SERMON PREACHED BY THE REVEREND
DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
ON THE SECOND SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS DAY
4 JANUARY 2009
- "This was to fulfill what had
been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I
have called my son."' (Matt.
- There was a time, not too long ago, when
Madison Avenue had the decency to wait until we had put our Thanksgiving
turkey into the oven before launching the world's "Christmas
season." In those days, Christmas was deemed to begin when
Santa Claus appeared on the North Pole float, making his way
down Fifth Avenue in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. But driven
by an ever-failing economy, the advertising industry has been
forced to begin Christmas as soon as our children return from
their trick-or-treating on Hallowe'en. The church, of course,
observes the twelve days of Christmas, to end tomorrow on the
eve of the Feast of the Epiphany --- so when we add it all up,
we will have had more than two months of Christmas --- full of
its reveling, its tree-trimming, sending and receiving cards,
singing carols, going to parties, overindulging in food and drink,
and participating in what has become known euphemistically as
retail therapy. But at the center of our thoughts, perhaps as
much for the secular-minded among us as for churchgoers, are
Mary and Joseph in a stable, surrounded by kindly animals, humble
shepherds and adoring Magi, with "the little Lord Jesus
asleep on the hay." It is a heartwarming scene, guaranteed
to make sentimentalists out of even the most "Bah! Humbug"
folk in our midst. Christmastime, you will agree, has been a
period made up of equal measures of magic and nostalgia.
- But in this morning's Gospel, Matthew provides
us with a reality check. At the heart of his somber and sober
tale are Herod, a maniacal king, Joseph, a terrified father,
Mary, a disgraced mother, all on a desperate flight into Egypt.
This was no post-holiday excursion; it was a journey in which
the Holy Family were running to save their very lives. We don't
usually picture the Holy Family as political refugees. But that's
exactly what they were. The baby Jesus, even before he could
walk, became a fugitive from the murderous jealousy of a corrupt
ruler. There's nothing like starting out life as a refugee, in
exile in a foreign land, to make one grow up fast.
- Matthew, we should note, is portraying Jesus
as the new Moses. You will remember that in the accounts of Moses'
birth and infancy in Egypt in the Book of Exodus (and in Cecil
B. DeMille's epic film, The Ten Commandments) the Pharaoh
orders all Hebrew children under the age of two to be killed,
so that the Hebrews will not be able to become more numerous
or raise up leaders to rebel against their Egyptian masters.
But Moses is miraculously spared when the Pharaoh's daughter
finds him in the bulrushes. Moses then survives to lead the Israelites
out of bondage. In his version of the Christmas story, Matthew
casts King Herod as the new Pharaoh who orders the slaughter
of those whom the Church honors as the Holy Innocents, to prevent
one of them from becoming the new liberator of Israel. The Holy
Family escapes to Egypt, ironically making a former place of
slavery a place of refuge. After the death of Herod, Jesus returns
to his people to lead them to a new freedom.
- But there is more to this story than Matthew's
literary artistry. First of all, Matthew's story is a deeply
human one. Luke's deals with the supernatural --- choirs of angels,
a Star in the East, a Virgin birth --- but Matthew's story is
one which we can easily imagine being recast for reality TV.
A mother with an out-of-wedlock child, her fiancé facing
possible scandal while trying to do the right thing, an oppressive,
despotic king who threatens to kill the baby and who ultimately
drive the parents out of town!
- In other words, Matthew spells out what Incarnation
means. It is not simply a supernatural occurrence that took place
in the instant when Gabriel spoke to Mary. Rather, it means that
in a specific year of human history, in a particular country,
m circumstances of political oppression in which a puppet king
ruled on behalf of a foreign ruler, God in the form of Jesus
Christ stepped into that history and became fully subject to
the whole human experience. As the writer of the Epistle to the
Hebrews described it: "Therefore, he had to become like
his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he might be a
merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make
atonement of the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested
by what he suffered, he is able to help those of us who are being
- We need not remind ourselves that humankind
is still being tested. Oppressive political regimes still exist.
Sudan's neighbors are providing homes for her refugees, victims
of pillage and rape. Thousands of Zimbabweans, victims of political
unrest, famine and now cholera, are pouring into South Africa.
Yesterday's New York Times had a picture of a cherubic
toddler who, thanks to having a foreign passport, was allowed
to leave Gaza, a happier fate than that of more than 400 of his
fellow Palestinian people, dead as a result of the aggression
of their Israeli neighbors. The irony is not lost on us that
the "little town of Bethlehem" lies no more still than
it did at the time of Mary and Joseph, even though it is situated
at the center of land called holy by the three Abrahamic faiths.
Matthew's story affirms that God is present with us even in the
most fearful and painful moments of our existence, and that there
is no aspect of the human existence into which God cannot enter.
- But all this, perhaps, has been the theological
lesson of Matthew's Christmas story. There is also a practical
one. The story tells us that salvation didn't come from some
deus ex machina, some extraterrestrial being who swooped
down with a magic wand. No, rescue came from a man who was willing
to live by his faith in God's promise, a man willing to take
serious risks. It was Joseph who first risks social embarrassment
when the one to whom he was betrothed is found to be pregnant,
marrying her anyway and claiming her child as his own. It is
Joseph who listens to his dreams and takes his family to safety,
leaving his own life behind. It is Joseph who listens again and
returns to Palestine after the death of Herod, risking life and
limb at the hands of his successor. It is Joseph who does all
of this when he could have remained in the relative safety of
Egypt. But he believed that God was actively working on his family's
- The Flight into Egypt has been a popular
subject of artists for centuries. The great Renaissance masters
portrayed the Holy Family on their trek, and in some paintings
you can even notice the Pyramids in the background! More recently,
a Sunday School pupil, asked to depict the Flight into Egypt
understandably drew an airplane with various people visible at
its windows. Three were, predictably, of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus,
but when asked to identify the fourth person, seen in the window
at the front of the plane, she explained that that was Pontius
the Pilot! Legends, too, admittedly apocryphal, have arisen from
the story. I vaguely remember, on a visit to the Holy Land, taking
a bus tour during which the guide pointed out a place called
the Milk Grotto, a cave so named because it was believed that
a drop of milk fell to the ground while Mary was breast-feeding
Jesus, causing the whole cave to turn white! But my favorite
legend is the one in which the Holy Family, Herod's army in hot
pursuit, knock on the door of a peasant farmer. The farmer's
wife asks them to come in, explaining that she was unable to
come to the door herself because she was kneading dough. Minutes
later, the soldiers arrive, and the woman hides Jesus in the
dough. The soldiers look all over the house, but to no avail,
and leave in a huff, after which Jesus is removed from his hiding
place. From that batch of dough, the woman was able to produce
an endless supply of bread of the most superior quality for her
family and neighbors.
- We stand at the threshold of this year of
grace, two thousand and nine. I happened to be looking at the
morning news on Friday when the opening bell rang on Wall Street.
The newscaster said that everybody was happy to see 2008 go,
and that they had hopes that the market would right itself. Others
are hopeful that the new administration will put things in order.
But to us who profess and call ourselves Christians, we say,
"Our hope is built on nothing less/Than Jesus' blood, his
righteousness." Matthew's Christmas story invites us to
live in hope, trusting in a God who is with us in every experience
of life. Like Mary and Joseph, we are called to trust in God
even if we cannot see the end of the story. And who knows? Like
the fanner's wife, we who keep Jesus close to us may be able
to share him with others.
- Let us pray:
When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In ev'ry high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
- On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
- Lift Every Voice and Sing, II, No. 99