This morning’s worship service included four reflections on the scripture readings. The first three reflections were delivered in conversation with the children of the church. The fourth reflection was delivered from the pulpit. Whether you are experiencing these reflections for the first time online, or whether you were present at St. Andrew’s and are re-reading them now, I invite you to consider the questions for your own reflection that follow each of my scripture reflections.
Reflection #1: “Giving Thanks for the Blessings of the Past”
Good morning. Merry Christmas! And Happy New Year! I haven’t seen most of you since Christmas Eve. Did you have a good Christmas? I had a very nice Christmas. Nick and I had a nice quiet day, we cooked a special dinner, and we invited some friends over for good food and great conversation. Today, I am thankful for the Christmas that I just had — for the celebrations at church, and for the chance to rest and relax for a few days. Think about the Christmas that you just celebrated. What are you most thankful for? (invite sharing)
Today is December 30th — almost the very end of the year 2007. This is the time when lots of people start thinking back over the year, remembering all the things that happened and all the things they did. Think about this year — 2007 — What are you most thankful for in 2007? (invite sharing)
Today, now that Christmas is pretty much over, now that 2007 is pretty much over, I invite you to think about all the blessings of this Christmas, and all the blessings of 2007, and to give thanks to God for these things. One of the best ways I know to rejoice and give thanks and praise to God is to use one of the psalms from the Bible. Andrew is going to lead us in reading Psalm 148. It’s a psalm of praise. Not only do the people praise God for all of God’s blessings, but the whole creation — plants, animals, and everything in the universe joins in praising God. Think about those things that you are thankful for as we read Psalm 148 responsively, and as we sing the refrain. It’s printed on the white insert in your bulletin.
Question for your Reflection: Reflect on your Christmas and on the year 2007. List the blessings for which you give thanks to God.
Reflection #2: “Remembering the Challenges of the Present”
At the end of the year, we often think back over the year that is coming to an end, but we also start to think about the year that is about to begin. By December 30th, we start to realize that the Christmas holiday is almost over. Some of us are already back to work and the regular routines of life. Others will be back to the usual school or work in just a few days.
When the peacefulness of Christmas starts coming to an end, we start to remember and to face the challenges of the present. Maybe it’s a pile of work waiting on your desk when you get back to work. Maybe it’s a stack of homework that you’re supposed to get finished before school starts up again. Maybe it’s something else that you decided to put aside for a few days until after Christmas when you figured you would have more time. What are some of the challenges that you will be facing when things get back to normal after Christmas is packed away? (invite sharing)
Our second reading from the Bible today is from the Gospel of Matthew. At Christmas, we heard readings from the Gospels about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. We sang carols about his birth, and we celebrated that special night when Christ was born. For a short time, everything seemed very quiet and peaceful as Jesus and his parents enjoyed the blessing of God. But it wasn’t long before everything got very hectic (and even kind of scary) for Mary, Joseph, and the young child Jesus.
In the story that we will hear today, the wise men have just come to visit Jesus and his family. They brought their gifts and worshipped the child. Then they returned home by a different way so as not to alert King Herod about where Jesus was living. Unfortunately, Herod finds out where Jesus is staying anyway, and Herod has a plan to get rid of the boy that he’s afraid will become king and replace him. Let’s listen carefully, as Emily reads us the story.
Question for your Reflection: Name the difficulties that you are presently facing in your work, family, relationships, health, or other areas of your life.
Reflection #3: “Asking God to Help us with the Future”
Like in any family with a newborn child, things didn’t stay quiet and peaceful for Jesus and his parents for very long. Not only did Mary and Joseph have a baby to look after (which is a lot of work at the best of times) but they also had King Herod plotting to kill their little boy.
The wise men had interpreted the movement of the stars, and they believed that this child would be the new king. That’s why they brought the expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But Herod didn’t like the idea of a new king. He fully expected his own son to be the king after him. He didn’t want some child in Bethlehem to grow up and overthrow his kingdom. So he was going to do everything he could to make sure that it wouldn’t happen.
