Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23
1st Sun of Christmas
St Barbara’s 29.12.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
After the joy and delight of the Christmas story, today’s Gospel’s reading brings us down to earth with a hard bump. It confronts us with some issues and truths we would rather avoid, particularly during this holiday period. We are confronted with murder, infanticide, paranoia, fear. And yet this too is part of the Christmas story. Without it, it would be tempting to forget why Jesus came and was born among us at all.
A couple of weeks ago in the Hague, the country of Myanmar was put on trial for genocide. The indictment list brought against the military and its government was truly shocking. Reports of cruelty were given that seem barely conceivable. Whether this gets labelled as genocide or not, the acts of violence are so inhumane as to leave us speechless.
The human capacity for evil often does leave us speechless. Whether it is the acts of terrorists whose aim is to cause as much death and suffering to as many innocent people as possible; or the acts of serial rapists and murderers who remain unrepentant for their acts; or the acts of those who will happily demean and insult people different from themselves; the human capacity to plumb the depths of moral darkness is too frequently played out in the daily news.
So perhaps we should not be surprised that following the most remarkable announcement of joy of the birth of God’s Son, by tens of thousands of angels no less, on its heels should come another story, no less shocking for all its familiarity. Herod orders the killing of every baby boy in Bethlehem under the age of two.
Herod had form for this kind of action. He was known to be paranoid. His claim to the throne of Israel was so tenuous – he had no hereditary connection to the throne at all, only there because the Romans had put him there – that anyone who even remotely seemed to have a better claim was treated as a mortal enemy. The result was that during his reign he murdered his wife (who apparently he loved), her two sons, her brother, her grandfather and her mother, and went on to kill his own firstborn son, too. Anyone who had the slenderest of claims to his throne was disposed of. Even when he was dying, he did not recant of his violent ways, instead ordering that all the leading citizens of the city of Jericho should be slaughtered so that people would be weeping when he died. It is sadly in keeping with his character that he should order the killing of some dozens of infants in case one of them should emerge to be a royal pretender.
His son Archelaus, who succeeded him in Jerusalem, was not much better. Indeed he was so bad that his subjects pleaded with the Romans to remove him and impose direct Roman rule. You know things are bad when a people appeal to their oppressors to free them from the tyranny of their own leaders.
The hard reality is that we live in a world where people are capable of doing inhumane acts to one another.
Such a reality can lead to a couple of hard questions being asked of God. Does he care? Does he care that these children were murdered in Bethlehem, or that the Rohinyga people have suffered atrocity after atrocity? Does he care about the woman who has suffered years of domestic violence behind closed doors? Does he care?
The answer is found in Jesus. For God does not have his Son born into a pristine, painless world, full of comfort and luxury, cut off from the agony of the world. Instead, he is born as a homeless refugee, vulnerable, helpless, having to flee for his life in the arms of his petrified parents. An uncaring God would wrap his own Son up in cotton wool, put a protective force-field around him, or place an army of angels on guard, so that he couldn’t possibly be put at risk from the dangers of the world.
But that is not the way of this incarnation, that is not the nature of the birth we celebrate at Christmas. God, in Jesus, takes the most ridiculous risk. He puts everything on the line. What if Joseph had ignored the warnings in his dream? What if the soldiers had come just a few days sooner? What if the donkey on which they fled had gone lame? Not only does God care, he understands the challenge of our lives.
The second hard question then is if God does care, if he does understand, why doesn’t he do something about it, why doesn’t he intervene to stop the horrific suffering around the world?
The Christmas story again gives us an answer, even if it is one that we would rather not hear. For the birth of Christ is the story that God does intervene in our world. But whereas we want God to come down and sort out every problem now, to use his power to impose his will, to bring to book all those who abuse and exploit their power, God in Christ chooses a different way.
For our approach to power is a large part of the problem. I would be very surprised if when Aung San Suu Kyi was holed up under house arrest for decades in Burma she dreamt that she would use her power to devastate lives and destroy communities. And yet, within just a few years of her release, she is now using the power she has acquired to defend the indefensible. It is a tragedy that reveals the insidious nature of power. For power is a slippery, destructive force. It seduces us into thinking we need to grasp at it and having grasped at it to hold it as tight as we can, lest anyone else wrest it from our grasp. The more we care about power, the tighter we hold on to it, the harder we will fight anyone else who appears to challenge us.
The way of Christ demands that we let go of power, completely, utterly and with grace. As Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!”
For ultimately, the problem of evil human acts cannot be solved by stopping a few individuals. The roots of the problem go much deeper. It is by transforming the heart of each one of us that transformation will come. By us learning to choose the way of humility, of love, of compassion, that Christ alone makes possible. God does intervene, but he intervenes by sending his Son into the world in such a way that there cannot be the slightest danger of people being forced or manipulated into false change. In Christ, God finds a way for the power of love, not the love of power, to ultimately triumph.
Which leads us to ask a question of ourselves. God may care, God may intervene, through Christ, but are we ready to live differently, to put aside personal ambition, or desires for power, comfort or prestige, and follow instead the way of Christ, of humility, grace and above all, of love?
The murder of the innocents asks hard questions of God. But it also asks hard questions of us. Are we ready to answer them?