Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow Church on Sunday 29th December 2019 –
Hebrews 2 vv 10 – E – Jesus’ incarnation leads us to be part of God’s family.
Matthew 2 vv 13 – E – The visit of the Magi and flight into Egypt.
1. Introduction. Bishop Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York designate, said on his appointment, “I will be a particular voice for the North, where the discrepancies of wealth and opportunity are most evident. Having lived in the North of England, there is a north- south divide. It is shockingly real.” (DT 18 Dec 19 p 13) John in the first chapter of his gospel records the disciple Philip saying to Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael replies, “Nazareth! Can any good thing come from there?” In Israel there was then and still is today, a North – South divide as in England. Our Gospel reading for today speaks of men coming from the East and Jesus going South. The Gospel is good news for all, whether from the North, the East, the West or the South. I am going to base my sermon on the four cardinal headings of North, East, South and West.
2. North. Let’s start then with the North, albeit that is not where Matthew starts, for he just starts Chapter 2, “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem.” Only at the end of Chapter 2 does Nazareth come in, where he writes, “Joseph withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.” Perhaps it was only Mary who came from the North. Anyway, from an early age, Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Incidentally, today Nazareth is a predominantly Arab village. In the Old Testament period, the North was generally poor because it was the first part of Israel to be attacked by Northern countries such as Syria and Assyria, and with the seat of government being in the South, in Jerusalem, it continued to be poor; a similar situation to England. Isaiah, albeit a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah, foretold that a people walking in darkness would see a great light, on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned (Is 9 v 2). He may have been referring to the land of Judah after the fall of the N kingdom of Israel, but quite probably he was referring to what in the 1st century A. D. was referred to as the Galilee of the Gentiles, including Nazareth. Jesus grew up in this Northern backwater, this despised Region and in particular in the village of Nazareth, of which, Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus readily reached out to the poor, the despised, the gentiles because that was the place of his upbringing and his work as a carpenter or builder. The Church today is called to reach out to and identify with the poor, the neglected, those spiritually in the North.
3. East. Let’s now turn through 900 to the East. In our gospel reading today we heard of wise men or Magi from the East, who came to Jerusalem. The shepherds, representing the Jews, had come at Jesus’ birth. Now perhaps some months or even a year later, gentiles come to worship the infant Jesus. God in his graciousness brings people through their own circumstances and learning, into the presence of his son Jesus. The magi saw Jesus’ natal star in the East, that is, at its rising and followed that star as it progressed Westward. They couldn’t precisely define the village where Joseph, Mary and Jesus were living, not now in the stable of the inn, where Jesus was born, but in a house, as Matthew tells us, so they go to the country’s capital, i. e. to Jerusalem, the place where they naturally expected a king to be born. The chief priests and teachers of the law pinpoint, from the prophesy of Micah, the place of the Messiah’s birth as Bethlehem, Hebrew for ‘House of bread’, the home town of their great King David. When these wise men reach the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was living, they worship Him. With the Christian Church now predominantly a gentile church we almost forget that in origin the Church was Jewish and Jesus himself was a Jew. Sadly, the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, has historically been anti-Semitic. Hitler used some of the writings of Martin Luther to justify his purge of the Jews. Sadly, there is today a growth in our country and in other European countries, of anti-Semitism. Let us make sure that the Church is pro-Semitic, not anti-Semitic. In that context there is a fine distinction between criticising political policies of Israel and being anti-Semitic. There is a time and a place for criticism of both Israel and the Palestine territory’s policies and actions.
Let us see that never again does the Church justify any form of anti-Semitism. Let us in the wisdom of the Magi from the East, come and worship Jesus, born King of the Jews, Saviour of Jew and Gentile alike.
4. South. King Herod the Great felt threatened by the visit of the wise men speaking of the birth of another King, with the high priests etc relating the birth to the promised Messiah. His own position was somewhat of a puppet king, allowed limited authority by the Roman Empire. The expected Messiah was seen by many as a king in the mould of their great King David who subdued all the surrounding nations to make Israel a free country. Herod had been borne around 73 B. C. so at the time of Jesus’ birth was well into his 60s. He had held his kingship for about 35 years. His concern was probably not so much feeling personally threatened by a baby, but by the repercussions if there were a popular rising, supporting the Messiah as a military leader and thus bringing down the might of the Roman armies against Palestine. Thus, he ordered the killing of all the boys of 2 years and under, in and around Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents, marked yesterday in the Church’s calendar. God pre-empted Herod’s action by sending an angel to tell Joseph to leave Bethlehem immediately with Jesus and Mary and go South to Egypt. There were already many Jews living in Egypt especially in Alexandria, were the Hebrew scriptures had been translated into Greek sometime in and around the 2nd Century B.C. This was then not the first time that Egypt had been a country to receive Jewish or Israelite refugees. The Patriarch Jacob and family had been welcomed by Pharaoh almost 2000 years before. We find in some of the prophets that Egypt has a great place in God’s loving purposes. Isaiah records:
“The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork and Israel mine inheritance.” (Is 19 vv 24, 25). The South provided the refugee holy family with a safe place until after the death of the rather insecure, King Herod. What Matthew emphasises, as I said before in a sermon 3 years ago, is that whilst from a human perspective the flight into Egypt is the more telling journey, the return from Egypt, as Matthew tells us, is the theologically important journey as Jesus re-enacts the Exodus, the great saving act of God in bringing his people out of Egypt into the Promised Land. The New Covenant is linked with the Old Covenant. The God of the New Testament is the same God as the God of the Old Testament.
I have brought our greetings card copies of our painting of ‘The return from Egypt’. If you have not had before or would like another copy there are plenty on the table by the font. Do please take one.
4. West. We have travelled to the North, the East and the South. I conclude with the West, ourselves. Many Middle Eastern countries and many other countries regard Christianity as being a Western Religion. They closely associate the 18th and 19th centuries of European colonisation of other countries, with the spread of Christianity, albeit in origin Christianity is of course Jewish and Middle Eastern. Along with this goes in many cases persecution. Christianity is the most persecuted and oppressed of all religions and yet through this, people of many countries are coming to faith and the Church is growing, with the notable exception of European countries, as we enter a secular age of humanism and even strident atheism. Nonetheless there is in many people’s lives a spiritual hunger that is not satisfied by non-religious philosophies.
In a number of cases of illegal immigration to our country, Christians who have been severely persecuted in their home countries, have arrived on our shores, looking for freedom, hoping for a warm welcome at least by the Church. Sadly, though, as in the comment of one person, regarding the 39 people who died in a refrigerated container, a rather different attitude is revealed, “Of course it’s sad that those people died in such awful circumstances, but at least we won’t have 39 more immigrants living off the state and taking our young people’s jobs.” (Letter in the Church Times, 8 Nov 19).
4. Conclusion. As a Church, we need to seek in a variety of ways to bring the good news of the Gospel, a gospel for all people, to reveal the love of God to rich and poor, to Jew and Gentile. We need also to discern the hand of God already at work and therefore to welcome capable Christians whom God is calling into the ministry and leadership of the Church, whatever their racial origin or the colour of their skin.
The Gospel is for all peoples, people in the North, the East, the South and the West, – in our world, in our country. The Gospel is for rich and for poor, for the immigrant and refugee, for Jew and Gentile, black brown or white.
May we go forward into the New Year in confidence in a loving God, in hope for a troubled world, looking forward to the time when all people will see Jesus as their Saviour and Lord.
1758 words Christopher Miles