Sunday, January 3, 2016

After Christmas?

A Sermon preached on Sunday January 3rd Epiphany (transf.) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a, Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

When I first looked at this morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew I was reminded a little of the chorus of one of the songs sung at our Victorian Music Box concert back in September:
After the ball is over,
After the break of morn,
After the dancers leaving
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.[1]

Our Gospel reading also started with the word “after,” in this case with “After the wise men had left.” So, what happened after Christmas, after the birth of our Lord, after all the beloved characters – shepherds, angels, wise men – left, after the ball? Did all the praising and glorifying and paying homage continue? Or were we instead confronted with aching hearts and vanished hopes? Well, when we read on, it does sound as if the party was well and truly over: “After the wise men 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!’”

This reading is one of three available every year, and so it has not been offered to us today because it is particularly topical, though it is. For sadly, almost every year it will relevant, because somewhere, someone is always fleeing from violence. Now of course, after the arrival of nearly 1 million refugees last year, and with more expected this year, it is especially relevant. This is the largest number of refugees that Germany has had to deal with since the end of WWII. But let’s not forget, that 70 years ago a total of approximately 12 million people fled here, into a country devastated by war with food, power and housing shortages. This country managed then, and will manage today – as Angela Merkel rightly says: wir schaffen es - and we as St. Augustine’s will also help where and how we can.

It is not a coincidence that Jesus was not just incarnated, made human, as a baby, but shortly after his birth also as a refugee. Before he had even learned to walk and talk, Jesus was a homeless refugee with a price in his head.  Those of you who were here last Sunday heard me quote from one poem in a book that I have been reading in Advent and through to the end of the Christmas season. One of the other poems, written by the book’s editor Malcom Guite, picks up on that connection. It’s called “Refugee:[2]
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Our Lord is with a million displaced people. Towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, a passage also known as the judgment of the nations, Jesus famously tells those who have been judged as being righteous: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35) That’s what Immanuel, God with us, also means. That God is with us where the pain is. Jesus is in the lives and the bodies of those who suffer and who are oppressed and who look for our help. Christ is still a refugee. While we cannot travel though time to meet the holy family as they fled through the deserts of Egypt, we can still meet them now – just up the road from us in the refugees in the new refugee center.

The world Christ was born into was full of violence, oppression, injustice and poverty. That did not change with his coming. What comes after Christmas is not a happy ending, and the Bible is not a fairy tale despite all that Prof. Dawkins and his secularist friends like to tell us. No, what comes after Christmas is a happy beginning. The message of Christmas is not something for one night or one day a year. It’s not just for children and it’s not something we are supposed to forget as soon as the Christmas Tree is down and the crib or crèche has been cleared away. While the Incarnation is a historical event, it is also much more than that. The Incarnation is the beginning of God’s kingdom. It is the beginning of the glorious future that Jeremiah is looking forward to in our first reading. A kingdom that includes the “blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor” (Jeremiah 31:8) and a time when God promises that mourning will be turned into joy, that God will bring comfort, and give gladness for sorrow (31:13). That is what God came to do at Christmas and as Jesus makes clear both in his life, in the very beginning of his earthly life, and for example in the message of Matthew 25 it is a promise we who follow him are called to help fulfill, which we can do with “the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:19)

Every Sunday, here at the Lord’s Table, we remember and celebrate not only the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, but also of his Incarnation when we receive his body born for us, his body and blood given for us. They are the source of God’s power for us who believe and the means of our transformation. The Incarnation was and is the beginning of a profound change in the world’s relationship with God and humanity’s relationship with one another. There is no “after” Christmas, there is no “after” the Epiphany. God did not come, look around, shake his head and go away again. There is no reason for aching hearts and vanished hopes. God is with us. All we have to do is accept this and live and love in the sure knowledge of God’s presence and in the assurance that there is now no “after” any more.

 [1] After the Ball, written in 1891 by Charles K. Harris
[2] Malcom Guite, Waiting on the Word (Canterbury Press, 2015), 115

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