Anne Currie
30th December 2013
Giving Hope Even In The Darkest Of Times

If anything would bring us down to earth with a bang… after tinsel and carols, then it’s this reading.

Gone is the cosy stable bathed in soft candlelight within and star-shine without…

Shepherds bringing snow white lambs and wise men bringing fabulous gifts…

We are suddenly plunged into a world of violence and fear. A world that many people around the globe will still recognise… for they live there in it, 24 hours, 365 days of the year.

And the sound of Rachel weeping for her children is a reality too often heard in their land.

There’s a strange juxtaposition of the lectionary readings this week, so that the Holy Family have to up sticks and race away from Bethlehem, before the wise men have even reached them.

When I was teacher training we had a workshop on refugee children in schools. The very first exercise was this…
“The soldiers are less than a mile away from the village… you have to leave… you have 5 minutes at the most to gather what you will take with you… what will you take with you? For there will be nothing left to come back to, that is if you are able to return”

And I guess that some people in our own area have been faced with that decision this Christmas time… as they have retreated in the face of flooding.

What would you take? What is so precious to you that you couldn’t bear to leave it behind?

My training group came up with many answers… materials to help you live and cook food, photographs and mementos that could never be replaced… but mostly it was the children, making sure they were dressed and equipped to leave, a coat, shoes, some food, money if possible, and then out of the door. In reality only the things immediately to hand get taken into exile.

What would Mary and Joseph have to take with them? They’d travelled many miles already to reach Bethlehem from their home. All their things were still in Nazareth.

So they had only what they had travelled with, with the addition of a baby, and if we follow the narrative as Matthew sets it out… then they would have had had the gifts from the Wiseman also… gold frankincense and myrrh. All could be sold and used to fund a new life in Egypt.

And if this part of the story is bad enough… then the next is truly horrific! Herod’s orders that all children in and around Bethlehem under the age of two should be slaughtered.

For this is one part of Christ’s birth narrative that you will rarely find in a Christmas Nativity play. Not many carols refer to it either. But, you may have heard of the Coventry Carol… Lullay Lullay thou little tiny child… It’s from a 16th Century Coventry mystery play… where two Bethlehem mothers sing a lullaby to the doomed children.

Our Christmas texts are usually full of wonder, a holy mother, courageous father, humble animals and wise men. So what is the point of including this, on the face of it, very unpleasant occurrence… was it a twisting of the facts by Matthew so that Old Testament prophecies could be seen to be fulfilled? Some scholars claim that this is Matthew presenting Jesus as the new Moses, for Moses was also born into a time when male Jewish babies were being killed, by an Egyptian Pharaoh.

There is no firm historical proof of this particular massacre… but absence of evidence does not automatically mean evidence of absence… for by all accounts Herod was more than capable of carrying out this action.

He was a complex, brilliant and brutal man. Racially Arab, Religiously Jewish, culturally Greek and Politically Roman. Known for killing off anyone whom he thought might be a political rival…. this included a wife and a number of his sons. It’s not too great a step to believe that he would order such a massacre as we see in Matthew’s account, in order to wipe out a potential (in his eyes) claimant or rival.

And how much has changed today? Have we learnt the lessons that Jesus came to teach us? Have we taken on board the teachings of love, equality, listening to each other’s point of view?

The Holy Land is divided by a wall, which splits families, land and resources. Rival factions argue and bicker, and in the worst cases use violence.

And then Syria… What started as a movement for freedom and democracy now seem as far away from that ideal as you could possibly get… both sides have committed many human rights atrocities. Countless adults and at least 11,000 children have died in just under 3 years, and that’s just the ones who were named and registered as being dead.

Many have been killed in bombings or caught by crossfire. But more shockingly nearly 800 of those children were executed. What possible reason could there be for executing a child? Other than to subdue parents and other adults, or to prevent a culture from flourishing… a reminder indeed of the actions of Pharaoh and Herod.

Matthew lets us know in no uncertain terms that Jesus was born into a time of unease and violence, and out of it also came his death by crucifixion on a cross. Jesus spent his whole ministry within that world.

We do sometimes I think, in Britain anyway, picture Jesus in some wonderful pastoral situation… bright sunshine and walking through green fields and by still waters, dispensing teaching and healing as he went. And that’s probably due to the fact that if you were born in this country and have always lived here, then you’re unlikely to have ever experienced a true time of danger and fear. But I’m sure there are some people here in our congregation who have firsthand knowledge of being refugees, of fleeing for their lives, or if not themselves, then their parents may know.

For many people… that very knowledge that Jesus knew and understood about living in a climate of fear and violence, and still went about his ministry of peace, and healing, and listening, and giving hope even in the darkest of times – is something that keeps them going and gives them heart. For if the gospel can flourish in a world that includes the slaughter of the innocents and the cross, then it can flourish anywhere.

And to do that there is the need for love and mercy to survive and flourish, which it does in strange and unexpected places…Think about Aid workers and doctors who continue to give their all amongst the shelling and the gunfire, knowing that they may lose their lives any moment. That they may also be imprisoned for doing the very work they were trained for…

And in spite of all that is evil in this world… Everywhere there are those small flashes of love and the working out of the Holy Spirit, just enough to keep hope alive. God’s presence is there, even amongst the guns, the wrecked buildings, the smoke and the dust.

And speaking of love and hope… I don’t want you to leave here this morning with your heads hung low and depressed about the state of the world… thinking that there is nothing you can do, for what difference can one person make?

For we are all members of the community of Christ Jesus… the things we can do individually and collectively can make a difference.

It’s the donation you made to Christian Aid this year
It’s the tin of beans or packet of Pasta you pop into the Foodbank bins each week.
It’s your signature on one of the letters that go out for Amnesty International every month or so.
Peaceful activism… what we do individually all adds up to something bigger. Where will you dare to hope to make a difference in 2014?

Our Christmas day reading was from the beginning of the Gospel of St. John. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. If we continue to believe in that, if we continue to light our small flames in the darkness, then the darkness will not have overcome us completely, and there will still be hope in the world.

Isaiah 63.7-9
Matthew 2.13-end