Our scripture this morning comes from Matthew chapter 2, verses, 13-23.
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. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
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.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.
There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
The word of the Lord.
The war on Christmas is apparently a thing. Herod started it. Seriously, how paranoid do you have to be to commit infanticide “just in case.”
From what I understand, the war on Christmas got revived in recent years. There have been attacks on all fronts. Two years ago, it got so bad that Christian actor Kirk Cameron, best known for his role in Growing Pains and a whole slew of overly long sermons badly disguised as movies, produced an abomination called Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. It has 1.5 out of 10 stars on the Internet Movie Database, where it currently ranks at #2 on their list of the top 100 worst films of all time. It used to be #1, but apparently 2015’s Code Name: K.O.Z. was really, really bad. Anyway, I watched Saving Christmas so you don’t have to. I took that bullet for you. You’re welcome.
Kirk Cameron was worried because some Christians didn’t like Santa Claus, or thought candy canes, Christmas trees, and presents weren’t 100% all about Jesus, so he wasted an hour of my life trying to explain how setting up a pine tree in your house is definitely about Jesus because there were trees in Eden and Jesus died on a cross, which some Bible translations call… wait for it… a tree. Also, there’s a tree in the new Jerusalem in Revelation, so of course Christmas trees are all about Jesus.
That’s not a joke, he was serious.
Delighted that he had saved Christmas, Kirk Cameron engaged in a 10-minute dance party that I can never un-see.
During the movie, though, a few minor characters referenced the slightly-better-known “war on Christmas.” Apparently, in an attempt to be inclusive and recognize that (gasp!) not everyone is a Christian and celebrates Christmas, some stores started telling their employees to say “Happy Holidays,” and that apparently constituted a war. If you believe some of the recent commentary, Christmas is now winning the war on it, but I’m not so sure that’s the right war, or that Christmas is winning the right one.
That war on Christmas, too, appears to be failing. On December 15, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly declared that the “War on Christmas” was over and pronounced Christmas the winner because many stores that had stopped using the word “Christmas” re-introduced it.
Five days before Christmas day, my grandmother posted a video with the caption “People are losing their minds over Trump’s lack of political correctness saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘God Bless You.'”
I commented with a link to a video on Slate.com, a compilation of a bunch of times President Obama has also said “Merry Christmas,” without causing people to “lose their minds.”
But as Kristen and I were driving home from celebrating Christmas with her family, I kept hearing people in my NPR podcasts say “Happy Holidays” and I got to thinking: What does it mean for people to wish us a Merry Christmas? What does it mean for a president or president-elect of the United States, or a department store employee, to wish us a merry Christmas?
What does Christmas mean? Obviously, Christmas means the birth of Jesus Christ, as Linus wisely tells us in A Charlie Brown Christmas… but what does the birth of Christ mean? I’m in a Christology class in seminary where we’re spending a whole term exploring what that means. But more specifically, what’s the relationship between Christmas and government, between Christmas and stores, between Christmas, and power and money?
Let’s start with power. What does the birth of Christ mean to governments, or leaders of governments?
Who was the top government leader to become aware of the birth of Jesus? Well, Herod. How did Herod think Christmas related to him? Matthew does not leave much to the imagination. Matthew 2:3 says “When King Herod heard [about the birth of Jesus], he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Frightened. Herod’s fear led to innocent children being murdered, as the fear of the powerful so often does.
But why was Herod afraid? Why did he have the babes of Bethlehem killed? What was he afraid of?
Maybe it had something to do with the song Jesus’ mom Mary wrote, with its lyrics about God bringing down the powerful from their thrones.
Or maybe it had more to do with the question the magi asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews,” which was a horrifying question for Herod because “King of the Jews” was kinda Herod’s gig.
Maybe it was the prophecy about Bethlehem being the source of a ruler of Israel.
Anyway, Herod was not excited about the prospect of being cast down from his throne. For Herod, the birth of the baby Jesus wasn’t about a sweet holiday filled with gatherings of family and friends, and warm fuzzies and strings of white icicle lights and delightful packages done up in Elf wrapping paper. It wasn’t about Santa Claus, or believing, or or magical flying reindeer. It wasn’t even about gathering in church for a candlelight service and singing carols about joy to the world.
For Herod, the birth of the baby Jesus was about nothing short of revolution. It was about regime change. It was about a new world order. And you can ask Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad, or North Carolina governor Pat McRory: People in power do not like regime changes. When despots catch wind of revolutions, despots create refugees. When the powerful see the tides turning, they do everything in their power to stop it. People who are doing well in the current world order are not particularly interested in a new one.
This is what Christmas represents. This is why Herod tried to have Jesus killed.
Is today so different? Would a president Obama or a president Trump be excited about the prospects of this newborn king, born to take their place? Or would they launch a drone strike on Bethlehem to protect our freedom and our way of life?
And what about department stores? Do we want department stores to wish us a merry Christmas? Mary’s song is a threat to money as well as power: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” but she also says God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Do we want stores to wish us a happy birthday of the person whose birth is a promise to send their CEOs to the streets and donate their stock options to the guys with cardboard signs on the corner of Braddock and Penn? No wonder they switched to happy holidays!
Christmas is revolution. “Merry Christmas” is a battle cry against injustice. When the unjust powerful hear “Merry Christmas,” it should leave them shaking in their boots.
But it doesn’t. Not anymore. These days, even Herod wishes you a merry Christmas. The people who used to feel threatened by the birth of Jesus now celebrate it. When the rich and powerful are celebrating the birth of this newborn king, it’s a safe bet Christmas isn’t what it used to be.
When Herod wishes you a Merry Christmas, you can rest assured that Bill O’Reilly is right: the war on Christmas is over. It ended a long time ago… but Christmas did not win. Christmas was co-opted.
So how can we un-co-opt Christmas? How can we live out the true meaning of Christmas? How can we get Christmas back into the fight? I have three suggestions:
- Don’t be afraid; trust God. We can’t let our fear continue to lead to killing innocent children. Like Herod’s murder of the holy innocents, our Presidents have already authorized drone strikes that have killed innocent children in attempts to kill people our rulers feared.
- Like the wise men, give to help refugees. Church World Service has some ways to help out. I don’t think they accept gold, frankincense, and myrhh, but their website, cwsglobal.org, has some suggestions about how to help refugees, from help where they are, to welcoming them to what we hope is an “Egypt” where they can be safe until their homeland is safe again, to supporting the newcomers after they arrive. One of those ways is to put an extra check in the offering, and write “Jewish Children and Family Center’s Refugee Resettlement Program.” And if your checking account is feeling a bit light, cwsglobal.org also has ways to help that aren’t monetary.
- Protest the rich and powerful when they abuse their power against the weak and the hungry, and demand that they be held to account.
So… I have a new answer to the question “What would baby Jesus do?” Baby Jesus would scare the hell out of the rich and powerful.
So Viva la Noel. Long live Christmas. Long live the revolution.
Go out into the world in peace;
have courage, and do not fear;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
protest the unjust rich and powerful;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Viva la Noel.
I had the privilege of preaching this sermon on January 1, 2016, at Waverly Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.