When the Bible comes up in conversation, it is apparent to me that many people view the Bible as a book of lofty otherworldly sayings — all about spirituality and all that kind of stuff. Perhaps it is because of this misconception that when folks actually begin to read the Bible, they often are quickly disillusioned and give up almost before they try. They give up, I venture to say, not because the Bible is boring, but because it does not accord with their own preconceived notions of what they think should be about.
The Bible is not a very heavenly book; it is, in fact, a very worldly book — a this-worldly book. The Bible tells of the rise and fall of kingdoms and of families. It tells of greed, corruption, and sin of every kind. It tells of the horrors of slaughter, military defeat, and tragedy on a mass human scale. The Bible, in short, tells us what it is like to live in a world structured by human pride and insolence, by greed and corruption, and by power gone mad. Our very Christmas story—the story Jesus— is, we proclaim, the story of God’s involvement in our world.
Yet, human beings do not recognize this fact and cruelly execute the one God sent. The story of the Messiah’s birth, while joyous and happy at the outset, comes with ominous signs. The gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in the Christmas Season tells the story of the travels of the Magi who follow the star to the place of Jesus’ birth. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh foreshadow Jesus’s life, ministry, and death. Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for his burial anointing. The child born to be king is also a child born to die.
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matt. 2:12).
Immediately following this story, Joseph receives a similar, more ominous, warning. We read:
“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. …When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:13-16).
It is this description of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, that I find a particularly good example of the worldliness of the Bible. Shortly after his birth, Jesus becomes a political refugee. Herod, according to the story Matthew relates, undertakes a mad, jealous search for the child who has been born. Joseph and Mary, being warned in a dream, take their newborn child Jesus and flee with haste into Egypt. In his failure to find the child, he orders the execution of all Hebrew infants under two years old.
The story of Jesus’s birth, in other words, is no fairy tale. The harsh realities of the world — its political upheavals and violent repressions — are never far from Jesus. Should we be surprised then that Jesus’ own ministry is cut short by the forces of political repression and power? All of this was foreshadowed by the events of his birth.
When I look at the world we live in today, I see a world that is not much different from that of the time of Jesus’ birth. A number of years ago, we had a “Code Orange” terrorist alert during the Christmas season. I remember thinking at the time how sad and incongruous it seemed to have such an alert during the Christmas season. Reflecting on this gospel reading, I realized that a Code Orange during Christmas is nothing new. It was that way for the children and parents of the Hebrew Innocents at the first Christmas.
This realization alone does not somehow make everything all right. No one wants to live in fear, in any fear, whether from political repression or terrorism. The story of Christmas is that into the world of sins and evil comes God enfleshed — made incarnate in a real human person, the person of Jesus. The joy of Christmas makes its greatest impact when it is juxtaposed to the harsh realities of human existence. Because then, the truly good news of the gospel shines like a single candle burning in the night. Referring to the incarnation of God’s Word into the world, the writer of the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5 NRSV).
The light of God incarnate in Jesus shines in our world as a candle in the night. Sin and evil still exist in this world, and although God never desires that kind of life for us, we human beings bear the responsibility for our arrogance, pride, avarice, will to power, hatred, and for our wars and aggressions.
God nowhere in the Bible promises us a world without suffering. God never promises — even God’s most faithful servant — a life without pain, suffering, or difficulties. Just look at Jesus, if you want proof of that. What God does is descend to our hurt, our pain, our insecurities, our loneliness, and take it all on, and into, God’s very being. That is the story of Christmas. God became flesh for us and for our salvation.
That is the hope of the Gospel this Christmas season. God is with us. The Hebrew word Emmanuel, which means, “God with us,” encapsulates the meaning of Jesus’ birth for us. Now God is with us. In our deepest hurt and need God is with us. In sorrow or pain, God is with us. In fear and anxiety of every sort, God is with us.
Into our midst, God has come. Come let us adore our Emmanuel and give thanks on this last day of the Christmas Season. God is with us.