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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

 

kingship vs Kingship

Dilemmas, we all know them. Someone says this about them:

‘It is difficult to manage the thoughts in our heads with the feelings in our heart…because only one of them is right.’

Einstein had his solution: If your head tell you one thing and your heart tell you another, before you do anything, decide first whether you have a better head or a better heart.

We all find ourselves struggling with dilemmas, small ones and big ones. My heart melts when I see a puppy, but my head says, ‘No, don’t give in’.

Our New Testament reading gives us the struggle that the apostle Paul has with the conflicts within himself. It’s the last paragraph of a passage where he spells out what causes the conflict between His love for God and sin that, he says, lives in him. He, Paul, who always loved, with all that is within him, the God of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob, Paul wrestles….A Dutch bible commentator says: ‘The dyke of his faith is undercut by the seepage water of sin’.

But then…Paul’s joy, when he thanks God for Jesus Christ, who breaks through that impasse: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Less than two months now, before Christmas. Whatever the restrictions and changes will be, the reason why it will again be Christmas remains unchanged. That reason is that it was God’s initiative, driven by pure love for the world; for his suffering world, to break through its darkness, as a light that started to shine from within that insignificant stable in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem. That takes us to our Old Testament reading. It is where Samuel is sent to, by God, for a mission. And that mission is to anoint a new king for Israel, a king with which king Saul was to be replaced.

Saul was the king that had been given to Israel by God, when Israel asked for a king. But Saul turned out to be a king that did what he wanted, not what God wanted. And because of his disobedience to God, Saul was rejected by God.

God too has regrets, as it says in an earlier chapter:

“I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.. (1 Samuel 15:11)

So Samuel was sent to anoint the king with which God wanted to make a new beginning. In Bethlehem, that was where that king was. All very well, but to do that while Saul is still king, that was risky. No wonder Samuel wasn’t keen:

‘How can I go? If Saul hears, he will kill me’

but God offers the reluctant, scared Samuel a solution:

‘Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you’ (1 Samuel 16: 2,3)

Samuel knows only so much, so little of how God will help Samuel complete this mission. God tells him only very little about His plan. He only tells Samuel what he thinks Samuel needs to know.

Isn’t that a situation we often find ourselves in? In our personal lives. In the church with all the changes? We do what we feel we have to do. But just as God was building something new for Israel then, with Samuel, so He is the One that builds something new with us, now. Our efforts are to be given with the awareness that God Himself remains the creator of new things. As the Psalmist says,

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain. (Psalm 127:1)

Everything we do, has to be done from within that humility towards God.

So Samuel does as he’s told, he goes to Bethlehem. When the people in Bethlehem, the elders, see him they wonder why a prophet has come to their town. So they ask, ‘Have you come in peace?’ ‘Yes, I have come in peace’, Samuel replies, still unsure and unsettled.

And then he meets Jesse with his seven sons. Eliab the eldest, a tall young man, is the first one passing Samuel. Seeing Him, Samuel thinks, ‘he must be the one. He must be the new king’. However, Samuel got it wrong. He was misled by what his eyes saw and therefore was corrected by God:

No, Samuel, don’t look at his appearance. It’s not about what human eyes see. It is about what I see. And I don’t look at outward appearances. I don’t look at what is obvious to human eyes. I look at the heart.

The second son comes forward, the third, fourth, fifth, sixth…None of these were God’s chosen one. Well, it must be the seventh then. But no…The new king God had in mind was not there.

What now? What is this? A failed mission? Has Samuel come all the way to Bethlehem with a heavy heart for nothing?

‘Are these all your sons, Jesse?’

‘Well, there is still one, the little one. It can’t be him. He looks after the sheep’.

‘Call him, Jesse’, Samuel says.

They were all ready to start the meal, but they couldn’t, because the little one wasn’t there yet. Samuel, Jesse and the seven sons of Jesse had to wait for the eight son of Jesse.

Eight is, in Jewish thinking, a number of God. We have seven days. Our eight day would be Sunday, which is the first day.

So we don’t have an eight day, it’s not on our calendar. But in the bible, crucial things happen on this eight day. Israel’s sons get circumcised on the eight day, including God’s son Jesus. In Luke it says,

 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Luke 2:21)

When the little David arrived, the child of Jesse that didn’t count, this is what God said,

“Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. (1 Samuel 16: 12,13)

It makes sense that it was Jesse’s eight son with whom God wanted to make a new beginning. It doesn’t make common sense, but biblical sense. The eight day in the bible is the day of a new beginning. It stands for God’s time, a time of the highest order, when a reality from that highest order enters our lives. When He begins something within us and with us; something that we never could have thought of ourselves.

The Spirit of God rushed upon David from that day forward…Does that mean that David was the perfect king? No. David too was human. Like Paul, David struggled with sin; with conflicts like all of us do; in which we all can be stuck.

But David let God correct him. David had to be the king to God’s own heart, by remaining the humble shepherd he was, in his heart

There is not one dilemma, not one struggle that God doesn’t know about; from which He doesn’t want to save us. But we have to let Him do it His way. To be able to do it His way, God needs that what we don’t like, our humility…

What God saw in David’s heart was humility. That’s what made him the opposite of king Saul. With that humility God started to build something new in Israel. For through David, God pointed at and  started to build a kingship that was of the highest order, His own Kingship. For from David, the shepherd in Bethlehem, generations and generations later, the little Jesus was born, in the same Bethlehem, the King of all kings, the Shepherd of our lives.

Amen