From a Sermon, Christmas II, Matthew 2:12-19
Jesus was a survivor.
The wise men had reached Herod. They are about to tell him that Jesus has been born, the Messiah, and this makes Herod, and all Jerusalem – hipster central, where all the good restaurants and cool kids reside – nervous. For Jesus is a country kid who might challenge the king. Herod asks the magi to find the child and tell him.
But after the magi visit, Joseph and Mary are warned. And when the magi skip town, he is enraged. And in the verses the lectionary skips over, Herod, infuriated, slaughters the children in and around Bethlehem.
It evokes another story: the child Moses escaping the law of the Pharaohs. But also the other stories of destruction and survival. Jesus would have remembered that story of survival. He would have remembered the prophet Jeremiah. And he would have remembered the scattering of the people of Israel after the Babylonian captivity.
So Jesus is a survivor. It’s one matter to consider the dead, the potential lives and stories lost, their lives extinguished early before they had finished their task. The survivors carry a remaining burden, of knowing that same loss, of being without. They suddenly lack, who must weave together the frayed tatters of what remains; now they must find a way to live.
We may be shocked by sudden death; it’s another task to wonder about the living. What of the survivors of Columbine; of Newtown; the ones who walk away from a crash; the ones who survive cancer? There is the gratitude of living; but then the question why me; or how could God be so cruel; or perhaps Love, though fierce, is not omnipotent. Terrible things happen, and we cannot stop them, and too often it seems like God chooses not to, in spite of our prayers for an alternative.
This is what the scripture say Jesus carries.
We have intimations about who we are supposed to understand Jesus to be. He has come out of Egypt, like Moses. He will become Jesus, liberator, who has paid our debts. But how could this be true? How will he save? Who will he cast down? Who will he take out?
When Jeremiah talks about the remnant of Israel, he is addressing the survivors. He promises that they will be gathered again, and in the gathering they will rediscover joy. Perhaps this is a clue to how Jesus saves. Not like Herod, who understands God as a tyrant, and who sees Jesus as a competitor for the throne; not like superman.
For we see how those who desire to become like Gods work. Herod is threatened by God; and the comfortable, citizens of Jerusalem are wary of their world being overturned. Perhaps it is like the ruler in the Hunger Games being threatened by Katniss. It’s people who want to become like Gods, who cannot bear to share the spotlight, who can’t let themselves be replaced, athat justify their own cruelty. We see clearly how easy it is to compete, if not for God’s attention and blessings, but with God himself.
But then there is the image of gathering. In the late 1980’s a group of people began the AIDS quilt, in memory of all those who they thought would be forgotten. Out of the remnants of death, a tapestry linking people one to another was borne. In some sense, this is what Jesus leading us toward: that linking of our names, though we are survivors. We have work to do: to remember, to nuture, but finally to affirm what is good and just and life-giving, even though we may be a small remnant.
When Jesus returned to Israel, he would not compete with God or Pilate. Their world was theirs; he’s just in it. We also do not need to compete with Jesus, to become a God like him. Instead, those of us who have survived, whether a terrible tragedy, or simply Junior high School, see Jesus as to see someone who does this: gathers the people. To see the broken healed through by gathering is where scripture tells us we discover God. Our salvation begins as gather the remnant. Eventually we make plans for a party. There’s salvation there. It’s the grace we need.
It is the only way we, too, will survive.