Everything’s changed! Sermon for Easter Sunday 2015

Texts: John 20.1-18

Acts 10:34-43

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The day after the Sabbath, two days after his execution, disciples of Jesus come to his tomb. Now, when I say disciples, you probably think I mean some of the inner twelve (or eleven, if you take Judas Iscariot out of it)- those men who are often the ones whom the Church has honoured with statues and stained glass windows.

But the four Gospels are unanimous it saying that it was women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Continue reading

Judged in our place: a sermon on the Passion of Christ: 29 March 2015

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
29 March 2015, Palm Sunday (Year A, Narrative Lectionary (alt))
SERMON
Gospel Readings: Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 27:11–56
Sermon
Judged in our place

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have a fondness for the American humorist James Thurber- one of the few writers who can make me laugh out loud. He has a very funny short story called ‘The Macbeth Murder Mystery‘, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1937, at the height of the craze for whodunnits- detective stories (in The Thurber Carnival Penguin 1965, p83ff).

Continue reading

Sorted! A sermon on the parable of the Last Judgement- Sunday 22 March 2015

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
22 March 2014, Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A, Narrative Lectionary)
SERMON
Gospel Reading: Matthew 25.31-46
Sermon: Sorted!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Bible story we heard today is a parable- a story Jesus told his followers to teach an important truth about God and God’s Kingdom. Quite often we call this one ‘the parable of the sheep and the goats’ because of a simile, a comparison, Jesus uses- just once- in the story. He says that the people are separated, just a shepherd separates sheep and goats. That is a picture which those who heard the story for the first time would be well familiar with- sheep and goats often grazed together, and shepherds had to separate them out.

But the sheep and goats simile only appears once- it’s almost a throwaway line. For the setting of this story isn’t really the green fields of the countryside at all. And the main character isn’t a shepherd. The main character is a king, and the setting a royal court, and King is judging.

In the English language, it’s interesting that the place for a trial- a court- is also the word we use for the surroundings of a king. We talk about the Court of Session- a place for legal proceedings- but we also talk about the royal court- the courtiers are those who surround the Queen and the Royal Family. That’s because in Britain, all our courts are technically the Queen’s courts- and that goes back to a long tradition that one of the chief duties of a monarch was to see that justice was done. Already in the Bible, we have the story of the wisdom of Solomon- an ancient Israelite king faced with a difficult legal problem, and how he solves it. For in ancient times, the King himself would often have been the judge.

Jesus’ hearers were ordinary folk, often farmers, and they would be far more likely to have seen a shepherd separate out his flock that to have been in a royal palace, watching a king dispense legal judgements. But they would have known about royal judgements. They lived in a world where a few people had immense power to judge others. It was a power often used arbitrarily. There are many references to Old Testament prophets who condemned those in power for judging in favour of themselves and their cronies. The prophets cried out for righteous judgements, that would protect the weak and the powerless, not the strong and the rich, as so often happened.

But the greatest king and judge for the Jews was God. And so here is Jesus talking about the end times, the coming of a divine figure called the Son of Man, who comes as a king and acts like a judge. And in this story, there are two aspects which I’d like to ponder with you. This is a story which is about judgement. And it is about how what are judged on.

The king has before him all the nations of the world- for it was common on Jewish theology of the period to picture the world, at the end of time, being judged. This makes us uncomfortable (I suppose it’s supposed to). Jesus used the title ‘Son of Man’ to refer to himself, and so the Church has always understood that in this story, it is Jesus who is doing the judging. We are a bit unaccustomed to thinking of Jesus in that role, as king and judge, for that is not a role we usually see the historical Jesus taking in the Gospel stories. Indeed, in the next week or two of the Christian year, approaching Holy Week and Good Friday, we will be thinking of Jesus himself as a prisoner, put on trial and condemned in a set of unfair court cases. He is not often depicted as one with great power at his command.

