Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Christmas 2023
A reflection on a much-overlooked part of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Matthew that encourages us to live as children of light in the world.
The Reverend Robert Latham Sacrist
Sunday, 1st January 2023 at 11.15 AM
Of the Father's heart begotten
ere the world from chaos rose,
he is Alpha: from that Fountain,
all that is and hath been flows;
he is Omega, of all things
yet to come the mystic Close.
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Happy Christmas - Happy New Year! Today it is both.
Into the midst of our Christmas and New Year celebrations; our rest, our feasting; comes today (in our Gospel reading from Matthew) a tale of prophesy, persecution and destruction. Namely, the massacre of children by a tyrant king...
Suddenly the bells stop jingling, and the mince pies seem a little misplaced.
This reading doesn’t make the cut of school nativity plays - it doesn’t feature on Christmas cards, but it is an important part of the Christmas story - if we are to understand the fulness of the gift we have received in Christ.
The cast of characters is familiar - Herod, Joseph, Mary and Jesus; Angels - but the mood is darker and colder...
The Magi have just paid homage to the Christ Child and left by ‘another road’, but King Herod is determined to track down and destroy the new-born king they travelled to see. And Herod does not mess about in such matters - he has already killed members of his own family (including two of his sons) in fear of losing his grip on power. He is unwell in body and mind, afraid; and will not tolerate this perceived threat of the Messiah in his midst.
The hero of our story is Joseph - who diligently follows the instructions and warnings of the angel - we should notice that through these instructions God is watching over this Child, his Mother and Father - directing and protecting their journey through the very real danger at hand.
What is clear from the very beginning is that Jesus was not born into a world of peace and joy - rather, he came to a troubled world as the herald and embodiment of God’s love. To redeem us from the corruption and evil and darkness that cloaked and choked God’s vision of peace...
And so into the heart of darkness was born the King of radiant light.
The massacre at Bethlehem is perhaps not on the scale we might at first imagine - Bethlehem was not that big in the time of Herod. A few dozen children of two years or under some historians estimate - possibly fewer. But the loss of even one child in this way is too many we can all agree. Think then of the destruction wrought in conflicts of our own era, of living memory and today.
Our capacity for destruction is breath-taking.
We can feel powerless to affect the macro-level of rulers and armies (and most of us are); but we can also observe that the blunt trauma of industrial warfare is always sharpened by the reports of individual atrocities - what one person chooses to do to another - the destruction of empathy and compassion; the withering away of mercy under the grip of absolute conviction, indoctrination or fear.
Matthew quotes the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah... A voice “wailing and loud lamentation - Rachel weeping for her children.” For Jeremiah, Rachel is the symbolic mother of the Jewish people - weeping for their loss through exile - taken captive by a hostile power... having abandoned the ways of God.
For Matthew and for us - it illustrates how far Herod has rejected the ways of God in pursuit of his own power. With further reflection it also serves as a warning to us all... (on a macro and an individual level):
What have we become - how far have we strayed from God?
Where might it lead us?
But before we lose all cheer, and take down our decorations entirely (and drop the mince pie in the bin)... we must remember that this is a dark episode in a larger narrative - an origin story if you like... and knowing what comes next we have good cause to rejoice - on this Second Sunday of Christmas... as Herod did not catch his quarry, and the child grew and became strong - he fulfilled his earthly ministry and has called us into his risen life; and his very act of resurrection broke the yoke of fear and death that enslaved us all.
The big battle, on a cosmic scale, is won. And through the waters of baptism we have chosen the side of good over evil.
But we don’t live day-to-day on this cosmic scale... and so with courage, confidence and humility we must live out our calling to be children of light in the world as it is.
The corruptions that cling so closely in this world beset us all - none of us are immune. But Christ has come to us, and we have received him.
We no longer need the directions and warnings of angels, as we have Christ with us - to light our path through this world - not as a people separate from it - but as those who dwell fully in it; as agents of divine love, joy, charity, mercy, hope, and PEACE.
In Christ we have not only a path, but a lens through which to view the world and those around us; and indeed ourselves... a divine perspective.
As individual atrocities in the midst of conflict offend and disturb, as they show a descent from our basic humanity... individual acts of grace, mercy and charity bless and affirm, building up community and shaping our common life in the ascendent pattern of divine love.
We can each influence in this way.
As we remember the children of Bethlehem who did not escape Herod - and pray for all who suffer persecution and oppression today;
We are called to live the message of Christmas - not just repeat it. To declare that the light is in the world - and darkness shall not overcome it - that we will hold our ground and defend the line.
The New Year is a chance to regroup and renew our promise to follow the Prince of Peace whatever shall meet us on the way. Confident that he is with us - and that we go forward together in faith, hope, love and joy!
O how blest that wondrous birthday,
when the Maid the curse retrieved,
brought to birth mankind's salvation,
by the Holy Ghost conceived;
and the Babe, the world's Redeemer,
in her loving arms received,
evermore and evermore.
Happy Christmas - Happy New Year!