Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Sunday 29th December 2019 (1st Sunday of Christmas)
Isaiah 63.7–9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2.10–end; Matthew 2.13–end
This morning’s Gospel faces us with the fact that Matthew is set upon using the scriptures, and especially the writing of the prophets, and the events surrounding the birth and childhood of Jesus quite creatively to great symbolic and theological effect. Nowhere, except in his Gospel, do we find an account of the massacre of the boys of Bethlehem by King Herod, not even in the works of Josephus the contemporary Jewish historian who was keen to describe the violence and depravity of Herod’s reign. However this tale of brutal slaughter rings true to the despotic rule he enforced. (Herod managed to kill off Mariamne his wife, and all his sons, to ensure his own political ends.) God arrives into a history littered with massacres and genocide.
What Matthew needs his hearers to understand, in this short postscript to the visit of the Magi, is that this baby is the true King of the Jews. However this king of love will meet with rejection. Matthew tells us that it is now the pagans who will begin to recognise his true identity. Things are turned upside down. Herod is painted as a new, and murderous Pharaoh, and Jesus as the new and greater Moses. Yet again the people of God have failed to see what God wants of them. Now it will be at the hands of his own people that Messiah’s fate will be sealed. But the nations, the goyim, as the prophets foretold, will begin to see what Israel fails to see. Matthew is echoed by John in his prologue to the fourth Gospel: “He came to his own, and his own received him not.” Even apparently fully paid-up believers will often miss the point, and fail to see the truth.
Jesus then travels into the land of exile, so sharing in, and identifying himself as completely at one not only with the long suffering history of his people, but the pains of all people who face persecution and rejection. The story of the massacre of the innocents underlines the radical nature of that immersion of God into the human journey. Jesus takes his place within the political and cultural abuses and limits of the age. For once gender inequality turns tail, and means the murder of males rather than females at Bethlehem, but inequality and greed are focused as always on the extermination and exclusion of the poor and insignificant. And God joins them.
The Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah this morning affirms the same complete and utter involvement of God in the history and struggles of his people. It is the Lord himself, and not some heavenly messenger who reaches out to them. It is the Lord God who is present with them. And the letter to the Hebrews reflects the conviction of the early church that it is this same all powerful God who has become the man Jesus, our brother, sharing all that our fleshly existence faces us with, and demands of us, and subjects us to; even betrayal and death itself. This was the only realistic and organic way in which humanity could find redemption, and the road back to union with God.
The Collect today sums up what we believe Christmas is all about: the saving truth that, out of love for his creation, God takes on our flesh, and in that human life, wins the victory over death and evil on the cross. Through his victory over death, and the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh he then begins the work of recreating the universe, restoring us and all things to wholeness. I always make the point that this Sunday’s collect is a slightly altered version of the prayer that the priest or deacon uses every time as they prepare the chalice at the offertory. Mixing a few drops of water into the wine, we pray,
“By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
The water of our humanity, a drop or two, is mixed in with the full-blooded energy of the wine of God. This simple prayer as we fill the chalice speaks again of that radical action of God, becoming one with us, and who in moments will be coming again in bread and wine to be with us. Jesus would have followed the custom of mixing water with the coarse wine of his day. The church continued to do this, but came to see this ritual mixing of water and wine as a symbol of the 2-fold nature of Jesus, born as man in Bethlehem, and yet at one and the same the divine word of God. More than that this chalice, once the Spirit of God had been called down to bless it, forwards that renewing of humanity. Through our feeding and drinking on Christ we take on the restoration and right ordering of creation. St. John of the Cross encourages us to know that we become “God – by participation.” That is our glorious destiny. So this little prayer and ritual holds within it so much meaning and depth, holding in a nutshell the heart of the Gospel Good news, God became human so that we might become God, and do the work of God.
