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Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148:1-14, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23

In scripture, and in Christian theology, we find the birth of Jesus means a Savior has come, after all these long years of waiting.

We don’t talk about saviors as much as we used to. The word “salvation” itself is pretty simple. It means health, well-being. As an English word it is derived from the word “salve,” a healing ointment—“balm” in the Bible. As I look around, this world---its politics, its relationships--- needs a lot of healing. I need healing—from self-centeredness, injured ego, short-sightedness, and a myriad of other inward and outward conditions that I could let torment me if I didn’t tuck them away out of sight.

What are some of the things that characterize this savior as we read the lectionary for Sunday? In the Isaiah and Hebrews readings, this savior is not someone we seek on high. It is someone who identifies with us, comes into our midst, lives with us—Emmanuel—God with us—as an earlier Advent reading had it. Isaiah 63:8-9, speaks of a God (“the Lord”) who “became their savior” in the midst of “all their distress.” Then we are told that it not the “messenger or angel,” angel being the Greek word for “messenger,” who brings salvation. It is God’s “presence that saved them.”

We look to eloquent politicians or personable pastors or brilliant economists or insightful therapists or gifted superstars to save us, forgetting that they are but messengers. Their power, personality, brilliant insights, gifts, are but signs of something more profound—divinity among us. And the messenger too often gets it distorted, even misuses it.

The book of Hebrews interprets Jesus through the lens of Old Testament teachings and practices (still very much alive in Jesus’ day) involving the offering of sacrifices on the altar for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is presented as the ultimate sacrifice making all others unnecessary. This reading from Hebrews contains another reference to “angels.” Jesus, “did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.” (Hebrews 2:16) Whatever we believe about angels, they are not the ones in need of healing; we humans, “descendants of Abraham,” are. And, in this passage, it can only be accomplished by some who is like us, fully human, who knows what it means to suffer and be tested. “ . . . he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect . . . to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (vs. 17) “Because he himself was tested . . . he is able to help those who are being tested.” (vs. 18) A couple of chapters later it says that he is “one who in every respect has been tested as we are . . .” (Hebrews 4:15)

In unwrapping our Christmas presents we probably will not find as many layers of interpretation as those which could be, and have been, spun out of verses like these. For now, let’s just take it as another declaration about a savior who is “God with us,” the key being with us, like us, entering into the fullness of human experience, internalizing it all and somehow bringing healing. We might think of it as having our very existence in God’s “body.” After all we are told, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Compare it to the human body. If our big toe hurts, we feel it and it likely affects our entire being. In some mysterious way, I believe that our feelings are borne in that way by a higher consciousness (God?), that our health (salvation) is derived from his very being, from the empathy of the cosmos that is God’s consciousness. This “God with us” is as near as the air we breathe.

The reading from Matthew presents a rich and complex story, telling of the immediate aftermath of the visit of the Magi to worship the child. Matthew, attempting to show Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, uses references that would have reminded his readers of their status as an oppressed people, often living away from their homeland in a foreign country. Jesus’ birth is depicted as a threat to the power of King Herod. Herod—and those in political power—are the saviors, are they not? How could the birth of a child under obscure circumstances threaten the power of a king? How could such a one be an alternative for the saving of the people?

Herod, though, perceives a threat. An angel warns Joseph to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. (Matthew 2:13-14) Here we go again, says the early reader. I remember another Joseph in Egypt. Even though that Joseph fared pretty well, I remember what eventually happened in Egypt. We always end up fleeing one pharaoh or another.

The story turns to what some have called “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” Herod ordered the killing of “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under,” hoping, of course, to assure Jesus’ death before he ever got near a cross. (vs. 16) In speaking of the slaughter, Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah who speaks of Rachel’s “wailing and loud lamentation . . . weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (vss. 17-18) In Jeremiah’s writing, Rachel represented the nation of Israel, weeping over its children sent into exile. The reader would again think, “Here we go again, always being persecuted, always ending up in exile. Now our hope has come and it’s happening again.”

Why is it that “innocents” so often suffer at the hands of the powers of this world? Is health, salvation, always gained through the sacrifice of the innocents? I don’t have an easy answer, or much more than a fragment of any answer. We’ve come to see Jesus as one of those innocents. God with us comes in the form of innocence, and too often corrupt power cringes in the presence of innocence. Their manipulative grasping for power and wealth is revealed. Such light must be eliminated.

But what if those thousand points of light (as someone called them), all those innocents, rose up and said, “We’re not going to take it any more.” Would that start us again on the road to health? There’s a sense in which we are all called to be “saviors.” I know that it sounds a bit sacrilegious, but are we among the “innocents.” The divinity that was in Jesus is also in us. Paying attention to that divinity is risky because the more we pay attention to it the greater threat we are to the prevailing culture values. The powers of this world may be no more tolerant that Herod was. Their devices may be more subtle, but the children, the weak, the needy, the oppressed are too often the ones that suffer.

Christmas announces that a Savior has come. It is a sobering thought, but also an occasion for rejoicing and praise, the kind of praise that, in Psalm 148, arises from all creation. “Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord.” (vs. 12-13)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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