The First Sunday after Christmas (January 1, 2017)

November 29, 2016 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 63:7-9 Psalm 148 Hebrews 2:10-18 Matthew 2:13-23

January 1 will surely be a “low Sunday” for most churches. The high of Christmas is a thing of the past. The Christmas season lasts but twelve days and is, for all intents and purposes, over following Christmas Day worship. Still, as Howard Thurman asserts, the “work of Christmas” begins when the angels and shepherds have left. Christmas involves a way of life, grounded in solidarity with God and all creation.

On this lowest of Sundays, the flight of the Holy Family presents us with radical images of institutional evil. Tricked by the magi, Herod wants to take revenge. The holy child must die. God’s beloved must be exterminated. No effort must be spared to crush the child who will usher in God’s realm, even if scores of innocents must die in the process. As we look at today’s headlines, nothing appears to have changed. Millions of refugees flow out of Syria and fearful politicians want to bar even women and young children from entry into our country. In our anxiety and xenophobia, we forget that Jesus’ family was a refugee family, running for their lives, and that our Savior survived only as a result of the kindness of Egyptian strangers.

Once again, Jesus is saved by divine inspiration. Joseph, like his namesake and the magi, is a dreamer. His dream called him to fatherhood and to save Mary from humiliation if not death. Again, God speaks in sighs too deep for words, through the unconscious mind, to deliver the child from his enemies. God’s vision is communicated in a variety of ways – in synchronous encounters, paranormal experiences, dreams and mystical experiences, and the ordinary activities of “chopping wood and carrying water.” God is always providing pathways to healing and wholeness. “God with us” means precisely that – God comes to us, most of the time gently and subtly, in the ways we need and at the time we need.

In the Gospel reading, we get glimpses of both the mystical and the political, and perhaps they are ultimately interdependent. Brick and mortar, legislation and bureaucracies, can be holy, and be – at their best – avenues of healing, despite the bloviations of those who seek to restrict government primarily to military defense and constantly prattle about starving the beast, even though this “starvation” harms God’s most vulnerable children. The Gospel shows us that we must have a special care for refugees and immigrants and that when we care for the least of these, the most vulnerable in our midst, we are caring for God.

The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of God’s identification with suffering in all its form. The incarnation is about God’s intimacy with all creation. Jesus reveals God’s willingness to be one of us, to experience the world from our vantage point, to feel our joys and sorrows. Regardless of our perspective on the doctrine of atonement, we can affirm that divine companionship involves suffering as well as exaltation. “God with us” saves us by sharing in our lives in their many dimensions. God is, as Alfred North Whitehead avers, “the fellow sufferer who understands,” seeking to evoke beauty in the context of tragedy and suffering.

Isaiah speaks of God’s saving presence. Could Jesus’ parents have experienced God’s saving presence in the hospitality of those who welcomed them in Egypt? Salvation is not esoteric or ethereal; it is often mediated through a kind word, a welcome to a stranger, a standing with the dispossessed or marginalized. As politicians speculate on registering Muslims and banning refugees, we have to ask the simple question, “Is this action what God would want us to do?” It is ironic that a religion grounded in the affirmation of transformative power of sacrifice and the victory of love over fear has, in the safest and most powerful nation in the world, been aligned itself in many quarters with fear-based and xenophobic policies.

Psalm 148 places everything in perspective. We live in a world of praise in which all things reveal their Creator. There is no room for paralyzing fear in a world of praise. God’s love embraces the totality of our lives, including our institutions and foreign policy. While we should be vigilant in times of conflict, we don’t need to be ruled by fear.

Psalm 148 also calls us to reverence for life. Whatever can praise is of value even apart from human purposes. In a time in which politicians deny climate change and threaten to roll back laws that protect the environment, the Psalmist awakens us to place the environment at the top of our priorities. Short term economic gains cannot justify placing the Earth and its flora and fauna, including future human generations, at risk. What we need is an ethic of praise, mysticism, and incarnation to replace our consumerist and quick-fix and profit mentality.

The incarnation is and has always been messy. Incarnational faith embeds God and us in the world. Healing comes through supporting the threatened, welcoming the stranger, and comforting the grieving, and knowing that we find God most fully when we respond to suffering, shouldering the burden along with our Lover and Creator.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Centerville, MA.( and member of the doctoral faculty of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of forty books, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed;and A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care. He may be contacted for conversation, speaking engagements and retreats at