Sheepscott Community Church December 26, 2010
Isaiah 63: 7-9
Matthew 2: 13-23
I question whether there is anybody in church today who hasn’t heard of Susan Boyle, the Scottish chanteuse who a little over a year ago wowed the audience and judges on the show “Britain’s Got Talent.” Middle-aged and overweight, dowdy in dress and odd in deportment, Susan Boyle’s dream was to be a professional singer in the mold of the popular UK artist Elaine Page. The audience frowned at the allusion, and the cameras picked up more than one audience member rolling her eyes and sneering. But then, Susan Boyle opened her mouth and sang for all she was worth, and that was a lot. The audience was on its feet cheering. Here was the genuine article.
Within minutes of the show, Susan Boyle’s U-tube video went viral on the internet and within a few days had broken the record for hits with over 300,000,000 viewers from around the world watching the songstress, who in her ordinariness stood in for many people who have a dream. Fittingly her selection was “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, and she had the nerve, the guts, the chutzpah to try to make her dream a reality.
The point I want to make out of this story is that the news in today’s world travels in nanoseconds on the internet, and someone in New Dehli can know what someone in New Gloucester, Maine is up to on a Sunday morning, if New Gloucester wants to put it out there on Facebook or a blog or whatever. The internet video that made Susan Boyle an international star literally overnight can be contrasted with the star that the Wise Men, the astrologers, the Kings saw in the sky. It was no instant video that informed them of its meaning. For nearly two years they studied their astrological charts and weighed them against the prophecies of the time concerning an important King to be born, and interpreting the star to mean that there was something worth investigating. So they went on the road to track down this newborn king.
The story of the Three Wise Men is actually next Sunday’s story, when we will celebrate Epiphany, but a bit of it is necessary for background about why Herod got so upset about this birth, as noted in today’s gospel. Whatever really did happen, we can at the very least learn from the story that Jesus’s birth was significant and threatening to the powers that were at the time. No sooner had the Light come into the world than the darkness fixed on it to overcome it.
In this story the darkness took the form of King Herod, who was not so far from Kim Jong Il, the current president of North Korea, or Laurent Gbagbo, the legitimately defeated president of Ivory Coast, who refuses to concede the presidential office. Herod, Kim Jong Il, Gbagbo are and were all paranoid about threats to their power from the outside. Even within the family. Herod, had three of his sons killed because he thought they were plotting against him––which they may have been, with good reason. He also had his wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra killed for the same reason. Among the most egregiously cruel and self-serving of Herod’s acts was at the very end of his life. He ordered that the slaughter of the most notable men of Jerusalem take place at the moment of his death, so that there would be weeping in the city when he died. He had no illusions about the way people felt––including family––about him.
So, it isn’t so hard to believe that this despot would have all the boys under two years of age in Bethlehem killed in an attempt to do away with yet another threat to his power. This was the Slaughter of the Innocents, as it was called. It’s also worth noting that we aren’t talking about hundreds of boys here, maybe 20 or 30. Bethlehem was a small town, after all, and who would primarily have been affected by those killings would simply be the children and mothers of the children. In the rest of the area, the event would have caused little more than a ripple. It wasn’t their sons, after all.
So where was God in all this? I would answer with verses Cyndi read this morning from Isaiah: “In all their distress”––and we can imagine the distress of the scene of babies and toddlers being torn from their mothers and slaughtered in front of them, but Matthew spares us the details––”In all their distress, he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” And that’s enough. God is always enough, even when death is involved. Whether we apply the “them” in those verses to the babies themselves or to the frantic parents, or even to the soldiers doing their duty whose Father, whose Mother, God no less is, “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them.”
God with us. Emmanuel, if you recall from the gospels and the readings from Isaiah and from the hymns and messages of the last four weeks. Emmanuel, God with us. God carrying his people as in days of old.
A powerful image some of you may have seen that goes a long way toward making visible the complexity and perplexing nature of this morning’s gospel––as in How could Herod do that? How could the soldiers do that?––an image that can help illuminate some of the reality behind the text, and the reality even further behind the image itself is a painting by the late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century artist Luc Olivier Merson, entitled “Repose in Egypt.” The painter shows Mary and the infant Jesus asleep in the hollow between the body and the right paw of the Sphinx, the halo light from the Child’s head lighting the face of the Sphinx.. The enigma/ that life is/ remains /and it is well captured in the figure of the Sphinx and the cruelty of Herod, which is the cause of the Mother and Child being here at the base of the Sphinx in Egypt in the first place.
The Sphinx can represent the contradictions we know within ourselves, for our human nature sometimes seems a mixture of serpent, winged bird, lion and human. But even as the contradiction the Sphinx represents remains, the Christ Child has been born and sleeps peacefully between the lion’s paws. I repeat what I noted earlier: No sooner had the Light come into the world than evil in the person of Herod began to oppose it. But look: the child asleep between the lion paws of the Sphinx. Contradiction. We ourselves are a web of contradiction, with possibilities and propensities toward both good and evil.
But Christ abides, there between the paws of the Sphinx, as an answer to our yearning for the pardon of our sins, the promise of eternal life written across the top of our own deaths. He awaits only the venture of our faith to prove himself the answer to the mystery. And that is what I am going to leave you with this morning. The word “mystery” seems to be the easy way out of explaining the unexplainable, of not declaring what the Truth with a capital T is, after all is said and done. Nevertheless, that is what I leave you with this morning: the challenge to engage with mystery: the Spirit of the Living God as revealed in this Light born into the world on Christmas, which yes, the darkness immediately rises up to oppose, the darkness in ourselves as well as the darkness outside of ourselves.
But darkness is already defeated because the light has come into the world. The world is no longer in total darkness.
Think of one artist’s rendering of that child between the paws of the lion. We, when we come to know how Jesus is who he is––knowable in prayerful listening––can ourselves be between the paws of the lion and yet sleep with ease, knowing we are lifted up and carried by God as in days of old. Amen.