After the peacefulness of Christmas, the holy family was on the run from King Herod, trying to protect their only child. But I think that the neat part about the story is that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had God’s help along the way. God’s help came to them in the form of more angels — just like the angels that we talked about on Christmas Eve! This time, it was every time Joseph went to sleep he would have dreams, and in the dreams the angels would tell him what he needed to know from God.
First, an angel told Joseph that they needed to go to Egypt. The angel warned him that Herod was trying to kill Jesus, and explained that going to Egypt was the best way to escape. Herod, of course, was very angry when he found out that the wise men had tricked him. They had gone home by another route and avoided having to tell Herod where he could find the special child. Herod only knew that the boy would be in Bethlehem, so he arranged to have all the little boys killed, so as not to miss the one who would be king. What a terrible thing to do! — killing all those children! But Jesus and his parents had already left Bethlehem, so they managed to get away safely.
A few years later, when King Herod died, another angel spoke to Joseph in a dream. He told him it was safe to go back to Israel. Unfortunately, Herod’s son had become the king, so Joseph was still a little worried. And again, an angel helped out. The angel told Joseph to take his family to Galilee. Joseph did that, and Jesus grew up there, in the town called Nazareth.
All the way through the story, God sent angels to speak to Joseph and help him to know what to do and where to go. There were lots of challenges for Joseph and his family after Jesus was born, but God never left them. All Joseph had to do was pay attention to God, listen to those angels, and do as God told him.
As we begin a new year, we might be thinking about all the challenges that lie ahead for us. Today’s story reminds us that God will be with us through those challenges, and that God can help us along the way. We just need to pay attention to God, and try to follow God’s ways, and we’ll be able to make it through okay. We might begin the new year by making new year’s resolutions. Do any of you plan to do that? But if you only make one resolution this year, let it be to keep on asking for God’s help in all the things you’re trying to do. Keep on praying, keep on looking to God in scripture, keep on paying attention to what God is telling you. And may 2008 be a year of blessing and joy for all of you.
Question for your Reflection: Write a prayer asking God to be with you and to help you with the challenges you will face in 2008.
Reflection #4: “Partnering with God to Create a Future with Hope”
Every Christmas we read the stories of Jesus’ birth from Luke and Matthew’s Gospels. But it’s only once in every three years, according to the lectionary cycle, that we hear this post-nativity story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. It’s only once in every three years that we hear about the challenges that came after Jesus’ birth into our world. It’s only once in every three years that we read about how unlikely it was that Jesus would successfully make it through his childhood and go on to the adult ministry that God had prepared for him. It’s only once in every three years that we hear of God’s special protection and care for the child who was born to be God-with-us, how the angels guided his father to lead the family away from danger, at least until Jesus was grown up and ready to take on the anger and hatred of those who would still (thirty years later) have him killed.
Despite the fact that we don’t read it very often, today’s story is important in Matthew’s Gospel for a number of reasons. The author included it in order to make several important points. Of course, he wanted to emphasize the fact that Jesus’ birth and his identity as the Messiah was predicted and prophesied by the prophets of Israel. Each detail of the story matches up with elements of the Hebrew scriptures, which Matthew’s community knew so well. And just in case the reader misses something, the author is careful to point out the various references.
Jesus went down to Egypt and then came out again, just as the great leader and saviour of Israel, Moses, had done. There was a terrible killing of young children as a jealous ruler tried to get rid of him — another echo of the story of Moses. The author wanted to make it perfectly clear that Jesus was the new Moses, the one that Israel had been waiting for, the one who would be their Messiah and their Saviour. All this was according to God’s plan. See, his birth and childhood took place just as the scriptures predicted.
But the text does raise some difficult questions, at least if we take a moment to pay attention to some of the people in it besides the Holy Family. I’m referring, of course, to the other families of Bethlehem. In my reading this week, I came across this imaginative story in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, and it really gave me pause to think.
Susanna and Jehoiachim were young parents, both twenty-three years old, just getting started in life together. They had one child, little Davey, who at eighteen months had learned to walk and was getting into everything, was putting sentences together in strange ways, his soft, high-pitched little voice giving a musical lilt even to the Aramaic gutturals. A healthy, happy child, he was the delight of their life. They named him David because they lived in the “city of David,” as their village was called, located a few miles south of Jerusalem.
Late one night while everyone was sleeping, the king’s soldiers surrounded the village, and at first light they came into town. They ordered all parents with small children into the village square, made a search to ensure that none remained, and without a word killed every boy younger than two years old. “Orders,” they said.
After the horror of that day had receded enough for the villagers to take account, they discovered that twenty-one children had been killed.
It is a cruel world, and such things happen. In our time thousands of babies have been napalmed, gassed, starved, and shot down by the order or permission of unfeeling governments. But human beings are resilient creatures, and after periods of numbness, anger, bitterness, and acceptance, Jehoiachim and Susanna were able to pick up the pieces of their life and go on. Without hostility or condescension, they rejected the “explanations” of the tragedy from well-meaning neighbour-theologians, having no answer to the question articulated for them in their own Bible-prayer book, “My God, my God, why?” (Ps 22:1). They even began to find new meaning in synagogue worship.
Until one day when they discovered that on the crucial night before the slaughter of the baby boys an angel had come from God to warn one family to flee. It turns out that God had arranged for Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus to escape and that they had been secure in Egypt. The little boy Jesus was alive and well, but not their little Davey.
The story certainly challenges how we read and interpret the biblical narrative. Is it really historical, with real angels from God who came and warned one family while allowing the other children to be killed? Some might argue that it was really important for God to keep Jesus safe and to keep him alive because of all the things that Jesus was sent to do in our world. Still, it doesn’t seem to fit with the God I know — the one who, in Jesus, loves us enough to give up his life for our sake.
I think I am content to read this post-nativity story and to take from it what I believe was the author’s intention. He wanted to tell us how special Jesus was. He wanted to tell us how God had planned for Jesus’ coming into our world. He wanted to tell us that Jesus would be the new Moses, the one to save and redeem Israel. He wanted to tell us that Jesus would be a threat to the rulers of this world, and that God would protect and care for him until Jesus fulfilled the work that God had prepared for him to do.
I don’t think the author intended to portray God as sacrificing all the other little boys of the village in order to save just one. I think he must have just wanted to say that it was an amazing miracle that Jesus survived. He must have wanted to tell us that God’s care was over this special child.
But it does make me think… every time I interpret something good happening in my life… every time I notice some blessing, some minor miracle, some good thing happening for which I give thanks to God. If I give glory to God for the blessings I experience in my life, what is that saying about those people whose lives are full of tragedy and despair? Even if I give thanks to God for food to eat and a home to live in, what is that saying about the many people in our world who are hungry and homeless every day?
On Christmas Day this year, a young child asked a similar question. He and his family had enjoyed a wonderful Christmas celebration. The children had opened presents from Santa Claus, and then parents and children had exchanged some gifts as well. After the gift opening was finished, the family had gathered around the computer to choose gifts from the World Vision catalogue. Together they chose some animals to give to families in another part of the world where people were living in poverty and need.
Later, as the family gathered for the special Christmas meal, they each shared about the things they were thankful for. It seemed like a perfect Christmas, until one of the children asked a difficult question: “What about those other children?” he asked, “Why doesn’t Santa Claus bring them presents too?”
I don’t know how his parents answered the question. It wasn’t an easy one. Just as it’s not an easy question for us when we start to question why there are so many hurting and suffering people in our world when we have a loving and caring God.
I came across a story recently. It was forwarded to me on email. Perhaps it could be an answer to the little boy’s question about those other children. Perhaps it could be an answer for us when we are thinking about all those in our world in need of God’s love and care. Here is the story:
I remember my first Christmas adventure with Grandma. I was just a kid. I remember tearing across town on my bike to visit her because my big sister had just dropped the bomb: “There is no Santa Claus,” she jeered. “Even dummies know that!”
