When they arrived in Capernaum, back at the house he asked them, “What were you all arguing about on the way here?” None of them answered, because they’d been arguing about which of them was the most important.
So he called the twelve of them together and said, “Whoever wants to be the most important has to be the least important and serve all the rest.” Then he held a little child in his arms in the midst of their circle and said, “Whoever welcomes a child like this on my behalf welcomes me. If you want to welcome me, you’ve got to embrace not just me, but the whole reason I’m here.”
It’s easy to romanticize childhood and children. So much is made of “childhood innocence.” But, even for those who look back fondly on happy childhood days, it wasn’t always easy. Children are, of all people, the most vulnerable, in part because they are not really considered fully people yet. Not legally, not socially, not developmentally.
For the vast majority of the world’s children, childhood is no picnic. Entirely dependent on the whims of the adults around them, they suffer in disproportional numbers from poverty, hunger, and sickness and all kinds of abuse and neglect. They are in many places around the world, exploited for slave labor and other unspeakable atrocities. Children are, of all people, most in need of protection and welcome. Not just the ones who happen to be behaving well. Not just when we feel like it. All of them. All the time.
Whatever your project is, whatever aims or ambitions or dreams you have, Jesus says that they will stand or fall on how well they serve the children. Not just the abstract idea of children. Real children. The ones you come in contact with every day. If you really want to be great and do great things but you’re not sure if your idea is a very good one, consider what your children, your grandchildren, and your great grandchildren will think of having to live with it. That’s all you really need to know.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem (in the West Bank) while Herod was king, diplomats from somewhere in the “-stans” came to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where are you hiding the new Israeli king? A rogue satellite signal suggests that he’s here, and we’ve come to establish diplomatic relations.”
When King Herod heard this, he was outraged, and not just Herod, but all Jerusalem. He gathered his top advisors and asked, “What’s this about a new king? And where is he?”
They told him, “Probably in Bethlehem. That’s where the truth-tellers are saying: ‘Bethlehem in the West Bank, you’re not as insignificant as you think! That’s where the leader of the uprising will come from.'”
So Herod called for the diplomats, and found out what their intelligence said. And then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and find this prodigy, and then let me know, too, so I can also establish relations with him.”
Hearing this, they set out, following their satellite signal until its coordinates lined up with where the child was. And when they saw they were in the right place, trembling with excitement, they went in and found the child, with his mother, Mary. They followed their protocol for meeting with a great leader, and then presented gifts: money, medicine, and medical supplies. And, being warned in a secret cable, not to return to Herod, they left for their own country in secret.
The situation in the West Bank today is every bit as charged as it was when Jesus was growing up there. Imagine what kind of international chaos would break out if diplomats from the Taliban approached Prime Minister Netanyahu wanting to know where to find the new Palestinian rebel leader – because they had “reliable intelligence” unavailable to Israel.
That’s this story. And whose to say the Israelis wouldn’t send in the crack troops to take out all the Palestinian kids in Bethlehem if they thought it was a matter of national security?
Never mind that historians of that day, Josephus and the rest, never mention these actual events taking place. The story Matthew tells sets the stage for us to understand the issues Jesus came to address, and to help us understand why the movement Jesus started was so different from the regimes in power.
And why it was so feared by them. And why they used such brutal and excessive force to put it down.
Understand this story, and you’ll understand everything from the police response to OWS, to the pictures coming out of Egypt, to the modern Chinese response to dissidents.
Find that child, and you’ll have found the key to a whole new world.
[Hint: Which child in your neighborhood is the one they don’t want to make it to adulthood? That’s the one you’re looking for.]
The word was born and lived with us. We have seen how precious he is: As precious as a parent’s only child, A gift in which unfathomable reality fully abides.
The man whose birth we celebrate today became the one we celebrate by showing us that the birth of every child has the capacity to change the world.
Behind the mythological stories of Christmas (both ancient and modern), and underneath the shreds of wrapping paper leftover from mere indulgence lies the hope that we might begin to treat every child as having that capacity.
Where we see that kind of love, and when we live our own lives in the reality of it, there is something profoundly worth celebrating.
At that time, an executive order was issued from the White House that there should be a nation-wide census. This was the first such census and was taken while Quayle was Senator of Indiana. And everyone traveled back to their hometown to be counted.
Since Joe was part of the David family, he went from Nowheresville, in Timbuktu, down to the David family’s hometown: New York, New York. He went taking with him his fiancee Mary, who was pregnant. While they were there the baby came, and Mary gave birth to her firstborn child, a boy, and she wrapped him in some old rags and laid him in a storage bin in a garage, because they couldn’t afford a room, even in the Bronx.
Meanwhile, down in Yonkers, there were taxi drivers gathered in a parking lot waiting through the night for dispatch. Suddenly a messenger from God stood there in front of them, and a divine aura rippled through the air all around them. They were terrified.
But the messenger said, “Don’t be afraid. See here, I’ve got great news for you – great news for everyone. Today, in the Bronx, your savior has arrived. He’s the one destined to lead you. And here’s how it’ll go down: you’ll find a baby wrapped in rags in a storage bin.”
Again, suddenly a whole convention of messengers appeared, singing about God, saying: Glory to God in heaven. May God’s favorite people be at peace.”
When the messengers had evaporated back into the sky, the taxi drivers said to one another, “Let’s drive up to the Bronx and see if we can find out what’s going on.” So they drove, fast, and found Mary and Joe, and the baby in the storage bin. And when they saw it, they told the story they’d heard about this child. Everyone who heard it was incredulous about what the taxi drivers said. But Mary remembered all these things, and wondered about them.
The taxi drivers went back, thanking God, because everything they’d heard and seen was exactly as the messenger had told them it would be.
In the midst of the imperial effort to make sure everyone is counted, the gospel unfolds among all the people who are forgotten.
Wherever you live there is someplace in a city near you that has been overlooked by the people who are writing the history books. It’s where the working-class people hang out nights waiting for work, and where the people who can’t afford even the cheapest hotel rooms pass the nights in the back seats of their cars with all their worldly possessions jammed into the trunk.
Wherever you live, somewhere nearby there is a place that teenagers give birth to babies out of wedlock and without health insurance or prenatal care, who still have hopes that their child will grow up to be somebody special, or at the very least won’t end up in a morgue or a prison before age 2, or 7, or 17, or 25. Perhaps they have these hopes for their forgotten children have a chance because some crazy taxi driver on the trip to the emergency room delivery reassured them that it was so.
But what makes the Christmas story so real is that, contrary to what we may think most of the time, the crazy taxi driver relocated from someplace we have trouble finding on a map, and who hardly knows how to speak English – the taxi driver is right about this child. And if God has anything to do with it, she will grow up to lead her people out of the projects.
But for this to happen, the rest of us who hear the story also need to recognize the truth of the taxi drivers’ witness, instead of being incredulous. The rest of us have to recognize and believe who this forgotten one born of forgotten parents really is. In other words, the rest of us have to come to terms with our intentional forgetting, our dismissal, of these places and people as being of little or no real consequence.
The whole gospel that follows is predicated on the the story about how, contrary to what you might hear in some churches, God lives out in the garage and in all the children born in the forgotten places. Nothing Jesus says or does in the gospel introduced by this story makes any sense if we forget that he began his life as a forgotten child.
This Christmas, here’s hoping we’ll remember longer than for just a starlit evening.