Sermon on Jeremiah 31:7-14 and Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
In 1987, organizational theorist Jerry Harvey published a management parable he called The Abilene Paradox. The story goes something like this: a family in Coleman, Texas is trying to decide what to do for dinner on a summer evening. Someone halfheartedly suggests going to Abilene, some fifty miles down a sun-parched highway. Though no one is enthused by the prospect of making trip, no one is willing to express their dissatisfaction, and so the family piles into the car. Predictably, the journey is miserable: the heat is in the triple digits, the car breaks down along the way, and when they finally get to Abilene, the only place to eat is a grubby cafeteria,. By the time the family returns home, they are exhausted and thoroughly dispirited. Gradually, it becomes clear that no one wanted to make the trip in the first place. If someone had simply expressed their opinion, the family would have been saved a miserable evening. Harvey relates this parable to illustrate the benefits of conflict and disagreement in an organization, but the story makes an even simpler point: some journeys are just not worth taking; sometimes, it makes more sense to stay put.
This morning, our lectionary offers us two depictions of journeys that seem to be worth taking. One is Jeremiah’s sweeping vision of God’s people journeying out of exile to their homeland. The other is Matthew’s account of the Holy Family escaping from the murderous intentions of King Herod and ultimately returning to their home in Galilee. In many ways, these stories are similar. Both depict journeys that have significant implications for the future. Both are stories of loss and restoration. Both are incredibly dramatic. Jeremiah writes of a people who have been removed from their homeland because of their disobedience and failure to honor the commandments of God. His is a spectacular vision of repentance: “Thus says the LORD,” he writes, “I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…with weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back.” In the most comprehensive way possible, Jeremiah is inviting his people to return to their God, to reestablish their relationship with the one they abandoned. Moreover, Jeremiah implies this journey from exile to restoration is central to the experience of God’s people. If anything, the language in Matthew’s gospel is even more arresting. Matthew describes a journey marked by the haste that comes when lives are at stake: “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” This gripping tale seems to confirm Jeremiah’s implication that it is movement toward God that characterizes our lives; after all, even the Christ child, the Word made flesh, found himself on a journey when he was just a few months old.
This image of a journey toward God is common in many of the world’s religious traditions. Most follow the same basic idea: if we follow along the path that has been set before us without stumbling too many times, we will achieve union with the Divine. This seems to be what Jeremiah articulates in calling his people to repentance, and it seems to be what Matthew reiterates in the first chapters of his gospel. Yet there is one crucial distinction between the words of the prophet and the words of the evangelist, and it is a distinction with dramatic implications. In Jeremiah, God’s people are on the journey, God’s people are striving toward the goal that has been set before them. In Matthew, however, God himself is on the journey. In the two gospels that include birth narratives, the early life of Jesus is characterized by movement (Nazareth to Bethlehem, Bethlehem to Egypt to Galilee) in order to illustrate how God journeys toward us in the incarnation. The unique witness of the incarnation is this: it is not we who make the journey to God; it is God who makes the journey to us. During this Christmas season, we make the astonishing claim that God reconciled us to himself and to one another by becoming one of us.
This has startling implications for the way we live. We tend to live our lives constantly thinking about what comes next, constantly looking for the next challenge to overcome or milestone to achieve. This constant striving, however, is the source of nearly all our anxiety, because no matter how hard we try, our efforts to live perfect lives, to create a perfect world, to do everything right are ultimately fruitless. A mature understanding of the incarnation allows us to put striving in its proper perspective, to recognize that no matter how hard we try, it is God who is the ultimate source of everything that is important in our lives. At the beginning of this service, we heard that marvelous collect for the Second Sunday of Christmas: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature.” Note that God is the actor on both counts, God is the one who both creates and restores. The mission of Jesus Christ was not to provide an example of how we should live; the mission of Jesus Christ was and is to show us that our striving toward perfection is ultimately fruitless because God is bringing all things to their perfection by dwelling among us. The incarnation invites us to stay put and receive joyfully the life God has given us, to recognize that everything we experience is a gift.
This year, my 18 month old has been experiencing Christmas for the first time. While she was obviously around last year, this is the first Christmas that she has been able to appreciate what is happening, and the first Christmas that she has really gotten excited about presents. Her favorite part of opening presents, however, is not the gift, but the wrapping paper. In fact, like many toddlers, she is usually more interested in the wrapping paper than in the gift itself. This is a source of some frustration to those of us who spent time, energy, and money selecting gifts we thought she would enjoy, only to be upstaged by a square foot of brightly colored paper. I wonder, however, if my daughter has the right perspective, even if she doesn’t know it. For her, everything is a gift: every toy, every piece of wrapping paper, every meal, every hug, every moment. She implicitly recognizes what the incarnation calls each one of us to remember, that everything: every triumph and tragedy, every success and failure, every joy and sorrow, that everything is a gift from God.