Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Christmas Eve Watchnight Service, 2012
Text: Matthew 2.1-23
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
There are people who think that Christmas is a time for children. After all, they say, there’s a baby at the centre of the story. But tonight, as we heard all of Matthew’s version of the story, did you notice how many grown-ups appear? A child might be at the centre of the story, but it’s a story mostly about the doings of grown-ups.
Our reading begins, ‘Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king’. And so the first grown-up we meet is Herod, a puppet king whose throne depended on the Romans, the superpower of the day. Into this unstable political situation walk some mysterious visitors from the East: ‘Soon afterward, some men who studied the stars came from the East to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him”‘.
We like to think that Christmas, and the birth of Jesus, is good news: but for Herod and the powerful in Jerusalem, it is quite the opposite: ‘When King Herod heard about this, he was very upset, and so was everyone else in Jerusalem’ ‘Everyone else in Jerusalem’ means the members of Herod’s court, his advisors, priests and experts. When you hear on the news about what people in ‘the City’ of London are thinking, they don’t mean the janitors and street sweepers and coffee shop workers; they mean the bond traders and the stockbrokers and bankers. It’s the powerful in Jerusalem which Matthew means here. The news of a new king in Judea is not good news for Herod and his cronies- they are ‘upset’ by the news.
As well they ought to be. When Mary, the mother of Jesus, heard that she was to have a baby, Luke’s Gospel tells us she sang a song, a song which richly resonates with the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. Mary praises God, who,
…has stretched out his mighty arm
and scattered the proud with all their plans.
He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away with empty hands. (Luke 2.-51-53)
If you are proud, or powerful, or rich, the coming of Christ is not good news. For the Gospel may well leave you ‘upset’. Throughout his life, Jesus would take the side of the ordinary people who are so often crushed by the powerful and the rich. For them, the Gospel is good news. But not for the powerful; not for Jerusalem’s clique.
Herod gets his advisors onto the case, and they discover that Bethlehem is to be the place where the child will be born. And then, with all the guile and persuasiveness of one born to be a politician, Herod calls in the wise men once, and tries to manipulate: ‘So Herod called the visitors from the East to a secret meeting and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions: “Go and make a careful search for the child; and when you find him, let me know, so that I too may go and worship him”‘. The wise men do not live up to their name at this point. They do as they are bid, and find the baby in Bethlehem. Guided by their star, they discover the child, and worship him. For they, too, are powerful men- experts in watching the stars, the intellectuals or scientists of their day. They may also have advised kings; they certainly lived among the intellectual elite of their own country. Yet when they find what they are looking for, they kneel down and worship. And they, warned in a dream to return by another road, the wise men now trick Herod in return.
For Herod, of course, has no intention of kneeling and worshipping in the stable. His power is under threat- that’s what he worries about. He’s furious when he realises that the wise men have tricked him. So what does he do? He decides that, in order for him to remain in power, the child has to be killed. And since he doesn’t know which one it is, he decides to kill all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old.
It is amazing just how far people will go to hold on to power. Even in recent years, across the Middle East, dictators have shot and bombed and killed their people in order to stay in power. Against that background, the terrible story of the killing of the innocents in Bethlehem does not seem so unrealistic. This is what men like Herod do. And they will justify it, to themselves and to others. I remember doing ethics in university, and reading one philosopher who said that no-one could justify killing innocent children. But they do. They kill the children, and find reasons for doing it.
It is incredible what human beings can justify when they put their minds to it. Stalin thought that he had to destroy the power of certain rich peasants, so he created a man-made famine which killed millions of people, including children. Hitler thought the Jews were subhuman, and sapping the strength of the German people, so he organised their destruction: six million men, women and children. Pol Pot thought that education made people unhappy. So he slaughtered a huge proportion of Cambodia’s population- including many children- because he thought that had to be done.
It’s very easy for us to look at other people, another culture, another time, and condemn them for whatever reason they may have to justify the killing of children. Now that the first shock of the latest mass killing of chidden in an American school is past, the political arguments have begun. When I spent the summer in America this year, I was struck by the fact that they have many of the same sorts of issues facing them as we have. But they have the arguments in different ways. We all have to think about how we organise health care, for example. But whilst I was in America, the Supreme Court had to decide whether President Obama’s reform of their health care system was constitutional or not. We have lots of arguments about our National Health Service, but we never pause to consider whether it is consitutional or not. Same issues, but different arguments.
But for an outsider, the whole argument about the role of guns in America is something which seems to take place on another planet. When we in this country think about rights, we’re thinking about the right to a fair trial, or freedom of worship… and all those things are included in the United States constitution. But we would never consider the ownership of firearms as something which we would put on a par with free speech or habeas corpus. But, by an accident of history, there it is. Recently the state of Michigan passed legislation banning the ownership of handguns. It became virtually impossible for a private individual to own a handgun in this country after the murders at Dunblane, which were perpetrated with a handgun smuggled into the school. But the US Supreme Court decided that the Michigan handgun ban had to be struck down, since it violated the Constitution.
For those of us who do not live in America, this seems plainly nuts. But for many Americans, it is not. Perhaps the right to bear arms might have made sense back in the eighteenth century if you thought your pioneer settlement might be attacked by the British or the Indians at any moment. But once you have street lighting and a decent police force, too many guns in a society does not make practical sense (and you just need to look at the crime statistics to see that widespread gun ownership makes America a much more dangerous country than most). Yet there are always the voices which will tell Americans that they must fight for their ‘right’ to own firearms, and who will cry that even sensible policies to restrict the most deadly weapons is an attack on Americans and their beloved liberty. One pro-gun advocate suggested that teachers should now have guns to protect their children. Behind such arguments there is the unspoken, unspeakable thought that the school killings- and all sorts of other killings- will just have to continue, for that is the price of liberty. Yet all such arguments are really justifications for the killing of children.
The philosophers who say that we can’t justify killing children are right- and wrong. They’re wrong, because people- who are not medically insane- do find ways of justifying killing children. And they’re right because we know that killing children is wrong. We do feel, instinctively, that Herod was a bad man. But he lived a long time ago, and it was a different culture, and so it’s easy for us to condemn him. And we can listen to the arguments of the gun lobby in America and say, that’s a different country, and obviously they are wrong, and it’s easy for us to condemn him. Harder, though, when it comes closer to home. What about the children of Iraq and Afghanistan, killed became the Western world found justifications for going to war? What about the children living in poverty in our own city? What about the asylum seeker children locked up by our own government?
We like the Christmas card pictures of the Wise Men kneeling by the manger. But their journey put the baby into danger when they stopped off in Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem. The Wise Men’s questions frightened Herod, and set off a chain of events which would lead to massacre in Bethlehem, and the baby Jesus and his family having to flee the country and seek asylum in a foreign land. The Christmas cards usually avoid all that. But the machinations of Herod, the tragedy of the massacre of the Bethlehem innocent, the holy family as refugees- all these things remind us of the sort of world Jesus came to. It was not a Christmas card world, but a world not unlike ours- a dangerous world for a child to be born into. And yet God in Christ has come into this world. That is what we celebrate at Christmas- that the love that created the world does not, has not, abandoned us to evil. Or, as Johns; Gospel puts it ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’ (John 1.5).
Glory to God in highest heaven,
and on earth peace to all in whom God delights! Amen.
Luke 2.14 (alt)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo