Sermon: Naming and Circumcision of Jesus
Sunday 1 January 2017
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
New Years Day
(Isaiah 63.7-9, Hebrews 2.10-18 and Matthew 2.13-23)
Ramah, where ‘A voice was heard In Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children’ is less than ten miles away from Bethlehem. There is a town on it now. There’s an Israeli educational camping programme named for it, because this to an orthodox Jew, is a name which speaks of remembering Israel’s struggle to survive through the generations.
When Matthew threw it into this account of the flight into Egypt he did so for its many reverberations. This is the place where Rachel, in Genesis, died giving birth to her son. As she died, the Midwife tried to comfort her with the hope that one day she would have a son.
In Jeremiah’s day, Rachel weeps over her children once more (from the other side of the grave), this time because they are being led into captivity and exile near the very spot where she is buried – this is the point where they gather to be sent into exile by the Babylonian soldiers. But then she is comforted with the promise that her children will return. Once again, her offspring are both her cause of weeping and her hope for the future.
In Matthew’s day, Rachel weeps yet again: this time over the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. No words of comfort are given her in Matthew, but the very next verse speaks of Herod’s death and the return of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to the land of Israel. Just as in Jeremiah’s day, the situation seems bleak, but the hope of salvation lives on.
But its fragile, isn’t it, and fraught with the memory of children who haven’t made it through. Children like the ones caught in the crossfire in Aleppo. All who could never be born or who died in infancy or early life and come to mind with the birth of the baby Jesus. Its bittersweet, there are tears along with the hope.
This could just as easily in our time be voiced, probably by a Palestinian ‘A voice was heard in Ramallah, wailing and loud lamentation, Hagar weeping for her children.’ Ramallah, the West Bank city originally inhabited mostly by Christian Palestinians, which has been variously in Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian hands subject to two intifadas and is still part of the contested territories. Many children have died in the crossfire there as well.
I remember vividly doing scriptural reasoning – where people of different faiths, come together with their scriptural texts around common themes. On this occasion Christians, Jews and Muslims came together with texts featuring the same characters, but with the stories told in different ways and from different perspectives. They were stories about Abraham, his wife Sarai, her slave girl Hagar who also became Abraham’s concubine when Sarah could not bear him a child – and then the miracle child Isaac, born to Sarah in fulfilment of God’s promise (made to her when she was already beyond childbearing) and Ishmael, the son born to Hagar after she had been rejected and sent into the desert with her infant son because Sarah could not bear to see him or know of him. Ishmael, seen as the first Arab.
The different versions of this story speak of the origins of the complex and vexed history between the Jewish and Arab peoples, and I was shocked to realise that I’d never heard the Jewish and the Muslim versions of the story, especially when putting them back in the same room could make such a powerful way trying to understand each other’s versions of the story in a way which made more not less sense of one’s own.
Actually, the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt to escape this fate, coming hard on the heels of the Christmas story as Herod seeks to find and destroy this special baby who the Wise Men have sought, do bring all sorts of stories together. The gospel doesn’t have us linger with cooing at the birth for too long. Christmas doesn’t take away the possibility and potential of a broken heart — it purposefully takes it on in a way which opens up the hope of salvation.
What is it which motivates Herod to order the massacre of the innocents, the killing of baby boys? Would we even believe it unless we knew, as we do, of many of the atrocities being committed all over the world today? Fear. When someone is always on the defensive, always at some level fearing for their own survival, always carrying about with them the idea that the worst can happen, and yet can’t even acknowledge it to themselves, they can easily lose their sense of others as human beings with their own vulnerabilities and just see them as danger, to be expelled or destroyed. And if they happen to be in a position of power it’s an even more lethal combination. So, if Herod sees Jesus as a potential rival one day, he needs to do everything he can now, while he can, to take him out.
The less in touch with their own fear they are the more dangerous they are to everyone else. The less in touch we are with our own fear the more dangerous we are to everyone else. Actually, we all have an inner Herod, which sometimes get activated by fear. Of course, ours is likely to take action in much more subtle ways, but if we ever catch ourselves in actions which are undermining another through gossip, or verbally attacking in a disproportionate way, shying away from a homeless person or just plain mean and nasty, we might want to ask ourselves what it is we’re scared of.
And as we move, along with the three kings, towards Epiphany, and the manifestation of the light – the star above the stable, the revelation of the King for the gentiles as well as the Jews, and the light gets brighter, so the shadow come into greater relief. Don’t be surprised that at or after moments of great spiritual breakthrough you get a glimpse into your own mostly hidden darkness. It goes with the territory, and actually as shocking as it sometimes is, to see it for what it is becomes a step in removing its power and moving towards holiness.
The hope this story brings, to counter the fears all around, is that the one who has arrived and who God does bring through his own escape and exodus as an infant, can be the one to help us on our journey, perilous though it might be at times for whatever reason, to get to our destination. Who opens up a way, who helps us, who comes with us, who is on our case to help ensure that we get there, rather than one who simply sits in judgement over us telling us when we’ve got it wrong. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, as Hebrews has it, who God makes perfect through his sufferings. ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.’