Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on 29th December 2013
29 December 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides-Yeldham, Chaplain
Which will you choose: a godly or an ungodly response to the presence of God in a stable? A life lived for others or a life which is self-serving and self-seeking?
For his part, Herod represents all that is ungodly in his response to the God-child born within his jurisdiction of power. Once Herod becomes aware of the trickery of those double-dealing wise men, he is beside himself with murderous rage. He slaughters innocent children, intent not only on killing any pretender to his throne, but on intimidating those who might harbour messianic dreams.
By his ungodly response, Herod joins other despotic and ruthless leaders down the centuries: from the Neros of the Ancient World to the Hitlers and Stalins of modern times: systematic killing to advance political ends. The world may call it Beirut or Bosnia, Baghdad or Belfast. The Bible calls it Bethlehem.
This is the shadow-side of the nativity story where the powers of evil were actively at work when Christ was born and continue their work even as you and I now celebrate our annual remembrance of that birth: countless, often untold stories of child abuse, child torture and child murder.
A few weeks ago, the respected think-tank, the Oxford Research Group, published a report entitled Stolen Futures - the Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria. It made a disturbing read: Syrian children who are being deliberately targeted and tortured. Of the 11,420 children killed in Syrian during the past two-and-a-half years, seven out of ten died as a result of explosives, and one in four died as a result of gunfire. The Stolen Futures report was followed by yet another, this time by the UN Refugee Agency entitled The future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis. It reported on the situation beyond Syria. 1.1 million refugee children dispersed in neighbouring countries, countries which can barely cope with such huge numbers of refugees.
That first Christmas was not immune from such evil. Rather, we learn through a divine drama, which we call the Christmas story, that life in our world can be very dangerous, cruel, even demonic. That the world’s vulnerable can be the subject of evil plots and conspiracies orchestrated by power-hungry people who themselves are possessed by evil and rely on evil means to guard and extend their power and status.
There are three acts to the divine drama which unfolds in our gospel reading today although the third act is just out of sight but one of which we are conscious.
In the first act, God speaks to Joseph through an angel in a dream commanding Joseph to: ‘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.’
For those among you, who have gazed upon the Abbey crib – there in the Nave – romantic, picturesque, perfect – such alarming talk from God’s angel might come as a rude-awakening, as it undoubtedly was for Joseph and Mary! No ‘bless all the dear children in thy tender care’ but fear of the unknown as the harsh, ruthless reality of a tyrant ruler, Herod, determinedly seeks to extinguish the threat of the Christ-Child, with a callous disregard for any innocent child who might get in his way.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus do indeed escape to Egypt, but Matthew tells us nothing about where the holy family lived, or how long they stayed, or even the route they took. There are apocryphal stories, fanciful tales about their time in Egypt, but nothing is known for sure. What you and I can do is imagine ourselves in their place, going to a country where an earlier generation of Jews, many centuries before, had been enslaved until another massacre of babies, from which was to emerge the patriarch Moses who would lead the Israelites to freedom.
In front of us is a long, hazardous journey; so what questions might be uppermost in our minds? Is it all going to be worth it? What is life going to be like as a refugee? Are we escaping one tyranny to be met by another?
Was Joseph dreaming star-dust or was he really visited by God’s messenger? And if he was, could he trust the message? Surely, such thoughts must have been spinning through the minds of Joseph and Mary as they set out for Egypt. And once they were there? Adjusting to life as refugees could not have been easy even if Joseph did have the skills of a carpenter?
Would that today we had more such messengers of God speaking to the persecuted and the vulnerable of our world, enabling asylum seekers to find safe refuge and protection.
The second act of our divine drama reveals the extent of Herod’s fury. Discovering that he had been tricked by the wise men, ‘he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.’ According to Matthew’s account, this fulfilled the nightmarish and tragic prophecy of Jeremiah, which warned: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ (31: 15)
There are too many Rachels in our world today.
How might we, as followers of Jesus, express our compassion for those Rachels? How might we share the love of Christ? How might we walk in their wailing and lamentation? In what ways might we be God’s messengers for such parents?
And so to the third act of our divine drama in which Joseph dreams twice more as God’s messenger instructs him on the one hand to return home to Israel because Herod has died; but, on the other hand, not to return to Judea, but instead Nazareth, out of the reach of Herod’s son, Archelaus, one as cruel as his father.
Here we learn that the Herods of this world can never succeed. Sooner or later they lose their power. Sooner or later they die.
Herod: the one who chose an ungodly response to the presence of God in a stable.
Yet, within our divine drama, there was another who chose the godly response; one who submitted to God, one who served the Christ-child by protecting him, one who was attentive to the leading of God, one who had the gift – yes the gift of listening to dreams to discover the path he was to follow: Joseph who was called by God to make a lengthy journey, who was called by God to live in exile and who was called by God to settle in a new home. His was a godly response to the presence of God in a stable. So what of our response? What might we learn from Joseph? Three things:
that faith entails a lengthy and at times hazardous journey as we walk the Christian Way, growing in our relationship with God;
that faith is a life lived in exile from the cultural pressures and societal values which all too often are the very antithesis of God’s kingdom.
and that faith is an invitation to discover a new home, the corner stone of which is Jesus Christ and his Church.
This Christmas which do you choose: a godly or an ungodly response to the presence of God in a stable?