Sermon at St James, Colwall, Christmas 2 2017
Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:2-end; Matthew 2:13-end
Please indulge me a moment as I share with you a little new year ritual that dates back to the years I spent teaching mathematics in secondary schools. We maths teachers would compare notes about what was interesting about this year’s number so that we’d be able to make up sums and puzzles and arithmetical activities with it. For the delight of our students, of course. So 2016 was a gift - it divides up in loads of different ways and also happens to be the 63rd triangular number - it’s what you get if you add up all the numbers from 1 to 63.
But 2017? I have really struggled to come up with something interesting for you about this number. It has no factors, nothing - it really looked most unpromising. But finally I got something - if you take the number of numbers up to 2015 that don’t share a factor with 2015 and do the same thing for 2016 you get, guess what? The number of numbers that don’t share a factor with 2017! Trust me, that is something else. It is very unusual. Could it mean that 2017 will be as good a year as 2015 and 2016 added together?
Well no, of course not, enough of this number nonsense. We’re still in the Christmas season, so let’s get back to the story. Ah, but what a story it is, not like last week’s comforting stable - now it’s speaking of exile, an unspeakable atrocity and a nervous return home, of sorts, for the holy family. What do I mean, of sorts? Well let’s face it, the nativity narratives are pretty confusing - this reading seems to imply that Nazareth was somewhere new for Mary & Joseph, but read Luke and he says that’s where they started from.
Does it matter? Probably not, and we’ll certainly never know in this world. We do need to bear in mind that one of Matthew’s primary aims here was to show how the old testament prophecies were fulfilled, how it was all part of God’s plan. He was writing for a Jewish audience and he was seeking to promote the idea that Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish history and prophecy. He was also pointing up for them a parallel with the way Jacob and his brothers and descendants had found refuge in Egypt before it became a living hell for them and Moses, another helpless baby, remember, was called to lead them to the promised land.
Which is all very well, but however we look at it, it’s certainly a very provocative reading. The thing that strikes me most about the notorious massacre, for example, is just how spare it is. There is no description, no gory details, just ... an order. And a prophecy fulfilled. It’s all left to our imagination. To imagine the horror of dead babies and devastated mothers, lives shattered by an order from a tyrant who stayed well out of the way. So we’re also left to imagine, who actually did the deed?
From other writings, I gather it seems likely that Herod’s soldiers, at this late stage in his life, were local Judean conscripts. I wonder how they took to this order? Was this what they signed up for? Was this being a soldier? Did they have a choice? Comply or die was the choice, I suspect. And how would they live with themselves afterwards? There’s a whole train of thought to be followed there about the glorious and less glorious aspects of soldiering, which I really don’t feel qualified to talk about, but is none the less important for that.
Instead I’m going to pick up on an idea that came from a blog I was reading, which initially struck me as ridiculous, but on reflection I’m not so sure. It goes like this - Matthew in this reading was undoubtedly saying something about power. He used this example of outrageous abuse of power to contrast with the way God was doing things - through an unthreatening, helpless baby coming to show the power of love. Now of course, we don’t have Herod’s sort of power, so we can’t abuse it can we? But not having Herod’s sort of power doesn’t mean we have no power. Maybe the example is too OTT for us to get the point.
Because we do have power. For example, most of us have spending power. We have money to make choices and the leisure to enjoy them. We go to restaurants and expect to be cooked for and waited on. We shop online, because we can, and van drivers scurry round the country in response to our wishes. It’s a different kind of power and I think most of us would admit to quite liking it.
So yes, Herod was vile and this is a story about tyranny and innocent victims, but it’s not just about that. Let me quote from the sermon I’m referencing:
Matthew wants to say something about such things, but this story of the horrible extreme also points to more mundane, ordinary, workaday things. Could it be that like his sayings about tearing out a sinful eye, or a log in the hypocrite’s eye, or cutting down every fruitless tree, the extreme picture is used to shake us into alertness about our everyday experience? This sorry story of power’s abuse speaks to shopping, and home, and work, and leisure. Asks us to look again at how we – each of us - uses our power.
Well, that’s the idea - make of it what you will. The essential point is that this reading sets up the whole gospel story - among the followers of Jesus, notions of power must be different.
Although I enjoy playing with numbers, I really don’t think the numerical labels we put on days and years are of any significance at all - they are just for reference. So the fact, that it’s January 1st 2017 doesn’t mean anything really new, is starting. Things will go on the same, if we let them. It’s the power of God that can change things. Let us pray then, that he will help us to understand this, his power in our lives.