Very often, when Jesus spoke of judgement it was to forgive. ‘Go and sin no more’, he says to a woman caught in adultery. ‘Your sins are forgiven’ he says to a man he’s just healed, causing a scandal. That Christ brings forgiveness is a the heart of our faith. And so he tells his followers to emulate him, ‘Do not judge others, for if you do, you will bring judgement upon yourselves’. And so we liberal-minded Presbyterians try hard to avoid being ‘judgemental’.

The Last Judgment (Weltgericht) cica 1435 Oil and gold on oak panel Stefan Lochner (circa 1400/1410–1451) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But this parable is about judgement, and it is Jesus who is doing the judging. The parable speaks of splitting people up, as if they were sheep and goats, and some are sent to the right, and some are sent to the left. The people on the right are told they will possess the kingdom, and the people on the left are told they are being sent to an eternal fire with the Devil and his angels. We’ve all seen works of art which deal with this story- and probably, as we looked at the sufferings of the people on the left (for that is where our eyes are usually drawn) that there was something deeply unchristian about imagining that some people were to be condemned to eternal suffering.

It has to be said that this is a parable- a story, a word picture. It not a prediction of the future. Parables paint a picture- they are really saying, not that this is how it will be, but that it will be like this. Last week we heard that the Kingdom would be like a Jewish wedding. But the end of the world will not be an actual Jewish wedding. And this week, as we hear that at the end there will a King on a throne, sending one group of people one way and the others to another place- we know that this is picture language, don’t we? So we don’t take it literally. But we are meant to take it seriously.

Today we will celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism at the Old High Church (and next week at St Stephen’s). In the last few centuries, the baptism of children was so common that it became overlaid with traditions and customs which rather swamped its original meaning and purpose. It became a naming ceremony, or a time to celebrate the gift of a new child. And those things are fine, but they are not at the heart of the ceremony.

For the water in baptism represents a number of things. Yes, it is celebrating life- for we cannot live without water. But it also represents washing- the washing away of sins. The washing of baptism about the forgiveness of sins- not that, in a tiny baby, there is much to forgive, but a reminder to us all that we will all sin, that we all need forgiveness. For none of us goes through life without doing things that are wrong, that place us under the necessity of seeking forgiveness- from God, and from others whom we have wronged. None of us gets through life without having stained our clean sheet, blotted our copybook as the saying goes.

Baptism, because it speaks of forgiveness, therefore reminds us that there are things we need to be forgiven of. For, as today’s parable reminds us, we all stand under judgement. God can look at our lives and see where we have failed to come up to the mark. God can look at our lives and see where we have hurt other people. God can look at our lives and see where we have failed to do the right thing.

But of course, we can do that for ourselves, too. We all of us know that, in many respects, we have failed. We judge ourselves- we know that we are not perfect. Often, though, we try to avoid and ignore that. We put on a brave face, pretend to the world, and ourselves, that we’re not that bad. But in our most honest moments, we know, don’t we, that if there is an all-seeing God, we would deserve to stand under his judgement. So the first message of this parable is that judgement is real. God sees into our hearts and would be entitled to condemn us for those things which we have done wrong.

But the second matter which this parable about is we are judged on. What is the charge, what are we supposed to have done? What are the big sins that Jesus is interested in, the ones which are so serious that, in the picture language Jesus uses in this story, they could be said to make the difference between eternal life and eternal punishment? Is it that I stole some pencils from the office? Is it that I chose the wrong religion, that I am a Muslim or an atheist and not a Christian? It is that I once committed adultery? Is it that I like a beer too often? Is it that I got angry with my children the other day?

