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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.

Amen

 

Remembrance Day

How wonderful it is to remember – that “God is our refuge and strength – a very present help in trouble.” The ability to remember is a wonderful gift that God has given to us. In a flash you can be a child again, skimming rocks across a pond, or walking in a meadow.  Many of us can recall the time when we fell in love, got married, had children all over again. You can remember – because those memories are fixed in your mind. And time cannot rob you of those so long as your memory continues to function.

Some of our memories are happy, and we can recall wonderful experiences. But some of our memories are sad and we may weep. The problem, though, is that sometimes memory fails us. Sometimes we forget. I think that our annual Remembrance Sunday Service is one of the most important services in the Christian calendar, after Christmas and Easter. Because it helps us not to forget why we have the freedom that we enjoy today. It reminds us that the peace that we have enjoyed for nearly 75 or so years here in Great Britain was not bought cheaply. And it gives us an opportunity to say “Thank you” for the sacrifice that so many made, with their lives, with their scars of war in order that we in the United Kingdom can enjoy peace

Some of you may still have vivid memories of the war – and of fallen comrades and friends In war many people found their faith – others lost it.

In a second hand bible were written some words, it was obviously very meaningful to the previous owner, an elderly lady because she had specially typed it out on a piece of paper. She had written as follows: The following lines were discovered on the dead body of an American soldier killed in action in North Africa, in 1944. They were found by a corporal in the Royal Army Medical Corps and were printed in a Tunis newspaper. They found their way to Britain via the United States.  A friend of the writer of these lines, who was with him when they were written (and who survived the battle in which the writer was killed) said the soldier was a thoroughly wild character, but there were tears running down his face as he wrote the following lines.

“Look, God, I have never spoken to you,
And now I want to say: “ How do you do?”
You see, God, they told me you didn’t exist,
And I, like a fool, believed all this.
Last night, from a shell hole, I saw your sky,
And I figured then they had told me a lie.
I wonder, God, if you’d take my poor hand?
Somehow I feel you would understand.
Strange I had to come to this hellish place
Before I had time to see your face.
Well, I guess there isn’t much more to say:
But I’m glad, God, that I met you today
The zero hour will soon be here
But I’m not afraid; because you are near.
The signal has come, I shall soon have to go
I like you lots – this I want you to know.
I am sure this’ll be a horrible fight:
Who knows? I may come to your House tonight.
Though I wasn’ t friendly to you before,
I wonder, God, if You’d wait at Your door?
Look, I’m shedding tears, me shedding tears!
Oh! How I wish I’d known you those long, long years
Well, I have to go now, dear God. Goodbye
But now that I’ve met you, I’m not scared to die.”

As we remember in this Service today – the cost to millions of our servicemen and women – of that peace that we enjoy today – may I ask you to think remember further back – to the man who hung on a Cross – so that we may have our peace with God today. Thank God that we don’t have to go “to that hellish place” that that young American Soldier wrote about before he had “time to see God’s face” Jesus gave us two great rules to govern life in our society.

The first was this. To “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind (Mt 22:37) and the second was to “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt 22:39) Let us go from this Remembrance Day service resolved to make these the goal of our lives: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God” (Mt 5:9) Let us continue to build on the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives for our country. Let us leave it a better place – for our having been here.

It’s very daunting for me to stand and preach on this day of all days. The closest I’ve come to living through a war is seeing it on the television, Yet, today is still desperately important. Many of us were not around sixty and more years ago, as others of you have been. For our young people in High School, the first Gulf War of 1991 is something that they read about in history books, and yet there are still a number of veterans of that war and our previous World Wars still alive. Remembrance, if it is anything, must be comprehensive. Our remembrance is not just that of the two world wars, or of the countless other conflicts that have gone on around the world. Our remembrance goes beyond that, as we also remember emergency services (fire brigades, police, ambulance staff), support services, such as the many chaplains to forces, and not least the millions of civilians who died as a result of war and terrorism.

It has been said that people are the sums of their memories. Today is, in part, the memories that we bring with us. Some of you bring memories of active service. Some of you bring memories of those whom you have loved and lost. Some of you bring memories of civilian life during wartime. Some of you bring a long commitment to peace and working for peace. Each of us brings different memories and thoughts to our act of Remembrance, which helps to make it more comprehensive.

We are here to remember all those people, of whatever country, who have died in the pursuit of freedom and good. We are here to give thanks to God for their lives given for the freedom of many countries around the world. We are here to acknowledge publicly and before God that countless people have given their lives for us, for our freedom and for others and their freedom. We are here to pray for all who suffer and have suffered as a result of war. Particularly those of us who, like me, are too young to remember war, need to remember that many gave their today for our tomorrow.

Whenever there is a war or conflict we are usually hopeful that it will be the last, that there will be no more war. But we are not free from war and the pain of war. Our purpose today is to acknowledge that pain and to remember it, but also to thank God for the freedom that so many now enjoy because of the laying down of life by so many for this and many other countries and to pray for peace. We thank God for those who laid down their lives for others, as John’s gospel talked about. We acknowledge the example of Jesus in laying down his life for others.

