How bad are things when even God says, “Run!”? That’s the question I find myself asking as I read this story.
The story of flight to Egypt and Herod’s intent towards the child comes at us like a dousing of cold water after the warm and glowing stillness of the strains of “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
Whatever happened to “All is calm?” Here we read of Herod raging in anger.
Whatever happened to the “all is bright?” Instead of confronting the powers of this world and bringing an end to the darkness, it looks like more dark times are still ahead. The Holy Family is put to flight.
Soldiers are given terrible orders and they are all too willing to carry them out without question!
Lives are disrupted and uncertainty enters the world even as the Christ child does, who must be whisked away from those in power. The danger is real!
Herod the Great is not going tolerate a rival to his own power or legacy. So, once again Joseph receives an angelic visitor in dream.
This time however, the message is not a reassuring, “do not be afraid.”
This time the message is “Run!”
How bad is it when even God says, “Run!”?
This is part of the Christmas story too. The part with which we perhaps have the most difficulty.
If Christ is born, and God is come down to earth, why do the nations rage still?
If the child born in the manger is the Prince of Peace, why do the prophecies of Isaiah not come to pass? Why doesn’t war cease, and the lion lay down with the lamb? Why doesn’t the venom stop flowing so the child could be safe?
Admit it, you wonder this as well.
We celebrate the birth of Christ and we expect the world to turn somehow, the magic to happen, and all to be set right again right away.
But here Matthew is reminding us of the deeper truth of Christmas, and that is that there is no such thing as magic.
The powers of this world will not go quietly. They will put up all the more of a fight when they feel threatened by God’s coming near.
Those who have accrued power, hoarded it, grasped for it and maneuvered long to have it, will not so easily let it go!
Did you really expect Herod to say, “oh, a new king is born, here, let me hand him my crown?”
Is it not all more typical for subterfuge to be employed. “Tell me where you find him that I might worship him as well….”
You can feel that dripping with malicious intent, and so could the wise men.
In this way God is much more of a realist than we are.
How bad do things have to be for even God to say “Run?”
They have to be “humanly” bad.
They have to be the kind of behavior that God has come to expect from a wayward and rebellious people since, well… since the Garden, since Cain and Abel, since the very beginning.
Matthew insists in telling the story that the world was never really a safe place, and that is precisely why God must enter it in this fashion.
Transformation for this world will be real, and it will happen, but it does not do so “magically” as in a Hallmark movie of this season.
No, transforming lives and particularly this world will take time, and lifetimes, and so the groundwork is laid for transformations that will be 30 years and more in the making.
God comes in the birth of Jesus, and Jesus receives an education, and the education is that the world is a dangerous place, and sometimes all you can do is run!
There is prophecy fulfilled in all of this (Matthew asserts), but more than prophecy, the events are also a way of pointing to experience.
Jesus will know what it is like to live in fear! He will know (God will know!) what it is to be snatched away at a moment’s notice, to have to make your way to a new country and a new culture and to learn to adapt and feel what it is to be resented all along the way.
Jesus will be well acquainted with having to be on the move for one’s safety, one’s livelihood, and what it is like to live at the whims of the rich and the powerful.
Jesus will spend 30 years living under Roman occupation, and under Herod’s legacy, and he will get to know the way that this world works. He will see its beauty yes, but also all of its injustices, and he will mark them as something to which he will have to speak.
When the time is fulfilled and John the Baptist points to him, Jesus will be ready. He will be armed with a lifetime of experience of what it is to be human and what it is that humans can and will do to one another. He will begin to teach and to talk about a new Kingdom, because he has seen and will dare to tell the truth about this broken one.
But the new Kingdom will not come in by magic.
It will come in by convincing, touching, and transforming — one disciple at a time.
The Kingdom will come in one gathering of the poor together, and those in sitting in mourning at a time. They will hear him talk and make a promise about another possibility, where the poor are satisfied and no longer turned away, and the mourning have their joy and hope for the future restored.
The Kingdom Jesus proclaims will come in, but it will come in one teaching session, one interaction at a time, as people dare to ask what they too must do. It will come in as one person hears what Jesus proposes, and idea that upends the way this world works and appeals as a better way.
