Saturday, 29 December 2007

First Sunday after Christmas - Herod takes the stage

MATTHEW 2: 13-23 GALATIANS 4: 23-29

And so after six days of celebrating the birth of Jesus, we land today with an almighty bump. Our lectionary writers have clearly decided that by now we have had all the nice thoughts that we can take and so they provide is with Matthew’s snuff movie. Cynics might even scoff and say that it is time we got back to the real world.

For now, it is not angels, shepherds or even mysterious magi who take centre stage but it is King Herod the Great who arrives to take to the stage as the villain of villains. One can but imagine the hisses that Matthew’s early readers would hold for this megalomaniac.

But first of all let’s set our reading against Matthew’s background. There can be little doubt that Matthew is telling the story of the coming of Jesus in a way that will link it with Israel’s tradition as well as surpassing that tradition. His account is full of illusions to ancient stories such as that of the Exodus. Indeed his story of the magi is intended to fit in with the prophetic traditions of ancient Israel. And for this reason, there is a regular debate as to what belongs to history and what belongs to proclaiming the significance of the Christ child. This morning whilst accepting Keener’s conclusion in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel that;

“The event is thus neither historically documented nor historically implausible”

I shall approach the story assuming historic truth although such an assumption quite frankly makes little difference to this particular homily.

Now, Matthew’s background is the journey of the magi from a place to the east of the Roman Empire on a quest for a “King of the Jews.” Foolishly, they have allowed their quest to come to the attention of the hierarchy in Jerusalem including King Herod. Indeed they have even met with Herod promising to return to him after finding the infant King. Matthew tells us that they have not returned as a result of a dream and now in yet another twist Joseph in a dream has been warned of the King’s malevolent intentions and been advised to take the child to the relative safety of Egypt.

Don’t you just love it? After a year in which the newspapers who have recently been writing of a war on Christmas have continually bashed asylum seekers, we find the ultimate irony. Jesus himself along with his family begins his life as a refugee in need of asylum. Oh, here we see revealed something of the challenge that Christmas presents. For Jesus is as one of those who has most need of voices to speak for him whilst such voices are all too often inconspicuously silent. During my training, I spent time at an asylum reception centre and found myself less that proud to be British.

And if it seems irrelevant let me take you for a moment to Uzbekistan where according to a report last month by the American human rights organisation Human Rights Watch, prisoners are routinely beaten and subject to electric shock, asphyxiation and sexual humiliation to extract confessions, a conclusion backed about the same time by the UN Committee against Torture and indeed in 2002 by our British embassy in Uzbekistan which provided evidence that two prisoners had been boiled to death. And then consider that following an attempt to send a dissident back to those same tyrants four weeks ago, an MP who raised the matter was informed in writing by the Home Office;

“I confirm that it is Home Office policy to remove political dissidents to Uzbekistan, if the independent judiciary has deemed an asylum claim to have no basis.”

And whilst there is regularly a babble of noise against asylum seekers, this was greeted with silence. Am I being political? Of course but so is this story!

Anyhow back to Matthew’s story, we find that Herod’s response to the failure of the magi to return to him is to give the draconian order that all boys in the Bethlehem area aged two years or under should be killed. There is paranoia about such an order. And yet alarmingly it is by no means inconsistent with what we know of Herod. He was, after all, a King who ordered the execution of three of his own sons and one of his wives. He was after all the King who left instructions for one member of every family to be killed so that at the time of his burial a nation that had never taken this man who coming from an Idumaean background was suspect in his claims to be Jewish in the opinion of many observant Jews, to its hearts, might mourn.