It would be a mistake for us to think that remembrance is simply about the past, about what has happened. Our remembrance is not simply something in the past, but something that we make present here and now as we realise the significance for each of us. Whoever, whatever, wherever our thoughts turn to, today we acknowledge love laying down its life for others and we recognise that there is no greater thing that one can do than loose one’s life for the benefit of others, for freedom and liberty.

Sadly, we take the sacrifice of the many men and women who served in the Forces for granted. We too easily forget the price they paid for the peace and freedom we enjoy today. I think Remembrance Sunday is one of the most important services in the Christian year – a time when we stop to “remember them” I am not old enough to remember the Second World War – I was born thirteen years after it ended.

How true it is. Remembrance Sunday is not just a reminder of those who died in the First and Second World Wars – important as they were. It is also a reminder of other conflicts that our armed services have been in. The ability to remember is a wonderful gift that God has given to mankind. Some of our memories are happy and we can recall wonderful experiences. But some of our memories are sad and we may weep as we remember them.

The First World War ended 102 years ago
The Second World War ended 75 years ago
Yet despite the passage of time, it is still vitally important – yes, it is right – that we remember that many still bear the scars of was today. And it is good for us to remember those who have fought for their country, to support them and to pray for them.

Today is a day when we say “Thank you” to all those who made the sacrifice that we can stand here today in peace and freedom. We may even remember the names of those who died this morning.  But we must not forget those who are still suffering as a result of these wars. And not only can we remember but we can practically respond to the retiring collection being taken as you leave this morning for the Erskine who having been caring for our servicemen and women since 1916.
As we stand in our parish church today, these thoughts of sacrifice should bring us back to the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for us all on the battlefield of Calvary. St. John put it well when he said:  “Greater love has no one than this, that one lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) Jesus gave his life not only for his friends but also for his enemies.

Jesus had no need to experience human suffering but he did for all our sakes. Man’s evil –that’s basically what we call sin – has separated us from God. Jesus died to reconcile us to God, by dying in our place. This reconciliation is a gift that we can receive simply by asking Christ to come into our lives.

Building for the Better

There was a man once, and building was the man’s business.  He’d made his fortune by building luxury homes, the property boom throughout the 80s and 90s had seen him do alright in life and now he could afford to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labour.  It wasn’t just his labour, of course, he didn’t build the houses himself, he had a team he trusted, a team he knew would always do their best for him.  And they always did their best for him because he was a good boss, he was fair with them, he treated them well.  And he paid them well too.

The man he trusted most of all was his project manager.  His project manager had been with him from the start, always working away in the background organising things, buying materials, supervising the contractors they had to bring in.  So it wasn’t too much of a surprise to his project manager when the man said to him one day, ‘I want you to build a retirement house for me.  Spend whatever you need to, I’m not going to interfere, I don’t want to be involved, but I want no expense spared, I’ll cover it. I want the best of materials, the best fixtures and fittings, I want this to be the best house my company has ever built.  I’m going to leave it completely in your hands.’

Now, the trouble was that the project manager realised that if his boss was retiring, it was going to mean he’d have to retire too, he’d lose the job he’d had for what seemed like forever.  How was he going to get another job at his age?  So he took his chance to pad out his own retirement plan.  Instead of the best of materials, he ordered the worst and charged his boss for the best.  Instead of luxury fixtures and fittings, he ordered the ones that looked good, but that underneath the gloss were cheap and shoddy.  And he charged his boss for the best.  Instead of their usual team of skilled craftsmen and contractors, he brought in all the cowboy builders he could find, he brought in inexperienced electricians, poor plumbers, rookie roofers.  And he charged his boss for the best.   When the house was finally built, oh yes, it looked good, it looked like quality – but it wasn’t quality.  If you tried to get a mortgage on a house like that, you’d have no chance.  But the project manager had made himself a tidy wee sum by pocketing the difference between what he said he’d spent and what he actually had spent.  As soon as he handed it over, he’d be off like a shot.

His boss was true to his word.  He hadn’t interfered.  He’d paid all the bills without a second look at them.  He didn’t even turn up on site until after the house was finished.  And when he did, he looked around at what was, at first glance, a great house, but one that was actually pretty much worthless.  Worse than that, it’d take more money to put everything right than what it cost to build.  And he said to the project manager, ‘Remember when I said I’d leave it completely in your hands?   I meant it.  I don’t need a new house for my retirement, but I know you do.  It’s yours.’  And he gave him the keys.

