Jesus, Herod, Angels, Myth and Mystery….a sermon preached by Graham Low on the First Sunday of Christmas 29.12.19
As we come to the end of what the Queen described as a bumpy 2019, many are reflecting on the recent general election and its implications. In a radio interview a few days ago it was said that the result seems to be related to two underlying and contrasting myths: those on the right saying that as a nation we need to be freed from negative foreign influences, while those on the left saying more rigid and centralised control will solve the challenges we face as a nation. This contrast has some truth. We may not all agree with it. But it is surrounded by some elements which are distortions and others which are fictitious, or mythical, in the original sense of that word.
Nowadays the word myth is used to describe stories that are not simply purely fictitious, but which also point us towards truth of some kind. That is true for biblical studies and for theology as a whole. If we delvecritically into the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus, there are a number of problems with the traditional nativity scene: for instance, Jesus may well have been born in a house rather than a stable; we cannot say that there were three wise men rather than kings, but only that there were three gifts. We could end up by saying that the Christmas story has become purely a myth, because theologians have so stripped away the familiar, yet mythical detail, so that we are left with a few forlorn people on an unfamiliar stage. But down the centuriesthese texts of Matthew and Luke have been inhabited with extraordinary imaginative power, to give us a picture, a story, which gives us deep truths beyond the conflicting details.
Today we leave behind the images of the infant Jesus and his adoring parents after only four days. The angel has been busy. Joseph is warned first to Egypt, then to Israel, and then to Galilee. All of this is to preserve the fragile family which carries the hope of the world. Matthew gives us a picture of God reclaiming God’s world in the most down-to-earth way possible, in the life of a child born without favour, without any of the trappings of power or wealth. God’s fragile methodology needsgreat care: we see a ministry of radical vulnerability and risk at the hands of human beings, and which ended on a cross.
And this pattern begins immediately after Jesus’ birth, when Herod comes into focus. Matthew presents Herod as a person who seeks to kill small children but also as an obsessive and paranoid defender of his kingship. There is historical evidence that Herod was a king at about the time of Jesus’ birth. Although there is no other and specific historical record of his slaughter of infants, scholars agree that he could easily have demanded that this should be done. Even more than Luke’s account, Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus and its aftermath stress how risky it is. Of course, the usual and very considerable risks of infant mortality are there, but who he is greatly increases that risk. He is born into a world in which such people as Herod will do anything to hold onto the power they have.
This story revels the great gulf between Jesus and Herod. Herod haslittle right to have the position he has, but clings on to it through thick and thin, prepared even to kill his wife, as well as his sons, when they seem to be threatening him as rivals. By contrast, Jesus, as Philippians 2.6 reminds us, though in the form of God does not see this something to cling to, but instead empties himself to be a slave. We might describe Herod here as a kind of anti-Christ, without any sign of the mind of Christ. The gulf, the conflict here, is about power, a forceful and slippery kind of force. It is seductive. It leads to a desire not to allow anyone else take it from us. The greater our desire for power the tighter we hold onto it, and so the harder it is for anyone else to challenge us, let alone take it from us. The way that Jesus shows us is the very opposite: we are to surrender power completely and serenely. We are to risk everything to follow him for the sake of love. Herod is a terrifying and historical example of what happens when a person cannot forsake power and become a person of love. He is a reminder to each of us of the dangers of exerting the power we may so often, and unconsciously,exert over others in our relationships.
As we come to the end of another decade and look at the challenges facing those who govern us, we are given an utterly different model, God’s challenging model. Its origins may be a mixture of myth and of fact, but they have guided and inspired countless people since the birth and gift of Jesus to the world. This model has given rise over and over again to the most remarkable aspects of human life, activity and creativity. God works in paradox. God works from the perspective of vulnerability, from the underside or from the outside. God replaces power with persuasion. God invites us to follow a risky path. God seeks to invite and attract rather than to coerce, or to insist or to force. These are the defining features of the Christian path. If we do not follow this path, then we are likely to subvert the path that the infant took for us. And once he had grown up Jesus gave us the model of being a servant rather than as a person expecting to be served. How comfortable are we to live with vulnerability and with powerlessness? Can we face the paradox that vulnerability and powerlessness are central features of God’s love.
As we ponder the paradox, the myth and the mystery of God’s love, I end with a very different perspective: U.A. Fanthorpe’s poem called ‘What the donkey saw’.
No room at the inn, of course,
And not that much in the stable,
What with the shepherds, magi, Mary,
Joseph, the heavenly host –
Not to mention the baby
Using our manger as a cot.
You couldn’t have squeezed another cherub in
For love or money.
Still, in spite of the overcrowding,
I did my best to make them feel wanted.
I could see the baby and I
Would be going places together.
The donkey, here at the nativity, will also carry Jesus into Jerusalem 33 years later. Our crib scenes tell a story. The story of the birth of a baby,announced by angels to his parents, and to shepherds. Don’t be afraid, they said. And they continue to say that to you and me today. Don’t be afraid. Take Him, hold Him, here is your God. Love Him and cherish Him, for He loves and cherishes you.