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Sermon for Sunday 29 December 2019

First Reading                                                                                  Isaiah 63:7-14

7I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior. 9In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. 10But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. 11Then he remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people. Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, 12who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, 13who led them through the depths? Like a horse in the desert, they did not stumble. 14Like livestock that go down into the valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest. So you led your people, to make for yourself a glorious name.

Psalm                                                                                                    Psalm 111

1Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. 2Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. 3His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures forever. 4He makes his marvelous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and full of compassion. 5He gives food to those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. 6He has shown his people the power of his works in giving them the lands of the nations. 7The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice; all his commandments are sure. 8They stand fast forever and ever, because they are done in truth and equity. 9He sent redemption to his people; he commanded his covenant forever; holy and awesome is his Name. 10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding; his praise endures forever.

Second Reading                                                                             Galatians 4:4-7

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Gospel                                                                                                 Matthew 2:13-23

13Now when {the wise men} had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” 19But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

The Fourth King in the Christmas Story

Well, Christmas is past, the presents have been opened, the turkey and ham are nothing more than bones and turkey salad.  And if you’re like me, the batteries for my new tools are charged, the registrations cards have been filled out and the dump run has been made to dispose of the excess wrapping paper and the boxes.  All that remains, is to put away the decorations and prepare for the New Year celebration next week.  I hope this has been a joyous, restful holiday season so far for everyone.  Or perhaps, you’ve moved from the anticipation of Christmas to the anxiety of the after Christmas.  

After Christmas anxiety comes for some who might have gained a few pounds during this season of too much celebration or spent more than you planned.  Julia Boynton Green spoke for many people when she wrote:  “Twas the night after Christmas and all through the house, We were paying each one for our yuletide carouse.  I felt in my tummy a burden like lead, and visions of tumors careened through my head.  Martha tumbled and tossed, at last breathed with a sob, I’ve got pendicitis.  I’m sure of it, Bob.  I swore about sunrise, It’s not worth the price.  Believe me, next Christmas, we dine on boiled rice.”  I’m probably the only one here who can relate to that.

Statically speaking, a good many people have already signed up for Weight Watchers or renewed their gym membership.  Believe it or not, this is when Diet centers across America do their biggest business of the year.  Some of us can also relate to the tired mother of six wonderful but active children.  After being home with them and her husband from dawn to midnight during the Christmas vacation, she heard the song on the radio, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas All Year Long.”  Despite being tired and worn down, she jumped out of her chair and shouted, “Forget it!  Only a retail merchant would want it to be Christmas all year long.”  I’m sure at this point in our Christmas break, some of us can relate to that as well.  

Now for those who shop with plastic, (that’s a credit card for those who aren’t familiar with the term), we’ll soon be reminded that, if we haven’t been careful, Christmas can last all year long.  That is to say, in spite of the joy we all experience during the celebration of Christ’s birth, as well as the other Christmas we celebrate on December 25th, what we may come to realize is that there can be a downside to the holiday season.

One newspaper columnist shared the other side of the Christmas Story in one of his columns.  He told about a stranger who put $1,600 in gold coins in a Salvation Army kettle.  The person placed the gift there quietly and anonymously.  As we know, this is exactly the kind of story the news outlets are looking for to demonstrate the spirit of caring that Christmas brings about.  Unfortunately, there’s a follow up story.  The local Salvation Army office began getting phone calls about the gold coins.  The coins had been stolen.  The thief had dropped them in the kettle to get rid of them.

The same newspaper columnist then shared another story about a man driving home from work on Christmas Eve who saw a young boy fall through the ice in a nearby lake.  The man stopped his car, jumped out, tore off his jacket and crawled out onto the ice.  He managed to somehow save the drowning boy.  Now to this point this story seems to have a happy ending.  But, as Paul Harvey was so famous for saying, “and now the rest of the story.”  Unfortunately, the man discovered that while he was risking his life saving the boy, some sticky-fingered moron in the crowd of onlookers stole his jacket and the envelope containing his Christmas bonus.  Even during the most generous and joy filled commercial season of the year, there is a downside; it’s a downside that’s directly attributed to human sinfulness.

