Monday, December 31, 2007

The Escape

(A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas based on Hebrews 2:10-18 and Matthew 2:13-23)

What we have here is an escape story. The story tells of the escape of Joseph and Mary to Egypt; they took their infant son Jesus with them. They undertook the journey because an angel of the Lord had told Joseph in a dream that Herod the Great was going to try to kill Jesus. Although Joseph necessarily takes the lead, Jesus is the real center of the story. He is the true hero of the narrative that is unfolding.

It is important that the hero escape so that he can live his heroic life and perform his heroic actions. We are familiar with how this works.

In George Lucas’ epic Star Wars saga, in the midst of a bitter inter-galactic conflict that is also played out in the lives of individual protagonists, twins are born to Princess Amidala, who dies in childbirth. Their father is the powerful Jedi Anakin Skywalker who is in the process of becoming the Dark Lord Darth Vader and from whom the twins’ existence must be kept a secret so that he will not have the opportunity to corrupt them. So, the twins are separated and placed with families distant from one another in every way imaginable. It is very important to the story that Luke and Leia be protected because they are destined to grow up and be leaders in the fight for freedom from tyranny.

Some of us are more familiar with the Bible than we are with Star Wars, I imagine, so let me offer you a biblical example of another escape story. Whereas the infant Jesus was taken to Egypt for his protection, this hero was born in Egypt during a time when his people were being persecuted there. The family of Jacob had been in captivity in Egypt for 400 years. Explosive growth in the Hebrew population had caused the Pharaoh to issue an order that all newborn males were to be thrown into the Nile River. When Moses was born, his mother hid him in a basket which she placed in the Nile. There he was found by an Egyptian princess who raised him with his own mother serving as nurse to him. Moses, who escaped death at the hands of a threatened power, grew up to become the great liberator of the Hebrews.

Jesus also escaped death at the hands of a threatened power. Jesus also grew up to become the liberator of his people. Thus, the escape was necessary.

In each of these stories, though, there was collateral damage of the worst kind. It was of the worst kind because in each case children were killed. In the Star Wars story, it was young Jedi students. In the Exodus story, it was the male children of the Hebrews. In the story of Jesus, it was the children of Bethlehem. It is a troubling fact that children do suffer. It is even more troubling that children suffer because of the fears and ambitions of people in power; they often suffer because of the sins of grown people.

Jesus came into a world where tyrannical despots worked their will. He came into a world where people of all ages suffered. He, like Moses but in a way even greater than that of Moses, came to do something about it all, but it is the nature of things that the solution can bring with it more pain and suffering. And in the wonderful and terrible stories of the Exodus and the flight of the holy family to Egypt, we find children suffering.

Jesus came to share in the suffering of God’s children. But he also came to overcome the suffering of God’s children. That is part of the wonder of it all.

Try to imagine what it must have been like for Joseph and his family. They had to make the long and treacherous trek to Egypt and find a colony of Jews among whom they could live. Once there, they had to wonder what was happening back home in Judea. No doubt Mary continued to ponder these things in her heart and I imagine that Joseph did his fair share of pondering, too. When would they be able to go home? Would they be able to go home? And so it came to pass that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, started out his life poor and homeless and then spent some of his earliest days as a refugee.

So Jesus escaped the murderous intentions of Herod the Great but he did not escape the kinds of suffering and struggling that can and do come to us humans. As he grew into manhood and into the special calling that his Father had placed upon his life, Jesus did not try to escape the trials and testing and suffering that came with being the Son of God; to the contrary, he embraced such trials and testing and suffering and in embracing them defeated them. As the author of Hebrews puts it, it is because Jesus went through testing and suffering that he can help us when we are tested and when we suffer (2:18).

How remarkable it is that the Son of God came to Earth and went through the kind of tests and suffering that we encounter! This is a God who cares, who cares enough to walk beside us in all that we experience but who even cares enough to walk through it before us and ahead of us! In so doing he proclaimed the way of the Father (2:12) and showed us how to trust in God no matter what we are experiencing (2:13).

Yes, the infant Jesus escaped the murderous intentions of Herod. But in the end, he did not escape the murderous intentions of sinful authorities and other sinful people who wanted to take his life. He escaped at the beginning of his life; could he have escaped again? Yes. Indeed, the record indicates that he wanted to escape; recall his prayer in the Garden: “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me.” Surely the temptation to choose a way other than the hard way of the Father was one of the hardest tests that Jesus faced. As F. F. Bruce put it,

Time and again the temptation came to Him from many directions to choose some less costly way of fulfilling that calling than the way of suffering and death, but He resisted it to the end and set His face steadfastly to accomplish the purpose for which He had come into the world [F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 53].

He chose to stay and to die because only in that way could he overcome death and thereby take away the one thing from the devil that the old enemy has to hold over us all. He embraced death so as to give us life. He embraced death so as to defeat all the realities that enslave us and that take the life from us.

Praise be to God for Jesus Christ who was tested, who suffered, and who died to open up the way of salvation for us and who also opened up the way to real life here and now for us.

For you see, in Jesus we escape the fear of death and the judgment of death. We do not escape the living of life and the suffering that comes with it, but that suffering and testing is transformed into an opportunity to bear witness to who Christ is in our lives. And we do not escape the privilege and responsibility of walking among and ministering to those who are suffering and dying all around us. As Lawrence Farris said, “In rapid and dramatic contrast to ‘the glory all around’ of Christmas, he takes his place where so many of his children live. And there should the church, his body, always be” [Lawrence W. Farris, Third Readings: The Gospels in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, ed. Roger E. Van Harn, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 11]. We who have received Christ have escaped the clutches of sin and death. But we dare not escape our ministry to all those hurting people around us. Jesus overcame sin and death by holding them fast to himself. We help to overcome the forces that threaten to overwhelm our neighbors when we clutch our neighbors to our chests.

The poet John Guzlowski has written somewhat of what I am trying to say in his poem “What My Father Believed.” In that poem Guzlowski writes of the faith of his father, who spent time in a slave labor camp in Nazi Germany. In one part of the poem he writes,

My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can't be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
He'd seen men try the impossible and fail.

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won't save him
[John Guzlowski, “What My Father Believed,” from Lightning And Ashes. © Steel Toe Books, 2007. The entire poem can be read at The Writer's Almanac.]

We children of God don’t escape suffering. Those children in Bethlehem didn’t; we children of God don’t. Ultimately, though, suffering and death have been defeated by Jesus, who escaped death at the beginning but who embraced it at the end. Our joy is to live that truth and to tell all those around us of it. And it’s true—we can’t save anybody. But we can show them and tell them about the one who suffered and died to overcome what is tearing them apart and weighing them down.

We have escaped.

Therefore, you see, we dare not run away.

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