This is not a story about how special, important, and indispensable Jesus was; that his family out of all the others in Bethlehem was warned to get out of town, so that he alone out of all the little boys in Bethlehem could grow up to be the Messiah, the Christ. So that he alone out of all the little boys in Bethlehem could grow up. Because if one thing is clear from reading the Bible, the Gospels, from our prayer and our own lives with God, it is that every one of those children was dear to God; every one of those mothers and fathers, God would have spared their pain if God could; that if those children were not important, not special, not indispensable, then there would have been no purpose to the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus at all.
“For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son…”
The beginning of Matthew’s gospel is clear about setting up a scriptural context and mandate for Jesus. Everything that happens does so “that the scripture may be fulfilled.” Jesus has to flee as a refugee to Egypt so that the Exodus can be revisited, the theme of deliverance brought into play: deliverance from slavery, captivity, oppression; deliverance from the desert, the wilderness; deliverance from exile and delivery into the new world, the Promised Land of freedom and plenty, the land where God dwells. And all of this, if you read the old stories, is delivered only by God.
The only piece of scripture which Matthew does not say must be fulfilled is the one about Rachel crying for her children after Herod has killed them all. That did not have to happen, suggests Matthew. Even he balks at such a level of determinism, such fatalism. No; that atrocity was all on Herod.
In the old story, it was the Pharaoh, a foreign and godless king, who brought down chaos by his stubborn refusal to release the people of God. In the end, he called down even death, even the death of his own son, the children of his own people. In the new story, Herod is one of us, one of the people of Jerusalem, of Bethlehem, one of the chosen people of God; and he does it to his own people, his own flesh and blood. We have turned upon ourselves, and it is from ourselves and our own sin that God is born to save us.
We do not have to look far to find the cousins of Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing for their lives, placing their safety in uncertain guides, living on the edges of life and death in exile, in borderlands, in no-man’s land, at the mercy of the merciless.
In the past week, not one but two cargo vessels have been intercepted off the shores of Italy after their crews abandoned their human cargo, refugees from Syria and from northern Africa, leaving the un-crewed ships on collision courses with the Italian coast, carrying hundreds of people, including children, and at least one woman who gave birth to her child, apparently even as the rescue was underway. Modern-day soldiers of Herod, mercenaries who cared nothing for their cargo but only for their money, abandoned them in stormy seas to await their fate.
And just in case we are tempted to blame Pharaoh – foreign kings, godless religion, not our problem – have we forgotten so quickly the children on our own borders, bussed into dormitories full of fear and bewilderment, children whose parents had such despair in their own land and such faith in our goodwill to all people that they sent us their flesh and blood? And we held up signs and shouted at the innocents, “No one wants you here.”
Have we forgotten so quickly the children killed by our own grown-up guns, the lives maimed by our own sin? Herod is one of us, and it is from our own sin that God was born to save us.
But here’s the thing: it is from our own sin that God was born to save us. Jesus came in order to deliver us from slavery and oppression, from sin and evil, from death in all of its guises. God became incarnate, took flesh and dwelt among us because God so loved the world that God could not stay away. Because God so loved those children, of Bethlehem, of the borderlands, of Cudell Park, that God became one of them, one with them, so that they would know, each of them, that God was with them: Emmanuel.
Jesus was not saved from danger, from Herod’s jealous rage, because he was more important than the other children in Bethlehem. Jesus was born into the same danger that they were because God so loved them world that God would stop at nothing to deliver it from that danger.
Jesus became a refugee, a borderland survivor, a displaced person with no home, no country, no security, with only the clothes on his back and whatever his parents could carry because God so loved the world that God could not imagine telling a child that no one wanted him; God wanted us all to know that even those whom the world rejects as outcasts, or abandons at sea, bear the image of the Christ child in their stories, in their lives.
“For God so loved the world” is not a romantic story of clean straw, shining stable lights and gentle cattle lowing. It is the story of our lives, of God entering the very heart of our divisions, our distress, our sin and our sorrow, in order to deliver us out of them, by the grace of God’s love for each and every child of Bethlehem; each and every child of God.
And to those who believe, who count themselves as followers of Christ, it is an invitation, to do the work of love: to love the world as God loves us; to love the world because God loves us; to carry on the work of delivering hope out of despair, comfort out of sorrow, justice out of violence, peace out of mercy, light in the darkness,
remembering the Light that has come into the darkness, which the darkness has not comprehended nor overcome.
[ Because this is the season of new resolutions, I’m going to propose a little homework assignment between this week and next. Next Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, which is an opportunity to review and renew our own baptismal promises. It is precisely those promises which mark our commitment and give us the chance to avoid the horrible sin of Herod, and to live instead with the love that God has for the world.
to reaffirm our renunciation of evil and renew our commitment to Christ;
to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers;
to persevere in resisting evil; whenever we fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord;
to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;
to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourself;
to strive for justice and peace among all people; respecting the dignity of every human being.
Each of these; all of these we are charged to remember and employ, with God’s help. We revisit them at intervals throughout the year, when we celebrate our baptism and share it with new Christians. Sometimes, one will speak more loudly than another to one of us or to another.
So, remembering that invitation, to do the work of love: to love the world as God loves us; to love the world because God loves us; to carry on the work of delivering hope out of despair, comfort out of sorrow, justice out of violence, peace out of mercy, light in the darkness; I wonder if there is one of these that offers itself as a mantra for your new year, one that will be your focus for faith and faithfulness, not forgetting the others, but one to keep as your touchstone, to keep you connected in all that you say and do and are in this year to your baptismal covenant, the source and reminder of new life with God. (You can remind yourself of them in pages 292-294 of the Book of Common Prayer.)
I wonder if you will bring that promise with you next week. I wonder how it will be worked out in the year to come; but that, dear reader, is a sermon for another day. ]