First Sunday after Christmas, Year A, January 1, 2017
Lessons: Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people understand that God invites us to use our hands, our voices, and our resources to help bring about the healing of the nations and to help meet the needs of those who suffer.
Key Scripture: Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. — Hebrews 2:18
Just a few days after singing “Silent Night” by candlelight, we come to Matthew’s account of terror, mayhem, and furtive flight. Talk about a real downer of a lesson on which to teach and preach! God comes into our world in an upside-down, inside-out way, and then all hell breaks loose. Where’s the comfort and joy, please?
Perhaps a place to begin is acknowledging the brokenness of our world and the stain of human sin that pervades the landscapes of our lives. Real life involves real pain and suffering. No one is spared forever, and too many experience more than their fair share of disappointments and hurts. Evil is real, and every age has a Herod or two. Life is not fair, and seeking the common good seems more uncommon than ever.
The situation that continues to face Syrian refugees hearkens back to Matthew’s gospel. In 2013, one Syrian baby was born in refugee camps and settlements every hour, according to Unicef. The weather is bitterly cold, and violence, destruction, and displacement continue—particularly in places like Aleppo. Aid groups and non-profits continue to raise money for vaccines, clothing, and food. Some 2.8 million Syrian children are now categorized as refugees. Rachel wept for the children of Israel. Are we weeping now for these innocents? In a sense, we are all refugees—aliens in a foreign land, a place that is not our ultimate home. Citizens of the reign of God, we dwell in tension between discipleship and culture, between faith and fantasy, and between the temporal and eternal. Our lives on this earth are temporary; the moment we are born we begin dying. And no, it’s not particularly gratifying to ponder this reality on the heels of one of the most blessed nights of the year, a night when even the most marginally faithful among us desire peace on earth and good will toward all.
This is, however, reality. Jesus escaped the death Herod sought for him, but the powers of Empire and the religious leaders of his day would continue to seek his undoing and demise throughout his short life. He didn’t settle down in Nazareth with a wife, 2.5 kids, and a 2400-square-foot house. Our Lord was constantly on the move with no real place to call home or to lay his head. Yet this carpenter and radical rabbi was God incarnate—the Savior of the world walking around with skin and bones, modeling a way of living and being for us, and ushering in the ultimate reign of eternal peace and grace-full salvation.
What we have is, in effect, an unlikely dance between lament and hope. With the reality of suffering, pain, evil, and brokenness with us on the one hand, we always have the hope of Christ on the other hand. These two realities are the most mismatched of dance partners, but dance they do nonetheless in these in-between-times. It is a delicate balance held in precarious tension, and we dare not forget or neglect either partner. Yet this dance keeps our feet and hands moving in service, our hearts beating with compassion and empathy, and our deepest desires full of hope. Life’s choreography incorporates awareness of both pain and possibility.
So on this Sunday, yes, mourn the lack of stability and control you have over this thing we call life. Lament the injustices. Cry for the children. Weep for the erosion of God’s good creation. Acknowledge your status of resident alien and sojourner in a world that seeks to destroy and defeat you. And then…when you feel you are desolate and when all hope seems beyond your grasp, hold out your hands for the bread and wine of Christ’s holy supper. Hang on every word from the Word made flesh and listen for that still small voice of God calling your name and bidding you home, for out of Egypt God has called the Son, and this Son is your hope and your salvation.
Yes, the Christmas story continues, and we the rag-tag, the downtrodden, and the marginalized are part of the plot line. Thanks be to God! Shall we dance?
When All is not Right with the World
If you are not doing a Lessons and Carols service today (and I hope you’re not), the Lectionary readings for this week provide a good opportunity for Christmastide Lament. Yes, the baby was born, and we celebrated that birth afresh; however, the world is still not right. Justice is not served on everyone’s dinner plate. The scales of equality do not hang in balance. Loneliness, pain, and suffering are often present amidst the tinsel, turkey, and detritus of the Christmas Day frenzy. Why not give the congregation permission to lament those things that weigh heavily on their hearts? Consider providing tear-shaped pieces of paper on which folks can write their laments. Place a large bowl near the Christ candle and make time in the order of worship for those laments to be placed in this “bowl of tears.” Offer the laments to God during the prayers of intercession. No, turning our cares and concerns over to God may not result in immediate release and restoration, but in God’s good time this world will turn and be made right. We are sent into the world to seek justice, to love and help our neighbor, and to walk humbly with God. Lament is an honest and real part of the journey.
Where is God in the Midst of Suffering?
It is impossible to gloss over this week’s gospel lesson without allowing youth an opportunity to ask the hard question of where God is when bad things happen. Allow them time to process their concerns, fears, and frustrations. Invite them to consider how God is among us in the midst of suffering and how Jesus was intimately acquainted with suffering. We are not alone, although the way may not always easy. What does God ask of us? You can bring several passages from scripture into the conversation here (including one of my favorites, Micah 6:8). We can be God’s presence to others in their suffering, and we can work to alleviate suffering, injustice, and pain in the world. Encourage youth to find their voice and place of power to make a difference through small steps grounded in faithful community and fervent prayer.
This week’s Lectionary lessons are heavy ones for children, so why not focus on the Psalm as a response in times of suffering and pain. Psalm 148 is all about giving thanks to God. Even the sun and moon praise God, old and young, angels and stars—all of creation is involved in the act of praise. Make posterboard cards to accompany a reading of the Psalm and have children hold them up in order as you go along. You can invite adults from the congregation to come up and help, too, if you don’t have enough children.
Another option, particularly if you have older children, is to use this short video from Shift Worship to visually illustrate the idea. Invite children to go home this week and be on the lookout for opportunities to praise God, to simply stop and give thanks and honor God for the amazing creation in which we live. (Note: This approach might also work well for youth if you don’t want to tackle the tough issue of God in the midst of suffering.)
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
All is NOT right with the world. This is most certainly true. Just as Herod brutally slaughtered infants during Jesus’ infancy, today children suffer and die because of human brokenness over which they have no control. Yes, we rightly lament this bitter reality, but as God’s generous and faithful people we also trust that our hands, voices, hearts, and resources can make a difference in Jesus’ name. What one simple thing can you do this week?
Stewardship at Home
Being a good steward involves staying educated about the challenges and difficulties that others face in our world. It is all too easy to become isolated in one’s own familiar surroundings, even though we live a time where information is constantly accessible. Pick one issue to study this week: Perhaps it how some aspect of the global refugee crisis is being addressed (or not) in your community. What can you learn? What services are available? Who is coming to your community for shelter and a new start? Is your congregation doing anything? Are other congregations or social service agencies addressing the situation? How might you do one small thing this week to help? Always make sure to begin and enfold every stewardship at home activity in prayer.
Photos: semelina, Freedom House, and PICS by MARTY, Creative Commons and Public Domain. Thanks!)
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