Sermon – Holy Innocents

The gospel reading this morning is one of those parts of the Christmas story which can take us by surprise. Indeed, it can be very tempting to miss it out.

I had planned to use the Gospel readings for the first Sunday after Christmas instead, because I felt not a little squeamish about reading the story of Herod ordering the killing of the innocent babies in church. However, as the news of the earthquake in Iran has grown sadder and sadder by the hour over the last couple of days, it seemed more and more right to remember the innocents. To remember those whose lives are lost in ways which can seem meaningless. To try to fit that in somewhere into our notions of Christmas.

There is, of course, nothing holy in being murdered by a despot. The holiness of the innocents derives entirely from their humanity.
There are, on the days following Christmas, three feast days which come one after the other and which are always a little surprising. Boxing Day is the Feast of Stephen the first Martyr. Yesterday was the Feast of St John, the Gospel writer, and now today, we turn back to the Bethlehem story and turn to its darkest moment.

It is something of a paradox that people want to celebrate the story of Christmas at all. What we celebrate has had all kinds of paraphernalia added. Not only have we added North European traditions of Jul Logs, Christmas Elves and Father Christmas blowing in from the snowy north on a reindeer. We have also added a good deal to the basic Bethlehem tale too ? the Ox, the Ass and the Stable are hard to find in the gospels and we turn the Magi into kings at the drop of a richly embroidered hat.

If we told people what is really in the Christmas story, would it be celebrated with as much abandon? Our tale begins with a rather scandalous story about an angel and finishes up with a family running for their lives leaving murder in their wake. It is a bit odd.

There are two parts to the story ? first the flight to Egypt, secondly, Herod?s murderous rule.

If you want a different perspective on a bible story, sometimes, you need to travel. I must admit that I had never thought much about the Flight to Egypt until I had actually been to Egypt, to stay with Christians there. These are people for whom the flight to Egypt is greatly celebrated. The remember this event as being their chance to care for the Christ-Child. Pictures of the Flight to Egypt are in many of the churches and many of the Christian homes. For the presence of the child in Egypt allows them to claim that theirs is a holy land too. And the claim is that the Holy Family travelled up and down the Nile ? settling for a while in what is now Old Cairo.

And there may be some truth in this ? there was certainly a Jewish community there. There was an old synagogue ? Jewish place of worship there which I have seen.

Travelling there, and hearing the stories of the people there, brought it home to me how much the story of the refugee is a part of the Christian Story. In so many centuries people have taken flight in the middle east ? trying to get away from some ruling power or another. Taking to their heels to try to protect their children.

The Christians of Egypt remember the flight of the Holy Family as the time when their ancestors were able to do something to help God and in return they received God?s blessing. The pictures of the Holy Family on the Nile show the child blessing the waters and the earth as they go on their way.

Churches have, for ever since, tended to side with refugees. Would the asylum debate in Scotland be any different if we thought that the refugee family might be carrying the Christ-child. And he might be looking to bless the land and the waters of our country.

But back in Bethlehem, Herod rules for now.

Back in Bethlehem, the children are being killed. Mothers are weeping. The sound fills the land.

It is hard not to see some kind of resonance between Herod and whoever is the latest Middle-Eastern despot at the moment. Like Saddam Hussein and others, Herod?s regime was propped up by a Western Empire and his reign of terror was funded through his complicity with Westerners as much as through what he stole from his own people.

Hearing this, it can be a struggle to find comfort in the Gospel this morning. Yet this was the world into which Christ was born. This was the world which God came into. It was this very world ? in all its reality and pain that God loved enough. Enough to join in.

Though the gospel is a hard one this week, there is good news. Amidst all the bad news of human suffering, needless deaths and loss, comes the news that God loves us. That God has come to us. That God is in the midst of us.

When terrible things happen. We know that God is there. When we are sad and frightened. God is there. When all seems overwhelming. God is there.

The incarnation is true even when the tinsel is taken down. And recognising that, is good news in itself and allows us to join in the task in hand ? building a better kingdom for the king of kings.

God joined in our suffering world and invites us to join in the work of healing the world. Saving the lost and binding up the broken hearted. Standing up for the innocent and doing what we can to bind the wounds of the broken. That we might frustrate all evil designs and establish God?s reign of justice, love and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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