And so we have that devastating story of what has become known as the “massacre of the innocents.” It is a painful echo of an ancient Pharaoh who had ordered the drowning of the Hebrew boys. And whilst the number killed is generally thought unlikely to have exceeded 20 given that Bethlehem probably had a population of about 1,000 ( the probable reason for no historical records existing), the power of stories such as this is that nothing appals the sensitive more than the indiscriminate slaughter of children. We feel that particularly in regards to the three Holocausts of the 20th century in Armenia, Nazi Germany and Rwanda where prejudice, paranoia and hatred were so strong that children were subjected to wholesale slaughter simply for being. And the horror of this story surely speaks against sanitised language that dares to see children as the legitimate collateral damage of conflict. Indeed Matthew brings home the perversity of Herod’s deeds and their consequences by recalling Jeremiah’s account of the mourning of Ramah, a town 10 miles north of Jerusalem where over 500 years previously in a national and for many a personal calamity, captives from Jerusalem passed on the way to exile in Babylon. And the awfulness of the situation is intensified by reference to Rachel who had died in childbirth and who is seen by Jeremiah as a mother of all, refusing to be comforted. A heart breaking picture indeed! A picture of now as well as then!

Still for the Holy Family the time of exile comes to an end. Joseph has another dream in which he learns that Herod has died and the time has come for him to return. But there is still a problem. The division of Herod’s kingdom was such that his son Archelaus ruled in Judea. This man turned out to be almost as cruel as his father. Within 10 years he managed the near impossible in uniting those ancient enemies, Jews and Samaritans, in successfully appealing to Rome to depose him. So dodging oppression as is the want of refugees, the Holy family move north to the obscure small town of Nazareth where an exiled clan originating from Judah had returned form Babylon at about 100BC, a place where the Holy family could live under the relatively benign rule of another of Herod’s sons, Herod Antipas who will appear in the story of Christ’s Passion.

For Matthew, Jesus living in Nazareth was the fulfilment of a prophecy stating;

“He will be called a Nazorean.”

Now such a prophecy is not to be found in our Old Testament and we cannot know where Matthew got it from. And yet these words are not without significance. Of course they can as Matthew surely intended point to the town of Nazareth, a town so insignificant as to be unmentioned in the Old Testament, a town believed by archaeologists to have been unpopulated from the upheavals caused by the Assyrian army in the eight century BC until the second century BC and at the time of Jesus being the home to no more than about 150 people. And yet there may be more than this that is conveyed. For we may have a play on the term Nazirite, one who is one wholly dedicated to God like Samuel and Samson who were both consecrated by vows made whilst they were in their mother’s wombs - even if Jesus did not follow their example as for example in their drinking no wine. But perhaps, the important message is that the Holy family are now returning to the toils of normal life. Away from angels, Joseph has to make a living. And about this time, there were opportunities for a builder such as Joseph in nearby Sepphoris destroyed as a result of civil war during the reign of Herod the Great and ultimately from the suppression of riots upon his death. Now under Herod Antipas it was to be rebuilt as his showcase that it might become the “ornament of all Galilee.”

So today, our Gospel reading has pulled us up with a jolt. The angels have gone and Jesus is now far from a Christmas card situation. Now he is a vulnerable child in a world where there is much cruelty. Whilst the powerful plot now against him and will do so as his story unfolds, the lowly, the outsiders and those who like the magi who are mobile come and will as his story unfolds come to follow him. For they are the ones who have not invested all in the world as it is but they are those who can share in the dream of a new world as is embodied in Jesus. As his mother has cried out in Magnificat, the babe of Bethlehem will turn the world upside down, bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly. For gentiles, slaves and women will have equal value to Jew, Greek, free person and men. For Christ has come for all that all might know the love of God and find dignity.

John’s prologue has spoken of light shining in the darkness. This morning we have been reminded of darkness in the person of Herod. And rightly so! For we dare not let our Christmas get stuck in sentimentality. We need to be real and to see in Christmas the source of hope for both daily living and the times when the storm clouds envelope us. We need to see the call to identify with Christ in confronting all that oppresses and destroys.

So be gone cheap sentimental Christmas that never gets beyond jollities and warm thoughts! Welcome Christmas that brings challenge and change, that dares to see God at work in the hum drum and the darkness of this world! Be gone Christmas that accepts as inevitable the injustices of this world! Welcome Christmas that dares to look to a future when Jesus will destroy the powers of evil and reign in peace and love!

So let Herod take the stage that we might see the greater power of love and mercy that is embodied in Jesus Christ!

Torrington Methodist Church Sunday December 30th 2007

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