Sunday, 1 January 2017

There's always another way

Whitelands College Carol Service 13/12/16

Matthew 2:1-16
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

What do you do when confronted by a murderous tyrant
intent on killing innocent members of his own population?

This is neither an ancient nor a rhetorical question.

‘Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road’

…and so, Luke tells us, the great Herod was left waiting.

And here we meet the wisdom of the wise men,
echoing down the centuries to us.

There’s always a different route.
There’s always an alternative path.
There’s. Always. Another. Way.

Especially when you’re dealing with a murderous,
self-aggrandizing, self-important ruler
who is intent on protecting his own power, whatever the cost.

When the wise men arrived in Jerusalem
asking where the new-born king of the Jews was to be found.
They could hardly have asked a more worrying question of Herod…
In a superstitious age, to a paranoid man,
their quest must have made it seem like even the universe
was conspiring against him.

And they nearly fell for Herod’s quickly-hatched cunning plan:
let the wise men find the child,
and then arrange to have him killed.

From the point of view of the wise men,
the obvious course of action would have been to return to Herod,
make their report, and be on their way.

But as we know, an angel warned them to return by another route,
and so they just left Herod waiting.

Predictably, perhaps, he reacted badly,
and Matthew tells us the terrible story of the massacre of the innocents,
based on the story of Moses in the book of Exodus,
helping us understand that Herod is just another Pharaoh,
just one more psychotic paranoid ruler
in a long line of tyrants,
and also that Jesus, like Moses,
would lead people from slavery to freedom,
by pointing them to another way, another path,
by offering a new route out of the seemingly endless spirals
of violence and intimidation and retribution.

And so the wise men,
in their encounter the infant Christ,
heard the wisdom to take another route.

They discovered what we need to discover in our world;
that sometimes, the wise route is not the obvious one,
sometimes, the wise route is not the expected one.
Sometimes, the wise route is walking in the opposite direction
from the way the world is pointing.
Sometimes, the wise route is refusing to engage
the systems of oppression that so desperately seek conflict
in order to legitimate their own position.
Sometimes, the wise route is robbing the tyrant of his power
by walking away from the fight that the bully so desperately craves.

And this is a tough path,
because it flies in the face of common sense.

Common sense tells us that if we meet a tyrant
we must engage him and defeat him.

‘You can’t let the bullies win, you know!’

But the wisdom of the angel to the wise men
was that while we may not be able to stop the murderous regime
from killing its own population’s innocent children,
taking the 'other way' offers us an act
which denies the regime its power
by undermining its legitimacy.

And this is more, far more, than symbolic action.
The departure of the wise men by ‘another route’
re-wrote the story of Herod definitively;
it left him nowhere to go
but further into his own depravity,
and as he acted to kill the children,
he revealed himself to be just another Pharaoh,
and so the mythology of ‘the great Herod’ took a fatal blow.

By taking the other path,
the wise men not only avoided complicity in Herod’s sins,
they also acted to set in place the downfall of his carefully constructed ideology.

And here’s the point:
when faced with a murderous tyrant,
there is always another way.

The wise men who followed the star that led to Jesus
found an alternative path through violence
that not only disempowered the mighty Herod,
but which effectively re-wrote history’s verdict his life.

He wanted to be remembered as ‘Herod the great’,
and he could have done it.
But, as they say, history is written by the victors,
and the unfavourable association of Herod with Pharaoh,
through the parallel stories
of the massacre of the innocents
and the killing of the Israelite children,
has become history’s verdict on his life.

Whether it happened or not is not really the point
– it’s a story that summarises his life,
inviting eternal judgment on him, and all those like him,
who would seek to impede the coming
of the prince of peace in this world of sin.

The ‘other way’ of the wise men is the ‘other way’ of Jesus,
it is the path of nonviolent resistance,
it is the route of subversion,
it is the path which, once taken by the few, becomes open for the many.

Mary and Joseph in their turn followed the ‘other way’ of the wise men
on their flight to Egypt
as they too sought a path out of Herod’s murderous clutches.

And so we come to today,
and what the ‘other way’ of the wise men might look like
in our own world of sin and violence.

The reality of our world is that now, as then, in so many ways
Herod still reigns.
And so now, as then,
Herod must be resisted.