In the mid 19th century, with a longing to revitalise the Church which seemed to have lost its way, catering to the values and prejudices of the privileged and wealthy, the leaders of the Oxford Movement began to see their influence spreading into ordinary parishes. Amongst other things, such as direct and understandable preaching and beautiful worship they saw this simple ritual and its accompanying prayer as a touchstone of a Gospel of Incarnation, proclaiming the radical involvement of God in our history, placing himself amongst the poor and rejected, AND proclaiming the radical duty of his church in continuing that work of involvement and redemption. 5 visionary priests were prepared to face persecution to preach this full-blooded Gospel, and to worship in ways that spoke of a God who is present in all sufferings and rejections. All 5 were tried and imprisoned sometimes for months by an ecclesiastical court after they refused to give way to the requirements of the court, and cease mixing the chalice at the offertory. All this was happening at a time when our own parish of St John’s was coming into being. Our forebears had the same conviction that only an incarnational faith would do justice to the full social, political and spiritual implications of what it means that God became human. The prayer at the mixing of the chalice mattered to them only because it held within it the fullness of the Good News, a radical Gospel which far from avoiding the trials and sufferings of the present and looking only for individual salvation, realised that the message of the Word made Flesh involved the renewing of all creation, the restoration of all humanity to its’ true dignity; our active participation in the life of our own history, our own society and community. These priests not only devoted their ministry to preaching, and restoring beauty into worship, but to social action, like Arthur Tooth, one time Vicar of Hatcham in South London. They were committed to ministry in poor and struggling working class parishes, pressing for justice and equality as well as devotion. Understandably this was provocative and challenging to those for whom religion was a thing of personal and private comfort.; the preservation of the status quo. It still is!!! Finally, after his health was ruined by imprisonment and persecution Fr. Tooth founded a convent and orphanage in Woodside down the road in what is now Addiscombe Park. There he created a caring community, and established a refuge for alcoholics and addicts, using hypnosis and care to bring about recovery.
This involved the practical, politically and socially aware living out of the Christmas message. This is what we as a parish have been committed to for all of our history. It is an earthy Gospel. One that reaches out to catch the imaginations and concerns of those we live among. Our engaging with Evolve, our weekly Hive lunches, our support of Lakeside and the Saffron Valley Academy over the road all see us living out the Good News. That idyllic image of the Holy Family travelling into exile, accompanied by some very serene angels on our Mass sheet does not reflect the harsh reality of what Matthew describes in his Gospel. Part and parcel of the Good News is the presence of the God- Man in places of conflict and violence. On that night of fear we see Joseph gathering up their scant belongings and hurrying his wife and the holy child to safety. It is this darker, more realistic image Matthew gives us of yet another immigrant family fleeing persecution and poverty that speaks more honestly to our reality, and more to the point speaks of God’s solidarity with those in the wilderness of loneliness, homelessness, and spiritual and mental darkness.
It is this fleeing immigrant family that speaks to us about the world as it really is and should not be, and what our part is in ending its pain and injustice. The Holy Family bring us hope. A Chilean poem written by mothers searching usually in vain for their sons who have ‘disappeared’ in political pogroms finds comfort and energy to endure in that family’s alienation.
“Mary the slum dweller, Mary, homeless in Bethlehem, Mary exiled from her native land, Mary pilgrim with her people-Blessed are you among women. A Mexican woman theologian tells us that for poor women Mary is “not a heavenly creature, No- she shares our lives as a comrade and sister in our struggle.” (Maria Pilar Aquino.) Our Gospel is about being where God is, and he is in the places of fear and injustice, and poverty. Mary’s son, our God, is our brother and comrade in all our struggles, sharing a life of poverty and rejection even when he returned to his homeland with Joseph and Mary. The Gospel describes him as a tekton or manual worker (” carpenter”. ” A tekton was at the lower end of the peasant class, more marginalized than a peasant who owned land. A tekton was from a family that had lost its land”. Jewish authorities still insisted that tithes were still paid, and the Romans added their own heavy taxation system on top of this. A case has even been made that the name Jesus uses in his prayer “Abba” [‘daddy’] reflects his “ lower class Palestinian piety”.
SO where do we find our God now ? Where does he call us to be alongside him this coming year?
God goes about the work of salvation in a real, uncertain, and often brutal world. W.H. Auden one of the great 20th poets, a devout Anglican, calls us in to follow the Holy Family into exile as they escape the slaughter of the innocent boys in Bethlehem at the hand of Herod’s storm-troopers. That is the call of the Gospel, of course to carry on the journey of faith alongside Jesus, going wherever he calls us to be.
He is the Way, follow him through the Land of unlikeness; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures. He is the Truth, seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years. He is the Life: Love him in the World of the flesh, and at your marriage, all its occasions will dance for joy.
W.H. Auden from The Flight into Egypt