The other side of Christmas, that is where we find ourselves this weekend. The extra services have ended. The special choirs have run their course. The gifts have been opened and the stockings emptied. The decorations remain, as do some of the relatives. But another Christmas Day has come and gone. In my pastoral ministry, I found this Sunday both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was the inevitable let down—a mix of relief, exhaustion, and usually a little regret. We are not yet back to the routine, but we are close. Therein lies the opportunity. This is a no-frill Sunday. It is a Sunday to be clear and direct and probably a little more succinct than usual. It is a chance to send people from Christmas with a proper understanding of what comes next.
In the Gospel reading for today, Matthew leads us in this direction by keeping our attention on Joseph. On the Sunday before Christmas, Matthew gave us Joseph’s perspective on the birth. Now he invites us to walk with Joseph on the other side. He opens our eyes to what happened after the Lord of all creation entered into it.
What is on the other side of Christmas? The text gives a twofold answer. On the other side of Christmas, we find (1) senseless suffering and (2) unstoppable salvation. A sermon on these verses should be honest about both.
The senseless suffering in the text came at the hand of the furious King Herod (verse 16-18). We do not know how many boys under the age of two perished as a result of his madness, but even one would have been too many. The Church has traditionally called them the “holy innocents,” and some consider them the first martyrs. Their (and their families’) suffering is hard to imagine.
Or, it should be. Unfortunately, however, we are familiar with senseless suffering. It comes in many forms. Sometimes the resemblance with the boys from Bethlehem is strong. I live in Saint Louis, where at least eighteen children under the age of sixteen have been killed by gun violence since May. They are not alone. Unnumbered others have suffered violence even before birth, not to mention the countless children who live with regular neglect and abuse. The senseless suffering on the other side of Christmas is not limited to children, of course, and it was not unique to Bethlehem.
The preacher who highlights the senseless suffering in our day might imagine himself reenacting the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy in verse 18 on behalf of the congregation and community. This part of the sermon could become a time for all to weep and lament with those whose Christmas celebrations have been marred by the deadly effects of sin. To help, and as an alternative to the sentimentality and schmaltz which characterizes many of the Christmas songs we hear on the radio, find some time to listen to the 16th Century English lullaby “Coventry Carol.” It memorializes the “holy innocents,” and you might even include a version of it during the sermon.
But senseless suffering is not the only thing we find on the other side of Christmas. In the midst of the tragedy of life in a sinful and violent world, God’s plan of salvation proved itself unstoppable. No matter how hard Herod tried, God would not let this child suffer; not yet, at least. With a series of angelic visitors, God led Joseph to protect the Christ-child from the threat of violence. Much like His deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt, God called his Son out of Egypt again. But the promised land Jesus came to establish would be for all the nations.
God’s salvation in Jesus remains unstoppable. The effects of sin and death remain strong in our day. The reasons to lament persist, and the weeping never gets easier. But the God who delivered His children from Egypt through Moses, and the God who delivered His Son from death through a victorious resurrection, is the God who has sent you to proclaim the coming deliverance of all who are found in Jesus. That is the promise you get to speak this Sunday.
God remains mysteriously and incomprehensibly the Lord over all things—even senseless suffering—and His gracious salvation is the preacher’s response to the many reasons we have to lament.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 2:13-23.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 2:13-23.