Grudges are not held.
Payback is not given.
Counter-punches are not Jesus’ way, or the way of the Kingdom of God!
Grace is the way of the Kingdom.
The asking of forgiveness is the way of the Kingdom of God.
The acknowledging of having done wrong and asking for forgiveness for things done and left undone, that is the way of the Kingdom of God.
Counter-punching at every turn, raging, holding on,– those are the marks of this world, the actions that Herod and those who are like him know so well and are quick to employ, and such actions leave suffering in their wake.
The Kingdom Jesus proclaims is one where there is turning of the other cheek, where wrongs done to you are not the opportunity to inflict more pain.
The Kingdome Jesus proclaims defaults to speaking the truth in love – in love!
“You lack only one thing…” he will say to that rich young man when he comes to him, and he will say it with a look of love.
“Sell your possession and give to those in need and come follow me, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
This is how the Kingdom of God comes in, not with a magical feeling, or a heart growing three sizes in an instance, but rather with something more Grinch-like than we care to admit, and that is allowing Jesus to “puzzle our puzzler.”
Jesus makes us ask if the ways of this world are really the only ways available to us.
Or, is there the possibility… of the Kingdom of God, doing things differently?
And if so, then “what must we do to inherit this Kingdom?”
Herod is a part to the Christmas story too, because we look at Herod and are appalled that anyone could and would stoop so low, do such thing to keep his grasp on power and hold on to what he has.
We are appalled especially, when Jesus “puzzles our puzzler” and says, “Well, aren’t you doing the same?”
Herod, as one scholar put it, “seems to lack a properly functioning conscience” – and that description could be applied to leaders we see in the world today, on both sides of the aisle.
It could also be applied to us.
We sometimes find ourselves lacking a “properly functioning conscience” when it comes to issues or events in this world.
We like to see to black and white, all or nothing, drop descriptors of the opposition that dismiss them.
We are wont to appeal to rules and regulations, laws and decrees that hold us blameless, or that oppress in a perfectly “legal” manner. So, we label the border a “problem” and we talk about “illegals” rather than humanizing the situation and talking about people, brothers and sisters in Christ. It assuages the conscience to disparage the “other.” We name call and lump together and make assumptions.
All those are signs of a malfunctioning conscience, because to categorize and to divide and to blame and to demean are all signs that we cannot empathize, and it is empathy that is the hallmark of what Christmas and the Kingdom of God is all about.
The whole reason that God is born as an infant is to become vulnerable and to feel what it is like to be us… to walk in this world.
So, that is what Jesus does. Jesus will run because God tells him to!
He will run from Herod to discover what a life like a refugee is all about.
Jesus will run out to the desert, driven by the Spirit to spar with the devil and to learn the true nature of temptation, which is all about doing what would be good for you, and taking into consideration no one else.
He will run all over the countryside of Judea preaching, and healing and forgiving sins and learning what it is like to poor, a leper, a pharisee, or a scribe – one interaction at a time.
He will run at the invitation to a meal and run from the crowds when they try to crown him an earthly king.
He will run to Tyre and Sidon and find out what it is like to be a woman and in great need, willing to do anything for her child, even argue with Son of God, and what it is like to be dismissed and called (in so many words) – a dog.
He will run to the well in Samaria to tell a woman everything about her life, and to let her taste the living waters when no one else would speak to her or give her the time of day.
Jesus will run back down to the Jerusalem for the Passover, and to confront the leaders from whom he was forced to run so many years ago as a child, but this time he will not run away, but rather run toward a destiny, and a cross, and a resurrection.
Jesus will do all of this “running” because God tells him to, and in the midst of all the running he will spread the good news of a Kingdom that says, “the way the world is working right now is NOT the way it has to be!”
And in the running, there will be the meeting, one to one, and the transformation, little by little of a world that is so weary with the way things are currently running.
And that is how Christmas happens.
Not by magic, but by one to one — those who choose to follow Jesus and tell the truth to the ways of this world, “this is not the way it has to run!” God has a better idea, a Kingdom that is not of this world.