Christmas 2 – Holy Innocents

Sunday 1 January 2023

Readings Isaiah 63:7-9

Hebrews 2:10-end

Matthew 2:13-end

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Well, at the risk of starting once again with the obvious, Happy New Year!

I hope that you had a good Christmas, indeed that you are still having a good Christmas because it does not end until the Epiphany, and that you found time amongst all the other routines and expectations and family traditions, whatever they may be, to contemplate the enormity of what it means for God to be born amongst us as one of us.

Whilst the events of the first nativity are layered with beauty and whilst our Christmas Day celebrations were, I hope, filled with a sense of community and family togetherness, it does not take long for the following events of the Christmas season to remind us that there is more to this story, to the Christian story, to our story than beauty and tradition.  There is also challenge and danger. 

The first reminder of that came straight after Christmas day.  It is commonly called Boxing Day and is usually celebrated either with wallowing in laziness or going to the sales.  But it is also known as the Feast of St Stephen, which commemorates the martyrdom of one of the first deacons in the church.   When the church began to grow, after the first Pentecost, it started to ordain people as deacons to look after the needs of the burgeoning Christian community.  But the rapid growth of the church created a backlash and Stephen was stoned to death.

Sometimes people say to me that having a faith must be a great comfort and that being ordained must bring great peace, but the martyrdom of Stephen, coming straight after the nativity, reminds us loud and clear that putting our heads above the parapet in the name of Christ can bring consequences from a world which prefers to reject him.

And Wednesday of last week was the festival of the Holy Innocents which commemorates the children of Bethlehem under the age of 2 killed by Herod in his attempt to stop a new King of the Jews arising who might challenge his dynasty.  We don’t normally see that as part of the tableau and can you imagine the local papers if we did, even though it is just as much a part of the story. 

Both the martyrdom of Stephen and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents remind us that the church did not simply grow from the crib without being fiercely resisted by the vested interests in the world, both religious and secular. As the Gospel of John said to us on Christmas Day the light has come into the world and whilst the darkness cannot overcome that light it is also true that the world did not know the light and that those who prefer to keep their deeds hidden in darkness would like nothing better than to snuff out the glimmerings of light at every opportunity. 

If you remember as far back as two weeks ago we thought about Joseph when he found out that his betrothed Mary was with child, and he knew that the baby wasn’t his.  He was minded to quietly break off the engagement until an Angel spoke to him in a dream and told him that the child was indeed from God.  Joseph was prepared to listen to the messenger of God speaking through his dream and he took on both Mary and Jesus as his own, despite the inconvenience and the danger that was to flow from that decision.

In today’s Gospel, which repeats the Holy Innocents reading from last Wednesday and chronologically follows the visit of the Magi even though the Epiphany is next week, the Wise Men have been and gone and have not reported their findings back to Herod.  It is this which will cause Herod to fly into a rage and order the death of all the little ones in an attempt to also kill Jesus, the prophesised King of the Jews.

But God had other plans and, again, spoke to Joseph through an angel in his dream, telling him to take his family and flee to safety in Egypt.

Joseph is obviously sensitive to the promptings of God in this way and, despite having re-located from Nazareth to Bethlehem in difficult circumstances not long before he wakes Mary in the middle of the night, they take up a sleepy Jesus, and they take to the road again.  But, this time, not simply going from one town to another to be counted by the Romans, but going from their homeland into a foreign country to seek asylum from their own king who wanted to kill their child.

If you know your bible history you will know the huge irony in having to flee to Egypt for safety. Although Egypt had once helped to feed the people of Israel during a famine the Hebrews was later been enslaved there and mistreated under increasingly evil pharaohs.  The flight from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, under the leadership of Moses, is one of the founding stories of Israel. 

But now the roles have been reversed.  The people of Israel are under the occupation of the Romans and subject to the murderous whims of their own deranged King.  Joseph and Mary and Jesus have to flee from the promised land back to the land of slavery in order to be safe and free, for the time being.

There is an obvious point to make here, and I am going to make it, although I am not going to labour it today.  Our own society, or at least certain sections of it, are currently vilifying refugees and asylum seekers.  As Christians, we should always resist joining in with such attitudes.  Firstly, because we are taught to love our neighbours, and we should know by now that our neighbours include those who are most unlike us, and, secondly, that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was himself a refugee and asylum seeker and what we do for others is what we would do for him.  If we say that we love God whom we cannot see, but hate those whom we can see who are made in his image, then we are kidding no-one but ourselves.

Having sought refuge in the previous land of slavery the Holy Family make another new life for themselves until Herod dies and, for a third time, an angel speaks to Joseph in a dream and tells him it is time to go back to their homeland.  But this time not back to Bethlehem but all the way back north to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth, which is where Jesus will grow to adulthood, working alongside his father and seeing the fishermen on the sea of Galilee, until he and they are called to new things.

I said at the beginning that I hoped you had made some time to consider the enormity of what it means for God to be born amongst us as one of us. When Joseph and Mary picked up that sleepy young Jesus and fled to keep him safe they were not merely protecting a young child, as any parent would, they also held and protected God the Son, who had stepped into the danger of creation in order to save us.  As the letter to the Hebrews reminded us this morning by becoming human, by taking on our flesh, by experiencing real suffering, Jesus is able to help those who are being tested because there is nothing we can go through which he has not also been through before us, as a human, and which he transformed and redeemed through his resurrection.  As the Hebrews were freed from slavery by coming up out of Egypt so we are set free from the slavery of sin and the fear of death by the one who also came up out of Egypt. 

We are siblings with Jesus and with one another and are all children of God the Father.  Let us love one another like sisters and brothers in Christ, let us love our neighbours as ourselves, let us listen for the voice of God wherever it may be heard, even in our dreams, let us be obedient to the promptings of God even if they are not always comfortable or easy and may this church and our lives become reflections of the light of Christ in the midst of the darkness.