Isaiah 63:7-9 and Matthew 2:13-end
I think that in eight years of ordained ministry, this is only the second year when I have worked the Sunday after Christmas. I don’t think that I have ever preached on the Holy Innocents. I am pretty sure that the last time I was on duty at this time of year I changed the readings to Anna and Simeon in the Temple or something more encouraging. Who would want to spend the first Sunday of this season of celebration recalling an atrocity?
Some people argue that perhaps it didn’t even happen. Surely the killing of a village-worth of infants would have been recorded by someone, somewhere – but Matthew is the only text from that time which mentions it. Maybe this was Matthew being fanciful, but then that begs the question, who would make this sort of stuff up?!
The reality is that a few dozen deaths in a small backwater town of the Roman Empire might well have not made the news. We only have to look at our world today where children still perish in the Mediterranean Sea as their families desperately seek a better future. Children still die of preventable illnesses because of poverty and lack of access to healthcare. Children are still killed by gunshot wounds in the USA because of opposition to gun regulation. Children still work in sweatshops and rubbish dumps around the world to service our consumerist culture. These tragedies rarely make the news. Even the most kind-hearted person gets used to it in the end. It is just the way the world is…
Herod too, along with his servants and followers, were a pragmatic lot. True, Herod was quite a scary individual. He ordered the execution of his wife and at least two of his sons. He wasn’t the sort of person you wanted to upset or offend. But if you managed to stay on the right side of him, like many despots and dictators throughout history, he brought a degree of stability and prosperity. It wasn’t too bad, unless you – like those poor families in Bethlehem – were the ones paying the price.
And the reality is that Herod didn’t commit an atrocity in Bethlehem – he gave the orders and other hands did the deed. People like Herod don’t get very far without people willing to act for them, to defend them and to support them. Nowadays, we might include buy from them or vote for them! What today looks like a heinous crime, back then may have passed for statesmanship. Herod was just the one man, but he presided over a kingdom of people who bought into his view of the way the world needed to be. It was just the way the world was. And if the cost was a few peasant children, well…
Many of you will have seen the catchy phrase, Jesus is the reason for the season. But Herod is the reason for the season too. Because there is a bit of Herod in all of us. At a time of year when we celebrate the birth of that one tiny vulnerable scrap of human life, the child who was God, the hope of creation; we remember too that we live in a world where life – even children’s lives – can be held very cheap indeed. God came to a world that desperately needed him.
A few weeks ago, I was reading The Last Girl – a memoir by Nadia Murad. Nadia was a young Iraqi Yazidi woman whose village was invaded by ISIS. As Yazidi, according to the warped ISIS ideology, her family were “other”, infidels and almost subhuman. Her mother and six brothers were killed. She and her younger female relatives were taken and sold as slaves. They were driven through the city of Mosul in coaches to be sold at a slave market. As they drove past, she watched a city of ordinary Iraqi people getting on with their ordinary lives and simply couldn’t understand why they weren’t doing something to rescue her and her friends. When she did escape and was hidden by a brave local family, part of her still resented that even they hadn’t proactively helped her before. I was really challenged by this. How often do I say, “oh but there is nothing I can do about it,” when I am aware of injustice and suffering when maybe what is wanted is a bit of imagination or courage or resolution on my part?
All of us are a little bit like Herod. All of us sometimes live as citizens of his Kingdom of fear and self-preservation and despair. I am now concerned that I have achieved the near impossible and am preaching a sermon even more depressing than the original reading. But, of course, we don’t end here. American writer, Ann Lamott has a saying I love: “Grace bats last”. There is always hope because there is always grace to come.
However, truly appreciating the grace we are offered means being clearsighted about how much we need it. If, as a doctor, I offered you, as a perfectly healthy person, a major operation where they would slit open your stomach, attach another person’s kidney to your blood supply and sew you back up again, before spending a week in hospital recovering and taking medication for the rest of your life. Well, I doubt any of you would find that an attractive or generous prospect. However, if you knew your own kidneys were failing, and that you faced spending the rest of your, possibly shortened, life on dialysis – well, all of a sudden, what you were being offered would feel like the most incredible gift, and you would be grateful not just to the medical team caring for you, but even more so to the person who offered you the kidney.
When we recognise our own sinfulness – the times when we live as people of self-preservation and fear, the times when we live as citizens of Herod’s kingdom – then the grace of God is suddenly all the more precious. Because despite everything, despite our unworthiness and failures, God still came. God still came to live among us to share our struggles and forgive our sins. God decided to rescue us from ourselves. God still came.
What is more, God gave us a glimpse of another sort of Kingdom. A Kingdom where vulnerability is more powerful than might, where a tiny flicker of light will overcome all the darkness of the world, where the ordinary goodness of which humanity is capable will win through in the end.
And at their best our Christmas celebrations give us a glimpse of what that Kingdom might look like – strangers showing kindness, people helping those in need. At Christmas time, people donate to their local foodbank through a sincere desire that every neighbour should have enough to eat. They smile at the weary cashiers in Aldi, or leave out a card for the postie, or thank the bus driver on the number 10 because they see them afresh as fellow human beings, full of divine dignity, and want them to know their work is appreciated. They visit their lonely neighbours and encourage friends who are ill in hospital.
American essayist Hamilton Wright Mabie once wrote “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.” Meanwhile, the author who in some ways is Mr Christmas himself, Charles Dickens, wrote this in his novella, A Christmas Carol “But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time… as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” A conspiracy of love, a time when humankind open their hearts to one another. Christmas, in all its imperfections, gives us a glimpse of that other Kingdom – and we love it!
We love it, because we were not made to live as citizens of Herod’s kingdom. We were made to be children of God. And each Christmas is another invitation to refuse to believe the lie that this is the way the world is, to refuse to believe that a few less children here and there is just the price we have to pay, a few atrocities are just part of the deal. It is a chance to remind ourselves and others that love is worth working for, worth sacrificing for and that ordinary people – with God’s help – can do extraordinary things. This week, we begin a new year and a new decade, let us not leave Christmas behind as we pack away the tinsel and lights; let us not forget Christmas as we begin the January health kick and spring clean. Let us remember the home we find in the Christmas story, when God indeed made God’s home with us – this is our Kingdom, this is the King we serve. May we have the courage and imagination to live the conspiracy of love every season of the year. To the glory of God, Amen!