My Grandma was not the gushy kind, never had been. I fled to her that day because I knew she would be straight with me. I knew Grandma always told the truth, and I knew that the truth always went down a whole lot easier when swallowed with one of her “world-famous” cinnamon buns. I knew they were world-famous, because Grandma said so. It had to be true.
Grandma was home, and the buns were still warm. Between bites, I told her everything. She was ready for me. “No Santa Claus?” she snorted…. “Ridiculous! Don’t believe it. That rumor has been going around for years, and it makes me mad, plain mad!! Now, put on your coat, and let’s go.”
“Go? Go where, Grandma?” I asked. I hadn’t even finished my second world-famous cinnamon bun.
“Where” turned out to be Kerby’s General Store, the one store in town that had a little bit of just about everything. As we walked through its doors, Grandma handed me ten dollars.
That was a bundle in those days. “Take this money,” she said, “and buy something for someone who needs it. I’ll wait for you in the car.” Then she turned and walked out of Kerby’s.
I was only eight years old. I’d often gone shopping with my mother, but never had I shopped for anything all by myself.
The store seemed big and crowded, full of people scrambling to finish their Christmas shopping. For a few moments I just stood there, confused, clutching that ten-dollar bill, wondering what to buy, and who on earth to buy it for. I thought of everybody I knew: my family, my friends, my neighbors, the kids at school, and the people who went to my church.
I was just about thought out, when I suddenly thought of Bobby Decker. He was a kid with bad breath and messy hair, and he sat right behind me in Mrs. Pollock’s grade-two class.
Bobby Decker didn’t have a coat. I knew that because he never went out to recess during the winter. His mother always wrote a note, telling the teacher that he had a cough, but all we kids knew that Bobby Decker didn’t have a cough; he didn’t have a good coat. I fingered the ten-dollar bill with growing excitement. I would buy Bobby Decker a coat!
I settled on a red corduroy one that had a hood to it. It looked real warm, and he would like that.
“Is this a Christmas present for someone?” the lady behind the counter asked kindly, as I laid my ten dollars down.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied shyly. “It’s for Bobby.”
The nice lady smiled at me, as I told her about how Bobby really needed a good winter coat. I didn’t get any change, but she put the coat in a bag, smiled again, and wished me a Merry Christmas.
That evening, Grandma helped me wrap the coat in Christmas paper and ribbons (a little tag fell out of the coat, and Grandma tucked it in her Bible). We wrote on the package, “To Bobby, From Santa Claus”. Grandma said that Santa always insisted on secrecy. Then she drove me over to Bobby Decker’s house, explaining as we went that I was now and forever officially, one of Santa’s helpers.
Grandma parked down the street from Bobby’s house, and she and I crept noiselessly and hid in the bushes by his front walk. Then Grandma gave me a nudge. “All right, Santa Claus,” she whispered, “get going.”
I took a deep breath, dashed for his front door, threw the present down on his step, pounded his door and flew back to the safety of the bushes and Grandma.
Together we waited breathlessly in the darkness for the front door to open. Finally it did, and there stood Bobby.
Fifty years haven’t dimmed the thrill of those moments spent shivering, beside my Grandma, in Bobby Decker’s bushes.
That night, I realized that those awful rumors about Santa Claus were just what Grandma said they were: ridiculous. Santa was alive and well, and we were on his team. I still have the Bible, with the coat tag tucked inside: $19.95.
I believe that our God loves and cares for and blesses all the children of the earth, but much of that loving and caring and blessing takes place when those who follow the way of Jesus start truly living as Jesus’ Body in the world. As the church throughout the world, we have an amazing responsibility to be God’s presence and protection for those who are in danger, for those who are refugees, for those who are hungry or homeless, or sick, or in any kind of need.
It is a high calling — a big challenge – for us who follow the way of Jesus. But God’s promise is to be with us, to help us, to guard and protect us until we have accomplished all that God prepared for us to do.
May this new year be one in which we truly partner with God to create a future with hope for all people. May God’s blessing be felt and experienced through our presence and our work in the world. Amen.
Question for your Reflection: Commit to one thing you will do in 2008 to partner with God in creating a future with hope for all people.