Sermon title – Taking a U-turn..?
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Sermon title – Taking a U-turn..?
Please click on the pdf icon above if you would like to read the sermon text.
Throughout the ages, mothers grieve. One grieving mother said to me recently: my boy went straight to God.
In our Old Testament passage it is mother Rachel who grieves for her children. In our New Testament passage it’s the mothers whose baby sons have been killed by king Herod. Neither of the passages is an historical account. Instead, both of them give a reality of life. Innocent children die. Tomorrow on December 28th that is what is remembered in the Christian year, the death of the innocent children as we have it in our New Testament reading.
King Herod feels threatened by the arrival of the new born king, of whom he is made aware of by the three wise men.
Herod thinks, ‘good to know’, and then says, ‘Come back and let me know where I can find Him so that I can worship Him’. When he realises that he has been tricked by the wise men, he finds his own way of getting rid of the new born King.
Fear and power. Put them together and you get the killing.
This Herod is clearly a twin brother of Pharaoh of Egypt. Same character. Same fear. Same power. Pharaoh too demanded that all new born baby boys were killed: thrown into the river Nile. Two powerful rulers with the same style of reigning.
While king Herod kills, the new born King is taken to the land of Egypt. He escapes the cruelty, is not going to be killed…yet.
In Luke’s Gospel, where it tells about the shepherds that went to the stable in Bethlehem, it says that Mary, ‘treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’.
This Jewish young girl, who magnified the Lord with her song
Holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate; (Luke 1: 49-52)
Oh, she knows what her Lord had done in the past, when Israel was led out of Egypt…and now in the light of that; in the light of all that she already knew, and now had come to know, and now feels when she is holding her baby, she is pondering.
But then, the next moment she finds herself with Joseph and Jesus fleeing, to Egypt.
Israel and Egypt. In the bible they seem to have a kind of love-hate relationship.
Once, Egypt was the place where Jacob and his sons went when they had a famine in Canaan, where they lived. The bread in Egypt saved them. It did, but not for ever, for the offspring of Jacob and his sons, Israel, for them Egypt turned into hell when they were made slaves.
Meanwhile, the people of Israel grew in number.
So much, that Pharaoh was terrified that Israel would continue to grow into a strong nation and would be able to stand up against him. And so Pharaoh exercised power in his way. And that power killed.
So, here’s an Egypt that symbolizes the powers that oppress, kill, makes life hell.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Egypt is the opposite of that. The new born King is kept safe there in Egypt, until Herod’s death and Mary and Joseph and Jesus went to live in Nazareth.
Into Egypt and then out again. Why this movement? Well, the reason is given,
This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
In all the stories that we have, throughout the Bible, it’s about what God says and does. His word and deed are one, that’s why it says,
‘Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Where it says that the shepherds rushed to Bethlehem, it doesn’t say that they went to see the Christ child. They went to see,
‘…this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2: 15)
What happened was that the word of God had become flesh. That word of God made them rush to Bethlehem, where they found that that word had become a baby, the Christ child.
Jesus was saved from the hand of Herod, just as Moses was saved from the hand of Pharaoh. Both were saved to save; saved for God’s purpose.
So, Joseph was told, in a dream, to flee to Egypt.
Herod does not allow for ridiculing him. None of the tyrants do; it is what they do: they mess about with people. Don’t we all know that Egyptian Pharaohs continue to exist throughout the ages? It’s just that their names change.
Jesus as a baby, is not killed, but he will be, later and he will be called: king of the Jews, words immersed in the cynicism; the contempt with which the King of the Jews is nailed to the cross.
The Massacre of the Innocents, it’s a story about Egypt, about Bethlehem, it’s a story of all times. Always again those tyrants who cause mothers to cry and weep in despair, as Rachel did, representing all the mothers of Israel, at the time that Israel were gathered in order to be deported to Babylon. Inconsolable they were, the mothers in Israel. Inconsolable they were, the mothers in Bethlehem;
Inconsolable they are, the mothers and fathers of children, teenage children and adult children, of children who have been taken away from them. Inconsolable are the children who have lost mothers and fathers.
Yet, the story of the vulnerable, poor King that was born in the stable goes hand in hand with the suffering that comes with the death of all those innocent children killed by Herod. In them the suffering of the Christ child was already foretold. They already suffered and died with Christ before He did.
The good news of Christmas is that in the midst of that suffering; because of that suffering, God came down to go through every minute of precisely that suffering Himself, in His Son. But then, after the suffering and dying, God did something again: He raised His Son from the dead. In that resurrection, suffering and death are held.
So, here we have in the Gospel of Matthew, two kings. The one with whom we are all familiar; who is loud and visible; the one who exercises power as it suits him or her; channelling them into their purposes:
That king vs the new born King.
As Christians, we don’t share a kind of general hope: the hope that all will work out, somehow, or that there is something after life. No, our hope is specific. Through Christ, God Himself is our hope, in that He is with us, throughout everything we go through.
Coming to the end of a hear in which so much pain has been suffered, so many lives have been lost and are being mourned, we have this hope. It gives us solid ground under our feet. It gives us reason to ponder in our hearts, as Mary did.
