David Walker Sermon - Holy Innocents, 2014
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
So here it is Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun, look to the future now, it's only just begun.
The fourth day of Christmas, still close enough to feel the warmth and joy of Christmas Day. But today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and the word of the day is now infanticide, a word designed to cure any hangover and confront us with the reality of the mounds of uneaten turkey and festering sprouts still cluttering the fridge.
The alternative reading for today, from Luke, would place us back in the Christmas we know and understand, where shepherds and angels are paying homage to the Christ-child and where the wise men are preparing to deposit their treasures before this new king.
If we just stop there we have the happy ending that we all would crave, all goodness, peacefulness and light - the deprivations of the unexpected pregnancy, the long journey to Bethlehem and the discomfort of the stable all overcome.
But then this. Why?
To remind us of the reality of the world we live in, the world that God created for us, a world of both good and evil and lots of shades in between, and a world of untidy messiness where things go wrong as we battle against its sheer physicality and seeming randomness.
Matthew tells us of this flight to Egypt, this further obedience on the part of Joseph who has been loyal to God at every turn. Now he must take his newly formed family, by night, into a foreign and hostile land. More deprivation, but this time to avoid the psychotic depravation of Herod.
And Herod was truly depraved. He was a man who committed atrocities through his life, becoming increasingly more deranged as he got older. This is a matter of historical record. Josephus, writing shortly after Herod’s death confirms this and records some of the murders and tortures that were carried out in Herod’s name, although not this particular event. This killing of twenty or thirty infants in and around Bethlehem was probably an almost routine event for the monster Herod.
As it is almost routine in our world now. We know of recent happenings in Peshawar and Sydney but less well recorded are similar happenings in Iraq and Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria and other places we could name if we gave ourselves a minute or two to think about them. And we also know of events such as the Glasgow accident, which are equally difficult to comprehend.
Then, as now. Violence and hatred did not stop when God came down to us at Christmas. Tragic events did not stop.
But God had to send his Son to us in the world as it was (and still is). To do otherwise would have rendered his action meaningless and changed the whole economy of creation and salvation.
He had to hold up a mirror to the world, and in the story of the Holy Innocents we see the dark side of the world being reflected back at us.
Matthew deliberately takes us out of the magical unreality of the Christmas story and places us firmly back in the reality that Jesus had to come to, had to live in, because God needed to be with us to show us how to live - he needed to both live and die with us, and share our sorrows and our pains with us.
But we’re not abandoned to wallow in our hopelessness. The story doesn’t end there. Jesus is saved to live again. More than that he is saved to come back from Egypt to found a new community of the people of God. He is the new Moses, the new Israel, the Messiah, coming into the Promised Land - a land of promise and hope. This is the message that emerges even from the extremity of the world’s depravity and mess. He returns. And, of course, he is with us always.
What is our view of Christmas? Do we see the stable, the warm glow of candles surrounding the assembled throng of shepherds, wise men and angels? Is it all the innocent scene of childhood? Or do we see the blood and broken bodies of battered children? The shattered innocence and jaded world-weariness of adulthood?
We should see both, that is the assured and mature view that God wants us to take so that we understand the world and we begin to understand how he works and loves us. He wants us to know that the world is not easy and neat and tidy, but that whatever happens he will be with us.
Unless we understand the reality of the bad we cannot fully understand the reality of the good.
There is a danger that we always return to Christmas as children. Christmas is for children, isn’t it? Well, yes, it is, but only when you’re child. We can’t fix ourselves in an infantilised world of elves and fairies all of our lives. Christmas is a time for stories but the best Christmas stories always have a measure of darkness to temper the light. Pantomimes have their villains. For every Chuckle Brother there is a wicked Abanazar waiting to pounce. (Strictly speaking there are two Chuckle Brothers for every Abanazar!) And understanding that is sign of growing up. As we get older we should begin to more fully appreciate Christmas as adults, maturing into a fuller understanding of what God has done for us and of the world that we are living in.
That’s the grown up, thing to do. Matthew is pointing us forward to the pain and suffering to come and telling us that God is with us all of the way, ready to share it with us.
Does it matter how it begins? What’s more important is how it ends. It doesn’t end here. Joseph and his family survive. They live to fight again, for Jesus to grow in wisdom and spirit.
Seeing the video footage of the Glasgow accident on the news what struck me was how many people, when they heard the crash, turned and instinctively ran towards it. And in Sydney when there was the inevitable social media backlash against Muslims how many people rallied to support their fellow citizens - beginning with the aptly named Rachael Jacobs who saw a Muslim woman removing her hijab on a train and told her “put it back on – I’ll support you”. Thousands have since joined in the “Ride with me” campaign on Twitter and Face book to offer their love and compassion.
That’s the positive message from this “feast” of the Holy Innocents. That despite the bad things that happen in the world we can still live with integrity and concern and share God’s love with each other. Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine - but love is not just for Christmas it’s for life.
So, once again, Merry Christmas, there’s still nine days left. Enjoy God’s love given freely for us all to share together in this difficult but wonderful world in which we live.