Friday, 14 December 2018

The Massacre of the Innocents

A sermon preached at
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9 December 2018

Exodus 1.6-2:10 
Matthew 2.13-18
Jeremiah 31.15-17, 31-34

Last week, a group of us from church
            went to visit the Ashurbanipal exhibition in the British Museum.

In case you haven’t heard of him,
            Ashurbanipal was king of the largest empire in the world at the time
             - the Assyrian Empire.

He was king for about 40 years, from 668 BCE - 627 BCE,
            and was the son of Esarhaddon, the grandson of Sennacherib,
            and the great grandson of Sargon II.

These four men presided over an empire
            that stretched from Cyprus in the west to Iran in the east,
            and which at one point it even included Egypt.

Its capital Nineveh (in modern-day Iraq) was the world’s largest city
            at a time when the Greek city-states (like Athens and Sparta)
                        were still in their infancy
            and Rome was just a small settlement.

Ashurbanipal wasn’t modest about being the king of the Assyrian empire
             – he called himself ‘king of the world’!
Quite a claim, but given the size of the empire,
            it wasn’t far from the truth.

One of the things that the exhibition left us in no doubt about
            was that the Assyrians were a bloodthirsty lot when it came to war.
They were merciless with their enemies,
and brutal in their punishments.

And the significance of the Assyrians for us this morning
            is that they lie firmly in the background
                        to the distressing story from Matthew’s gospel
                        known as the ‘massacre of the innocents’.

There is a famous poem by Lord Byron
            describing the siege of Jerusalem at the hands of the Assyrians,
            led by Ashurbanipal’s grandfather Sennacherib.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Sennacherib actually never succeeded in destroying Jerusalem,
            but the centuries of Assyrian attacks on the kingdom of Israel had an effect,
            and entered deep into the memory and theology of Israel.

How could it be, they wondered, that such a vicious, murderous enemy,
            could time and again be victorious over the chosen people of God?

In 721 BCE the Assyrians had effectively wiped out the Northern Kingdoms of Israel,
            either carrying people off into exile, or putting them to the sword,
and from that time on the focus of Israel’s story moved
            to the Southern Kingdom called Judah,
            and the area around Jerusalem.

Most of the stories and texts that have come down to us,
            and are found in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament as we call it)
            were preserved by the Southern tribe of Judah.
Many of the stories of the old Northern Kingdom
            are, we must assume, lost to us.

And in our reading earlier from the book of Jeremiah,
            written in about 586 BCE
            at the time of the fall of Jerusalem and the Southern kingdom to the Babylonians,
                        who had succeeded the Assyrians as the dominant world power,
            we heard the great prophet
                        lamenting the destruction of the Northern Kingdom
                        a couple of hundred years before his time,
            and wondering before God
                        what the future would hold for his own, southern kinsmen.

“A voice is heard in Ramah,’ he says,
            ‘lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
            she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”

The northern tribes are gone, their children murdered or exiled,
            and we’re next,
is the message of Jeremiah the southern prophet.

Interestingly, Jeremiah doesn’t leave it there,
            despite his reputation for doom and gloom.

You may have heard someone called ‘a real Jeremiah’,
            meaning that they are always miserable.
But when push came to shove, Jeremiah held out a hand of hope
            to his readers in the midst of their distress.

‘Yes, it’s true,’ he said, ‘the northern kingdoms have fallen to the Assyrians,
            and Rachel the wife of Jacob is weeping in her grave
                        because the children of Israel are no more.
And yes, it looks like the one remaining tribe of Judah, and its capital Jerusalem,
            are going to go the same way… but …’

‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy;  17 there is hope for your future, says the LORD: your children shall come back to their own country.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, says the LORD.

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel …: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’

And the thing is, Matthew knows all this when he quotes Jeremiah
            to help his readers understand his story of the massacre of the innocents.

He knows that just at the point when all seems at its most bleak,
            when all seems lost, and when evil has the upper hand,
God’s promise remains
            that a new way will be found
to bring people back to a life-giving relationship with their God,
            who has not, after all, abandoned them.

And Matthew uses this reference to Jeremiah,
            quoting the first bit and inferring the rest,
to place his story of the birth of Jesus
            firmly in the world of the exile of Israel to Babylon.

It may seem as though Herod is all-powerful,
            and his murderous tyranny may seem unstoppable,
but God is at work, in a fragile refugee family from Bethlehem,
            to bring about a new world
            where suffering is redeemed and love triumphs over hatred.

