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First Sunday after Christmas

Readings: Isaiah 63:7–9, Hebrews 2:10–18 & Matthew 2:13–23

I want to talk to you this morning about three topics that are raised in today’s readings: journey, suffering and redemption.

On Christmas Eve and Morning, we heard the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel. In that story we heard of a journey that Joseph took, with a heavily pregnant Mary, from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to the town of Bethlehem, a journey of some 145 kilometres. Luke tells us nothing of the journey, merely that they went from Nazareth to Bethlehem to take part in a registration, which was basically an ancient version of our modern census.

It would not have been an easy journey to take. They had to pass through the Judean desert which, I know from visiting the Holy Land in January 2018, is very mountainous and rocky terrain. And their journey took place during winter, which is the wettest time of the year in the desert. Temperatures in the desert during winter today range from 9 degrees to 16 degrees, but historians agree that temperatures were probably several degrees cooler during the time of Jesus. Experts believe that the maximum distance people could have traveled in a day in those times was 32 kilometres, but given how close Mary was to giving birth, it is likely that she and Joseph only travelled half that distance (16 kilometres). If that is the case, then it would have taken them 9 days to make the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

In addition to passing through the Judean desert, their journey would have taken them through the heavily forested valley of the Jordan River, which was one of the greatest dangers in ancient Palestine. It was an area inhabited by both lions and bears, and there are also accounts of travellers being attacked by wild boars. Archeologists have actually discovered documents warning travellers of the dangers associated with the forest. And it was not only wild animals that were a potential threat. Bandits and robbers were also a common hazard along the major trade routes like the one that Joseph and Mary would have travelled.

So having made the long and arduous journey to Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus, and then as Matthew’s Gospel tells us this morning, immediately after Jesus was born, an angel of God appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because King Herod was looking to kill the baby Jesus. Matthew tells us that in response to this dream, “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt”. Once again Matthew, like Luke, provides no details of their journey from Bethlehem to Egypt, but we know that it is a distance of at least 690 kilometres. Imagine travelling that distance, probably on a donkey, with a newborn baby and a mother who has just given birth.

The Bible is full of stories of journeys, like this, that God’s people have taken. One such journey is alluded to in this morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. The people of Judah have made the journey home to Jerusalem after being exiled in Babylon for 70 years, but instead of coming back to a life in Jerusalem that they believed would be joyous and bountiful, as depicted in chapters 40 to 55 of the Book of Isaiah, they find a life of extreme hardship.

The prophet, speaking as the representative of God’s people, offers a lengthy prayer on their behalf. The prayer begins with an historical review of God’s faithfulness to his people (v. 7). God chose Israel with the hope they would prove faithful (v. 8a). He delivered them from bondage, demonstrating his love and mercy (vv. 8b–9). The passage also tells us that it was “no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them” (v. 9a). In other words, God was present with them in both their suffering and in their release. It was, the prophet tells us, God’s being with them in love that “redeemed them.”

In the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus—whom the author refers to as the pioneer of salvation made perfect through suffering—echoes the speech of Isaiah 63:7–9. Both Jesus and Isaiah praise God in spite of everything they have seen and suffered, providing witness to a trust in God that goes beyond the norm.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews proclaims that Christ is the “pioneer of [our] salvation,” made perfect in suffering (v. 10). Through the incarnation, Jesus, who suffered on the cross, is one with God and one with us in our suffering. God is therefore with us in the midst of our sorrow: in the midst of natural disaster; in the midst of our illness, our pain, our grief. God is with us, and we are with God.

We live in a world that can be incredibly cruel at times, and when we are under great stress or harsh suffering, we may at times feel abandoned by God. We might cry out for help, but none seems to come. We can find ourselves caught between the promises of God found in the Bible, and the reality of our own painful situation. The suffering of good and innocent people, like the slaughter of all children who were two years old and under in and around Bethlehem by King Herod, is a baffling experience that can test the faith of any Christian. As I’ve said before, the fact of human suffering is often used by people as a major argument against the existence of God. “How can a loving God allow innocent children to suffer?”

Suffering does exist in the world we live in, and we are not exempt from it. Diseases attack our bodies, friends betray us, and we find that at times we succumb to various forms of temptation. Cruel and evil governments carry out Holocausts, and institutions crush the many for the benefit of a few. The righteous do not always prevail, and it appears that evil people triumph and prosper.

If we think of our own lives in terms of a journey, then like the journeys of Joseph and Mary, it may be arduous at times and there will be many potential dangers along the way. Trouble and difficulty will come, and all of us will experience some very serious bumps on the road. But today’s readings give us guidance and help for the times when trouble comes. In all of the readings for today, God’s faithful ones persist in praising God—or at least in trusting God—through all that befalls them. Their trust in God leads to their redemption. This trust does not save them by helping them float above the sufferings of the world; it saves them by helping them endure.

The idea that God is present as we live out our day–to–day lives is reason for us to pause and reflect. It is recognition that we are not alone, that in our daily affairs there are both visible and invisible forces guiding the climate of our experiences. God has become a human being, which means that, God is with us. So at this time of the year, as we reflect on and celebrate the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, we know that we are never alone. God in Christ is with us.

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