Harrowing Of Hell
January 5, 2020

The Travels of Baby Jesus

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!

Happy New Year AND Merry Christmas too!

So, first of all I want to welcome back any of you who travelled over the holidays. We missed you all and are glad you are home here at Epiphany.

Anyway, since I know a lot has been going on for many of you, I feel like we should do a quick review of what has been going on in our scripture readings. Just eleven days ago, a savior was born who, at the behest of an angel, his father named Jesus. Shepherds and the heavenly host both left their shepherding and hosting duties to celebrate this glorious birth and – while we will officially celebrate this tomorrow at our eponymous feast of the Epiphany – wise men have sought out, found and paid homage to the Christ child. But, unfortunately, before they actually met Jesus and his parents, they had stopped off to see King Herod thinking he would surely be able to help them find the newborn King – and ,in so doing, frightened the earthly ruler whose power as the Roman-appointed King of Judea did not have the same validity to his constituents as the Son of David. So, in order to shore up his own power, Herod decides to kill the child the wise men seek. Fortunately, though, before this can occur Joseph, again in a dream, is warned to flee Bethlehem. He takes Mary and Jesus and flees to Egypt. Sadly, when Herod cannot find Jesus himself, however, he kills all male children in the Bethlehem under the age of two. So, I think we can say there is no shortage of action in the biblical narrative right?  

The Massacre of the Innocents is only found in the Gospel of Matthew (which you may also notice our lectionary skips over this morning). Some scholars argue that this is a mythic rather than an actual event, but Matthew believes that Herod’s slaughter is an important part of the prophetic revelations that attest to Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.  Matthew writes of this event that it was what the prophet Jeremiah foretold long ago when he said: “ This is what the Lord says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” And of the holy family’s flight to Egypt he references the prophet Hosea who says: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (Hosea 11:1).

Now while Matthew seems to think this story is important, it is not surprising that we as a church like to skip over this bit. We don’t like to think about the slaughter of children not just because it goes against everything we know in our hearts to be right, but because it also reminds us of the immense responsibility we have to care for the most vulnerable amongst us. Human babies and toddlers are totally reliant on us for protection and care—their lives are literally in our hands.

I was reminded of this on a more superficial level last week before the 5 o’clock service when we discovered the baby Jesus from the creche was missing. I think his absence was first noted by Kevin Mesher, our preacher, and I have to admit that I was distressed. I knew for a fact that the miniature Jesus had been there before the 11:00 service because Nash the torch-bearer and I had picked him up and noted that the infant Jesus looked like he had a kool-aid smile. But Kevin was right — when I checked the manger—he was indeed gone.  What followed in the next couple of minutes was a lot of looking and wondering and then an almost despondent reflection on exactly “what kind of person” would steal the baby Jesus from the narthex of a church anyway… I have to say that the whole incident sent me right back to my childhood in Lewistown Montana and the various adventures of the baby Jesus in the life-sized nativity scene that a local family, who lived right next to Al’s 5th Ave. Market near the City Park, put up each year.

I loved that creche as a child because the figures were so life-like – they had real clothes, beards, crowns and everything. Our family would go out of our way, as did many in our town, to drive by the nativity numerous times during the season. But, at least six or seven times during my childhood, the nativity’s Christ child was taken from the manger and stolen away never to be seen again. I think it became a thing to do for bored teenagers of Lewistown, with little else to amuse them. And each year, the people of Lewistown would get in an uproar and wonder just what kind of person would have the audacity to steal the baby Jesus?  Without fail, various kindly folks would step up to donate a nice Baby Alive or something to take its predecessors place… Although I never knew how things were made right the year that heads literally rolled when unknown culprits unceremoniously removed the heads of the three kings…. I think that year the police got involved and everything because it was an official act of vandalism… I wonder to this day how that long-suffering family was able to repair the kings as they had been handmade out of something like papier-mâché. Anyway, when we discovered this missing baby Jesus last week, I was transported back in time and felt a resurgence of my distaste for all baby-Jesus-nappers everywhere. Fortunately, crisis was averted, when baby Jesus was found swinging by his arm from the cross and safely returned to his awaiting parents and manger bed. 