But it’s not the just the Exile that Matthew has in mind here.
            He’s running more than one story at once, layer up on layer,
                        to help his readers understand the significance
                        of what they’re reading about Jesus.

So, in addition to the Babylonian Exile,
            he also has the Egyptian Exodus in view:
the much older story of the release of the people of Israel
            from slavery in Egypt.

Jesus isn’t just part of a story about bringing people home from Exile,
            he is also involved in bringing them out of slavery.
Jesus isn’t just a prophet after the manner of Jeremiah,
            he will be a prophet after the manner of Moses,
            leading his followers in a new Exodus.

And Matthew makes all this clear in another of his scriptural quotations,
            this time from the prophet Hosea.
Matthew says that Jesus’ and his family’s flight to Egypt to escape Herod,
            is ‘to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet,
            “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”’

And so, with the Israelite slavery in Egypt held in one hand,
            and the Israelite exile in Babylon held in the other
- two instances in the story of God’s people
            when all seemed lost to a violent and vindictive ruler -
Matthew uses these to frame the story
            of Herod and the massacre of the innocents.

Herod, he is saying to his readers, is just another Pharaoh,
            he’s just another Nebuchadnezzar.
Matthew’s readers would have known this, of course,
            because by the time Matthew’s gospel was written,
            Herod had been dead for about eight decades.

But Matthew’s point is about history,
            it’s about theology.

He’s inviting his readers to realise
            that these kind of rulers crop up from time to time in human history,
and that they can come from any nation,
            from Egypt, or Assyria, or Babylon,
            or Athens, or Rome, or even (like Herod) from Israel itself.

Any nation can produce its tyrant,
            because Herod is a product of the human condition.

When we were in Palestine recently,
            I got a bit obsessed with Herod the Great.
They didn’t call him ‘the Great’ for nothing.
            He was, in many ways, an astonishing ruler.
His building projects were incredible,
            from the hanging palace of Masada,
            to the Herodian Palace near Jericho,
            to the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem,
            to the aqueduct of Caeserea.

He was a great military leader,
            and could be generous in his philanthropy.
He was loved and hated in equal measure by his subjects,
            but he had a violent and paranoid streak a mile wide,
                        allegedly leading Augustus to comment that
                        it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son.

He executed his own, dearly loved, wife,
            and her mother,
            and his brother in law,
            and his two sons Alexander and Aristobulus.

So, you know, with Herod,
            you need to take the great with the not-so-great.

But Matthew’s story of the massacre of the innocents,
            whilst having no corroborative evidence beyond the story in the gospel,
            certainly fits what we do know of the man.

We’re probably talking about twenty children here,
            given the size of Bethlehem at the time.
And it’s quite easy to imagine that Herod would choose
            to execute all the baby boys in a small town,
rather than run the risk that one of them might grow up
            to pose a threat to his dynasty and legacy.

When we were at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,
            a priest came and unlocked a basement room for us,
            and showed us a collection of skulls and other bones.

Then, he showed us a cabinet, which had much smaller bones in it,
            and told us that these were allegedly the bones
            of the children massacred by Herod.

I don’t think he believed it, and he certainly didn’t expect us to believe it,
            but they were the bones of children,
            and so there was a truth in there about human mortality in infancy,
                        and about the suffering of parents.

And then he showed us a painting,
            which I found more moving than I would have expected.
I didn’t get a very good photo of the whole thing,
            which is about ten food across,
but here’s a detail:

And the thing is, the significance of this story for Matthew
            is not its historicity, but it’s theology.
Because in his decision to execute the children,
            Herod immediately becomes Pharaoh,
                        trying to wipe out the people of God;
            and Jesus becomes Moses, the baby who escapes
                        and lives to bring freedom and life to those enslaved.

God is at work, says Matthew,
            even when it seems as if all is lost.
Jeremiah and Hosea bear witness to the fact
            that God does not give up bringing life into the darkness of the world.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably at this point muttering in your head,
            ‘yes, well, that’s all very well, but tell it to the mothers
            of the children who die at the hands of Herod’s soldiers’.

And here we face a very real question,
            which we need to confront head-on.
If Matthew wants to claim that God is at work
            even in a story as horrific as the massacre of the innocents,
            then what does that say about God?

After all, if God can send an angel to have a word with Joseph
            so he and Mary can flee to Egypt,
why couldn’t that God do the same to all the others parents
            who sat at home that afternoon not knowing
            that a soldier was about to come banging on the door.

This is the question of theodicy, as theologians call it,
            it is the question of why God permits evil.

And I think Matthew is not blind to this question.