This is a parable- picture language- so we don’t get the entire law book. But what is listed fascinating. To those on his right, the King/Judge in the story says that they are to possess the Kingdom because, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ And when the people on his right express astonishment: ‘when did we ever see you hungry or sick or in prison or homeless?’ the Judge says, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’

Jesus once said of the scribes and the Pharisees- the strict religious teachers of his day- that although they liked to make laws for others, they would never lift a finger to help anyone (Matthew 23.3ff). They talked the talk, but wouldn’t walk the walk. We are judged on what we do practically for the sake of the ‘least important’. In the second part of the parable, those who are condemned are judged the same way- they didn’t feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick or the prisoner, and so they stand condemned. When people ask what a Christian should do, we often think it’s about going to church, studying the Bible, saying our prayers- and so we should. But this parable makes it very clear that what is important to God is the practical actions we take to look after those in need.

It’s interesting to me that the visiting of prisoners is in there. In the early days of the Christian church, I’m sure that would have been understood by the Christian community as meaning that the wider Christian community should care for those imprisoned for their faith- for persecution was very common. As it still is, in many parts of the world, today. We ought to do what we can, and support practically to the extent we are able, persecuted Christians around the world (for what is happening to the Christian communities of the Middle East in Syria and Iraq is horrifying).

Yet closer to home there are prisoners as well, and not all of them in prisons for the kind of thing we would think of as a crime. It is no wonder that there are so many people trying to come to live in the comparative peace and safety of our own country, when the alternative might be rape, murder or torture in their own countries. The wars and violence which affect so many place around the world affect our own country- the reason why there are so many seeking asylum here.

This week there has been a hunger strike by inmates at the Dungavel detention centre in Lanarkshire. If you hadn’t heard it, don’t worry, because it’s not been reported much in the media (presumably they had run out of space, what with budget and everything). Dungavel is, effectively, a prison, though those who are there have never appeared in an ordinary court. Their ‘crime’ is that they have failed to prove to the authorities that they have a right to asylum or refugee status, and they are kept there until they can be taken home. Many of them are there for months, and the conditions are not pleasant. The detainees include women and children.

Their plight has brought a call from the Church of Scotland, and others including the Scottish Trades Unions Congress, for a delegation to visit to hear about the detainees’ concerns. The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, Convener of the Church and Society Council, has said: ‘As a nation we must be deeply concerned at the news that a number of asylum seekers being imprisoned at Dungavel have become so desperate that they are refusing to eat in an effort to bring attention to their plight’. But I wonder if, as nation, we are all that concerned? A million people have signed a petition to get Jeremy Clarkson back on the telly. But Dungavel has hardly made the news. ‘I was sick and in prison and you would not take care of me’. What a judgement.

And in Holy Week, we see Christ himself under judgement, imprisoned, tortured and condemned to die. What’s fascinating about this parable is that it begins by asking to imagine Christ as a Judge and King- the person who decides what happens to the least of these. But by the end of it, we are seeing Christ in the sick and hungry- and even in the imprisoned. Our judge is one of the judged. For our sake, he chooses to be judged as one of us. At the start of his preaching career, Jesus was himself baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It was as if he was saying, ‘I’m going to stand alongside these imperfect, broken, hurting human beings who absolutely deserve God’s judgement, and be judged alongside them’.

And there, I think, is what our baptism represents, the heart of the Gospel- the possibility that Jesus, life, death and resurrection both judges us, and makes forgiveness and renewal possible. We can only lose our sense of guilt if we let God take care of it. And then we will be set free to serve the world- ready, joyfully, to look after the stranger who needs a home, and prisoner who needs a visit, the sick person who needs our care. For now we know that when we see their face, we see the face of Christ, who is both our judge- but is also judged in our place, to make forgiveness possible.

Ascription of Praise

How deep are the wealth
and the wisdom
and the knowledge of God!
How inscrutable God’s judgements,
how unsearchable God’s ways!
From God and through God and for God
all things exists-
to God be glory for ever! Amen!

Romans 11.33,36 (alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo

Oil crisis! A sermon on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins 15 March 2015

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
15 March 2015, The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A, Narrative Lectionary
SERMON
Gospel Reading: Matthew 25:1-13
Sermon: Oil crisis!

