things happen, and God continues to give us a Savior, born again and again in our lives, reminding us, offering us hope—and reinforcing our joy.
Isaiah 63 is one of today’s lectionary texts and it invites us to consider the kindness of God. Perhaps we think more of God’s power and might than we do God’s kindness, but consider these words of the prophet that describe God as being compassionate:
“I will recount the Lord’s faithful acts; I will sing the Lord’s praises, because of all the Lord did for us, for God’s great favor toward the house of Israel. God treated them compassionately and with deep affection. God said, “Truly, they are my people, children who don’t do what is wrong.” God became their savior. During all their distress, God also was distressed, so a messenger who served him saved them. In love and mercy God redeemed them, lifting and carrying them throughout earlier times.”
As we read this morning’s text we’re reminded that the world is full of people and systems, driven by fear and vengeance, who will do all they can to extinguish joy and light and love. The world can be heartbreakingly cruel; the world desperately needs kindness, compassion, and empathy.
Perhaps it would be helpful to define compassion. In a book on self-compassion, professor and psychologist Kristin Neff writes, “Compassion, [then], involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering. It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering., so that the desire to help—to ameliorate (improve/relieve?) suffering—emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is” (Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (p. 10). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)
This understanding of compassion is consistent with our understanding of who God is and what God calls us to be. God recognizes and sees our suffering. As Isaiah writes, “In all their distress God too was distressed.” Over and over again we see God’s desire to help us, to save us from our trials. In Jesus, God comes to us, enters our shared human condition. And we are called to do that same thing for others. We respond to the cruelty in our world with kindness, compassion and empathy. Against the evils of the world we shout, we cry out, we overcome. We join our voices with God, angels and saints to usher in God’s kingdom.
It would be easy enough for us this morning to focus on the cruelties of this world—there are plenty. It would be easy enough to begin naming off all the “Herod’s” of our time and age. But let’s remember what we’ve learned about joy over these past weeks of Advent: elusive joy, hopeful joy, loving joy, unabashed joy, peaceful joy, incarnate joy, compassionate joy. Joy still abides. It runs deep and wide, underneath, around and behind everything because of who God is and what God’s coming into the world means for us.
It seems a reasonable thing to ask, to consider then, where do you see and feel joy: in your life, in our church, in our community, in our world?
As we do this, listen to this poem by Ann Weems entitled “Angels Still Appear.”
Angels still appear to those
ready to receive blessings
in spite of the barren impossibility of their lives.
Elizabeth still recognizes Jesus
And calls him Lord,
Receiving him to her heart,
In spite of the distraction of her own blessing.
Blessings still come
To those who believe
That nothing is impossible
In the hand of God.
Mary still gives birth,
Not just every Advent,
Mary still gives birth to this Child
Who advents into hearts,
Unexpectedly and forever.
Herod’s still live who
Would kill this Child,
But Mary and Joseph still flee into the desert,
And the night,
To protect the One
Given into their keeping.
Doors still slam in the
Inns of the world,
Herod’s still plot to kill,
Deserts and darkness
Still threatens our safety,
But God still lives.
In spite of war and terror,
Mary gives birth
To the prince of peace.
In spite of hunger,
Mary gives birth
To the Bread of Life.
(From Advent’s Alleluia to Easter’s Morning Light: Poetry for Worship, Study and Devotion)
May we remember
May we give thanks.
May joy abide.