Our New Testament reading today is what’s become known as the Parable of the Tenants, some say the Wicked Tenants.  It’s part of a conversation Jesus has with the priests and the elders of the temple of Jerusalem, not long after he’d arrived there for what would be the last time.  The master plants a vineyard and leaves it in the care of his tenants.  He trusts them but they don’t live up to his trust (a bit like our business owner and his project manager), only they kill the servants who go to gather his fruit on two occasions, then kill his son too.  Jesus asks the priests and the elders what should happen to the tenants.  They give it the old ‘eye for an eye’, well, they would, wouldn’t they, as the priests are steeped in the Judaic tradition and that’s how they see justice, they say the tenants should suffer and that the vineyard should be given to those who deserve it.  As I say, steeped in the Judaic traditions, so they’d have known the book of Isaiah, they’d have known our Old Testament reading from Isaiah.  They’d have known the vineyard in Isaiah represents Israel, its owner is God and that the Israelites, despite having been given all they needed, despite God fulfilling all his promises to them, the Israelites failed to live up to God’s expectations.  The fruit that came from their vineyard wasn’t good fruit, as Isaiah says, ‘He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.’ (Isa. 5:2)

 And the priests, on hearing Jesus’ parable and making all the Isaiah connections, they might have been self-satisfied, smug, they might have sat back and thought they’d had it all figured out.  They might have thought, well, that’s all in the past, we’ve learned from that, we are where we are.  We’re God’s people, he’s chosen us and we do everything his laws tell us to do, we’re untouchable.  But Jesus’ words take on an ominous tone.  When he says, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone’, he’s quoting word-for-word from Psalm 118, and the priests would suddenly be aware of the real point of the story.  When he says, ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits,’ suddenly they’re in no doubt he’s talking about himself, and he’s talking about them.  Jesus is saying that clinging to the old laws isn’t good enough anymore.  Jesus is the stone, the cornerstone, the builders are the Jewish priests who reject him.  And they’re not untouchable anymore.

Most buildings these days don’t have cornerstones.  The building I spoke about in my own wee parable about the crooked project manager, it wasn’t built with a stone which, if was taken away, would cause the whole place to come tumbling down.  A cornerstone, when they were used, at least, was usually the first to be laid, it was the one that determined the position of the whole structure, in effect it held the whole thing up.  And everything built up from the cornerstone.  It gets me thinking, what are the cornerstones in our lives?

I need you to use your imagination here as you read or listen to this.  Imagine a jar with a lid.  This jar is our lives, your life, if you like.  I’m sure you’ll be imagining an empty jar.  But our lives aren’t empty, our lives are full of all sorts of things.

Imagine pouring seeds into the jar, imagine filling about half the jar with seeds.  These seeds are the small things.  These are the things we do every day that take up our time.  Going to the shops, making meals, eating and drinking.  All the things that we do because we’ve got to.  Washing our hands – there’s plenty of that going on just now – putting on our masks going into the shops, taking them off again when we get out.  Walking the dog, mowing the lawn, doing the housework.  Making the bed, getting into it and getting out of it.  Things that we do without even thinking about them.  Putting a washing on, getting the car serviced.  None of them very exciting things, but things we have to do to keep our lives going.

Then there are the things we want to do, when we get the chance.  Imagine adding half a dozen tomatoes to the jar on top of the seeds.  These represent things like going out for dinner, watching football matches – if that’s your thing, although we’re not going to be watching many for the next while, except on telly.  Trips to the cinema if we’re brave enough.  Holidays, when we can travel.  Nice things.  Good things, things we enjoy.

And then there are the people that we have to make time for in our lives. Imagine adding two or three apples on top of the seeds and the tomatoes.  These are our family, husbands, wives, children.  Our other relatives.  Our friends.  People at work.  Some we have to make time for, some we want to make time for. The church is part of our life too, and these represent our church life.  The time we spend here on a Sunday morning.

And when we’ve filled up our lives with all of this, then there’s God to fit in too – our relationship with him, the time we spend reading his word, the time we spend speaking to him, praying to him.  Imagine adding something big – it’s only fitting, after all, it represents God – imagine adding a grapefruit on top of everything else.

Unless you’ve pictured a really large jar, there probably isn’t room in the jar.  You can’t get the lid on.  We’ve filled our lives with so much else, we haven’t left room for God.  So what do we do?

We start again.  Take everything out of the jar and start again.

Only this time we start with God, and the time we spend with him.  The grapefruit goes in the jar first.  We put God at the centre of our lives, make him the foundation of our lives, the cornerstone.  Then we add in the apples, time we spend on our church life, the time we spend with the people in our lives.  The important things come first.  Then if we add in the things we have to do every day to keep our lives going, the tomatoes and the seeds in our  imaginary jar, the boring stuff, and the things we enjoy, the things that make us happy, that we want to do – well, somehow, the seeds will find the gaps and flow around them, and everything just fits.  The lid goes on, our lives are full.  We can’t see God in here, you can’t see Jesus, but he’s there, at the heart of it all.  Start with the cornerstone, it just makes sense.  And the cornerstone in our lives may not be visible, but it’s there, and it’s holding everything else up.

That’s what the temple priests didn’t realise when Jesus told them the parable of the tenants.  They focused on the tenants, on their misdoings, on their inadequacies.  They focused on the law, and sticking to it no matter what.  And they thought the landowner should be strict with the tenants, should punish them according to the law, should keep them in their place.  What they didn’t realise was that the landowner was right there among them, right where they were.  And I think that’s the same with us, the landowner is God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, call him what you will, and if we start with him, make him our cornerstone, well, everything else in our lives has a way of fitting into place.

Amen