January 5, 2020
Matthew 2:1-12 holds the Epiphany story of the wise men. It’s a great story. We have a villain who poses a real threat to the baby Jesus. We have mysterious strangers and unexpected gifts. We have a dramatic intervention and a happily ever after “by another road” ending. It’s a great story. The lectionary passage ends with Matthew 2:12 and then next Sunday we pick up with Matthew 3:13 and Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. Needless to say, we skip over Jesus’ childhood, but we also skip over the second half of Matthew 2. You see, the story doesn’t end with the wise men’s warning. No, it continues as this little family of three become refugees seeking to escape a maniacal tyrant, leaving devastation and tragedy in their wake as the mothers and fathers, the grandmas and grandpas of Bethlehem mourn their slaughtered little ones.
In the month of December, Hallmark movies become very popular. I understand the appeal. I’ve watched a few myself. In Hallmark movies you don’t have to try very hard to uncover someone’s big heart. The troubles life throws at you are tough, but they aren’t insurmountable. Romantic love always wins. Happy endings are bountiful.
This is often what we look for in our movies. Maybe this kind of escapism, in some form or another, is even needed to buoy our hopes in what is possible. But scripture is not a Hallmark movie. It is instead a much more accurate reflection of life.
And real life presents us with crazy and scary world leaders who are ruthless, who will do whatever it takes to secure and keep their power with the unholy ethical motto, “the ends justify the means”, leading the charge. This has been true since the beginning of human civilization. In real life, innocent people… innocent children die. Massacres pollute our history. Disease takes no prisoner, mowing people down in epidemics of all sizes and shapes. War is rife with “collateral damages”.
In our more sheltered lives here in central Kansas, maybe we are mostly exposed to the blood of violence in salacious news stories. Or maybe we hold our secrets close to our chest and keep quiet our personal knowledge of domestic abuse or the unraveling influence of addiction. Certainly, we have been trying to get a little more informed about the violence of poverty shaping young minds and lives in all of our small hometown communities.
Here’s another sobering story to add to the mix. I spent some time at a middle school basketball game before Christmas talking with the 2nd grade teacher at the Kansas elementary school where I worked as a para for three years. She told me it’s been an emotionally grueling year. She had just had all her students write their letters to Santa Claus as she has done each year since she started teaching. Copies of these letters are then published in the local newspaper where the community delights in reading them. However, this was the first year she was choosing not to publish her letters because in this class of around 20 kids, these were some of the Santa requests this year: Santa, could you bring us a Christmas tree? We haven’t been able to get one. Santa, can you help my mom not to have to work so hard so she can spend more time with me? Santa, can you bring us food so we’re not so hungry. From a child who is parented by his grandma…Santa, can you help my grandma feel better. From a child who recently lost his mother… Santa, can you bring my mom back again?
This is so not the Hallmark movie world we long for. In real life scary and bad things happen. Tragedies snag innocent bystanders. We have to learn how to be wise as serpents taking certain precautions to minimize the dangers that lurk there in the darkness.
But real life is reflected in the first half of our Matthew stor