"The Truth Beyond the Facts"

January 12, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Matthew 2:13-23

We were gathered in the downstairs playroom of the Jentry McDonald House last month, sharing with the children a little bit of Christmas. Much energy had been expended prior to this, purchasing and wrapping new pajamas, a stuffed animal, and another appropriate toy for each child. The kids love to sing, and so I had my guitar with me in that time before opening presents.. We went through the songs that would be familiar to them, like "Jingle Bells." Of course, what does a "one-horse open sleigh" mean to an inner-city child? For that matter, what does it mean to us, besides being a bit of nostalgia for days gone by?

The kids seemed to be familiar with the refrain: "Go tell it on the mountain," so we sang that, too. I sang the verses, pausing after each to see if they were connecting with the gospel story, after which we’d sing through the words they knew. When we came to the third verse, it really dawned on me how much this was their story, as well. "Down in a lowly manger," it begins. I asked what a manger was, and eventually we got around to the fact that Jesus was born away from home. These kids surrounding me on that floor were forced to be away from home, also. For a variety of reasons, home was not a good or safe place for each of them to be right then. For however long the situation demanded, the McDonald House was their home.

A home away from home... The season of Christmas may be over, with those lovely carols now behind us, but there’s more to the story which we need to tell. It’s not as pleasant as the good news of Christ’s birth, though it also is gospel. That is, amid the dark lines there is a bright hope.

As an aside, let me address the fact that Matthew and Luke, the only gospels which tell us anything about the birth and childhood of our Lord, seem to disagree (which is different from contradict) on a number of details. Both have Jesus born in Bethlehem. Upon that much they agree. Luke, however, records this little town as only an ancestral home, to which Joseph and Mary were forced to return because some bureaucrat wanted to count heads. While there, the time came for Mary to give birth, which she did, in a barn, for "there was no room in the inn." Shepherds, nudged by angels, stopped by for a visit. After that, this young family eventually made its way back to their home in Nazareth. Whether their trip to Jerusalem to dedicate Jesus happened on the way home or afterward, is not clear from Luke’s account. The next snapshots in Luke are of this boy at age 12, and then of him as a man.

Matthew tells things a bit different. In his account, there is no census or last minute trip, nor any inn or barn or manger. It seems that Bethlehem is home for Joseph and Mary. Jesus is born there. At some point, the wise men visit. Thereafter, words of warning send this family into hiding in Egypt. When they return to Israel, they settle in Nazareth not Bethlehem, where Jesus grows up (though Matthew speaks no more of his young life). In the next chapter, Jesus is a man, ready for baptism - just like in Luke’s account. It’s at this point that Mark’s gospel begins, as does John’s gospel, sort of.

Tradition has merged these stories together, placing shepherds and wise men side by side in a barn. Those are, indeed, powerful symbols - though such a scene stretches scripture. It could have happened that way. Who am I to say? I wasn’t there. I, like you, have before me the stories as they have been passed on. You know, a lot depends upon how we receive them. If we’re looking just for facts, the "fact" that these accounts differ may be troubling. But if we’re seeking truth, beyond the facts, we will find it.

It’s like sharing a Christmas party with inner city kids in a safe house or, for that matter, cooking a meal for homeless people. There are all sorts of "facts" surrounding these persons, these events, aren’t there? As someone recently asked, "are we really making any difference, or are we only making matters worse, by our attempts to help?" Good question. We may, in fact, be contributing to somebody’s irresponsibility through our acts of service. But is there a deeper truth beyond the facts?

In life, there are always conflicting facts. Different members of the same family remember details of the same event differently. The more years after the actual event, the greater the potential for very different stories to be told... Last week in my sermon I quoted a song from the 60's and attributed it to the rock group the "Doors." I was corrected later, being informed that the "Byrds" performed it. Subsequently, someone else remembered that it was the "Turtles" who did it, and corrected me again. The fact of the matter is: that illustration was for the "birds..." We remember things differently, don’t we?

The gospel stories we have received are stories of the family of faith. They were not put down on paper until many, many years after the fact. Until then, they were repeated from memory, passed on from older to younger members. Now, we believe God’s Spirit was behind the pulling together of these stories into scripture, the written Word. That’s what "inspiration" means. This is the "inspired," the "in-spirited" word, which we say is "of God." As such it has "authority," for its "author" is more than just the human hand.