As we are about to enter a new year, be encouraged and persevere in that hope: our Lord Jesus Christ.
We all know, are feeling that it’s hard not to touch, not to hug family and friends and not the be touched and hugged by them.
Our New Testament takes us into a situation where the motto is the same: ‘Do not touch!’ A leper has come to Jesus. He seems to be in the early stages of his illness and therefore not isolated…yet. But he knows what his future is; he sees his fate looming: abandonment, complete rejection. For in addition to his physical illness and the suffering that comes with it, he is deemed as being unclean. And in his despair, he kneels before Jesus; trapped in the darkness of what lies ahead of him, he begs Jesus
‘If you will, you can make me clean’.
He asks Jesus to make him clean. He desperately hopes that Jesus wants to make him clean, while knowing that he, the leper, is not to be touched. So, will Jesus do what the man desires? Will He make Him clean from a distance?
The first thing that happens after the man’s plea is not something that Jesus does. The first response to the man’s plea is something that happens to Jesus, within Him:
He is struck by compassion, by pity and that overwhelming feeling makes that Jesus does something.
He touches the man.
Think back for a second of that moment in history when Lady Diane shook the hand of the person that suffered from aids. Just as that patient would not have expected to be touched by the princess, so did this man not expect to be touched by Jesus.
But that is what happens, from within that overwhelming emotion of compassion; from within His heart, Jesus touches him. Only after that, as a consequence of what happens in Jesus’ heart, the ‘Do not touch’, motto goes out of the window.
Jesus is not afraid to be challenged. He stretches out His hand and makes physical contact with the man. Then, the man receives what he asked for, when Jesus says,
‘I will, be clean’.
And the man was clean.
In the story everything happens so quickly. The story is read within a few minutes and that can make you overlook the order in which things happen, and then you fail to notice certain things.
One of those things is that Jesus has His own plan. He gives the man what he asked for, but not straight away. There is the sense of suspension that easily gets lost. The sick man asks Jesus to make him clean- Jesus feels compassion- Jesus touches-the man receives what he asked for. There are stages.
How is that in our lives, when Jesus addresses us, in our needs?
While we think and are focused on our thoughts and wishes, Jesus feels and thinks, He has a plan and it’s always a plan that is rooted in His love and remains immersed in His love.
Jesus can touch in mysterious ways. And it can take us a long time before we realize that He does. Much longer than the seconds in the story of the leper.
It is possible to not realize that God makes contact with us. And if that’s the case, He has time and takes time to let you learn to discern and recognize it.
For He wants to be known by you, recognized by you for who He is. And it takes time to get to know Him. This getting to know Him, it’s part and parcel of training in and growing in faith. Faith in God who feels passionate love for us in His heart.
The compassion that makes Jesus touch the man, comes from the heart of God.
As we have it in our Old Testament passage:
Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
declares the Lord.
The compassion, this intense love of God that we find in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that is the same compassion that Jesus feels for the leper. It runs throughout the bible, it runs throughout our lives, at all times, on both good and bad days.
God cannot, will never let go His love. Even though that love is not recognized, acknowledged, knocked down. It remains unshakable, unwavering. He is patient.
The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, (Exodus 34:6)
He is patient in the face of the statement that was once made by the French Philosopher Nietzsche, the statement that God is dead. Nietzsche made that statement on the basis of his conviction that only reasoning is the source of life.
When we reason, we form our own thoughts, we control them.
But this year, we all had to un-learn that we are in control of our lives. This year we all faced our vulnerability. Maybe, hopefully awareness of our vulnerability makes us acknowledge more than ever that the God of the Bible is a living, loving God. The God who during this difficult year, was present and whose presence, whose touch was felt in ways we could not have imagined and cannot imagine; in ways we could not have imagined and cannot explain by reasoning.
When the sick man is healed, he is told by Jesus to remain quiet about what’s happened to him. Instead of telling people, Jesus wants him to go to the priests and do what is required of him by Moses.
So, having followed His heart, Jesus remains the Jew who obeys the law. That is another thing that is easily overlooked. If we do, we don’t let Jesus be who He is.
But why does Jesus want silence?
Isn’t this an opportunity for mission? Sharing the good news?
Yes, but timing is a crucial thing in Jesus plans. His timing is His Father’s timing and it’s different from ours.
Jesus is very sensitive. Talking about what Jesus had done for the sick man at that point in time, would make people see Him as a miracle worker. People shouldn’t think too quickly that they know who He is from what they hear. Who He is to people will have to emerge by discovering who He is, bit by bit. No shortcuts, no running ahead.
So here’s something else that is not to be overlooked: the times of silence that are incorporated in God’s plans, for His reasons, reasons that are mysteries for us and with which we have to live.
The story starts with the anticipation that the leper would end up in desolate places. But it ends with Jesus ending up in desolate places as the result of the spreading of the news by the man, which Jesus told Him to not to do.
Getting to know God means becoming aware that He addresses our needs in His way; through His, and not our plans. So let‘s not run ahead, but stay behind Him and let Him set the pace. Learn from Him, who in His own mysterious ways moves and says,
Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)