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this’ says Jesus. It’s a familiar enough start to one of Jesus’ parables. But what do you think of when you hear those words? For many of us, the Kingdom is what we often use to describe the ongoing activity of God in the world. Jesus, we believe, has initiated this new movement- his Kingdom. As more and more people become involved, as more and more the goodness of God is seen in the world- that’s the Kingdom, isn’t it- so we say! And heaven? Well, that’s for afterwards. The place we go when we die- a rest after all our work for the sake of the Kingdom.

‘The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this’. And then Jesus tells us a story- a story which makes us think (as always). A story about ancient Jewish wedding customs, involving foolish and sensible young women, a bridegroom who arrives late, oil lamps that are running low, and a wedding part that only some people are admitted to. What has any of this to do with doing the work of God’s Kingdom in our world? What has any of it to do with our hope for eternal rest with God in heaven, the next world? In fact, what has any of this to do with anything? Continue reading

All we need! A sermon on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: 1 March 2015, The Second Sunday in Lent

Old Testament Reading: Psalm 16.5-11

Gospel Reading: Matthew 20:1-16

(Year A, Narrative Lectionary)

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘That’s not fair!’ is a phrase which parents are very familiar with. If one child gets a bit more cake, than his brother, of if little sister gets to watch TV while big sister has to tidy her room, we hear the plaintive cry, ‘That’s not fair’. Children soon develop a find sense of justice- especially if it’s an injustice to them, as they see it.

I think most children would ask of our Gospel parable today: ‘Is it fair?’ For it is a story about a strange kind of fairness. Jesus tells us of farmer who hires men for the day to work in his vineyard. He goes to the marketplace early in the morning and hires some men for the day. And because, presumably, he needs more of them, he goes back at nine o’clock and twelve o’clock and three o’clock and even at five o’clock. Continue reading

A glimpse of light: a sermon for Transfiguration Sunday 2015

Texts:

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17.1-9

A glimpse of light

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Nowadays, we quite often say that fanatical fans of pop stars, sports stars or other celebrities ‘idolise’ their heroes, and we often speak of such famous people as ‘idols’. We mean nothing especially pejorative about the term- when we say that some sportsman or pop star is an ‘idol’ to his fans, that’s a fairly morally neutral term in today’s culture. We just think it’s slightly crazy that, especially young people, should show such an interest in these performers.

But the word idols has its roots in the Bible, and where it very much has negative overtones Continue reading

Ordinary people, fantastic events: sermon for 8 February 2013

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (Narrative Lectionary)

SERMON
Text: Matthew 14.13-33

Discipleship in the fast lane
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

What I like about the Gospels is that they are very realistic. That might seem a strange thing to say, when we have just heard stories of miraculous feeding and walking on water. The miraculous and unlikely is certainly part of the Gospels. But there are also realistic- the things people do, even in extraordinary situation, the way they react, is often very true to life. People appear in the Gospels warts and all. That’s especially true of Jesus’ disciples, who come across, not as plaster saints, but as very fallible human beings, who often make mistakes and constantly misunderstand their master. Continue reading

Getting Wet: a sermon for Sunday 11 January 2015 (The Baptism of the Lord)

SERMON

Text: Matthew 3.1-17

Getting wet

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Surely one of the worst things that could possibly happen to someone is to be arrested for a crime you haven’t committed. Bad enough that you might spend years in jail. Worse, however, to be branded a criminal, to be told you are guilty when you know you are not guilty. It’d be terrible to be criminalised by mistake. And who would choose to be treated like a criminal?

By NickGibson3900 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By NickGibson3900 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Continue reading

Seeking the light: a sermon for Epiphany Sunday, 4 January 2015

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 4 January 2015: The Second Sunday of Christmas

SERMON
Text: Matthew 2:1-23

Seeking the light

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Imagine I had time machine, and was able to go back in time and find King Herod. And supposing he agreed to come with me to the twenty-first century, so that he could come to this church and speak to us today. What might he have to say to us…

You people think you know all about me. You have me categorised- you have me filed away in your minds with the tyrants you hate and fear- Herod the baby- killer, lumped in with the likes of Stalin, Hitler and the Arab dictators killing their people in your own age. But that’s too easy. You’ve made me a scapegoat, without ever having heard things from my point of view.