It’s inspiration, though, is more than a matter of getting the right facts down on paper when these stories of and about Jesus, and his words were pulled together onto the written page. These words are inspired, in-spirited, the Holy Spirit blows through these pages as we receive them. As I said, a lot depends upon how we receive these stories. Taking them as "just facts," we can shoot all sorts of holes in them, as many have. But if we allow ourselves to be grasped by them, to be grasped by the truth that is found within them, to be grasped by the living God who’s Spirit blows through these words - it’s the holes in us that are revealed: the broken, shattered places that only God in Christ can make whole. Therein we discover the good news.

Let’s be grasped by God in this story of the escape into Egypt of the family of Jesus. To encounter it rightly, perhaps we need to keep in mind those children in the Jentry McDonald House, who have by necessity needed to leave their own home for a time, because it was not safe, or for some other reason. Maybe we can also hear this story with our sister Betty Rupp in mind, who needed to flee out-of-state with her daughter for a while, because their home is not a safe place to be just now. The Herods of our world don’t have to be kings to be powerful. They can be abusive spouses or parents. They can be real persons or systems. Whoever or whatever seeks to extinguish the life in another, literally or figuratively, is Herod.

In our gospel story, the truth is that King Herod felt threatened by a child. How horrible, for that child - for all children. How awful for Herod. To be threatened by a vulnerable child. Because he felt endangered by this child, Herod sought to kill him. When he ordered his troops to slaughter all the male children of a certain age in Bethlehem, he was acting out of a sense of powerlessness, just like most every person who has ever abused another. Though the damage was great, the senseless act did not accomplish what it intended. Do you hear that bit of good news hiding behind the dark lines of this story? Herod did not succeed! Just like that bullet which did not kill or critically injure our sister Betty. She has quite a story to tell, by the way, about this "mighty fortress" of a God we have, who’s protective hand has saved her.

In our gospel story from Matthew, God sent an angel to warn Joseph to uproot his family and flee Bethlehem. They were not in that "little town" when it became a killing ground. Lest we think scripture is callous about those slaughtered innocent infants, Matthew reminds us of the prophet Jeremiah’s words. Someone has to weep for the children. They are not expendable bystanders, whether in Bethlehem back then, or in a Baltimore barbershop today. Someone has to weep for the children. When it says Jeremiah’s words were fulfilled, it doesn’t mean that God planned for these infants to be killed just so that prophecy would come true. As Jesus himself said, "it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost." (Mt. 18:14)

Where did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee? Think of this reversal of events. Bethlehem was part of the promised land. Long ago, Moses led God’s children out of slavery in Egypt toward the land of milk and honey. Now, Joseph led his little family into Egypt, because the promised land was too dangerous. Like Moses, Jesus was saved from the hand of death at an early age. Later, he would lead God’s people in a new exodus.

Once danger had passed, an angel put up an "all clear" sign, and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus headed back home. But, you know, home is still not all that safe a place. One Herod is dead, but there always seems to be another in waiting. Following a further leading, this family decides not to return to Bethlehem in the territory of Judea, where Archelaus the son of Herod is in power. History tells us Archelaus was just as vicious a despot as his Dad. Instead, they settle in the province of Galilee, in the town of Nazareth. Funny thing is - yet another son of Herod is Tetrarch of Galilee. There always seems to be a Herod somewhere, doesn’t there?

The good news is that amid all these storms of their early life together, this family made it through. His beginning days as a child, according to Matthew, Jesus was homeless. Who knows what soup kitchens in Egypt took them in, if there was even any kindness in the land from which Moses had led the children of Israel generations earlier. "Home" was an unsafe place for the son of Mary and Joseph, for the Son of God. Many years later, as an adult, it would prove to still be so. However, the good news is that God provided a way through the storm, and this once homeless child became the Way of safety for us all. This is the truth behind all the facts.

Around the turn of this century, Charles Albert Tindley wrote the hymn "When the storms of life are raging." He was born on the eastern shore of Maryland, the son of slaves. He taught himself how to read and write at age 17. Moving to Philadelphia, he worked as a church custodian while taking night school and a correspondence course from the Boston School of Theology. Later in life he became pastor of the very same church for which he had once been janitor. This self-educated man, who spoke six languages, was close friends with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, eulogized Booker T. Washington, and spoke with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Another of his songs, "I’ll overcome some day," later gave birth to the famous civil rights song "We shall overcome." He has been called the "father of black gospel music."

This hymn, #558, is not all that difficult. If we need more time to learn it, we’ll sing it again next Sunday. It speaks of the storms of life, but also alludes to the transforming power of the one who promises to stand by us, no matter what, and to lead us through - Jesus Christ. Let’s stand and sing about this truth beyond the facts.

1997Peter L. Haynes

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