Christmas 1: Holy Innocents

St Peter’s Lutheran

29/12/19

Christmas 1 – Year A
Isaiah 63:7-14
Psalm 111
Galatians 4:4-7
Matthew 2:13-23

It is still Christmas! Don’t put away the tree just yet. As a religious professional, I am grateful that there is a season to Christmas past the one day. I get a chance to enjoy and celebrate too – once the work is done. Many of my clergy friends, when asked, claim that for them Christmas starts on Boxing Day. Some people will keep Christmas going until Epiphany – celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas. Some may even go all the way to Candlemas on February 2nd.

I think that we think: once the wisemen have come and gone then it’s over. Back to business – normal life can resume. Not according to Matthew though. Matthew gives us a bigger vision of the reality into which Jesus was born. A world that was dangerous, violent, people were oppressed by a tyrannical government and an unstable leader. Little wonder we stop telling the Christmas story at the nativity!

Fleecy lambs, singing angels and the tiny baby Jesus in the manger are far more preferable Christmas card scenes than dead babies. The account that we read this morning is shocking, it is gross, and it still happens today in some corners of the world where war still ravages. Against all odds, the Christ child like many babies today, was born into fear and prejudice; deprivation and injustice.

The story of the Holy Innocents is not an easy piece of the Bible to read and reflect on. Nor should it be. Christmas might not be over – but the sentimentality is!

There is very little information in the Gospels about Jesus’ baby/childhood. There is only this passage in Matthew and Luke’s account of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem around 12 years of age. After this there is no other recorded information until Jesus is about 30. We might not know much about Jesus as a child – but we can learn something from the adults that are around him.
Once again, Joseph is the unsung hero, the whole of the Christmas story hangs on Joseph’s attitude to Mary and her baby. Without him the whole story could have faltered.

I came across an amusing story while I was writing on of my Advent sermons.

A little boy had once been cast as the innkeeper in the school nativity play, but he’d desperately wanted to be Joseph. He brooded about it for weeks. Came the day of the performance. Joseph and Mary came in and knocked at the door of the inn. The innkeeper opened the door a fraction. ‘Can we come in?’ said Joseph, ‘My wife’s pregnant.’ The innkeeper hadn’t brooded for weeks for nothing.

He flung open the door, beamed at Joseph and Mary and said, ‘Of course you can come in; we’ve plenty of space; you can have the best room in the hotel.’

There was a pause.

The Joseph showed his true quality. He said to Mary, ‘Hold on Mary, I’ll have a look around first.’ He peered past the innkeeper, shook his head and said firmly, ‘I couldn’t take my wife into a place like that. Come on, Mary, we’ll sleep in the stable round the back.’ The story was back on course! (John Pritchard, Living the Gospel Stories Today)

God would surely be ready with a plan B, but plan A was that he’d chosen Joseph and Mary. Joseph accepted the child, and this would not have been easy.

What we learn from Joseph is the risk of acceptance. He could have so easily rejected Mary and the child for the shame they brought on him. But he didn’t. Part of the risk of acceptance includes having to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to protect them from Herod and his murderous rampage on small children. Joseph acted immediately; we could assume this dream came to him at night. This little family was evidently poor so not a lot of packing time was needed. They were quickly on the road!

Joseph, Mary and Jesus now became refugees. If you know your Old Testament, Egypt was a place of asylum (for good and bad) for the Jewish people for thousands of years. Joseph fled from his home, his safety, his convenience (he was a carpenter) for the sake of his family. I know that many of you as parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts & uncles, godparents would go to great lengths to protect the children that you love.

We are fortunate to live in parts of the world where having to flee for the safety of your children is far removed. We must protect our children from the dangers of the First World – excessive screen time, allergies, bullies, creeps on the internet and becoming over-entitled, indulged little monsters. We need to protect their innocence for as long as we can. We may not have to flee the country – but we may have to live beyond our own convenience, put our screens down and pay more attention to them.

We also need to protect the innocence of children who do not belong to us. There are still families all over the world who are fleeing war and persecution. Parents taking their children and seeking a better life. Whatever we might think about ‘these people’ (thinking of the posts and memes I see on Facebook – both by Canadian and British friends). As Christians, God is pretty clear on how we are to treat actual refugees. We take his word seriously or we don’t.

God is not going to accept hair splitting on jurisdiction and borders as an acceptable excuse for ignoring the plight of the modern-day innocents.

Now the second adult in this story who we know about. The baddie in this story is King Herod the Great. He wasn’t a great Father, he had three of his own sons killed. The sons and grandsons that succeeded him were just as evil as he was: Herod the Tetrarch ordered the beheading of John the Baptist and was present at Jesus’ trial. Herod King Agrippa murdered James (Jesus’ brother) and tried to murder Peter. The other King Agrippa bantered with Paul while he was in prison.

Herod the Great had been declared ‘King of the Jews’ decades before Jesus was born. He believed that he was the one true king. It was the magi, the wisemen who alerted Herod to the birth of the new king of the Jews when they came to him to find the baby. He was suspicious and insecure enough as it was before the news that the new king had been born. In attempt to shore up his own power, he ordered the killing of the babies and toddlers of Bethlehem. It is estimated, as Bethlehem was a small town, that around 20 children were killed. Herod sensed a threat to his power and took brutal action against it.

We too can take brutal action when our power or security is threatened. Are you seriously threatened by people walking over the border into Manitoba in the dead of winter with their kids? Are we realistic in what we fear? Who we are against?

Maybe we need to remember who is in charge? Not us, not even the government. God is in charge.

How many of our ancestors came to this country from other parts of the world seeking a better life? Unless you know that level of desperation it is not fair to comment or pass judgment. Love your neighbour as yourself! ‘The poor you will always have with you’ says Jesus.

How about this gem from Psalm 146: ‘The Lord watches over the stranger in the land; he upholds the orphan and the widow; but the way of the wicked he turns upside down.’

On this day of Holy Innocents, there are two positions to take. That of Joseph – risking life, limb and convenience for the sake and protection of his child. Or that of Herod; maintaining power and control at any cost with the sacrificing of children. We either take seriously the word of God and his commandments or we don’t.

A priest friend Alison ended her Holy Innocents sermon with this:

Christmas time is when Christians celebrate the birth of the Christ child, as Emmanuel, that translates as God with Us; there would have been no point in Christ arriving in comfort when the whole world is in misery; no point in having an easy life when the world suffers violence and injustice, where right from the very beginning of his earthly life, Jesus shares in our sorrows as well as our joys.

The birth of Christ signals the very moment of heaven coming to earth; that moment when God becomes a human being, sharing flesh and blood and suffering with his people;
And it presents us with a pivotal moment to reflect on where pain and suffering maybe in our own and other people’s lives. This same scarred and wounded world is the world into which Jesus was born, the world he came to save.