Consider my position. I had mighty responsibilities. First century Judea was a difficult place to rule. A rumour of a new king threatened to upset the balance of power. When these wise men from the east appeared in my palace and said, ‘We have come to worship the baby born to be King of the Jews’, my first thought was, ‘That’s all I need’.

For a start, I was the King of the Jews. Now, you may think that sounds great- king, I can do what I like, get to live in a palace and all that. Well, let me tell you, getting to be King of the Jews, and staying there, was hard work. I might be the King of the Jews now, but, as you say in Scotland, my jacket was on a shoogly nail.

For Palestine was an uncertain place in the first century. A bit like the Central Asia, or much of Africa, at the start of the 21st century. Lots of little kingdoms and tribes battling for supremacy, years of minor wars fuelled by ethnic and religious rivalries. And just over the horizon, a superpower- the Roman Empire. Rome needed someone to sort things out in Palestine. They preferred not do it themselves- perhaps one of the local warlords would oblige. I was their man.

With Rome’s backing, I went to war, and made myself the most powerful man in the region. I brought ruthless war to Palestine, but in the end I brought a kind of peace to the warring factions- even if it meant the execution of most of my opponents. The Roman Senate rewarded me with the title of King of Judea. I built great cities, and built a grand new temple for Jerusalem. I looked after my people, even remitting their taxes when times were hard.

But as time went on I had to be more ruthless. When you are a king, even your family can be a threat. Family squabbles among royals can lead to civil war, if you aren’t careful. I had my wife, my mother-in-law, and three of my sons assassinated. For political reasons, of course. The same kind of political reasons that led me to murder hundreds of other religious and government officials during my reign. Collateral damage. The had to die, for the sake of my position, for reasons of high policy, to keep the peace, to keep Rome happy.

None of you are allowed to kill children. There’s never any reason for it, in the life of a citizen, a civilian. But we rulers- those of us in government- we operate by different rules. Sometimes you have to be tough, ruthless. Sometimes there is collateral damage, innocent people get hurt- even children. So heads of state are allowed to kill.

There were those who said I overdid it. They said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. They said I got more suspicious, more cruel, as my long reign continued.

But Judea was a dangerous place. I had to make sure Rome was happy, make sure they got their taxes paid, if I was to keep my position. Rome would have no truck with any weakness from me.

This incident about the children of Bethlehem- pretty minor. A small town, so perhaps 20 or 30 children involved. Only infants after all, none of them over two year old. It began, as I said, when the Magi turned up. I knew these sorts of people, have a lot of respect for them. Advisers and teachers of the kings of Persia. Experts in astrology, in law, in religion. The sort of men you could respect, for they were guardians of an ancient tradition, their word was reliable.

When men like that travel a distance and demand to see the King- well, of course, you meet them. I thought that perhaps they were ambassadors from Persia. But no, they were here on their own account. They had been watching the stars- that was their job, after all, to watch the stars and advise their masters accordingly. And they had seen a new star- or some kind of strange phenomenon in the sky. A sign that something special had occurred.

They came to me because the rumour was that a new king would sometime be born in Judea- a king who would be greater than all the kings who came before. They put two and two together, and had decided that the new star meant that the new king would be born in my domains.

I was troubled by this news, and so was all Jerusalem- that is, everyone in government circles. I decided to bring in my theological advisers. Where is the great king to be born, I asked. ‘Bethlehem- the birthplace of King David’ came the reply. I now needed to send the astrologers on their way, and use them to help me find the baby. I got together with them again, made sure of their dates and times, and sent them off on their quest, piously telling them that I would like to know the result of their search, as I too would like to go and worship this special king.

