Sermon - Sunday, 6 January 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 6 January 2019.

Scripture: Isaiah 60: 1-6 / Matthew 2: 1-18

Text: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’                       (Matthew 2: 1)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY
SPIRIT, AMEN

In sharp contrast to the bright and cheerful season to be jolly with its images of a chubby Santa Claus, sleigh bells ringing as he delivers presents to the world’s children, Matthew’s nativity gospel comes as quite a shock.

Whereas Luke tells us about shepherds abiding in the fields and watching over their flocks by night, choirs of angels and a new born child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, there is nothing sweet nor sentimental about Matthew’s dark and foreboding story of political intrigue and murderous rage.

Yet as Matthew unfolds his account of Jesus’ birth, he is not being perverse; rather his concern is to teach us something about Jesus, his ministry and mission, and what it means to be one of his disciples.

The innocent sounding reference to time and place, the information that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the time of King Herod provides the clue.

This is not just a piece of incidental detail.

This fact is offered to confirm what the prophet Micah had said some seven centuries earlier; that a ruler would come from Bethlehem in Judah who would be a shepherd to God’s people Israel.

So as he tells us about the Magi with their precious gifts and King Herod’s murderous response, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus’ birth comes as a challenge to the world, a world represented by the power dealing, deception and political manoeuvrings of King Herod.

Something new is afoot, something different is happening, the centre of gravity is shifting and new powers are being set loose in the world.

And at the beginning of a year when it would appear the foundations of national and international life are shifting, it is a gospel with a surprisingly contemporary resonance.

Apparently the appearance of the Magi in search of the new king caused quite a stir.

It certainly stirred Herod who was immediately suspicious that this new king of the Jews posed a threat to his position and power.

Matthew reports all of Jerusalem was troubled too.

Evidently the Jerusalem religious establishment was also suspicious of a new king who wasn’t under their control or supervision.

Because we know something of what follows, we know all these suspicions proved to be more than justified.

Jesus was indeed a threat to the power brokers of the day.

For the moment however it is sufficient for Matthew to alert us to the forces and interests that will eventually oppose Jesus and bring about his demise.

Having made some enquiries, we learn that Herod summons the Magi secretly to learn when the star first appeared and tells them that he too is keen to worship the new king.

Herod knows that knowledge is power.

But having been led from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where they eventually find the mother and child and present their precious gifts, the Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem and make their way home by another way.

To our relief we learn Herod’s plans to kill the Christ child are thwarted.

But to our dismay we are also told about Herod’s murderous response, the killing of the innocents as the holy family is forced to flee into Egypt.

Whatever else they represent, Herod and Jesus represent two sharply contrasting embodiments of authority and power.

Herod will use his power to defend himself and his interests at all costs, even at the cost of the lives of children.

Jesus will take children in his arms and at the cost of his own life he will teach his disciples that unless they selflessly become like little children they will not enter the kingdom of God.  

In other words there is no hiding place and Matthew could not be more brutally honest about the sometimes appalling abuse of human position and power.

And as millions of the world’s people could testify, especially those in refugee camps or crossing the Mediterranean or the English Channel in flimsy boats, it is real, brutal and painful.

During the Christmas and New Year season one of the people to whom I have turned for an insight into the  painful reality of oppression and injustice is the Rev Dr John McCulloch, Cramond Kirk’s mission partner and the Church of Scotland minister at St Andrew’s, Jerusalem.

 A few weeks ago John and his wife went to visit the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem.

Established in 1948, like many other refugee camps across the West Bank and Gaza, the Aida camp has suffered from a lack of amenities, poor housing and has been subject to frequent military incursions and reprisals.

A second generation of children born in the camp have known little else except military occupation, poverty and extreme deprivation.

According to John McCulloch, following President Trump’s announcement to cut all US funding for the main United Nations programme for Palestinian refugees, a move with potentially devastating impact for five million people who relied on its schools, healthcare, and social services, the situation on the ground has become much worse.

John and his wife visited Aida to attend a cooking class on Palestinian cuisine.

As well as a good way of practicing their Arabic, John said it was a great way of meeting local people and supporting the camp as cooking classes are organised all year round with the funds raised being used to support various educational and community based projects.

As they finished making the dough for the krass, a kind of pasty filled with spinach and herbs, John and his wife were given a tour of the camp and met some of the pupils and staff at the educational centre for children with special needs.

It is inspiring wrote John, to see how they are bringing hope to a community which has been forgotten by many and using their skills and ingenuity to run a wonderful enterprise that is serving the community in so many ways.

Who would have thought some two thousand years after Matthew wrote his gospel, Rachel would still be weeping bitterly for her children and all Ramah would hear her voice.

Yet even now Matthew wants us to know God will not be defeated.

Fleeing into Egypt, Jesus’ life is protected, not because it was more important than the lives of the other children born at the time.

Rather the infant Jesus was protected so that when the time comes for him to die on Calvary’s cross, God’s love will finally prevail over the malevolent powers of evil and death.

Disturbing?

Unsettling?

Yes it is.

And that is Matthew’s point and with it the profoundly reassuring insight that if Jesus is to be the Saviour of the world, the real world of human experience, as much as he knows its joys he cannot escape the world’s darkness, its pain and distress.

Jesus cannot plead special privilege and protection as the Son of God.

Indeed the very opposite must be true.

If Jesus is who Matthew claims he is, the Christ, the Messiah, then he needs to be found where pain and suffering are found, a refugee, an outsider, someone pushed to the margins, treated unjustly and unfairly.

And it is because of this truth that the visit of the Magi introduces us to many of the themes that will emerge later in Matthew’s gospel.

Forced to flee from his own country, all too soon Jesus will find himself excluded from the synagogues and forced to become the wandering preacher, teacher and healer.

Rejected by the scribes and Pharisees, he will be recognised and welcomed by the leper, the prostitute and the tax collector.

Calling disciples to follow, he will stand conventional worldly wisdom on its head by teaching them not to seek an eye for an eye but to turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, forgive not seven but seventy times seven and pray for those who persecute them.

Far from providing special protection or promising special privilege, the visit of the Magi holds out to us the hope that beyond all we know or understand, God is with us, light for our darkness, comfort for our sorrow, hope for our despair.

And where once Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem’s stable, their gift to us today is God’s promise that in all the experiences of life, whether of joy or sorrow, success or failure, birth or death, God is with us and we are with God, now and forever.  

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen