Friday, 31 December 2021

There's Always Another Way

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
2 January 2022

Massacre of the Innocents, 10th Century depiction

Matthew 2:1-16
Exodus 1:15 - 2:10  

‘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 really, there’s the point of this morning’s sermon,
            right up front at the beginning…
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.
Let me tell you a bit about Herod:[1]
He was the founder of what became known as the Herodian dynasty,
            which was the family who ruled over the Palestinian area
                        from 40BC until around 100AD.
The Herod who became known as ‘Herod the Great’
            was born in 72BC, and died in 4BC,
                        which, incidentally, is how we know that Jesus was born
                        sometime in or just before 4BC.
Herod’s power had its origins in
            the demise of the Hasmonean dynasty,
            the transference of Syria and Palestine to Roman rule,
            and the civil wars that marked the decay of the Jewish nation.
Riding the tide of Julius Caesar’s ascent to power,
            Herod’s father made some careful political alliances
            and became the Roman administrator of Judea.
Herod was appointed governor of Galilee by his father,
            and ruled the province with an iron fist for ten years,
            all the while building favourable relationships with the Romans,
                        and conveniently suppressing any Jewish uprisings.
Eventually, following a trip to Rome,
            Herod was made King of Judea by the Roman senate,
                        and he returned to Palestine with Roman soldiers
                        and captured Jerusalem as the new base for his regime.
In many ways his reign was a success:
            his brutal style quickly won him many admirers,
            and viciously discouraged any who would oppose him.
He thought nothing of executing forty five of the wealthiest members of the aristocracy
            and taking their wealth for himself and his allies.
He invested heavily in the military, who supported his rule,
            and in lavish public building projects,
            including a major rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.
Along the way he executed his wife, his mother-in-law,
            his brother-in-law, and his nephews,
            all to ensure succession of his own descendants.
By the time of the birth of Jesus,
            Herod was under a lot of stress;
            he was seriously ill, and his enemies were massing,
                        threatening to overturn not just him, but his chosen successor.
He became paranoid, and even more brutally violent
            in his attempts to protect himself and his legacy.
And so we come to the visit of the magi,
            the wise men from the east.
In many ways the wise men were the inverse of Herod.
            They came from beyond Israel,
                        but he was the king of Israel.
            They sought Jesus to worship him,
                        but Herod sought Jesus to kill him.
            They brought their wealth and wisdom as gifts before the Christ-child,
                        whereas Herod sought to protect his power and wealth at all costs.
And so 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 so we come to 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 thing would have been to return to Herod,
            make their report, and be on their way.
But as we know, an angel warns them to return by another route,
            and they leave Herod waiting.
Predictably, perhaps, he reacts 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 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 it begins with the wise men,
            who encounter the infant Christ,
            and hear, somewhere in that encounter, the wisdom to take another route.
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
            is 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.
He may have carried on his murderous rule,
            as he would surely have done to even more devastating effect
            had the wise men walked back into his court
                        to reveal the location of the child he wanted assassinated;
but by taking the other path
            they not only avoided complicity in his 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 disempowered the mighty Herod.
In effect, they re-wrote Herod’s story.
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.
After all, as the story tells us,
            Mary & Joseph 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.
Herod the Great may have died in 4BC,[2]
            but his spiritual successors are still with us,
                        people who seek power, and authority, and wealth for themselves,
            but who never bring their gifts before the king of creation
                        as an offering to be received.
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.
And all too often the wisdom of the world,
            the clinical application of the cold logic of power,
leads to violence and oppression.
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.
Think of Rosa Park, the black woman who made a courageous decision
            to sit down for her rights on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
She was arrested after she refused to give up her seat
            on a crowded bus to a white passenger.
And her act of nonviolent resistance
            to a system of domination and oppression,
highlighted the power imbalance that sustained white supremacy,
            and began the path towards equality.
The rise of the alt-right ideology in America,
            and other far right groups in Europe,
are threatening to reassert those very systems of domination once again,
            and the need is very great for us, in our own time, to discern what it means
            to non-violently disarm and disable the powers of oppression.
We 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.
The wise men recognised this,
            and brought their gifts as an offering of worship.
Herod recognised it, and sought to suppress it with violence.
In the southern states of America, under slavery,
            the African slaves had very few freedoms.
They were utterly dominated by a violent system of oppression
            that sought to control every aspect of their lives.
But they were allowed to sing…
            and so they sang freedom songs
            to subversively give voice to their hope that one day
                        another path would open before them,
            keeping hope alive through the offering of worship.
The worship we offer to Jesus is not the worship the world requires,
            it is not worship of power, status, and wealth.
The wise men brought their gifts as offerings of worship,
            not to lift the holy family out of poverty,
            but in order that through their symbolic giving of themselves,
            a new path might be opened for the salvation of the world.
And so they took another path,
            and they denied Herod his chance to fulfil his stated aim
            of bringing his own violent offering of homage
            to the child born king of the Jews.
There is always another way.
            Violence does not get to write the rules we must follow.
The political significance of the birth of Jesus is all too often lost.
            But Herod understood it readily enough.
Even as an infant, Jesus was a threat to thrones and empires,
            threatening to both Herod and Rome.
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.
Have you seen the video from Tiananmen square
            of the man who stopped a Chinese tank in its tracks,
            armed only with two bags of shopping?
The ‘other way’ of Jesus seeks to highlight, expose, and ridicule
            the power-inequality that is bolstering the regime.
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 does being injured on active service.
There is a danger that when we designate our combatants as heroes,
            we end up inferring that our peace workers are cowards.
And 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.
            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 Kabul.
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.

[1] Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 1992, pp.317 f.
[2] Hauerwas, Matthew

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