12/29/2019 ~ Elijah Kellogg Church ~ First Sunday after Christmas Day ~ Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23.
The Big Picture
“Now after they, the Magi, had left, an angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and Mary, and flee to Egypt.” — Matthew 2:13
When I was in this pulpit back in September I said: “With a name like Joseph Francis Connolly, Jr. it is hard to hide that I came to maturity in the Roman Catholic tradition.” But my background is even more attached to Catholicism than that.
For his entire working career my Father taught at a Jesuit High School. And my mother… my mother entered the convent but left before taking her final vows. Given that personal history— my father was a teacher in a parochial school, my mother was a cleric— it could be argued I simply went into the family business.
As is made clear by that history before seeing the light and discovering Congregationalism, I came out of a tradition which is liturgical in nature. One aspect of many churches in liturgical traditions is the readings used on a given Sunday or Feast Day follow what is called a Lectionary, a three year cycle of assigned readings used by the Catholic Church and many Main Line Protestant Churches.
These days it is not uncommon for Congregational pastors to follow the Lectionary. Both Pastor John and I do so.
It’s sometimes said the discipline of following the lectionary means a congregation will not hear a Pastor’s favorite readings over and over. More to the point, a congregation will not, thereby, hear a Pastor’s favorite sermon over and over. And I, indeed, have used the readings assigned for this day, the First Sunday after Christmas.
The assigned Gospel reading poses a question for us. What, exactly, is the greater church inviting us to ponder today in specifying this passage from Matthew?
After all, let’s face the facts presented by these words in the midst of the Christmas season. Joseph, Mary and Jesus become refugees, flee the violence imposed on the populace by an occupying army and in the story babies are slaughtered. What is that about? (Slight pause.)
To answer this question, let’s backtrack a little. Let’s look at the assigned Lectionary Gospel readings on both Christmas Day and today, the First Sunday after, and see if we can determine what those who designed this sequence had in mind. (Slight pause.)
On Christmas Day the Lectionary actually assigns three different readings. In part that’s because in historically liturgical traditions there would have been a service at Midnight, a service at dawn and a service at mid-morning on Christmas Day. The mid-morning Christmas Day service would have been considered the main celebration, not the Christmas Eve service as so often happens today.
The Midnight and Dawn service readings split the Second Chapter of Luke in half. At Midnight we hear about angels announcing the birth of the child to the shepherds. (Quote:) “…to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is the Messiah.” We also get angels rejoicing (quote:) “Glory to God in the highest heaven,….”
At the dawn service we get the shepherds going to see the child and glorifying God. (Quote:) “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen,….”
The Gospel reading at the mid-morning service, what was seen as the main, indeed the central, important service, is very different. We hear the first words of the Gospel known as John. (Quote:) “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God, in the presence of God and the Word was God.” So, just with those three readings what’s happening? (Slight pause.)
First, let’s look at Luke. The word angel means messenger from God. The birth is announced to shepherds by an angel, a messenger. In that era shepherds would have been both poor and socially the lowest of the lowest class, a group outcast by society.
Hence, among the things one can take away from the Second Chapter of Luke are these truths: the birth is announced not to the rich but to the outcast, the poor. Further, the birth of the Messiah is cause for angels— God’s messengers— to rejoice. And then at the mid-morning service, the main service, we get: “In the beginning was the Word;…” (Slight pause.)
I refer to this passage as John’s version of the Nativity, John’s version of the birth. But this is not about the birth of an infant. This addresses the reality of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Christ, Who was, Who is and will forever be.
And then… today, on the First Sunday in Christmastide, we get: “Now after they, the Magi, had left, an angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and Mary, and flee to Egypt.’”
So, in assigning this sequence of readings at Christmastide what is the greater church trying to tell us? Never mind the greater church.
What is Scripture, specifically what are these Gospel passages trying to tell us about the Nativity? After all, in a real sense they are all connected as they all contain pieces about the saga of birth of the Messiah. (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest what the greater church, what Scripture is trying to tell us, is we need to see the big picture. (Slight pause.) Unless I miss my guess all of us gathered here today are what philosophers call Western thinkers.
Whether or not we know it, we were all schooled in Greek, Western style thinking. What is Greek, Western style thinking? We tend to examine each of the trees and all of the trees in a forest— separately. But sometimes because we concentrate on each tree we forget there is also a forest to be considered— a big picture to look at.
Which brings us back to Christmas. When it comes to Christmas what is the big picture? Is the big picture about an angel or a stable or shepherds or a baby or Magi or an emperor or a manger or a star?
Yes, it can be and is helpful to examine all these trees and each of these trees— an angel, a stable, the shepherds, the baby, the Magi, an emperor, a manger, a star. Examining each can be helpful in seeing things, understanding things… unless… unless we lose sight of the big picture. And when it comes to Christmas the big picture is about one thing and one thing only.
Christmas is a message to us about the in-breaking of God into our world, the reality of the presence of God among us— God Who was, Who is and will forever be.
Indeed, returning to these several readings the very thing they have in common are a multitude of references to the Hebrew Scriptures. The hosts of heaven rejoice. The Messiah is announced to the poor, the outcast. These references to the Hebrew Scriptures are about the reality not of the birth of the Messiah but of the Messiah being present among us, the in-breaking of God.
And when we turn to the Matthew saga not only is it an announcement of the in-breaking of God— that is the purpose of the story of the Magi. It also presents a clear parallel with the story of the infancy of Moses when there is a slaughter of babies and also with the story of Joseph— Joseph with the coat of many colors, Joseph who winds up in Egypt. Again these are all references to the Hebrew Scriptures but they are also references about the in-breaking of God into the life of people.
So, the very purpose of these stories is to remind us of what has happened in the Hebrew Scriptures and, thereby, allow us to make connections, understand these ties to the God of the Hebrew people. But to fully see that proclamation you need to step back from each tree— step back from an angel, a stable, shepherds, a baby, Magi, an emperor, a manger, a star and see that there is… a forest.
And the forest is a very basic proclamation. Emmanuel is here. God is with us. (Slight pause.) Now, remember I said that in the liturgical traditions the Christmas Day service is thought to be the main service? And at that service we get John’s version of the Nativity. (Quote:) “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God, in the presence of God and the Word was God.”
That should, in fact, point us to the ultimate reality of this in-breaking of God into our lives, this feast commonly called Christmas. The feast of Christmas tells us, the message of Christmas tells us the reality of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus, the Christ, the One Who was, Who is and will forever be, walks with us now and will always be with us— Christmas. Amen
Elijah Kellogg Church
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “This is a quote from Howard Thurman. You’ve probably heard it. ‘When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.’ Thurman helps us realize that since God is with us, we need to work with God, be the hands, the feet, of God. We need to spread the love of God— Go Tell It on the Mountain.” 
BENEDICTION: “The sun shall no longer be / your light by day, / nor for brightness shall the moon / give you light by night; / for Yahweh, God, will be your everlasting light, / and your glory. / Amen.” (Isaiah 60:19-20a).
 Go Tell It on the Mountain was the closing hymn.