Dec 26th Isaiah 63: 7-9 Matthew 2: 13-23
So here we are, caught between Christmas and New year. The bin is full of wrapping paper, we’re wondering quite where to put the presents and looking forward to al those delicious left-overs of Christmas dinner. The new year beckons and we wonder what 2011 might bring us: and in our papers we read stories of political unrest in Korea & Pakistan, of the terribly sad deaths & diappearances and the unhealthy scrum of the sales…what happened to the story – just yesterday of peace on earth and good will to all people?
Matthew, bravely, tells us what happens immediately after the magi have returned to the East. Here is the unsavoury part, the bit that gets missed out of our Carol services. Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, and Herod in his fury orders the massacre of all the boys aged two and under in the whole region in his attempt to rid himself of the threat of this rival so-called ‘king’ of whom the magi spoke.
Some of the most compelling and dreadful Christian art involves the depiction of this ‘massacre of the innocents’ – the terrible brutal killing of a whole generation of babies.
Meanwhile, Jesus, the target of Herod’s wrath – escapes.
It is only human nature to ask ‘why’?
If Christmas tells us God is with us, why does there seem to be more bad news than good? And if Jesus has truly come as saviour of humanity, why so early in the story do we get the very reverse – the birth of Jesus causing a terrible massacre, while Jesus himself is saved by the warning of an angel?
These are questions we almost daren’t ask, for fear of not being able to answer them. But ask them we must.
If God is truly with us, God is with us in the bad news as well as the good.
The message of God incarnate is not a sickly-sweet, reality-defying tale of ‘the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’, the arrival of an unearthly one who causes no offence. ‘God with us in Jesus’ is the God who takes on flesh and blood and bone and sweat to stand shoulder to shoulder with a world where terrible things happen and will continue to happen.
Nothing could have been achieved by the infant Jesus being slaughtered by Herod – his mission to bring Good News would have died with him at that point.
Yet Jesus was not spared slaughter indefinitely: he was truly human and subject to the same laws of nature as each one of us. So the moment of accepting incarnation, being born in flesh, was also the moment of accepting a mortal death. And with the wisdom of hindsight we can see that sooner or later the authorities were going to take issue with his radical message of God’s love for the least and the lowest, Jesus’ breaking of the rules of order in society.
Jesus is not entirely spared the massacre of the innocents – God merely delays his fate so that the Good News can first be heard and the kingdom shown in Jesus’ life.
So where does this leave us? When the innocents of today are massacred – by soldier’s sword or terrible accident or human folly – how can there possibly be Good News? Jesus shows us God with us: weeping with the sorrowful as the God who truly shares our humanity, nerving us to stand for justice and peace against all the odds, calling us forward into his kingdom of light.
And isn’t this better news, in the end, than being told that God is with us only in the good parts of our lives – when we are strong, or victorious, or feel blessed?
When life is at its darkness, we are promised light.
When pain threatens to overwhelm us utterly, we are promised hope.
When innocence dies, we are promised new life.
This is the real good news, the true depth of God with us, the gritty truth of incarnation, of God made flesh.
And if all this isn’t amazing enough, as we stand at the brink of the New Year God offers us a promise and a challenge.
He will be with us – here in all our worship and whenever we are in need in this year to come.
But we are not promised protection while those around us suffer. We are called to be the body of Christ, to be God enfleshed for the suffering and the hopeless. We are called to offer the Good News in a hurting world – God with us, in 2011 and until the end of time.
So may we use the future god gives us to grow in the knowledge of God with us and to share that Good News with our neighbours.
In Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Amen