When my youngest son, Jesse, was a baby – only about three months old, my mom got very sick and was sent to the hospital in Saint Cloud. My dad’s health was so poor he couldn’t be there with her and with St. Cloud being a couple hours from our hometown she didn’t have any friends or her pastor nearby – and I couldn’t stand the thought of her being in the hospital with no one around her, so I took some vacation time to come up to Minnesota to be with her. I brought Jesse with me and Owen stayed back with my Chad in Colorado and each day Jesse and I would spend as much time with mom in the hospital as we could.
As I would sit by mom’s bedside holding Jesse I would think about the stark contrasts of my life just then. There I was holding this brand new little person, who was round-cheeked and full of health and smiles and new beginnings. And next to me was my mom, grayish and weary with tubes coming out of her arms, full of sickness and seeming very much to be at the end of her days. It struck me – how beautiful and broken life could be all at the same time. So much joy and so much sorrow intermingling and making up those days.
We are still in the Christmas season – just last Sunday we were gathering around the manger and welcoming a new baby – Jesus, the Christ, our Savior was born. Our Gospel was all about Light and Love coming into the world – pure joy and beauty.
And here we just a week later and we have probably the worst Gospel text we ever get in our three-year rotation of Sunday morning scriptures. King Herod, full of fear and jealousy, wanting to protect his throne from this infant king has put out a hit on all the children two years old and under in and around Bethlehem. Pure brokenness and horror.
Turns out the Christmas season can hold its’ share of joy and sorrow as well.
King Herod ruled in Judea for 37 years. He built many fortresses, aqueducts, theatres, and other public buildings and generally raised the prosperity of his land, however, there was a dark and cruel streak in Herod’s character that showed itself increasingly as he grew older. He was prone to intense jealousy and it is recorded that his mind was so poisoned against one of his wives, Mariamne, that he murdered her, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother.
We know the story about how he sent the wise men to go and search for baby Jesus and when they found him they were to send word back to King Herod. He told them he wanted to pay homage to this baby king as well. But then after the wise men found the baby Jesus and brought him the famed gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod’s darkness overcomes him when he finds out that the wise men haven’t done as he told them to do. Rage fills him and that is when he calls for the murder of these children.
It’s worthwhile to note that this story in our New Testament, only told by Saint Matthew, is never told anywhere else in any historical records. This has caused some historians to question if it ever really happened or not. Others say that it probably did happen – especially knowing Herod’s temperament – but the amount of children of that age in and around Bethlehem was such a small number, perhaps less than twenty, that it just was not recorded by other historians.
But regardless of the stories historicity, there is something deeply fitting about Matthew telling this story in his gospel even as we are still basking in the glow of the Christmas season. No matter how much we have tried to sanitize and tame the story of the birth of Jesus, turn it into a sweet story about a baby in a manger, the truth is that he was born into a world of sin. A place that then, as now, holds its’ share of both startling beauty and unspeakable darkness. He was born to be Light in that darkness. To be hope when all other hope seems lost.
Is he light in your darkness? Does God’s word bring you comfort and peace in times of distress? Do you find strength for your days and wisdom for your journey as you kneel at the foot of the cross? Do you long for more light, more comfort, peace, and strength?
If you are hoping to feed your Spirit in this new year, to feel more plugged in to the Source of Life – there are ways to do this. The first way toward that comes through prayer. It comes through daily making a practice of talking to and listening for God. It comes through meditation, stillness. You know how when someone is trying to speak to you but if you aren’t paying attention or only half-listening, you miss it? That’s how it is when we don’t make time for prayer and devotion in our days. God is always speaking to us, but much of the time we aren’t paying attention – we are so busy running from one thing to the next, filling our minds with noise, making lists, checking our phones, that we leave hardly any room for the Spirit to move. Just a couple days ago, I went to the eye doctor and I had brought a book with me for while I were waiting – but over the course of the appointment as I was ushered from one room to the next, of course they dilated my eyes and then I had to wait for a bit in a waiting room with my eyes dilated. I couldn’t read my book. I couldn’t check my phone. I had to just sit there quietly. It is moments like that when I realize how seldom I am just still without doing something or reading or watching something – I’m always filling in those spaces.
It struck me as I read our Gospel that it was twice in dreams that God gave a message to Joseph – first to tell him to take his family and flee, to become refugees, immigrants in a strange land, because they were in danger and then the second time to once again take his family and go to Israel. It had also been in a dream when Joseph was informed that Jesus would be born. Dreams – and visions – (which are simply dreams while awake) were written about all the time in the Bible. God used visions and dreams to communicate with people – in fact, when there was a lack of dreams or visions among the people, it meant that something was wrong, that people weren’t paying attention to God.
Just doing a quick search I could find at least 39 times in the Bible when God spoke to people through dreams and visions. God didn’t just speak to people of old – God is still speaking to us and through us. The only question is, are we listening?
And the best way to listen is to well, listen. Monks set aside hours for lectio divina – or spiritual reading. However, even we non-monks need to make time for transcendent matters – such as beauty, creativity, service, faith – but too often these get pushed aside for more urgent demands, and life begins to feel empty and purposeless. So my first challenge for you in this new calendar year is to make time to listen, be still, and pray.
And the second excellent way to feed your spirit and feel connected to what is important is this: find a way to serve. Partly because there are countless places and people that need help, but mostly because you need it. We all need to daily remember God put us here not just to get through our days and collect as many things as possible while we do it, but to make those days matter. As Jesus came to be Light in our darkness, every day we can be light in the darkness for others. What a magnificent and beautiful and holy thing – and we get to be a part of that.
So a new year begins. How lovely we get to begin it here in worship, our hearts centered on the One who made us and loves us most of all – and as we do, my challenge for all of us this year is that we come to this place every day – not to this church building – but to this place of worship – through moments of devotion and prayer, through daily looking for ways to serve God and others.
And when we do, it truly will be a happy new year.
Let’s pray –
Thank you for this new year – a fresh slate upon which to draw
May we draw love – bringing mercy and grace and goodwill into every room we enter.
May we draw justice – standing up for others, never allowing hate or prejudice to thrive.
May we draw stillness – quiet moments with You, giving us strength and wisdom for our days.
May we draw compassion – reaching out with the time and energy we have to do good in our church, community, and world.
May we draw creativity – imagining new ways to share your love
May we draw strength and guidance only from You, our maker and redeemer, our light, our life our hope. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.