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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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God Dwells Among Us

1st Sunday after Christmas
December 30, 2007
Matthew 2:13-23
Bethany Lutheran Church

During the six months that I worked as a hospital chaplain, there were two places from which my colleagues and I always feared receiving a page, the first was the pediatric intensive care unit, the second, the pediatric wing of the emergency room. It was a large hospital, a trauma one center, roughly the size of the hospital in Marquette. The time was approximately 7pm when I received the dreaded page. 7pm meant that I would be the only chaplain in the building until 8:30 the next morning, and the page was to ER bed 24, a pediatric room.

When I arrived in the emergency room, the pediatric nurses and doctor quickly briefed me on the situation. A thirteen month old, whom we will call Michael, had been born with a large brain tumor on the right side of his head. During the past couple of months, the doctors had done everything they could to help this child. Surgery was definitely not an option, because it would only hasten the child’s imminent death. The parents had brought the Michael to the ER on that night because his discomfort was greater than it had ever been before.

They were new parents and Michael was their first child. They had taken parenting classes prior to Michael’s birth, but nothing they had learned could prepare them for this. The cries of pain from Michael, left his parents feeling completely helpless. They did not know how to make him stop crying, and they were so afraid of causing him further pain and discomfort that they were even scared of holding him.

The reason why most chaplains dread receiving a page to the pediatric units is because in these situations of great hopelessness, there are no words to say. There are no magic words that can bring peace to the child or to the family. What can one possibly say when the life of an innocent child is at stake? I was with that family for twenty-five minutes and while we communicated during the entire visit by our actions, very few words were spoken outside those in prayer. One might even argue that the entire twenty-five minutes were a prayer.

I do not know of a single person who likes today’s gospel passage. It is one of those horrific historical events that we wished simply did not happen. Up to this point, the celebration of Christmas has been filled with much joy and cheer. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come”, we sang on Christmas Eve. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” These hymns paint for us beautiful images of what our Savior’s birth might have been like. Yet, in hearing today’s gospel text, “the horrifying slaughter of the innocent male infants of Bethlehem puts an end to overly sentimental understandings of Jesus’ birth.” Instead, what we are faced with in today’s gospel are some of the most desperate realities in our world. And it is into this world of pain and sadness which Jesus was born.

We are told that the three wise men were drawn to Jesus in “wonder and amazement.” Joseph and Mary have faith as they respond to all that the angels tell them. It is Herod, however, that demonstrates his understanding of Jesus as Lord – for if Jesus is king, it means that Herod is not. While infants are usually not a threat, a rival to Herod’s throne would threaten Herod’s kingship. Herod knew that if he lost his kingship to the infant Jesus, he would be stripped of his power and authority over the people. The birth of Jesus brings great hostility to those who will not bow down to anything other than themselves.

It may appear to some people that our Savior Jesus, although only two years old, had turned his back on his people when he fled to Egypt. Hundreds of innocent babies were murdered while Jesus, our God, escapes. The situation seems even more hopeless when one remembers Moses and the Israelites who were once slaves in Egypt. It was a long desperate journey that the Israelites made in order to flee Egypt, and now our God is found returning there, but not in vain. For God returns to those historical places precisely so that he may be connected to them.

It is like the pilgrimages that people sometimes make. Pilgrims go on journeys and walk along some of the same roads upon which their ancestors once traveled. A son or daughter might return to a battlefield where their father was killed, in order that they might connect more deeply to the life of their father. A pilgrimage is a way of remembering – a way of honoring those who have gone before. The spiritual remembering that occurs while on the journey enables a person to connect more intimately with their ancestors in such a way that they become a part of the story.

God does not turn his back on his people, but rather walks along with them. Jesus’ flight into Egypt reenacts Israel’s sacred history, making God a part of that history. And when Jesus, Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth, Jesus’ own journey has already begun. Staring in the face of hopelessness – staring in the face of our desperate world – staring in the face of all those who have suffered and died in vain, those hundreds of innocent babies, little Michael with the brain tumor – staring in the face of all that is broken, Jesus ventures all the way to the cross. Never does God turn his back on us, not even when we turn our backs on God. Even when all seems hopeless, even when we blame God and curse God, God is there with outstretched arms, bleeding and dying for us.

There are no comforting answers for why innocent children must die. There is only the promise that God is with us, amidst all hopelessness and doubt. Where there is human suffering, God is there. In countries where some children are exploited for sexual trafficking or for money, God is there. Where people starve while others live in denial about the prevalence of hunger in our world, God is there.

Our God is a God who knows suffering. Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt as refugees, exiled by their home country. They were homeless and poor. Finding food would also be difficult. Jesus was pursued by a people that wanted to kill him, from the day he was born, until the day he died. Our God understands injustice. Our God knows death.

The Christmas story is not entirely about God’s glory, it is also about our suffering and hurtful world into which Jesus was born. It is here, in this world, that God dwells among us. God dwells among us in this world where innocent children are killed by war. God dwells among us when our sons and daughters die an early death due to medical conditions. God dwells among all those who have ever contemplated, attempted or even succeeded in suicide. Here in this world, wherever people are hurting and living with hopelessness, God dwells among us. And it is precisely in these places where we, the church, should also be.

God’s glory did not come in Jesus birth, but rather in the many ways in which he suffered. As it is written in the letter to the Hebrews: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings… Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:10, 14-15).

We need not live in fear and hopelessness because God dwells among us. We need not fear death because our God has been born into this world. Jesus has taken upon himself our many burdens so that we need not face them alone. The story of Jesus’ birth is not one that can be romanticized, but rather one in which there were a great many evils present in the world. And I imagine that if our Savior, Jesus, was born in today’s world, instead of 2,000 years ago, he would probably be born in a refugee camp that had a shortage of food and water. Instead of cattle lowing in the fields, there would be the sound of missiles and bombs off in the distance. And while Jesus might not be crying, he would most definitely be wailing.

For it is in this broken world that our Savior continues to come to us. It is for our world that the prophet Isaiah’s words still apply: “he became their Savior in all their distress…his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them” (Isaiah 63:8-9). This is the Christmas story. “With the poor, and meek and lowly, [Jesus] lived on earth, our Savior holy.”

 

Van Harn, Roger E., editor. “The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts.” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2001), page 8.

“Once in Royal David’s City” ELW 269. verse 2.

Vicar Like Smetters

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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