1st Sunday of Christmas
St Barbara’s; 26.12.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
One of the many inspiring and special aspects of the Christmas story is that we get to hear two names for God’s Son: Emmanuel (meaning “God with us”) and Jesus (meaning “saviour/ rescuer”).
After the wonder of the gospel readings about Jesus’ birth heralded by angels, shepherds and wise men, our gospel reading brings us down to earth with a bit of a bump. As the tinsel is stripped away, we are confronted with the reality of what those names for God’s Son mean in the roughness and challenges of our world.
A quick review of the life of Herod the Great soon reminds us of the realities of the world we live in. Herod was famed abroad for his great building projects and the longevity of his reign, but within his own kingdom he was feared and hated. Herod had little claim to be king. He was not descended from any of the royal lineages that could trace their line back to King David or even to the Maccabees royal line of a century earlier. Instead, he was king purely because the Romans said so, his father having been one of the few Jews to welcome Pompey and his marauding Roman army into Israel fifty years earlier. He was a puppet ruler, propped up by an occupying foreign force.
And that lack of legitimacy created huge insecurity for him. Everyone seemed to present a threat to his hold on power. He ended up killing his wife, who he was said to have greatly loved, her two step sons, her brother, her grandfather and her mother, as well as his own firstborn son, all because he feared them as threats to his throne. He carried out countless atrocities on his people, ruthlessly crushing any dissent or opposition. His story is not dissimilar from many dictators and oppressive rulers in our world today.
So when Joseph receives God’s warning in a dream, he knows that this is not some idle threat. Like Jews in Nazi Germany fearing the hammering on their doors by the Gestapo, Joseph knows that he has to escape with his family, and escape fast. They leave immediately, in the middle of the night, such is their fear. Like Syrian refugees, fleeing the arrival of Isis, they undertake a desperate journey through largely barren desert, heading for the safety of Egypt 260 miles away. Like the refugees of Ethiopia and Eritrea, they flee with only the belongings they can carry, and a small baby carried in their arms.
Here is Emmanuel, God with us. For God to be Emmanuel, he must be with us where there is pain and dislocation, where there is fear and oppression. There is no point arriving into the world in comfort and luxury, when so much of the world is in misery. There is no point having an easy life, when the world suffers injustice and violence.
I spoke last week about my time in Soweto. One of the things I learnt about my time there was that to understand, to fully connect with people, meant to share their lives. For me, that meant living in a garage with a roll-up door and an outside tap and toilet, and it meant learning to live with the sounds of gunfire and the fear of police unhappy to find a white man friends with the black community. But there were always limits to that connection. I had an air ticket that would fly me home. I had an education denied to many.
When Jesus came and lived among us, he had none of those privileges. He was born as a weak and defenceless baby, totally dependent on those who were themselves vulnerable and oppressed. Before he could even walk or talk, he was a refugee, his survival hanging by a thread.
The Christmas story speaks of a God who knows, who understands, who comes alongside us in our suffering and pain, and who comes alongside the millions in our world, who experience the daily realities of living life under modern-day Herods, and living as modern-day refugees. He is named Emmanuel.
And he is named Jesus, rescuer, saviour. Even in these early days of Jesus’ life we see the contrast between him and Herod in their attitudes to power. Herod is desperate to cling to power at any cost. Not just content with the murder of family members and political dissidents, he is willing to order the murder of babes in arms to stamp out any possibilities of pretenders to his throne. It is estimated that in a village the size of first century Bethlehem, that would have meant the death of at least 20 male children. But as we have seen so many times throughout history such acts are horrifically commonplace. Just a few decades earlier in the same part of the mediterranean world, a ruler of Pontus and Bithynia by the name of Mithridates, ordered the killing of 80,000 Roman citizens in just one night. Fast forward to our own times and genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Myanmar continue that litany of grief. The desire for power, for control, causes immense suffering.
Contrast that with Jesus, who does not seek to cling on to power but to give it away. In the words of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he did not regard equality with God something to be exploited, to be used and abused, but instead emptied himself, became a slave, without power, without rights, taking the form of a vulnerable human being, and a baby at that. The shadow of the cross falls heavily, even at this early point in his life.
But by rejecting the love of power, by rejecting the need to cling on to power and control, Jesus shows us the power of love. He makes salvation possible. For it is the way of the cross, foreshadowed throughout these episodes with Herod, that leads to the overcoming of evil and death. True salvation comes through the way of the cross.
The story of Herod’s murderous actions and Jesus’ flight into exile bring us up with a jolt after the joy of Christmas morn, but they also root us in the profundity of the story we celebrate. For Christmas is not a feel-good tale, created by a Hollywood screen-writer or a schmaltzy John Lewis TV commercial, but is about the good news that in the reality of the chaos and suffering of our world we serve a God who is both Emmanuel – God with us – and Jesus – rescuer and saviour. Let us worship Christ, our new-born king.