Sermon 29.12.13 GMC
The last time I preached here on the second Sunday on Advent, we talked about seeing or experiencing the Kingdom of God arriving in great power. Well, I guess you might agree that this is pretty much what happened to the people in Bethlehem on that first Christmas. If we look at the accounts from Matthew and Luke, we might well agree that the Kingdom of God had just hit the town and people of Bethlehem square in the face. A group of Shepherds, minding their own business had had their lives turned upside down. Suddenly they are given a place at the top table at Jesus’ birth! And then they get a visit from a diplomatic mission from somewhere near Babylon probably. These VIP visitors bring a selection of gifts to a young teenage couple who have recently given birth to their first child, in less than palatial surroundings. Quite literally, the world will not be the same again because God has arrived… albeit in a manger. What happens next of course is perhaps suggestive of the way this child’s life is going to pan out. Almost immediately, someone in power and authority wants to kill him. Mmm…That bit doesn’t quite fit with the tinsel and turkey festival that we have managed to turn Christmas into does it.
I would like to use this opportunity to paint for you an alternative picture of the first Christmas. One that is light years away from the nice fluffy image we have developed in nativity scenes played out in schools and churches up and down the country in the run up to Christmas. A few weeks ago someone said to me that they felt angry with people for messing with “our Nativity”. And there is part of the problem. It’s just not OUR nativity at all. At least not the real one. It happened approximately 2000 years ago in a middle eastern village/town about 5 miles outside Jerusalem. The story we play out is one our own creation. Mary being carried in by a giant Rabbit probably gives the game away to some extent! I have to say that was priceless, but back to my story. Reality of course was something, well…. Different.
In the words of Nick Page, “beginning with shame and scandal and ending in massacre” Probably not really suitable for the Church nativity then.
Mary and Joseph were betrothed, when Joseph finds out his bride to be is pregnant. Awkward moment for Joseph, and for Mary, who stands to lose everything – perhaps even her life. Don’t forget she was probably about 15 years old. Joseph not that much older. Only a piece of literature written some 200 years after the event suggests that Joseph is an elderly widower, and only made that way so that Mary can be a virgin for ever. It’s a piece of story telling to explain away the awkward truth of Jesus having brothers and sisters. They had to come from somewhere, so a previous marriage for Joseph was invented. No, what we have here is a young teenage couple, coping with rumour and heresay, heading off to Bethlehem for what we are told is some sort of registration by the occupying power – Rome.
It’s not clear whether Joseph had family in Bethlehem, or whether they had travelled to Bethlehem en Masse, but considering that Joseph stood by Mary, it makes sense in Jewish custom for Joseph and Mary to be staying with Joseph’s family. It’s just what the bride did, she went to live with the grooms family. So perhaps May and Joseph did have somewhere to go after all. She went to the inlaws!
Now let’s see what Luke actually tells us. Tellingly a word that has traditionally been translated as an “inn” is Kataluma. This is the same Greek word he also uses when he describes the disciples looking for a place to hold the Last Supper. It was a guest room, or upper room. In the well known parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke presents us with a real inn or hostel, and this time he uses a different word, Pandocheion. Well that’s odd. Could it be that Luke wasn’t suggesting an inn at all in the nativity Story. Not so much no room at the inn, as no inn. Sorry to all the little boys, this means no innkeeper. Well at least the hotel establishments get a better press now.
Lets take a look at a typical 1st century Bethlehem house.
The kataluma meant the upper room, where the family lived. There was no room here for the baby so he was kept in a manger near the livestock that routinely lived inside the house downstairs. Their body heat would help heat up the area so was a good place to keep a baby safe and warm. It is not a story of exclusion then at all. Mary, despite all the rumour and gossip which must have followed her, damaged goods etc, is welcomed in by Joseph’s family and the population of Bethlehem, as is her child.
And then horror.
Herod sends out his foot soldiers to kill Jesus and decides that in order to make sure, he will just kill all baby boys under the age of 2. Just to be on the safe side. Remember, Herod had quizzed the magi regarding the exact timing of their astrological observations, so he was just covering all the bases really. Totally understandable in a maniacal dictator sort of way. He is just using a scatter gun approach.
The massacre of course isn’t recorded anywhere, which has led some people to question whether it actually happened. But why should it be. Bethlehem was a small village, probably no more than 20 infants at any one time, and taking into account infant mortality, probably less. This wasn’t worth recording, it was just a cull, and in anyway who does the recording – those in authority. This was highly illegal so are they really going to incriminate themselves? Anyway it is just a handful of peasants, no one will miss them.
The thing is, today we have almost cleansed this episode totally out of Christmas. But it is critical. It is a story of the price paid for being willing to shelter and protect Jesus. The inhabitants of Bethlehem, perhaps including some of the shepherds, would pay the price for being associated with Jesus. Would any parent stand by and let their child be killed. What do you think probably happened to the parents? If we think this behaviour is so crazy, consider that in N Korea, their beloved leader is currently engaging in a purge. This has included the execution of his own Uncle. In WW2, the Nazis destroyed a French village for giving shelter to the resistance. Women and children were burnt in the village Church.
In the light of these more recent examples of dictatorial atrocities, and I’m sure we could all name more, it is not too hard to see Herod; increasingly paranoid in the final stages of his illness, acting in an out of hand fashion without any regard for human life.
The story of the massacre talks into the cost of discipleship. When we choose to follow Jesus, we place ourselves at risk because we will be in one way or another putting ourselves in opposition to the ways of the world. Or we should be. Are you ready to accept this cost?
The cost of living out a life modelled by Jesus himself, of not seeking power or status for its own sake. Of seeking peace rather than war. Of making sure that the poor and the disabled are cared for rather than vilified or patronised. Of welcome the outcast rather than creating an exclusive club.
As we contemplate our covenant service next week, let us spend some time thinking of the phrase that we will all say; “put me to what you will, rank me with who you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering”.
The first martyrs in Bethlehem welcomed Jesus into their home, and looked after him. Some of them paid for that with their lives.
In Jesus’ name. Amen