Matthew 2.13-23, Isaiah 63.7-9, Hebrews 2.10-18
This is always a challenging Sunday to preach, not just because in most people’s minds Christmas is now over for another year, Christingles, nativity plays and carol concerts are all done. After all with many Christmas celebrations starting in late November some have been enjoying the season for over a month now and feel that it’s time to move on.
We will welcome in a new decade in a couple of days’ time and then we can all get back to more routine lives.
But hang on a minute, today is the first Sunday of Christmas and today’s readings are an important part of the Christmas story, even if they spoil the warm glow of mangers, shepherds and wise men on our Christmas cards, which will remain in place for a little while yet.
Coming after the Christmas celebrations of this week the Gospel reading is the slaughter of the children under King Herod. Not a joyful story.
Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps we need to be reminded that great joy and great suffering exist right beside each other. Certainly this is a message we find in our readings today. Perhaps we need to be reminded that even as some celebrate, others grieve and I know from what several people have told me recently that many find themselves doing both simultaneously.
It’s exactly this, finding joy and love in others while recalling regret and loss which reinforces our Gospel message. Those of us who have lived a bit, loved, lost and still managed to keep our faith know this to be true.
God is there for us, unchanging throughout the ages, and this this is reinforced by the words of Isaiah we heard reminding the people of all that God has done for them, of his merciful, steadfast love.
Perhaps it’s good for us to go directly from “Peace on earth and good will to humanity” to a story of misused power, selfish violence and suffering inflicted by Herod, so that we can renew our commitment to the Christmas message in a more balanced way rather than a celebratory vacuum out of sync with the reality of the world around us.
When you think about it, Emmanuel – God-with-us – wouldn’t really mean all that much if it was only God with us during the celebrations and times which leave us with a warm glow. Speaking with someone who lost her adult daughter recently, despite the fact that she remained heartbroken, she told me that there was an irrepressible inclination to count her blessings, being thankful for the good times in her daughter’s life and for the grandchildren who love her.
Of course we don’t have to try very hard to find a continuous stream of sad stories from around the world about slaughter and displacement by modern day ‘Herods’ or would be ‘Herods’ including that of Christians executed in Nigeria this Christmas day.
Christingles and nativities seem far removed from such brutal realities and stories about cruelty, fear and despair don’t match with the idealistic fantasy of Christmas but as Christians we want the full picture.
As our faith deepens and matures we find that in facing up to a reality which includes the unjust, sad and tragic elements of life that God is in there, somewhere. This is exactly the world he chose to be born into, a world of injustice, cruelty and danger. Where leaders demonstrated their power by killing those who threaten their status and continue to do so today.
King Herod (‘the Great’) executed anyone he perceived as a threat to his throne, even including three of his sons and a wife so the elimination of some infant males in a small village would not have been big news to those that knew him. He was prepared to protect his privileged position with brutal force without a shred of guilt over the unbearable suffering caused to their loved ones. This was his definition of security and one which has been repeated through the ages.
Contrast this display of power with that of a God who reveals himself as a small, vulnerable and powerless baby. Indeed so vulnerable that his parents must seek refuge in Egypt if they are to avoid the same fate as the other baby boys.
It is to recognise the grief of God in the cry of the mothers who lost their children.
Matthew refers to the voice of ‘Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’
We are introduced to Rachel in the book of Genesis where we can read of her great beauty and how Jacob is besotted with her.
Rachel dies giving birth while on the road to Bethlehem. In the midst of her suffering, the midwife tries to comfort her with the news that she is having another son who she calls Ben-Oni (son of my suffering) though Jacob named him Benjamin. Her child is the cause of her weeping but also her hope for the future.
Matthew tells us that the massacre by Herod is the fulfilment of a prophecy from Jeremiah. Rachel weeps again, on this occasion over the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. But the next verse offers hope as it tells of Herod's death and the return of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the land of Israel.
Time and again we are given examples of why God offers hope that lives on but which we can sometimes find hard to see among the desperate sadness.
Let’s be honest, all this is pretty heavy going isn’t it but if we want to go beneath the surface of Christianity, to dare to discover what God’s love for us really looks like then elements of that journey will be painful.
If we read enough of the bible over a long enough period of time we will experience a range of reactions and emotions, partly due to the text and partly due to where we find ourselves on life’s journey.
I love to find humour and lightness in our readings, sometimes throwing a joke into a sermon, if only to see whether anyone is still listening!
As we lament about children being born in African refugee camps and acts of genocide today we are faced with the stark reality that God has experienced this first hand.
Matthew’s depiction of events is one of those passages which kind of ‘stop us in our tracks’. It’s part of the beauty of scripture and the power of the crafted word which should inspire us to read more of the bible.
It makes Jesus even more real when we work and think about scripture.
As we explore Matthew’s gospel further over the coming year we will have the opportunity to go deeper and my prayer is that we have the disciple, courage and passion to seek out the authentic Jesus.
Sometimes we have to look a little beyond the immediately obvious to find true meaning. We are all probably guilty of wanting to believe a certain version of events knowing that the reality is going to be a bit harder even it proves to be more enduring and have more real meaning. Christmas is very much like that, we enjoy the socialising, the carols and the cosy images but how much richer can our lives be if we scratch beneath the surface to seek the real love God sent us in Christ? Love that is so strong that it can be with us in every aspect of our life’s journey through sadness and suffering as well as in the good times. Love for all of us for every day, rather than for a season.
Much of the truth we find in the bible is uncomfortable, disturbing and inconvenient but then absolute truth cannot be moulded to suit the circumstances. If we choose to wrestle with this then we are truly engaging with God.
Hebrews pictures Jesus as the pioneer who opens the way to God. Our challenge is to take the imagery from the Christmas cards, the stained-glass windows even, and seek the man who walked our earth in the first century.
As we continue to learn, to be inspired and strengthened we need to think deeply what difference our allegiance to Christ makes to our lives and the lives of others.
Many will choose to dismiss our Christmas celebrations as a fanciful Christmas fairy tale but it becomes a lot more difficult to dismiss when it manifests itself as a gritty determined love which suffering and pain cannot overwhelm.
If we each play our part in sustaining this reality, wherever we find ourselves, it can also be a celebration of justice and a call to life in all its fullness.
29 December 2019