“Recounting God’s Gracious Deeds of 2019”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
29 December, 2019
Introduction to the Readings:
The year that Jesus was born changed the world forever—it was a year of much transition and change, of fear and threats, if Matthew’s account is anything to go by. And even if Matthew’s account wasn’t all historically accurate (some people accept that it is, others don’t; what matters is that there is truth expressed in it) there are enduring truths about dynamics going on in the world that still persist today, though names and political boundaries and technologies have changed.
As you listen to the Scripture readings, please listen for similarities between what Matthew describes about the social and political situation and our own. Which themes or situations resonate? This is how we read scripture for clues about what God is doing amidst human activity, and what God has done (and people have done) from the beginning of time as recorded in history and Scripture and our own memories. This is how we read to understand that the Bible still has relevance to our world and lives today.
After I read the Scriptures through, we’ll take a closer look at each of them and reflect on them together so that we might hear God’s fresh word for us today.
7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
8 For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
9 in all their distress.
It was no messenger[a] or angel
but his presence that saved them;[b]
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[a] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[b] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[c]17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph[d] got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
The following rough outline represents ideas I prepared, to be integrated into congregational reflection and conversation about the passages.
What is the first thing to notice about our Gospel reading, in terms of similarities between what’s in the reading and what’s going on in our world today?
1) The world Jesus was born into was politically complicated, and its ruler, Herod, was just as narcissistic and power-obsessed as so many political rulers of today, seeing human lives entrusted to their care and leadership as expendable collateral for their own selfish advancements.
- a) It’s not just how political leadership is depicted in our current news media, but also in films and video games, in books and other portrayals of life. That’s one of the points of the Biblical testimony: to help us see and remember that, as people of faith, our kingdom is not of this world; our sovereign ruler is God alone, the God revealed throughout Scripture and especially in the life and witness of Jesus Christ.
2) Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were refugees, asylum-seekers, traveled a distance in order to gain security of life. Departure from their homeland wasn’t because they were trying to get rich or to destroy others, but because they wanted to live in safety, which is the case with the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers today. There are implicit lessons for people of faith in this about how God intends for us to treat strangers and vulnerable people, because Jesus himself and his parents were among them.
3) People then, as now, looking for divine guidance: the wise men, Joseph’s dreams—God conveys a divine way forward for us, if only we take time to pay attention to everything in our life, and practice reading for God’s potential messages in all things. (Discernment.) Joseph and the wise men were all graced with dreams that told them when and where to go. Few of us today experience that same gift, though I sometimes wonder whether it’s because of the many distractions we have in the technologies and forms of entertainment and myriad activities that can occupy us. Still, God does offer insights into divine purposes and directions, if we make worship and discernment of those things our primary objective.
4) The entire story communicates that then, as now, this world has always been and remains a complicated place. People will disagree about who and what constitutes the greatest evil, and/or the greatest threats. But even difficult people and fraught situations mediate the holy, though not always in straightforward or immediately obvious ways. Nonetheless, God is always present. For example, Joseph and Mary with Jesus were forced to trust in God and the compassion of fellow human beings as they made their escape to Egypt.
Note Matthew’s repeated emphasis, “This was to fulfill what the prophets said…” In other words, God is in control, and although that can raise some troubling questions about why God doesn’t stop certain things from happening, it also invites us to trust that God’s wisdom sees beyond what we can see in this moment. God has created a world that includes freedom of human will. Because God is not bound by space or time (except in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who ultimately transcended them), God knows the choices that human beings will make. And, God works in all things—past, present, and future—to accomplish divine purposes, abiding with us even in the hideous suffering we experience and/or impose on ourselves and others.
Look at Isaiah 63. The assigned lectionary verses actually follow after some rather graphic imagery of God destroying a nation (Edom) with vengeance. We started at verse 7, but verse 6 just before it says, “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.” It’s troubling; it makes God sound vengeful and blood-thirsty. Is this a human projection onto God’s way of being in the world?
The verses we read/heard (verses 7-9) almost seem like a response to God’s expressed disgust in the previous verses; words that are eager to appeal to God’s awareness of how the people had tried hard to do the right thing. These verses express the voice the people of Israel, exulting in the Lord and singing of God’s goodness to them; in the few verses of our lection they’re depicted as good and faithful. But in the next verse, verse 10, Isaiah reverses course and acknowledges their all-too-human tendency to rebel against God and alienate themselves from the One who had saved them, only then to return again to faithful awareness of God–it’s a constant back-and-forth of faith and awareness of God’s central place in their lives, just like our own experience today.
What lesson might we draw from this scripture passage, from the lectionary passage in Isaiah 63:7-9?
- That our relationship with God is strengthened when we pay attention to and acknowledge where we have seen God at work in our life and in the world.
So, that’s what I’d like to do at the end of 2019 and as we prepare to enter a new year in 2020. What are the big things that happened in 2019 that have invited us to trust God, and see God’s work among us more clearly?
- Capital Campaign: successful launch—but a LOT of work to do yet, and some tough decisions to make going forward. A real opportunity to observe where God has been at work, where God is trying to work with us, and to look forward to how God will provide a way for us to accomplish what we believe we’ve been called to undertake in our Strategic Plan.
- V. family’s situation, and other families we’ve been praying for in our church family: God providing for them, working through them, also through this community in outpouring of support and prayers.
- Holy Habits conversations—I’ve been so grateful to see how the community has begun to respond, and look forward in the New Year to how we’ll continue to grow in our sense of connection to God and one another as we embrace the Holy Habit of Koinonia, Fellowship, Community.
- Personal life situations—can you think of any of your own?