It is the same question we might ask of the Exodus story,
            where innocent Egyptian children die in order that Israel might be freed.
It is the same question e might ask of the Exile story,
            where a remnant survive to rebuild Israel,
            but the Northern Kingdom are destroyed.

And Matthew does, I think, at least begin to offer an answer
            to this problem of why God permits evil;
and he does so through his quotation from the prophet Hosea:
            ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’.

The key words here are the last two:
            the assertion that Jesus is the son of God.

You see, what is at stake here is what kind of a God do we think God is?
            Is God a God of power, might, and authority;
                        a God who clicks fingers and makes people jump?
            Because if so, then God has some very real questions to answer
                        about how that power is used,
                        both in history and the present.

But I think Matthew is inviting us to not see God in that way;
            It’s like Matthew is saying to his readers: that isn’t God,
                        that’s just a deified version of Herod,
                        it’s Pharaoh, it’s Nebuchadnezzar, it’s the emperor,
            but it is not God.

Rather, Matthew places God in his story in the person of the baby Jesus,
            a human at risk, on the run, helpless, innocent.

This is deep theology,
            because it questions our whole notion of who God is.

If God is an almighty God, all powerful, all knowing,
                        omniscient and omnipresent,
            then God runs the risk of becoming a dictator God,
                        or worse, a tyrant God.

And Matthew doesn’t want his readers to see God in that way.
            He’s been casting his mind back to Moses and Jeremiah and Amos,
            reflecting on times in his people’s history
                        when people have turned in a combination of worship and desperation
                                    to an powerful, nationalistic God,
                        who they hope will fight on their behalf,
                                    righting wrongs, and slaying enemies.

And Matthew’s reflection is that when people worship this God
            things don’t get better, they just get worse.
Because this God is just a projection of the will to power,
            it is the tendency to tyrannise and dominate, written across the heavens.

And Matthew wants to change the script.

The God he is proclaiming, through the pages of his gospel,
            is not the God of the land,
                        the God of the people, and the God of the victorious.
Rather it is the God of the weak, the homeless,
            the stateless, and the victims.

The God who is made known in Jesus, God’s son,
            is a vulnerable God, a powerless God.
And it is this God that we are invited to worship.

If this makes us feel uncomfortable, then good,
            because we too like to make God after our own image,
            to endue our God with our hopes of power.

Our society is predicated on the use of power,
            and we collectively worship the gods
                        of the market, the military, and the masses,
            rejoicing when things go well,
                        and cursing and blaming when they don’t.

But the God who is discovered in the infant Jesus,
            is a very different God.

This is not a God who stops the suffering of the world,
            and neither is it a God who causes it.

Rather, it is a God who enters into it,
            to transform it from the inside.
To show that there is a different way of being human,
            where revenge gives way to forgiveness,
            and fear gives way to trust,
            and hatred gives way to love.

This is a God who dies to bring life,
            it is the God of the cross.

And when life is overwhelming in its terror and sadness,
            at either a personal, or an international level,
            this is the God who comes to us in the baby Jesus,
showing us that there is greater strength in vulnerability,
            than in all the armies of the world combined.

So when we find ourselves facing another Herod,
            when evil seems unassailable in our lives and our world,
we are invited by Matthew to hear once again,
            that Jesus, the helpless infant Jesus, is God’s son,
and that God’s plan for the salvation of all things, including us,
            rests in the arms of a refugee couple from the middle east.

So as we struggle to find the resources
            to welcome even one refugee family to Westminster,
as we wrestle with big questions about the future of our country,
            as we battle through our daily lives
            with all their complexities, stresses, depressions, and sadnesses,

we meet in Jesus the God who comes to us,
            not in power to fix everything,
            but in weakness and vulnerability
                        fully entering into all that we face and hold.

And we hear the whisper of the ancient prophet:

Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
            for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
 17 there is hope for your future.

No longer shall they teach one another,
            or say to each other, "Know the LORD,"
for they shall all know me,
            from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD;
for I will forgive their iniquity,
            and remember their sin no more.


Tuesday, 4 December 2018

The Great Levelling

A sermon for Advent Procession with Carols 
St Barnabas, Ealing, 2/12/18

Isaiah 40.1-11

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
            make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
            and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
            and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
            and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, nearly 400 years ago,
            it must have seemed as if English society was being turned upside down.

In addition to the political ramifications of the civil wars,
            the ‘new normal’ of a national Church of England,
                        only a hundred years old at this point,
                        was already facing threat.
Breakaway groups such as the Quakers and Baptists
            were refusing to pay their tithes or baptise their babies,
and other even more radical groups such as the Levellers and the Diggers
            were arguing on religious grounds that the wealth of the country
            should be redistributed in the benefit of the poor.