But, when we stop and think about it, there’s also a downside caused by human sinfulness in the real Christmas story.  This downside is personified in the story of the fourth king in the Christmas narrative.  We all know about the three kings from the East.  Wise men or the Maji as they’re some-times called.  Our hearts are warmed as we see these three men of stature kneel before the newborn babe and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  This part of our gospel reading is a happy ending to the story for sure, but we must remember there was a fourth king in the story.  

That fourth king, of course, is King Herod.  “Go and search diligently for the child,” Herod said to the wise men.  “And when you have found him, come and bring me word, that I may worship him, too.”  What a sham!  What absolute hypocrisy!  Herod as we’ve been taught, had no intention of worshiping the newborn King.  He intended, rather, to do him harm.  And thus, warned by an angel, Mary and Joseph are forced to flee in the night while the wise men, being warned in a dream, return home by another route.  When Herod discovered that the wise men had disregarded his instructions to inform him of the Christ’s whereabouts, he flew into a fit of rage and had his soldiers kill all the boys two years of age and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region.  It’s a tragic intrusion into this beautiful story of Christ’s birth; all brought about by this fourth king whose name shall forever live in infamy” Herod.

History books, however, call him, strangely enough, Herod the Great.   Herod came from a powerful family.  His father and grandfather were both public administrators who had widened their base of authority.  Thus, in the year 37 BC Herod the Great was made king of Judea by the Romans.  An arrogant king, Herod promoted Hellenization, or the adoption of Greek culture and religion, among the Jews.  He founded the city of Caesarea and rebuilt much of Jerusalem, including the Temple.  To his credit, he was a capable leader, but he was also notoriously cruel.  

He executed three of his sons as well as his second wife.  Cruelty became his family tradition.  Recall if you will that it was his son Herod Antipas who agreed to have John the Baptist beheaded for denouncing his marriage to his brother, Philip’s wife.  So, we shouldn’t be surprised at Herod the Great’s violent reaction when he learned that the three wise men had disregarded his instructions.  

When the Maji failed to return, Herod became so incensed that he initiated what has become known, in Christian tradition, as “the slaughter of the innocents.”  Some churches have an annual recognition of this terrible event.  The early church said that the Innocents died for Christ without understanding what was happening to them.  Hence, the prayer handed down through the centuries in the Anglican Church is: “Receive . . . into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. . . .”  We can certainly say that this is a tragic element in the Christmas story.  

It’s heartbreaking not only because of the loss of innocent life, but unfortunate in the fact that Mary, Joseph and their new baby boy were forced to flee to Egypt by night, where they would await the death of that cruel tyrant, Herod the Great.  But there are some lessons for us to learn here:  while Herod was indeed an unusually vindictive man, he also made the same mistakes that many people make.  For one, Herod refused to submit his life to a higher authority.  

Herod was a despot, no doubt.  There’s ample proof that he had no regard for God or those he ruled.  Despite the fact that he himself was a Jew, by the end of his reign, the Jews hated and thoroughly despised him, even though on a material level, his rule had been quite favorable to them.  His rule ended as the rule of all dictators end, isolation.   He was alienated not only from his enemies, but also from his family and friends, as well as the people he ruled.  Herod knew that when he died, no one would shed a tear.  So he made special arrangements to guarantee that someone would grieve at his passing.

According to Barclay, Herod left orders that when he died, his soldiers were to round up a group of well-known citizens, frame them for some concocted crime, and then kill them.  That way, Herod assured himself that somebody would shed tears after his death, even if the tears weren’t for him.  It’s both sad and tragic.  But Herod was his own god.  His world revolved around his own selfish concerns.

There is a character in Victor Hugo’s novel, The Toilers of the Sea, named Claubert.  Claubert wanted to rob a whole shipload of people, so he steers the ship onto a sandbar and gets everyone off the ship into lifeboats.  He points to a nearby island and tells them to take the boats there.  He says, “There a ship will rescue you.”  Wanting to appear the hero, he stays back with the ship.  What he really wants to do is to rob the passengers of all their valuables.

