Christmas 1A 2010 – Hopeless no more

Matthew’s gospel covers a great deal of time in very little space.

First, the genealogy: 42 generations in about 300 words.

No time spent on the finer points – no judgements made,

only statements.

Then the birth story – from a father’s perspective.

All Joseph, no Mary.

Angelic assurance for a worried groom

“Don’t be afraid to take her as your wife”

And Joseph is willing – even happy – to oblige.

And before we are out of the second chapter of this remarkable book

there is the threat of discovery and destruction

at the hands of a powerful ruler.

Matthew doesn’t spend any time on the drama of the escape;

Matthew doesn’t tell that story, because frankly,

there is no purpose in it.

This is not a reporting of Joseph and Mary’s response

to the hardships of life.

This is a gospel tale – describing God’s close encounter

with the problems of God’s people.

This story in particular is a lesson in the limits, if you will,

of the Incarnation –

a lesson in the humanity of Jesus and the ‘helplessness’ of God-with-us –

a helplessness that would eventually lead Jesus to the cross.

For here in the middle of this miraculous story –

following Angelic visions and visiting dignitaries –

we are alarmed to discover that the only way to ‘save the story’

is to have Joseph and his family sneak out of town,

under the cover of darkness,

while the villain lets loose his rage at being tricked.

It is not the story we want to hear.

It is too negative – too brutal for our Christmas celebrations,

and it causes me to ask some hard questions:

Why wouldn’t the bringer of visions and dreams –

the commander of the angel armies – the all-powerful God –

have fashioned a more elegant solution to this problem?

Why must we endure this story of slaughter

as the beginning of the “good news of Jesus Christ”?

Jesus and his family are helpless – as we are helpless.

They got word of trouble coming,

and the angel choirs are quickly forgotten

announcements of salvation take second place to safety and security.

And the suffering that God’s people have long endured

continues before our very eyes.

What kind of hope is this?

As a Christmas story, this one fails on every level –

no joy; no singing; no hope proclaimed in silent wonder.

But as a story of God’s intention to be present with us;

to live our life and endure our disasters

and become intimate with the state of our society,

it is a perfect success.

In the helplessness of the Holy family,

we are given hope in our own struggles.

In the undercurrent of despair – as “Rachel weeps for her children” –

we see hope in a small, fleeing family.

Matthew’s gospel gives us Emmanuel, God-with-us,

who is deeply affected from birth by human suffering –

and we are compelled by this unusual introduction to read on,

to learn what God in Christ will do

with his knowledge of the human condition.

We will not be disappointed.

From Jesus helplessness comes his compassion

that lets him put the least of us in a place of prominence.

From these difficult beginnings,

God fashions a kingdom that will admit no rivalry,

that offers strength of a different kind

to those unable to fend for themselves.

We are promised by this gospel –

one that makes much of Jesus’ humble, horrifying beginnings –

that Salvation has come without prejudice

through the One who knows well disadvantage and despair.

True, it is not the story we wanted to hear.

It is, however, a story we need to remember.

For the satisfaction and security that we create for ourselves

is largely imaginary.

We inhabit a world that knows well

how to punish the weak and oppress the marginal.

And the gospel, for all its questions and curiosities,

serves to remind us that it was to all of this that Christ came –

Salvation was born in the midst of our hopelessness –

and thanks be to God,

we are hopeless no more.

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