For the third year in a row, my home congregation in Claremore, OK listened to me preach to them on the first Sunday of Christmas. My family doesn’t make it home often, but we have made it back for Christmas all three years of seminary. My pastor, extremely supportive of my call and education, always welcomes me into the pulpit when I can make it back.
When I began thinking about going home to preach again, I was wondering what more I could say about Christmas and incarnation. The two previous years, it seemed, had used up all the good theological quotes and illustrations I could muster. Thankfully, the Revised Common Lectionary appointed a decidedly different text this year. When I sat down to read the text and begin my study and exegesis, I immediately knew I was in no danger of simply recycling and remixing the previous years’ sermons.
The text was Matthew 2:13-23. Herod, threatened by rumors of this other supposed “King of the Jews” seeks to kill the newborn Jesus. An angel warns Joseph, and he with his young family escape the wrath of the tyrant. In his rage, Herod kills all the children in and around Bethlehem under the age of two. There isn’t much joy here. This isn’t the quaint scene of a stable and angels and Silent Night. It is a tale of dangerous power, murder, and weeping.
As I perused social media leading up to Sunday, I noticed many a pastor lamenting that this text, the “dead babies” text, was the gospel selection. Some instead went with John 1, always a good text when preaching on incarnation. Others would preach on Isaiah 63:7-9, the Hebrew text for the day. Understandably, many preachers were hesitant to preach this tough text on that particular occasion. Who wants to be a downer in a joyous season like Christmas?
I had the privilege of hearing my friend and colleague David Boyd preach a great sermon on this text earlier this year in class. David’s sermon really captured the meaning of this shockingly sad text for the First Sunday of Christmas, and inspired me as I wrote my own sermon. In short, Jesus came into the world, a world where tyrants kill children in their lust for power, a world where countless people are oppressed, a world that is filled with the brokenness of sin and death, because that is exactly the kind of world that needs a savior.
This reading of the appointed text speaks not only to the general brokenness of the world, but also to the sadness that many feel during the joyful Christmas season. In my own family, I’ve noticed that Christmas has not been the same for my grandmother after my grandfather’s death some years ago. Some relatives on my wife’s side of the family lost their newborn son this year, and this would have been his first Christmas. Some of my seminary classmates spent Christmas alone because they are estranged from their families or couldn’t afford to go home. These are realities, real pain of real people sitting in our congregations, and the birth of a savior amid the pain found in Matthew 2:13-23 speaks directly to them.
It is often easier to abandon tough texts in favor of something light, fluffy, and happy, especially on our high holy days. Yet we must remember that not everyone in the pews is feeling joyful, even as they sing Joy to the World. Preaching the tough texts, and there are plenty of them in scripture, reminds us all of just how desperately the world needs the Gospel.
What tough texts have you preached and how did it go? When have you avoided tough texts? Please use the comment section below to tell your stories of preaching and hearing these difficult messages!