A Sermon Preached on The First Sunday of Christmas
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
December 29, 2019 11:00 am
The readings (according to the Common Worship lectionary of the Church of England, which diverges from the Revised Common Lectionary) were: Isaiah 63.7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2.10-18, and Matthew 2.13-23.
[Herod] was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. Matthew 2.16b
Herod then with fear was filled;
‘A prince’, he said, ‘in Jewry!’
All the little boys he killed
at Bethl’em in his fury,
at Bethl’em in his fury.
— Unto Us A Boy Is Born (1928) 15th century Latin carol, translated by Percy Dearmer (1867-1936)
Well, that’s a dark story, isn’t it? And yet it speaks to the reality of Christmas.
It is not just a simple story of the birth of an enlightened being who comes to show the truth and help us get through life, but the story of someone who was opposed and in danger of his life.
As I mentioned on Christmas Eve, according to Raymond Brown, the eminent New Testament scholar, the events and characters in the Infancy Narratives prefigure Jesus in his later life. They also call back to Jewish tradition.
- Herod represents the later Roman authorities and the corrupt Judean leadership that seeks the death of Jesus, and are not particular about collateral damage.
- Jesus finding safety in Egypt is like the sons of Jacob finding a refuge in Israel, prepared for them by Joseph. It is the proverbial place of refuge for those escaping tyranny in Israel, including the prophet Jeremiah.
- Jesus is called out of Egypt, as Israel was called out of slavery, and Jesus is to prepare his own exodus or salvific exit.
- The Holy Innocents represent all those who would die on account of Jesus and the intervention of God in history, beginning with Stephen the Deacon, the first Martyr, and on through millions more.
- Rachel, the mother of the children of Israel, weeps for her children – and this represents the weeping to come.
So we have Jesus entering a dangerous world – which, without doubt, it was. After all, it tortured and killed him.
Of course, this is probably not our experience. Most of us experience indifference, not suffering. And yet it continues in the present day.
- On Christmas Day the terrorist group in Nigeria known as the “Islamic State West African Province” murdered eleven hostages – ten Christians and one Muslim.
- On Christmas Eve Boko Haram, on a raid in a village in northern Nigeria, killed seven people and kidnapped one woman.
- On Easter Sunday in Columbo, Sri Lanka, 259 people were killed and over 500 injured in a series of bombings.
One could go on. But you get the picture. Christians are subject to attack by extremist groups.
So what is one to do? We have a variety of options.
- Perhaps we could just ignore it all. Turn off the media, and just read books or stream Netflix. Yes, it is perhaps more comforting if we live in blissful ignorance, but I doubt that is what we are called to do.
- Some would say that the problem is particular religions, but this ignores the fact that all religions (including Christianity) has had, or currently has, individuals and groups that believe violence is justified against other faiths. The number of these violent people is invariably small in comparison to the vast numbers who live quite peacefully, so it is probably not a problem with any religion’s beliefs, but the way they have been interpreted.
- Some atheists suggest that all religions are inherently violent. Some believe that if we just all became good secular people then it would be fine. Well, no – just look at what secular regimeshave done in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, and elsewhere. Unbridled capitalism or mercantilism similarly has little regardfor indigenous peoples.
- Some would suggest that we need to support Christians being persecuted, as suggested by the newly re-elected Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, in his Christmas message.
Yes, but that suggests we value Christian lives over those of others. And the point of the Holy Innocents and our commemoration of them is that they were not Christians in any sense. They were children under the age of two who were innocent victims. They were Judeans, children of Israel. And yet we celebrate them as being the first martyrs.
Therefore, as Christians, we are equally horrified when people are killed for any ideology and for any faith:
- On March 15 in Christchurch NZ of this year the murder of 51 Muslims and injury of 49 more.
- The attack and murder earlier this month on three Jews in Jersey City, next to New York, and the Hannukah gathering attack in Monsey, NY that left five injured.
- The murder of eleven at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
- The internment of over one million Uigersin China – a Turkic speaking Muslim people in western China.
- The murder of six men at Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29, 2017.
- The ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohinga, involving the deaths of 24,000 individuals, in majority Theravedan Buddhist Myanmar.
- The Montreal Massacre of December 6, 1989, in which a gunman killed 14 women on account of their gender.
As Christians we are called to speak out on the value and dignity of all human life, and to challenge those who would divide people into us and them, and demean the others. Our western values, as enshrined in human rights, are deeply rooted in Christian values, and shared with peoples of many faiths. The enemy is violence and extremism in any faith or ideology that dehumanizes others in order to promote its own. We ought to be just as wary of Christian extremism as any other type.
We have many opportunities to act.
- We can become active in and support non-governmental agencies that are concerned with human rights, among whom are:
- Consider who to vote for – those of us who still have votes! Do the candidates or parties on the ballot have a robust support for human rights and democracies? This is not an issue of the left or the right – it is much much more basic than that.
- We can engage in local inter-religious dialogue and community building. A few Saturdays ago three of us Anglican Christians met in the Jewish synagogue Etz Hayyim in Chania, with ordinary people in the region from the Orthodox church, the Catholic church, the synagogue, and the Sunni Muslim mosque. There was a consensus, in the shadow of the heavy history all around us, that we are called to be in relationship and to become friends, to learn and to break bread together. And so, I hope and pray that we will gather soon for a social occasion.
- Finally, we should pray – for those undergoing persecution, for God to raise up tolerant leaders and democracies that uphold human rights, and for violence to be ended.
To do nothing is an option., I suppose. But as we celebrate the one who was born at Christmas, let us consider that do nothing two thousand years ago was also an option for God. God nevertheless entered into history in the person of Jesus Christ in defiance of Herod and other corrupt rulers, and ultimately to confront sin and death itself on the cross delivered to him by Pontius Pilate. As we recall those innocent victims who died so long ago, let us work to stop the oppression of their brothers and sisters today.