This sermon was given by Rev Deborah on Sunday 29 December 2019, and was based on:
My Andrew, his brother and I were sitting having a ‘snacky’ tea – one of those where you use up the bits and pieces from the last few days. Andrew asked, ‘is it ‘sober up Sunday this weekend?’ Although there isn’t a liturgical ‘Sober up Sunday’, I answered, ‘I do tend to think of it as sober up Sunday.’ After the celebrations, the presents , the food, drink and family gatherings, we start to get back to reality. This is echoed in the readings today.
Just a few days after singing “Silent Night” by candlelight, we come to Matthew’s account of terror, mayhem, and furtive flight. God comes into our world in an upside-down, inside-out way, and then all hell breaks loose. Where’s the comfort and joy suggested in our first hymn? Our introit hymn ‘joy to the world’ seems out of place when we listen to the gospel reading. Gone is the sentimentality and we are back to reality.
Through Matthew’s divine drama, there are three scenarios where we learn that life in this world can be very dangerous and cruel. Life in this world can be subject to evil plots, schemes and acts orchestrated by power hungry people who rely on evil to protect their power and status.
In the first scenario, God speaks to Joseph in a dream through an angel, a messenger of God, commanding him to: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ There is no romantic or idealistic picture of Christmas here! Rather, we have the harsh, cold reality of a tyrant ruler, Herod, who is determined to shed innocent blood. He’s doing everything possible to kill the Christ-Child. According to Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod was an extremely cruel man, who seems to of had no problems ruling by evil means. …Herod ordered the execution of three of his sons and at his burial, one member of every family was to be slain so that the nation might really mourn. However, Herod did not manage to kill Jesus. Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt and lived there as refugees until after it was safe to return back to the Promised Land.
As the second scenario unfolds, we are told that Herod was infuriated when he learned that he had been tricked by the wise men. So “he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” According to Matthew, this fulfilled the nightmare, tragic prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15, which warned: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” There are many Rachels in our world today. There are far too many mothers of children who were innocent and have been hurt, tortured and killed. As some of you may know, to lose a child is one of the most difficult losses, the most tragic of deaths that we can face. How much more difficult it must be if one loses a child by evil means.
In the third scenario of the gospel, once again Joseph has two more dreams and God’s messenger speaks to him, instructing him first of all that the tyrant Herod has died and now it’s safe to return back to Israel. And, in the second dream, Joseph was warned not to settle in Judea, where Herod’s son Archelaus now ruled, and was almost as cruel as Herod. Rather, Joseph was instructed to go to Nazareth in the district of Galilee and live with Mary and Jesus there.
There are many more examples in our time that we can call to mind. I am currently reading the ‘Tattooist of Auschwitz. In 1942, the protagonist Lale Sokolov arrived at in Auschwitz . He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival – scratching numbers into his fellow victims’ arms in indelible ink. As you can imagine, it is not an easy read, and yet it is a story of courage amidst the horror. It is a love story and yet this does not overwhelm the context of displacement, trauma and survival. It is the story of two extremes of behaviour existing side by side – calculated brutality alongside impulsive and selfless acts of love. Lament and hope.
The situation that continues to face Syrian refugees hearkens back to Matthew’s gospel. Violence, destruction, and displacement continue—particularly in places like Aleppo. Aid groups and non-profits continue to raise money for vaccines, clothing, and food. Some 2.8 million Syrian children are now categorized as refugees. In the gospel Rachel wept for the children of Israel – the innocents who were slaughtered. Jesus himself was a refuge, when he fled for his life into Egypt.
In a sense, we are all refugees—aliens in a foreign land, a place that is not our ultimate home. Citizens of the reign of God, we dwell in tension between discipleship and culture and between the temporal and eternal. Our lives on this earth are temporary.
Real life involves real pain and suffering. No one is spared, and all of us experience disappointments and hurts. Evil is real, and every age has a Herod or two. Life is not fair and seeking the common good seems more uncommon than ever.
So, given the pain and suffering, so soon after the celebration of the birth of Christ as our Saviour. how do we cope with way the reality of life overtakes the celebration?
What we have is, in effect, an unlikely dance between lament and hope. With the reality of suffering, pain, evil, and brokenness with us on the one hand, we always have the hope of Christ on the other hand. These two realities are the most mismatched of dance partners but dance they do nonetheless in these in-between-times. It is a delicate balance held in precarious tension, and we dare not forget or neglect either partner.
In the OT reading from Isaiah we here that dance of lament and hope. The Israelites have gone through difficult times – times of sorrow, hurt and anguish, and yet God was their saviour in their distress. It was his presence that saved them .
This is explained more fully in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered and is able to help those being tested.
Lament allows us to face the reality as it is, hope allows to see what it is through Christ
It is this dance between lament and hope that keeps our feet and hands moving in service, our hearts beating with compassion and empathy, and our deepest desires full of hope. Life’s choreography incorporates awareness of both pain and possibility.
So, on this sober up Sunday, yes, mourn the lack of stability and control we have over this thing we call life. Lament the injustices we see in the world. Cry for the children. Weep for the erosion of God’s good creation. Acknowledge our status of resident alien and sojourner in the world. And then…when you feel you are desolate and when all hope seems beyond your grasp, hold out your hands for the bread and wine of Christ’s holy supper. Hang on every word from the Word made flesh and listen for that still small voice of God calling your name and receive the hope that the Christ child brings for us and our world – Jesus, our hope and salvation. Lament and hope in the dance of life.
Joy to the world is highly appropriate today, especially the last verse.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of His righteousness
and wonders of His love,
and wonders of His love,
and wonders, wonders of His love.