When the people were out of sight, he goes through their rooms and takes all of their money, and then leaps off the side of the ship.  His plan was to swim a short distance to another island where he knows ships will pass by and rescue him.  According to his plan, the people of the ship will be lost, but he will be saved, and he’ll have all their money.  Loaded with cash, he leaps over the side of the ship, touches bottom, and pushes off to go up to the surface.  Just as he pushes off, something grabs him.  It’s a giant octopus.  He feels its icy tentacles wrap around him, and he tries to throw them off, but as he throws off one tentacle, another one grabs him until they pull him down to death.  Claubert’s greed resulted in his descent into a watery grave.  King Herod was a man of greed as well.  Not only did he desire wealth, he craved status and power as well.

His world revolved around his own selfish desires.  And his greed resulted in his descent to the depths of human cruelty.  That’s not unusual when you refuse to submit your life to a higher authority.  We run into less powerful King Herods all the time.  There are people who are little dictators in their own homes.  They treat their wife and children like conscripts and slaves rather than beloved family members.  There are people who are autocrats in the workplace; they run their offices through fear and intimidation.  We certainly are witnesses, in our nightly news, of tyrants in our nation’s capital.  And sadly, throughout history, there have even been bullies in the church.  We run into oppressors in every area of life.  Anytime we center our lives on our passions and self-focused desires, when we refuse to surrender our lives to a higher authority, when we’re ego-centered and not God-centered, we tend to alienate ourselves from those around us and spoil every relationship.

A certain husband was having difficulty dealing with his wife.  He decided to get a divorce and sought out a lawyer for professional advice.  After telling his lawyer his side of the case the man asked, “What’s the best option I have?”  The attorney replied, “The best thing you can do is to move back in with your wife, apologize for all the harm you’ve done, and then work harder than ever to make your marriage work.”  After a long, deadly silence, the man inquired, “What’s the next best thing I can do?”

Herod rejected the best for his life and for the kingdom in which he reigned.  He settled for a twisted, distorted life because he lived in his own little world.  He was his own god.  He refused to submit his life to a higher authority.  But what’s even more tragic, Herod failed to see that the Bethlehem star shown for him as well.  You see, Herod the Great didn’t have to go down into history as a monster who slaughtered innocent children.  There was hope for a better life even for Herod.  All he had to do was look up.

Jacob Needleman was an observer at the Apollo 17 launch in 1975.  It was a night launch, and there were hundreds of cynical reporters all over the lawn, drinking beer, cracking wise, and waiting for this 35-story-high rocket to take off.  The countdown came, and then the launch.  The first thing you see, according to Needleman, is this extraordinary orange light, which is just at the limit of what you can bear to look at.  “Everything is illuminated with this light.  Then comes this thing slowly rising up in total silence, because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across the area that separates you from the launch area.  You hear a WHOOOOOSH! HHHH-MMMM!’  The sound enters right into you.  

You can practically hear jaws dropping.  The sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place,” says Needleman, “as this thing goes up and up.  The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame.  It becomes like a star, but you realize there are humans on it.  And then there’s total silence.  When the launch is over, people just get up quietly, helping each other up.  They’re kind.  They open doors.  They look at one another, speaking quietly and interestedly.  These were suddenly moral people because the sense of wonder, the experience of wonder, had made them moral.”  If only Herod had caught that sense of wonder.  If only he had looked up.

If he had, he might have seen the Bethlehem star and recognized that it was his hope as well as the hope of the world.  If only Herod had surrendered himself to the God of the stars and the God of the child in Bethlehem’s stable, it would be a much different story we would be telling.  Herod the Great might have lived up to his name.  His own people, as well as the world in general, might have called his name blessed.  But the sad truth is, Herod’s story is the story of far too many people today.

There are some who believe themselves to be little gods.  Because of this, they aren’t doing well with their relationships.  Their lives are fragmented and broken.  As a result, the spiritual side of their lives is suffering.  As we come to the end of this year and as we prepare ourselves for a new year, we, too, need to look up.  The hope of the Bethlehem star shines for all of us.


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