I find the Levellers particularly interesting,
            not least because of their links to the early pioneers of my own, Baptist, tradition.
Unlike the more anarchist Diggers,
            the Levellers weren’t arguing for some proto-Communist ideology,
            where the rich are thrown down and the poor raised up.[1]
Rather, they argued that the land itself was a gift from God,
            given for the benefit of all those live upon it.

Their issue was not that some were wealthy and some poor;
            rather it was that the land, the fields and the forests of England, belonged to neither.
This was God’s territory, and humans are merely God’s tenants.

So they took issue with the enclosure of the common land,
            and argued for the right of each person to be able to make a living from the soil.
The Levellers also argued for greater democracy,
            believing that all humans are worthy of a say in the running of society;
for greater religious tolerance and freedom;
            and for the equality of all before the law.

And on these issues, I confess I find myself in considerable sympathy with them:
            I do believe each person has the right to make a living,
                        the right to vote, to believe as they choose,
                        and to be judged impartially by the law.

The Levellers of London, many of them members of a Baptist church in the City,
            mounted a campaign, with petitions and actions,
to present to the civic leaders
            in the hope that their cause would be heard,
            and changes could be brought about
                        to benefit the poor and curb the excesses of the rich,
            without the need for wholesale revolution.

In the end of course, as we know, they didn’t succeed,
            revolution came, armies were mobilised,
            a king lost his head, and a nation fought for its identity.

And in many ways,
            the challenge of those turbulent years from four centuries ago,
            still rings down to us today.

On Thursday evening this last week,
            I was chairing an event with Sadiq Khan the Mayor of London,
                        organised by Citizens UK,
                        which I know you’re involved with here at St Barnabas.
We were speaking with him about issues such as the right
            to earn a living wage,
                        to live in affordable housing,
            to have full and equal participation in society
                        whatever your ethnicity or social standing,
            and to be treated fairly by the police.

The issues that inspired the Levellers
            to organise their members for a better society
            are still issues that inspire people to do the same today.

And the cost of failure remains just as high:
            if these things are not addressed,
            then even more people will die on the streets of our city.

One of the most moving parts of the evening on Thursday
            was as the names of the 121 people
            who have been killed in London this year were read out.

It matters deeply that society is just, fair, equal, and impartial.

And here’s the thing:
            it is the responsibility of those of us who make up our society
            to make every effort to bring a better society into being.

And we do this, not just out of self interest,
            although that should not be underestimated.
But rather, as Christians, we do this
            because be we believe it is in the interest of God.

The passage I read just now from Isaiah
            speaks of every valley being lifted up,
                        and every mountain and hill being made low;
            it speaks of uneven ground becoming level,
                        and of rough places becoming a plain.

It is a vision of the levelling of society,
            of the evening out of those areas
                        where people are laid too low, or raised too high,
            of the removal of the obstacles to inclusion and participation
                        that cause people to trip and stumble.
            It is a vision of the in-breaking kingdom of God,
                        and it tells us that this process is the mechanism
                        by which the glory of God is made known amongst people.

So as we gather here at the beginning of Advent,
            to prepare ourselves for the revelation of God in Jesus Christ,
we do well to hear this challenge once again:
            that God is discovered when injustices are undone.

According to Luke’s gospel,
            at the beginning of his ministry in Nazareth,
            Jesus also quoted from the book of Isaiah,

Luke 4.17-21
  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The call to become involved in the levelling of society
            runs like a thread through both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament,
I could have pointed us to the sermon on the Mount, or the Magnificat,
            or countless other places that speak of justice and reconciliation.

And it challenges each of us to take the faith that we have in God,
            who comes to us in Jesus Christ,
and to turn that faith outwards to the world,
            to have faith in a new world
that comes into being as we live and pray it into existence.

The vision here is of a world where wrongs are righted,
            a world where the poor receive good news,
a world where those captive to forces beyond their control find release,
            a world where those blinded to the humanity of the other
            are able to see clearly for the first time in their lives,
a world where those oppressed by ideologies of hatred
            are finally released to love someone other than themselves,
a world where those who are despised by all
            find themselves the object of God’s favour.

This is the levelling we long for,
            this is the levelling that bring life and does not take it,
this is the levelling of the coming kingdom of God for which we pray and long,
            and it is before us, as it is before every generation.
And the question is:
            what are you going to do about it?

[1] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 119