Well, they did find him- but they must have sussed me out. They slipped back to their own country without telling me where they had found this special child. Drastic action was called for. And so I sent the army in. They tracked down all the children in Bethlehem born within the last two years, and killed them. Oh, there was weeping and wailing- killing innocent children is never exactly popular. But what did they expect me to do? I had my interests to protect. Rome was breathing down my neck. I couldn’t possibly countenance the thought of another King of the Jews. And the annoying part of it is that apparently the one I was looking for got away…

Do you find Herod’s explanation believable? It’s the explanation used by trying to justify war, or terrorists justifying violence. When children were massacred at Dunblane, it was terrible, but it was one deranged man who did it. What was so awful about the more recent school massacre in Pakistan is that, somewhere in that region, there is a man who gave the order for it, and that people carried out, and in some warped philosophy they thought they could rationally justify it. That’s what’s terrifying for the rest of us, and that’s what’s terrifying about Herod, that’s what terrifying about anyone who finds a way to rationalise the killing of children.

Most of what I just put into the mouth of Herod is based on what we know of him, not just from the Bible, but from other sources. He was in some respects a ‘successful’ ruler. But his success was bought at a heavy price. It is said that when he knew he was dying, he had many of the most important people of Jerusalem arrested on trumped up charges and gave orders that they should be killed when he died. ‘He said grimly that he was well aware that no one would mourn for his death, but that he was determined that some tears should be shed when he died’. So you see the story of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem, although it is only found in the Bible, is perhaps not so far-fetched after all. It is entirely consistent with what we know about Herod’s character- it may well have been that way.

And so Herod goes down in history as the first person to try to resist what God was doing in Jesus Christ. A new born baby is harmless- surely it can’t be a danger to anyone. But this child was a danger to Herod. He knows that, his advisers know that. Perhaps the wise men realise that two. But these pagan astrologers react quite differently to Herod. Herod, a Jewish ruler, reacts with alarm to the news that the greatest ever King of the Jews has been born. The Magi come and worship.

Already, Matthew the Gospel writer is setting the story he is going to tell. Jesus is born as a result of God’s action- he is a special child, born of a Virgin, his birth heralded by a star. And yet it is not all plain sailing. He will not be immune to the dangers and perils of human life. Some will resist him- no sooner is he born than King Herod tries to kill him. Some will be faithful to him. His father Joseph listens to what God has to say, and does his part. He doesn’t break off his engagement to Mary, and he takes his young family into exile in Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. And some will realise just how special he is- the Magi travel from afar to worship him.

And some will suffer because of him. Life is messy. Jesus might escape with his life- this time- but it is at the expense of other the children of Bethlehem- his contemporaries. In Matthew’s Christmas story there is real pain, as he quotes the Scriptures:

‘A sound is heard in Ramah,
the sound of bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted
for they are dead’.

This is a terrible story. Here is a massacre, carried out in cold blood, just so that a suspicious and murderous old king can get rid of a rival. Nothing can excuse Herod’s actions. Yet such things happen in our world. Children get killed for all kinds of reasons. And there is something terrible about the death or abuse of innocent children, something that provokes in us some very deep repulsion. We are talking about children less than two years old here- children who depend on adults for all their needs. For adults to abuse that trust is something terrible. For adults to be able to rationalise it- for political or religious ends- is terrifying.

And yet it is often the way. Children so often fall victim to the adults of the world. They are so often the first victims of war, violence, famine, abuse, poverty, disease. Rachel will not be comforted. The death of children is a dark, terrible event. And it has happened throughout history, and it is still happening today.

How can this happen? How can God allow this to happen? What explanations can the Bible give? Perhaps no explanation- Rachel refuses to be comforted. Instead- this story, this terrible story, about how the birth of God’s son- the Prince of Peace- is accompanied by the death of innocent children. God, it seems, cannot come into our world without provoking a reaction, without there being suffering and death and grief.

