Sunday 29 December 2019

Saving a broken world

Address given on Sunday 29th December 2019 at St Mary's Nenagh, the 1st Sunday of Christmas.

What a horrid story St Matthew tells us in the Gospel reading set for today (Matthew 2:13-23)!
The reading is out of order. It comes after the wise men from the East, the Magi, have departed – they are getting closer, but they will not arrive until Epiphany on January 6th.

The background to the reading is this. The wise men, as we all know, had been following a star to pay homage to a child, born to be king of the Jews. When they reached Jerusalem, King Herod directed them to search for the child in Bethlehem, where the chief priests said the Messiah would be born. Herod slyly asked them to bring word back to him, so that he too could pay homage - but Herod was afraid of a rival king to his dynasty and he had other, murderous ideas. The wise men went on to Bethlehem, where they were overwhelmed by joy to find Jesus with Mary his mother and Joseph. They knelt down, paid homage and presented their gifts. But they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod.

Joseph too is a dreamer, and also a man of action, determined to protect his family. After the wise men leave, Joseph dreams that King Herod will seek to kill the newborn Jesus, so he takes Mary and Jesus and they flee to Egypt as refugees. He is right to be afraid. Herod is infuriated that the wise men had tricked him by not returning - he doesn’t know which child the wise men came to worship, which child to murder. So he orders the massacre of every child two years old and under in and around Bethlehem – every one. Safe in Egypt when Herod dies, Joseph dreams again that it is safe to return, and he does so with Mary and Jesus. But in yet another dream he realises that Herod’s son Archelaus, who is now king of Judea, may harm them, so he settles the family at Nazareth in Galilee.

It is a nasty tale of brutal force and the massacre of innocent children. Why should we be asked to think about it amidst the joy of Christmas? Where is God in this?

The answer is that Christmas is not just about the joyful birth of a child, however special.
There is more to Christmas than the baby Jesus, with his soft skin smelling of milk, nursed by his young mother Mary, with Joseph close at hand. More than the choirs of angels prompting rough shepherds to come to the crib where Jesus lay and to glorify God. More than the Magi, the wise men from the East, led by a star to give homage to Jesus and present symbolic presents.

Christmas is about God incarnate - God made flesh in human form as Jesus Christ, the Son of God. St John calls him the true light, the ‘Word’: ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’. But he is born of Mary into a world in which great beauty is mixed with hideous ugliness. God’s purpose in the incarnation is to save this world, and us with it.

The massacre of the innocents reminds us that Jesus Christ was born into our world, a world that is horribly broken. A world where deadly force is used to kill the innocent. A world where families are forced to flee as refugees, where they must rely on the kindness of strangers. A world where the greed of the rich and powerful impoverishes the poor and ravishes creation. A world in which Christ is crucified.

Jesus Christ comes into this broken world to save it and us. By his life and ministry, death and resurrection, he shows us how to confront and overcome evil. He teaches us to listen to his good news. He assures us that if we repent, if we change our bad behaviour, God will forgive us. He shows us signs that the kingdom of God has come near. 

In the kingdom of God the broken world will be put back together to reflect the glory of the love of God. It is not fully with us yet, but it is near - we can see signs of it if we look with the eyes of faith, just as the shepherds and the wise men did.

Our task as Christians is to follow Jesus and work to make God’s kingdom, Jesus’s kingdom, a reality. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will be with us to help us and guide us. Like Joseph we must dream dreams to understand what must be done. And like Joseph we must act on those dreams.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Almighty God,
you have shed upon us the light of your incarnate Word:
may this light, kindled in our hearts, shine forth in our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen