The Risk of Christmas

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day
by Kristopher D. Adams, Minister to Children and Youth

MATTHEW 2:13-15,19-23

Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazarene.”


Growing up in the church and a wonderful Christian home, I truly love Christmas. It is a time full of many traditions that I cherish, including traditions I hope to pass along to my own children. Every time we decorated the Christmas tree, we listened to the delightful and annoying sounds of Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas carols. Each Christmas morning before opening presents, we read from the Gospel of Luke and prayed together as a family. And without a doubt during the Christmas season, there was always a nativity set in our house so that my sister and I could reenact the story of Christ’s birth with the little toy figurines. Tiffany I have incorporated all of these traditions from my childhood into our home, especially the use of toy nativity sets. In fact, I know that we have at least three of them in our home at the moment, so that through play our little ones can learn the tale of the first Christmas.

But as wonderful as these little nativity scene toy sets are, I have to admit that they lack an important piece of the Christmas story. You see, our nativity scenes are often a combination of two different texts, the stories of Christ’s birth from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Luke has the angels, shepherds, heavenly choirs, an inn with no room, and the Christ-child lying in a manger. Matthew has none of that, but he does describe the visit of the wise men from afar and their presentation of gifts. We combine these two stories to create our nativity scenes, blending the aspects of both to tell a singular tale of Christ’s birth.

And usually when we look at the faces of the characters in these nativity sets, we notice that they are peaceful, serene, caught up the bliss of gazing into the eyes of a newborn baby. But something is missing – an important part to the story that I don’t want us to overlook this morning. What is not written on any of their faces, what is not conveyed through any character, what we often forget when telling the story of Christmas is the presence of risk.

Our scripture reading this morning tells the often forgotten part of the Christmas story, a story full of risk at every turn. Matthew begins by saying that Joseph had a dream. That’s definitely misleading. When an angel tells you in your sleep that someone is out to kill your child, that your child’s very life and the lives of your family members are at risk, well then you’ve crossed the line from dream into nightmare. What’s even more horrific than having this dream though is waking up from it.

You see, the last time Joseph had a dream like this with a heavenly visitor, everything in it came true. His virgin fiancée had a baby nine months later. And while I’m sure the revelation of Jesus’ impending birth was terrifying for a whole host of other reasons, because who isn’t a little anxious about becoming a father, this dream was different. This dream foretold the unimaginable: the murderous plot of a cruel tyrant against Mary and Joseph’s little one.

In welcoming the Messiah into their family, in loving the Christ child, Mary and Joseph have placed both themselves and their newborn baby boy in great risk. Their love put them at risk of facing Herod’s fierce wrath and terrifying anger. The story ends with the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus narrowly escaping with their lives as they find refuge in the strange land of Egypt and later a home in the small town of Nazareth.

I wonder what it would look like if we incorporated this missing part of the story into a nativity set. Maybe Joseph should have little beads of sweat bursting on his forehead, or maybe Mary should look anxious about the danger looming on the horizon. Maybe the three kings should be helping to pack Mary and Joseph’s things since they have been told themselves in a dream about Herod’s despicable plot. Maybe even soldiers furiously searching the surrounding houses, or a fuming king seated on his throne could be added as well.

You might be wondering why I think this is such an important part to the story. Why would anyone want to include the element of risk into a story that seems so wonderfully peaceful and calm? I would like to suggest to you this morning that risk cannot be overlooked because it shows us what is in store for anyone who would dare welcome the Christ into their lives as well. Like Joseph and Mary, all who open their lives to Christ are faced with the dangerous risk of Christmas: the risk of love.

As strange as it might sound, whenever you love someone, you open yourself up to risk. I remember when I first met my wife. I was a love-struck high school student, and she was even more enamored with me. But for our puppy love to get anywhere, I had to take a risk. I had to get up the courage to ask her out on a date and risk the possibilities of rejection, ridicule, maybe even outright laughter. Even more dangerous was the risk posed by her father. He was not too fond of me when I first started coming around, and he made sure I knew that I was taking a risk in dating his daughter. Later on in our relationship, love pushed me to risk rejection again when I asked Tiffany to marry me. But because of my love, I was willing to take the risk.

But I really didn’t know how closely related love and risk are until I became a parent. Caring for our little ones, I found that love forces you to undergo risk even in mundane daily tasks, like the changing of diapers. I remember thinking that all the movie scenes I had seen regarding the dangers of diaper changes had to be exaggerations just to make people laugh… until every single imaginable risk actually happened to me. But in more serious ways, loving a child puts you at genuine risk. If you love your child, you know you have to discipline them. And in the midst of one random moment in which I was trying to correct our little guy, I will never forget him saying “I don’t like you!” Those words cut like a knife to my core. Now I know he meant those words only in the heat of the moment, that he just didn’t like what was happening, but knowing those things didn’t make it hurt any less. If you love a child, you risk real and genuine heartache.

Life teaches us over and over again that love is a risk. It is a risk because it opens us up to uncertain possibilities. Not all love is returned. Sometimes it remains unrequited or scorned. Not all love is honored. Sometimes vows are broken and hearts are torn. Not all love is appreciated. Sometimes discipline is received as punishment and despised. These uncertainties make love a real risk, but it’s a risk that we certainly find worth taking.

For us the follower of Christ today, the risk of love is just as real as it was for Mary and Joseph, but it takes on a different shape. Unlike Mary and Joseph, the risk of love that we face is not one of an angry tyrant seeking to annihilate our families. But, that doesn’t mean the risk of love is any less real or any less threatening when we welcome Christ into our lives.

Consider for a moment Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. Do you remember how often we are told to forgive? “Seventy times seven,” or as we could put it, forgive until you lose count, and then forgive more.[1] If we really undertake the risk loving others like this, we open ourselves to a world of potential hurt and heartache. Or what about Jesus’ teaching on caring for the needs of others: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”[2] Feed the hungry, give drink to the thristy, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned.[3] Loving those in need puts own wealth and security at risk. And we can’t forget to mention Jesus’ words regarding our enemies: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.”[4] Love like this puts us at the risk of losing our own lives and sharing in the same fate as the Crucified One. Like Mary and Joseph, our love for Christ puts all of us at great risk.

Christian love is risky and dangerous because it goes beyond our preconceptions of who we should love. It widens the scope of who we are meant to love beyond our spouses, children, parents, and families. We are dared to love not only our friends and neighbors, but to love the strangers we don’t know and the forgotten often overlooked by society. We are challenged to love those who hate us, those who would kill us, the unsavory, the detestable, all those who we would like to label as unlovable.

Christian love is also perilous and uncertain because it defies our sensibilities about how much we should love.  Surely, love has its limits, right? We can all imagine a hypothetical situation where we might be justified in being less than loving. But Christian love has no limits, and it is risky because as Paul says, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[5]

So do not let the peace and tranquility of our nativity sets fool you. When we welcome Christ into our lives, when we gaze upon the newborn babe lying in a manger, we are faced with the risk of Christmas, the risk of love.

I have to admit, I was not exactly ecstatic for the holiday season this year. Not because I have anything against Christmas and New Year’s, but because of the travel plans I knew that these holidays held in store for me. You see, for Christmas, we went to see my wife’s family out in Oklahoma. And the reason that I was so unsure of the holiday this year was because I knew how I would have to get there. I detest flying. I cannot stand the thought of being 30,000 feet in the air, in a giant box of at least 75 tons of weight, containing about 20,000 gallons of fuel. I am the white-knuckle flyer who sweats through his shirt that no one wants to sit by. Yet I still got on the plane. Since the airline we used had a rate of incidence of 0.0000386, the risk was relatively small. But for someone who still hates flying, any number other than a 0 is still a risk. But the risk was certainly one worth taking.

The question that we must ask ourselves in light of our scriptures this morning is whether the risk of Christmas, the risk of love, is a risk we are willing to take. Accepting this risk will certainly look different for each of us. For some, it will mean being vulnerable enough to risk extending love to that coworker who has wronged you time and again. For others, it may mean risking your comfort and resources to provide for those in need. Whatever shape it may take, the risk of Christmas is real. Love poses a real risk to each and every one of us just like it did for Mary and Joseph on the very first Christmas. My prayer is that as we pack up our toy nativity sets, as we put away the tiny figurines back in their boxes until the coming year, we might imagine a cold sweat on Joseph’s head, Mary nervously biting her nails, or the wise men scrambling to sneak out of Bethlehem to remind us of the risk of Christmas, the risk of love.

[1] Matthew 18:22

[2] Matthew 5:42

[3] Matthew 25:31-46

[4] Luke 6:27-28

[5] I Corinthians 13:7-8