Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Unpacking the Nativity... part 5... Matthew 2:1-18... Herod and His StormTroopers: Two Kingdoms in Conflict

There are many traditions that we connect with Christmas, things that tie us together as a community or a family, things that infuse the festive season with a variety of meanings, Symbols and rituals that express for us what Christmas means. In our family when I was growing up a nativity scene was always unpacked from its box with the blue lid and placed on the mantle piece to remind us that amidst all the other things we did and the other messages we received that the birth of Jesus was the reason for the season: That the one born in Bethlehem those 2000 years ago should be the focus for our Christmas and our lives. Leading up to Christmas this year I’ve been inviting people to join this family tradition and to unpack the nativity scene. Not just pull these figurines from their polystyrene box but to hear again the biblical story of Christmas and see what each of these characters, have to tell us about Jesus whose birth we celebrate.

As I’ve gone and got images of nativity scenes from the Internet, and looked at various nativity sets to use as a focus for this series of talks, one thing that strikes me is that somehow this scene seems to good to be true. The faces are all calm and peaceful it’s almost become the idealised hallmark moment. Maybe its like those old Norman Rockwell paintings or photos of an idealised past like a 1950’s America with the perfect family in front of their perfect house in the well manicured suburbs living a perfect life. Made even more idyllic as they slurp their cola flavoured beverages.  It seems unreal, divorced from a world where people die in terror attacks or are left devastated by tsunami and earthquake. Where diseases like HIV/AIDS kill hundreds of thousands each year and in some countries there are whole generations growing up orphaned by this twenty first century plague. Where the number one killer for over two thirds of the world are the affects of poverty and in the other one third it is the effects of over indulgence and excess. But as I read the gospels account of this birth you see that it is not divorced from the reality we live in rather God chose to enter this world in the midst of our suffering and even our terror.

As we read Matthew’s gospel there is a shadow cast across the nativity scene. The shadow of Herod, “a paranoid dictator who when hears there’s a child born kill of the Jews send out death squads to kill al male children under two” (as Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn puts it) .. The hope of Christmas is that God shines his great light into even this darkness; sending his defenceless son into this hurting world to show us his love and the difference it can make.

In fact the nativity scene tells us that God didn’t try and give his son a charmed and privileged life free from the troubles of the world. Luke Sets the international scene by telling us that Augustus was Caesar at the time of Jesus birth and he had called a census for tax collection purposes, there was major upheaval as families were forced to travel to there town of birth to register. You could imagine the road congestion and demand on accommodation if we in New Zealand were asked to undertake a similar exercise. Mary pregnant was forced to go with Joseph from Judea to Bethlehem a journey of well over 100 km’s of mountainous terrain. We often see her riding on a donkey a fact that the scriptures never tell us but on foot or riding you can imagine why it could have triggered the labour. They cannot find any room at the inn, like refugees all over the world they had to make do with makeshift quarters and this is how God chose to come into this world. Born not in a palace or in the lap of luxury but round the back in a stable and laid in the feeding trough full of hay. Profound …God chose to identify with the humble and lowly.

Matthew’s gospel concentrates on the local political landscape. Caesar had appointed Herod ‘the king of the Jews’ as reward for the ruthless way he had put down rebellions. Over the course of a three-year bloody civil war he had asserted his rule on Judea and Samaria and a large area north east of Galilee. He was known as Herod the Great and was a prolific builder of cities, rebuilding Samaria and a great town and tower on the Mediterranean coast both which he named after the emperor, he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Despite these achievements the Jews always disliked him because while he was a Jew by religion he was an Edomite, by birth. He was always weary of plots to over throw him or usurp his power, he had married into the family who had a more legitimate claim to the throne but this didn’t stop him from one by one wiping out that family including his wife. He also had three of his sons put to death supposedly for plotting to over throw him. While his atrocity of having all the male children under two is only recorded in Matthews’s gospel it does fit in well with his bloody and tyrannical ways.

Saved only by God’s intervention in a dream Jesus and his family flee as refugees to Egypt until Herod’s death. Again profound that God would enter in to the midst of this world of terror and tyranny.

Perhaps for Matthew’s readers the fact that while Herod had been made King of the Jews by Caesar The signs in the sky that lead the magi to come showed that God had appointed one child to be born king of the Jews.  Here we have the profound truth of the nativity that the kingdom of God had come into the kingdom of man. A king and a kingdom like no other. That is a stark contrast to Herod’s rule. As William Barclay commented

"a king who would rule not by force but by love and would reign over the hearts of humanity not from a throne but from a cross. As we can see a king so different that any other: Whose kingdom would not be territory carved out by conquest and political treaty but would be where the reign of God was honoured in the hearts of men, who would not lord it over subjects and servants but would wash their feet and call them not servants but friends and give his life for them. A king that would not deal with his enemies with violence and death but with love and grace and call all who claimed him as their own to do the same. Whose greatness would not be measured by buildings and cities raised but lives and hearts changed and renewed, the broken healed, the poor lifted up and given dignity and hope, the lost welcomed home, the sinner forgiven and reconciled, the sick healed, the prisoner set free and the blind receiving their sight."

 This is the hope of Christmas, this is what Jesus born humbly in the stable offers to us today in the midst of all the great goodness and dire evil of our world, The kingdom of God.

Bono U2’s lead singer wrote a song as a response to the Omagh terrorist bombings, where 29 people including a pregnant woman were killed. The song has haunting and challenging lyrics like the following. 

Heaven on Earth, we need it now
I'm sick of all of this hanging around
Sick of sorrow, sick of the pain
I'm sick of hearing again and again
That there's gonna be peace on Earth
Jesus and the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth

Hear it every Christmas time
                                             But hope and history won't rhyme
                                             So what's it worth
                                            This peace on Earth
                                              Peace on Earth
It expresses the very real thought that we talk of Jesus inaugurating God’s kingdom of peace and love with his birth life death and resurrection but over 2000 years later were still waiting in the midst of the darkness. The Christian response to that is that we will wait till Christ returns again to conclude history and judge the world then all things will be put right. Till then the hope is that people will meet this one born king of the Jews in a way that will transform them, that will turn them into people who will live and work for seeing the kingdom of God come into this world. Who will love their neighbours and Christ has loved us, love even their enemies give all they have to the poor, stand for righteousness and the poor and powerless against injustice and act in ways that reflect the love of God for all. 

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