Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 2017

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him – why? There was reason to be afraid of Herod, he was a brutal and ruthless tyrant. But now Herod himself is frightened. Fear is the currency he deals in, the economy he operates. His is a world determined by violence, and he knows it can turn against him.
Into that world come mysterious strangers, announcing the birth of a King of the Jews. No wonder Herod was frightened – that was his title, but one given to him by the Roman Empire, whose puppet he was. What the Empire gave, it could take away.
And this is the birth not only of a rival king, but one heralded by cosmic signs, stars in the heavens. And the mysterious strangers say they have come to worship him. No stars have ever blazed in the heavens for Herod, and however much people feared him no one had ever bowed down before him as God.
What we worship is what we ascribe worth to. It is the measure and test of all our values. Herod fears the one heralded by cosmic signs, but he does not worship him. Or, rather, he says he wishes to worship the child, but intends to kill him – exactly the worth that he thinks should be ascribed to one who threatens his own power. Herod’s “worship” will take the form of the massacre of children.
In the centre of Herod’s power the wise men name someone else, Jesus, as king, and say they have come to worship him. Jesus is the Divine king who establishes the alternative to the world ruled by Herod and his ilk.
The followers of Jesus, like the wise men, should expect to frighten and disturb the powers that be. But, because of the resurrection, they can also tell the truth about the world, which the Herods cannot. It really is this world of violence and fear and death, the world where children are murdered, that this child has come to redeem, not by opposing it with its own values, but by suffering the worst that it can do and rising from the death it inflicts.
Christmas has nothing to do with sentimental fairy tales. It is as grittily real as it gets. Which the world of Herod cannot be, because to tell the truth about its own fear is to confess the truth of its own violence. A political figure recently tweeted, “Merry Christmas. Ignore all negative messages from the Archbishop of Canterbury and have a great day”. Which seems to suggest that Christmas is about having a day off from grim reality.
I don’t think the Holy Family would have thought of it in those terms. Jesus was born in the world of fear, violence and death to redeem it, but not by paying it back in the same coin. Jesus will escape the murder of the children under Herod only to be murdered later under Pontius Pilate, having taught and lived to the end his message of non-violence and love for enemies.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said this: “Rome knew how to deal with enemies: you kill them or co-opt them. But how do you deal with a movement, a kingdom whose citizens refuse to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history? The movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God’s patience, to challenge the world’s impatient violence by cross and resurrection.”
Perfect love casts out fear, says St John. Love, come into the world in Jesus, is the alternative to the world run by fear. Even Herod need not be afraid, if only he had realised it, for Jesus has come to redeem even kings, by showing the real meaning of kingship: in service, humility and taking the lowest place. Which saves kings from their fear, for when you know you have nothing to lose there is nothing to be afraid of any more.
The Magi from the East faced two challenges that Christians also face in our present time: fear of the powers that be, and the pressure to keep faith private.
The world still runs on fear, fear of the future, fear of the stranger, fear that if we get rid of Herod we’ll get the Romans instead. Christians today are to answer the world’s fear with faith and worship. Faith that God has indeed redeemed this world in Jesus, and that the worst this world can do is embraced and suffered and overcome on the cross. And worship, where faith leads us into communion with the true and living God who has created us and saved us.
Faith and worship have to engage the world. In fact they constitute the standing challenge to the world as it is. When mysterious strangers come to worship a child Herod is frightened and all Jerusalem with him. When they name this child as king, a child who has nothing to do with the powers that be, then the powers that be are unmasked. Herod’s conspiracy to murder children reveals exactly what drives him. His summoning of the wise men in secret shows his desire to hush up the claims of this child, to push them back into the realm of private devotion where they can do no public harm.
But that would be to give up on worship. What we believe in, what we ascribe worth to, shows us how we live in the world. To believe in Jesus and worship him is to realise that he is the one who redeems the world. It is to confess that he alone offers the alternative to the world, and that is and has to be a public act.

We may live in “interesting times” as the Chinese proverb has it. But as Christians we are citizens of a kingdom that cannot be shaken, whose rule is justice, love and peace. To follow Jesus means to live as citizens of that kingdom publicly, confidently, even while we are for the time being residents of the kingdom of Herod. It is to be drawn to the world’s true king in faith and worship, and so to make real in our lives and in the world the redemption he has won.

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