New year, new story?
Sermon for Second Sunday of Christmas (Matthew 2.13-end)
Preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, St Andrews
1 January 2017
In Scotland, Hogmanay has traditionally been the bigger of the two December celebrations. No doubt some of us can remember the time when Christmas wasn’t even a public holiday this side of the border.
Well when I was wee, our house operated a mixed economy: my parents were English and so they’d grown up with Christmas as the main event; but we were in Scotland, where Hogmanay was a big deal, so we had major celebrations for both. Hogmanay meant a late night in someone’s house, lots of party food (vol-au-vents, sausages on sticks!) and free-flowing single malt. Then a long lie the next day, and the wait for someone to First Foot us with a lump of coal wrapped in newspaper.
Nowadays I prefer Christmas. The story of the nativity gets me every time, and I don’t need a second party night in one week any more. But even for those of us who aren’t big into New Year, it does tend to be a time when we review the past – giving thanks for what’s been good and kissing goodbye with relief to what’s been rotten as we prepare to embrace the future.
Yet our common life in 2016 – in the UK, Europe and beyond, was so challenging in so many significant ways that we can’t simply close the door and pretend that what’s done is done and has no repercussions.
The image that sticks in my head from Advent 2016 is from the week following the attack on the Christmas Market in Berlin. It’s a media image of UK police officers standing in front of a life-sized nativity scene. And they have machine guns slung across their chests. Their backs to the Holy Family, they stand looking into the crowd, watching for threats. Something about the picture spoke deeply me to me about the tensions we live in.
Just this morning, we awoke to news of another killing spree – this time in Istanbul. And so, as a community and a society as we begin 2017 carrying our challenges with us. The challenge of how to live peacefully with those who are different to us; the challenge of how to be people of compassion and justice in a pluralist society; and the challenge of how best to respond to the threat of hatred and violence.
At Christmas we tend to put our challenges out of our minds for a few days. In the Gospel, the birth of Christ comes quietly and unexpectedly, and we allow ourselves to be enfolded in the deep peace we find in the face of the sleeping Christ child… but in the Gospel it doesn’t stay that way for long. The challenges of their context soon pressed in on Jesus’ family, just as they press in on us.
We, like them, live in the “now” of the promise of Jesus, but also in the “not yet” of a world where God’s purposes have not yet been brought to completion.
This morning’s Gospel passage contrasts the forces of good and evil. The Christmas story quickly moves away from the crib-side. Mary, Joseph and their newborn child live in dark days, caught between promises and their fulfilment. No sooner is he born than the Christ child is in danger.
This is a passage that tells two different stories. Their protagonists are Joseph and Herod. Two very different people, in whose hands Jesus’ life might take very different courses.
Herod is King… he stands for worldly powers. He no sooner hears of Jesus than he revolts against him. His reaction sets a pattern for the rejection of God. Herod knows that Jesus is not just any other child, and he perceives him as a threat. His goal is power for himself, glory for himself, continued security – for himself. In him, if we are honest, perhaps we also see something of ourselves, and our own fallen human tendencies.
Faced with the Christ child and the choice between adoration and rejection, Herod seeks Jesus’ destruction. We don’t know how his desires became so unstoppable, but they end in unspeakable evil – the slaughter of innocent children.
The slaughter of the innocents appears only in Matthew’s Gospel. Through time it’s been thought about and interpreted in different ways – there’s a really good Radio 4 programme about it available on iPlayer at the moment that’s worth a listen. What’s clear, one way or another, is that the Church has often failed to face up to difficult scenes like this. We don’t want to talk about it. No-one wants to discuss the death of innocent children, and no-one wants to have to think about why bad things might happen to good people. Too often the church tries to bury hard questions rather than face them head on. The problem with the story of the slaughter of the innocents is that it’s believable – maybe too believable. Because we see too many pictures of slaughtered children. 2000 odd years after Jesus’ earthly life, it still happens. And it isn’t good enough, simply to turn away.
Perhaps the problem with facing such difficult realities isn’t that we have a God who turns his face away from tragedy, but that when we humans turn away from God, we are capable of terrible things. Not everything that we search for is good; not everything we seek after takes us towards the light. The horror of Herod’s actions is a stark outworking of the fact that wages of sin is death. Herod’s story is the story of human brokenness and its consequences.
Yet just as we see how Herod turns away from God, and the consequences of his actions, his is not the only story. In Joseph we see an alternative set of choices and their outcomes, and through Joseph we see how God relies on human beings to bring about his purposes. To explain…
Joseph’s depiction in the Gospels is quite distinctive. He doesn’t speak a single word in the Biblical text. Yet there is no doubt God speaks to him, and that he responds – however hard it may have been – in quiet obedience. No less than 3 times, the Lord sends messengers to Joseph to tell him what to do, and Joseph obeys.
It can’t have been easy being Joseph. In Eastern Orthodox nativity scenes he’s often depicted far from the manger, a troubled man. Yet before Jesus’ birth, when an angel appeared to him in a dream saying that Mary’s child was “from the Holy Spirit”, he was asked – and chose – to believe something extraordinary. He obeyed, whatever his misgivings. And now with the baby safely delivered, God speaks to him again – twice – through angels, in dreams, no less. “Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.”; and then “Go to Israel; those who were seeking the child’s life are dead”.
Joseph obeyed. He did it, simple as that. His were human choices. And in them we see a counterpoint to Herod, and a counterpoint to the notion that God turns his face away from humanity. In Joseph, God’s goodness and his plan for salvation to come through his Son is worked out through a human being.
To do as Joseph did required courage. It required sacrifice too: putting others before himself. He made himself and his family into refugees. It was hard. And this story too is hard for us too, because it’s also all too believable– we’ve all heard enough tales of refugees fleeing danger this year to feel the relevance for our times.
But something distinguishes Joseph’s story from Herod’s. It’s believable for different reasons. You see, in the end this is a story whose purpose, whose goal, is good. It speaks to our capacity for self-giving. Joseph’s opening of himself to seek the good of others; the opening of himself to follow the One who promises life… these are what the God of love enables in us. In its simplest sense, Joseph’s is a love story.
As we begin 2017, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that a New Year will mean everything is magically better. Instead, perhaps it’s a good time for us to think about what sort of story we are seeking to tell and to be part of, with our own lives and in our community. God has poured his love and mercy into human vessels, and relies on human beings to work out his purposes. My prayer for us is that we choose to live into the great story of love.
Image credit: Daily Mail Online