This story offers no explanation as to why children suffer. It simply tells us that we knew- that helpless children are subject to the whims of adults, and that they all too often become victims. And yet perhaps the fact that that story is there in the Bible tells us something. The fact that such darkness is to found in the Bible, even among our best-loved Christmas stories, is a reminder that Scripture deals, not with fairy tales, but with real human life.
For in the midst of this massacre, as the women weep as their children are killed- God is there. God has come into this world in which innocent die and suffer, into this world of grief and uncertainty, into this world where the sort of wickedness we find in a Herod is always present. God comes into this world, and acts, and it is painful, and it is not simple. God allows himself to depend on a carpenter for his safety. God becomes a refugee, has to flee into exile, has a narrow scrape with death.

The Magi Journeying James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Magi Journeying James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet this story also gives us a clue how to react to such evil. The Magi were, I suspect, establishment figures in the country they came from. They were the wise men of the Persian Empire, advisers to the king in their own country. They were astrologers, but in an age when astrology was a respectable science. So it is not surprising that, when they work out a new king is being born in Judea, they head for the capital city, and are admitted to see King Herod and his advisers. They are used to the corridors of power, used to the sort of off-the-record meeting that they have with Herod: ‘So Herod called the visitors from the East to a secret meeting and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions: “Go and make a careful search for the child; and when you find him, let me know, so that I too may go and worship him”’. Herod would fully expect his distinguished visitors to comply with that instruction.

After their consultations in Jerusalem the Magi head for Bethlehem, and since they trust the stars, they seem unfazed at finding the child there. They worship the child, present their gifts. And then they do something unusual, we might think, for people so much part of the establishment, used to serving kings, used to obeying higher authority. They commit an act of civil disobedience: ‘Then they returned to their country by another road, since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod’.

In so doing, they save the child born to be king. They put God’s revelation above the demands of the local ruler. And sometimes we will have to do that. For the sake of the children, for the sake of the good, sometimes conscience demands that we return by another road- even if that means defying the demands of the powerful.

Another great religious teacher, the Buddha, once remarked that ‘It is… our perception that existence is awry that forces us to find an alternative which prevents us falling into despair’ 3. There is something wrong with the world when children suffer. Pretending that our world is not like that- pretending that our world is a Christmas card world- will not help. But the Bible says that into this awry world comes God, in Jesus Christ.

He was called Emmanuel, God with us. That’s the real meaning of Matthew’s story. In this world of grief, pain, and innocent suffering, we are not alone. God is with us. This can be uncomfortable. It might lead to a violent reaction- and ever since the massacre of Bethlehem, violent people have made more martyrs in an attempt to suppress the Kingdom of God. But God is with us, and depends on us, just as God once he depended on Joseph and the Wise Men to protect the Christ-child. When innocents suffer, we are to speak up and resist. When brute power threatens humanity, we are sometimes to go home by another way. And we can do so safe in the knowledge that even when we weep, and cannot be comforted- God is with us. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out, says John’s Gospel (John 1.5). We need no more.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father,
whose children suffered at the hands of Herod
though they had done no wrong;
give us grace neither to act cruelly
nor to stand indifferently by,
but to defend the weak from the tyranny of the strong;
in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for us,
but is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

NOTES

Biblical references from the Good News Bible

The two quotations about Herod are from W Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 p29

Buddha is quoted in K Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, px

© 2015 Peter W Nimmo

‘So we’re not without hope’- a sermon for Christmas Eve Watchnight 2014

Texts: Gospel Reading: Luke 2.1-20

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Such a familiar story as the Christmas story can start to sound like a fairy tale, a story which washes over us in what we like to think is a season of goodwill. Yet without this story, nothing makes sense. Without the baby in the manger, Christmas is empty of meaning. Celebrating Christmas without Christ is like celebrating a birthday without inviting the birthday boy. Yet I’m more and more convinced that the story of Christ being born at Bethlehem upends so many of our preconceptions about faith, God, and the world. Especially it upsets the sense that many people have that God is not really involved in the world.

I studied in Glasgow, and then the city was my home for a number of years. Continue reading