Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas
Festival of the Innocents

Text: Matthew 2:16
When Herod realized that the visitors from the East had tricked him, he was furious. He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood who were two years old and younger.


Christmas grief

A few days ago we were singing “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright” as we gazed upon the new born baby in the manger.  We listened to angels tell the shepherds about “peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased”. 

Today’s reading from Matthew shocks us back to the real world – the world we live in where threats of terrorism, murders, violence, jealousy, hatred, and anger feature daily on the news.  And even though we enjoy the happiness and joy of the sweet-smelling hay and the beauty of a baby in a manger, it doesn’t take us long to get back to our humdrum lives with its routines and temptations and arguments.

On 28th December, the church has traditionally remembered the sobering truth that the birth of Jesus is followed by death and destruction, weeping and wailing, suffering and evil of the most dreadful sort.  Matthew tells us that when Herod learned from the wise men that a new rival king had been born in in his kingdom, he was outraged.  He ordered all boys under two years of age in Bethlehem to be killed.  In that way, he would eliminate any rival to his throne. 

Let’s be clear: the Christmas story is no fairy tale. There’s nothing rosy here; there’s no swell of orchestral music, no golden hues in a fading sunset as the story of the first Christmas closes with smiles all round on the faces of the cast as they gaze at the baby in the manger.  The problem with having nice nativity scenes in our churches and homes is that we get the impression that what you see is the end of the Christmas story and we are left with a wonderful warm feeling. 

That’s the beginning of the Christmas story.  The baby Jesus is born into the real world.  The world of violence, wickedness and cruelty.  Very quickly our tears of joy are turned into tears of profound sorrow as the air is pierced with loud screams and wailing.  The happy faces of Mary and Joseph are replaced with the faces of grief stricken parents as they hold the lifeless bodies of their sons in their arms.  Though separated by 2,000 years, we too grieve with these parents.  Their sons had done nothing to deserve this kind of thing.  They were innocent victims of a jealous king who should have been protecting them rather than taking their lives.

Matthew hasn’t skipped over the horrible bits. 
The baby Jesus has come into a world where children are caught up in war, genocide, terrorism and die cruel and senseless deaths.
He has come into a world where many more babies than the babies of Bethlehem are aborted every day for no reason, others are treated badly, even killed. 
He has come into a world where child prostitution and slavery are at an all-time high.
The baby Jesus came into a world where more children die of hunger every minute than the children of Bethlehem died at Herod’s command.
This is the real world, and it’s into this world that Jesus came.
It’s into a world of pain and sorrow, of political intrigues and deceit, of murdered children, and people who are imprisoned, tortured, and executed; where uttering the simple creed “Jesus is Lord” is enough to sell your whole family into slavery.

The baby Jesus comes into our own personal world of death, grief, sorrow, helplessness, and suffering.

I’m glad that Matthew doesn’t leave this story out of his Christmas account simply because it is unpleasant and because it doesn’t fit in with the magic of Christmas.  I think Matthew does it deliberately.  He starts by setting the scene saying, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod” (Matthew 2:1).  That sentence probably doesn’t mean much to us but Matthew’s first time readers would have gasped at hearing the name “King Herod”.  Herod was a nasty piece of work.  Sure he had his good points (he was a great builder of cities) but he was violent and thought nothing of murdering family members and innocent children to protect his throne and his authority. 

Setting Christmas in the world of King Herod makes us realise how magnificent Christmas really is.  That God who is holy, pure, everlasting and almighty should became a human and enter this world that is so impure and unholy, is truly amazing.  This whole plan of entering our corrupt world should have been so repulsive to God that he shouldn’t have given it second thought, let alone even contemplate sending his son as a small, tender, vulnerable baby into such a world. 

This certainly was a bold plan.  It was a plan that was motivated by love for all people, for you and me.  It was a risky plan because it meant Jesus would have to also face the horrors of this world. 
Just as there was violence, blood and pain on that awful day in Bethlehem, there was violence, blood and pain when Jesus died on a cruel cross for our salvation.  God doesn’t shy away from evil and wrong but tackles it head on. 

Matthew’s Christmas story may not be the warm, cosy Christmas story that we like but it’s the Christmas story we need.  It has a lot to say to us as we encounter adversity, suffering, grief and death in our own lives.  Remember, it is Matthew who reminds us that Jesus is “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”. 
We need to know that God is with us even when we feel that there is nothing but chaos and stress around us. 
We need to know that God is right here with us when things are getting us down, when our sorrow is overwhelming, and when death stares us in the face. 
We need to know that God will never consider us too sinful or too far away from him for him to stop loving us. 
This is a story about God's love that will do anything to be with us and help us when we need him the most.

At the very end of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ life he records the last words that Jesus says to his disciples before returning to heaven.  They are the words of promise that Jesus makes, “Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).  He is saying that to us today as well; to us who are still living in this world where there is enough happening to scare the living daylights out of us.  Evil, death, disasters, bad choices, temptations, are in front of us every day and at times we could feel quite helpless and hopeless against any of these.  It’s heartening to know that Jesus was born into this same world.  He is our Immanuel – he is “God with us” in the troubles we encounter as we journey through life.  He sticks by his promise to always be with us throughout the ages until the day he comes again.  “Be sure of this: I am with you always”, he promises.

He made that promise to each of us at our baptism.  Today, he made that promise to Braxton.  Even though we don’t know what the future will hold for Braxton, it is a certainty that he will make some bad choices in the future, just as we all will.  There will be times when he will suffer the consequences of the wrong and the evil that he will get caught up in.  Like all of us he will say things and do things and upset the people around him as well as God, like we all do.  There will be times when he will worry about the future and wonder, “Where to next?”

God has called Braxton and each of us to trust in his love and presence in our lives.  He loves us and forgives us and invites us to follow him.  He accepts as his own beloved child because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross.  We are forgiven.  We are drawn close to God.  We are given eternal life.  We are given the Holy Spirit who will help us and guide us to make the right choices along life’s journey and comfort us and strengthen us when the journey gets tough.  

When Jesus says, “Braxton, I am with you always” (and you can add your name here) this means -
Jesus knows you intimately and personally. 
He knows what your future holds.
He knows what will scare you in the future.

In your baptism, Braxton, Jesus has promised that his power is at your disposal. 
His strength is your strength. 
His wisdom and Spirit guide your ways. 
His love watches over you and keeps you safe.
His forgiveness gives peace.
His presence gives confidence, boldness and peace even when everything is going crazy in your life”.

Today as we remember the death and grief in Bethlehem, we remember how people the world over suffer because of evil in the world and pray that this injustice would stop.  At some time the violence and evil of this world will touch our lives.  We thank God that Jesus didn’t hold back but came into our world to become part of our lives and to assure us that whatever happens “God is with us” always to give the assurance that whatever happens, “We are in God’s loving hand”.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
28th December 2014

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