Sunday, December 11, 2016

Keep Your Eyes Open

Deuteronomy 15: 7-11
Matthew 2: 1-18
December 11, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our scripture readings for today may be a bit unexpected, given the joyful time we’ve just had with our children’s program. The first reading is from Deuteronomy, the “second law,” that is, the second giving of the law to the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. This reading comes from a section of Deuteronomy that is about “regulations concerning the sacred division of time.” That cycle includes observance of Sabbath, the giving of the tithe, the remission of debts, the manumission of slaves, and the care of those who are poor. Let’s listen for God’s word in Deuteronomy 15:7-11, from the Common English Bible:

Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need. But watch yourself! Make sure no wicked thought crosses your mind, such as, “The seventh year is coming—the year of debt cancellation”—so that you resent your poor fellow Israelites and don’t give them anything. If you do that, they will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. No, give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.

Our gospel reading is a difficult reading, a story of ego and power and violence that ends in grief But it is also a story of promise, of love, for it reminds us that the child Jesus was a refugee, whose family fled a violent regime, and whose life reversed the story of humanity.

God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt, now Jesus returns to Egypt as a place of refuge. Let’s listen for God’s story of redemption in Matthew 2: 1-18:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Christmas is for children.
That’s what people say, don’t they?
And it is! We all enjoy seeing our children’s faces light up, the delight in their eyes when they see the decorations, the excitement in their voices, the wonderful way they share the good news of Jesus in their program. We enjoy decorating for them, shopping for them, taking them to see Santa. But if Christmas really is for children, we need to look up from our own families and ask, “Which children?”

This Sunday, our emphasis for Advent is love. In our drama and video, we see Scrooge visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, who insists that Scrooge look, eyes wide open, at the reality of his time. Toward the end of this chapter, Dickens writes that the ghost says to Scrooge:

“’Look here.’ From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost. They were a boy and girl.
Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them.
‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. …

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words.
“Are there no workhouses?”

It was Dickens’ intention, in writing his books, including A Christmas Carol, to call attention to the plight of the poor, particularly women and children. The Ghost of Christmas Present as Dickens presents him shows Scrooge and us how Christmas was in those days, and how Christmas could be in this day.

After the publication of A Christmas Carol, Lord Francis Jeffrey, austere editor of the Edinburgh Review, (and of course, a good Presbyterian!) wrote:
“Blessings on your kind heart... you may be sure you have done more good by this little publication, fostered more kindly feelings, and prompted more positive acts of beneficence, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom.”

Christmas is for children.
We can see children all around us, if we keep our eyes open.
This past year, we were transfixed by tragic news images of children:
a stunned and bloody little boy in an ambulance in Aleppo
malnourished children playing in the rubble of Yemen,
the haunted face of a little girl outside a tent in a Greek refugee camp,
the traumatized children fleeing from the attack in Istanbul.

Our eyes were opened to the suffering of children far away. In those little faces, we can see the humanity that Jesus came to redeem. We can hear the voices of those who are hungry, naked, lonely. But we do not have to travel halfway around the globe to see them. We can see, right here in our community, the children of poverty and ignorance that the Ghost of Christmas Present showed to Scrooge.

Nearly one fourth of children in Sterling live in poverty. More than two thirds of them are in single parent households and the single parent is female.[1] There are those who, like Herod, would like to instill in us a sense of fear of those children and their families, whether they are in Syria, or in refugee camps, or in homeless shelters or the poorer neighborhoods of our own city.

There are those who would like for us to be afraid of the stranger, to worry that responding to their need will take away from us. There are those who would like for us to look suspiciously on those in need, or who would have us tell them to simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even if they have no boots at all. But the spirit of Christmas is not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love.

In this season of giving, many of us feel moved to help children. We want to make sure that they enjoy Christmas with a tree, some gifts, a good meal, a warm coat. This is truly loving.

Although this desire to help may be stronger during the Christmas season, Jesus asks us to keep our eyes open, all year ‘round, to see the need around us and respond.

He came as an infant, born in squalor, and his family fled for their lives. The child born in Bethlehem asks more of us than seasonal impulses of generosity accompanied by Christmas Carols. The child who comes to us at Christmas calls us to keep our eyes open, to look around us and truly see. What Jesus asks of us is sustained love, continued mercy, persistent care.

Whether it is someone marginalized by poverty, by race, by national origin or religion, we are all called to see and respond to that need. The good news of Christmas is that this child who comes to us has shown us how we can do this. In Jesus, we learn what love means, how love without action is mere sentiment, Someone has said that “justice is what love looks like in public.”[2] Dickens understood that how the world worked in those days did not necessarily mean that injustice, poverty and ignorance should be allowed to persist in his day.

Scripture has taught us, from those days of the past to this day of the present, that the call to love God and love neighbor is what persists. In this season of peace, hope, love and joy, Jesus calls each one of us to lead with love, to save people by serving people. “To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step out in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.”[3]

The Herods of this day want you to be afraid.
Jesus simply wants us to keep our eyes open for every opportunity to love.

“The miracle has just begun in YOU! 
God Bless us Every One!”


[3] Cornel West

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