Just as the wise men returned to their own country by another route,
so those who would be wise in our time,
need to find ways of bypassing the scheming Herods of our world.

Herod, and those like him, all too readily embrace violence:
it is how they deal with their enemies:
they kill or co-opt, by force if necessary.

We have too many deal-makers in positions of power
who would do a deal with the devil himself
if it ensured their ongoing appearance of success.

But, what the path of violence does not know how to deal with
is a movement, a kingdom,
whose citizens refuse to believe
that violence will determine the meaning of history.

The rise of the alt-right ideology in America,
and other far right groups in Europe,
will mean that the need is very great for us, in our own time, to discern what it means
to non-violently disarm and disable powers of oppression.

In this, we will need the alternative wisdom of the kingdom of God,
and those who embrace this wisdom
will become those who bear witness to the new way of being human
that comes into being in the Christ-child in the manger.

There is always another way.
Violence does not get to write the rules we must follow.

It's easy for those in favour of a military solution to the Herods of our world
to characterise those who take a stand of principled nonviolence
as fuzzy peacenik cowards who go weak at the very thought of danger.

And compared to a man with a gun in his hand,
the unarmed man will always look vulnerable.
But the 'other way' of Jesus teaches us that this is a false dichotomy,
it's not a straight choice between 'hero' and 'coward'
- there is, as the wise men discovered, always another way.

And here’s the thing.

Being nonviolent isn't about doing nothing.
It is the world of the aid worker, the military chaplain, the journalist,
the international observer, the International Accompanist;
not cowards, but heroes to the cause of peace.

Carrying a gun does not automatically make someone a hero,
and neither, if I may say so, does being injured on active service.
When we designate our combatants as heroes,
we end up inferring our peace workers are cowards.

Our society constructs narratives that sanctify violence,
and we learn to live with casualties, deaths, and collateral damage,
and we do so them by telling ourselves
that it's all a necessary sacrifice because the end justifies the means.

In other words, we walk straight into Herod’s trap.
But what if there is another way?

What if the way to hell is indeed paved with good intentions,
and the road taken by the many is indeed wide and broad enough to take a tank?
And what if the way of Christ is truly narrow and steep,
and taken only by some, who have the courage to speak out
and act against a prevailing ideology
of violent retribution and intervention?

When I was a child, I developed a philosophy of game-playing,
and it was this: if you can’t play to win, don’t play the game.
It’s why I don’t play rugby, or football, or tennis, or cricket…
well, you get the picture.

But I wonder if we might rephrase this philosophy slightly,
in the light of the wise men, to:
If you can’t change the game, don’t play it.

We may not be able to stop ISIS in its tracks,
we may not be in a position to prevent the Herods of our world
from killing their own innocent people.
But we can take action to de-legitimise their ideology,
we can work to subversively undermine their power,
we can re-write the narrative of history
away from retribution and towards peace.
We can, in other words, refuse to play their game.

We can, as the wise men discovered, take another path.

It remains to be seen whether President Elect Trump
will carry through on some of his more potent and extreme election promises.
But the fact that he made them, and that they won him votes rather than lost them,
tells us much about the culture of Western liberal democracy,
and our enslavement to spiritual powers
that are ultimately destructive of peace and stability.

And so we’re back to the wise men.
And the world has never needed their ‘other way’
more than it does today.
We are still playing our games with rules set by Herod, and we need to stop.

And as the wise men discovered, there’s always another way,
and in the name of Christ we need to discover this path of Christ.

As Martin Luther King Jr. put it,
‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’

We need to learn what it is to walk away from the games of violence,
and do something different.

And what we will discover, of course,
is what Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and so many others
have discovered before us,
which is that walking the different path
undermines the power
that was legitimating the game of violence in the first place.

The game-changer will not be Brimstone missiles in Syria,
nor will it be boots on the ground in Raqqa.

The game-changer is the way of Christ,
and the wise need to listen and act
or we all continue on the path to hell.

It is my firm belief that the eternal hope
made flesh in the baby who comes to us at Christmas
is the only path through death and violence
to resurrection and new life.

And it is our calling as the people of Christ,
to live that eternal hope into being in our midst,
as we learn to be wise,
and to read the signs,
and to have the courage to tread the ‘other path’ as Christ leads us.

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