A couple of things later struck me as funny about this particular outing of the baby Jesus. First of all, it illustrates once again that no one seems to want to celebrate all twelve days of Christmas. For the record: in our liturgical calendar, Jesus goes nowhere near the cross until Lent. Let the poor baby rest – he doesn’t have to save sinner for another thirty or so years. Secondly, it proves that moving or stealing the baby Jesus is a thing. Everyone seems to have a story about it. In fact, one of my favorite singers, Regina Spector composed a rather clever song about it from a New York Russian Jewish immigrant perspective.  (play snippet of the song)

AS I know it is hard to hear the lyrics in a song, she says:

you know that statue
that statue of baby Jesus
in the window of the 99 cent store
last night I saw the owner kiss it
and whisper in its ear
I was walking home from Walgreen’s
and he did not hear me see him
and on the very next morning
all the subway cars were hallelu-leluing
welcome back the baby king, the baby king
all the believers they were smiling
and winking at each other
I could honestly say I was scared for my life

All non-believers get to eat dirt… and believers get to spit on their graves

Looking at folks responding to her lyrics online, especially those who self-identify as Christians you can tell they cannot hear the humor and hyperbole in her story and feel offended that she would think baby-Jesus loving Christians would be anything other than loving and kind. ….And yet, I can’t help but think about my first reaction, just days ago during this happy Christmas season, when I heard that the baby Jesus was missing… “What kind of person would steal the baby Jesus?” This was the exact same question that we asked ourselves long ago during the holidays in my hometown.  And what lies behind this question is the belief that other folks, other than us, must be responsible. It has to be some other “kind” of folks—folks who don’t understand what the baby Jesus symbolizes, folks who don’t know any better or, taking it to the extreme, folks who are opposed to our beliefs and all we hold sacred. Clearly these are “others.” 

And here is the thing. While in this case, this kind of “othering’ might seem rather benign, it illustrates a kind of mentality that we Christians – followers of that baby Jesus who will grow into our teacher and our savior—are being asked to actively work against. God entrusted us with the life of his only begotten son. God gave the light and life of the world to two human beings, Mary and Joseph to raise up. And although they were mortal, God charged them with protecting and keeping the Christ child safe from harm. And God’s belief in them—God’s belief in us—was well-placed. In today’s gospel and in our reading for Epiphany, we see Joseph a righteous man doing everything in his power to protect his wife and son. And yet, he does not stop the shepherds who have come in from the fields to see his holy child. And he does not stop the three wise men—foreigners from the East—who have travelled to pay homage to this child. Rather Joseph learns from the angel who he needs to protect his son from – and that is Herod, his own ruler. It is from his own folks that Joseph is forced to flee – not the ‘others’ 

Today we have been charged with protecting God’s children. And through Christ’s triumph over death and his resurrection, we recognize each child born in every country and every nation as a holy and innocent child of God.  Right now in our world, we are living in a complicated and difficult time. After years of following governments and social and economic policies and precepts that many of us genuinely believed would better our lives and the world, we find ourselves facing problems that seem more overwhelming and threatening than anything we’ve faced heretofore. And in our fear and in our desire to figure out what went wrong, we hear more and more folks pointing the finger at the ‘other,” the folks who are not like us. Because what kind of people could have done this? What kind of people could be responsible for this? I can almost hear us answering like the ‘believers’ in Regina Spektor’s song… “All non-believers, all non-believers, all non-believers….” But, I wonder if it what really matters now is who among us is willing to take the responsibility for protecting all the innocents, all the widows and orphans, all those fleeing from danger and harm—all those whose lives God has entrusted us with—whose lives we literally hold in our hands in any way we can.  If I can get so worked up about a statue of Baby Jesus what more can I do for my siblings in Christ who share this world with me?

Regina Spektor and her family emigrated from Moscow in 1989 to escape the racial, ethnic and political discrimination which Jewish folks faced there. But she didn’t hold her experience against the baby Jesus statue. Her song ends: “You know that statue of baby Jesus in the window of the 99 cent store when I woke up I ran and bought it and locked it in my closet with a little bread and water and a flashlight and a first aid kit til he grows.” In these difficult times, hate crimes are escalating and we are called being called to be the kind of people who help our real Jewish siblings. Bishop Curry has said, ‘On Jan. 6, Jews around the world are expressing their Jewish identity using #JewishandProud. I invite everyone who follows Jesus and his way of love to stand with our Jewish brothers, sisters and siblings,”  We have been entrusted with the lives of the most vulnerable among us because God believes in us and believes in our ability to nurture, grow, and love God’s children.