Sermon for Christmas I, Year A
Sunday, December 30th, 2007
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Reverend Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened.”
-- Matthew 2:3
Fear. When allowed to take hold, it can overtake our reason and overwhelm our senses. While there are healthy fears, fears that can preserve and protect us from harm, and while we certainly acknowledge holy fears, like the fear or reverence of Almighty God, there is also a kind of fear that is all-consuming and all-destructive. At times, fear can grip hold of us in such a way that we become consumed by self-preservation at the expense of all virtue, of all reason, and of all consideration of others. It is this kind of fear that is the antithesis of the Christian faith. It is this kind of fear that ironically extinguishes life rather than preserve it. Fear can lead us to abandon our principles. The fear of what people might think if they learned the truth, leads us to lie, to create false truths, to create false identities for ourselves. Fear can destroy our relationships and our communities. On a larger scale, fear can lead to rash military decisions, political assassinations and even to genocide. Our recent history is littered with decisions made in the grip of fear and the deaths of innocents at the hands of those frightened to relinquish power and control.
So it was in the days of King Herod. In the innocence of the inquiries of the traveling magi, Herod receives word of a threat to his autocratic rule. Wise men seeking to worship the newborn king, inadvertently announce to the reigning despot the arrival of the one who could challenge his authority. And when he heard this, Herod was frightened. We began to wonder to himself, “Could it be so? Is my authority about to be challenged again?” Herod’s reign had not been without those who challenged it, even three of his own sons, Antipater, Alexander, and Aristobulus, were executed by his command when they appeared to pose a threat to his rule. Thus, the frightened Herod, pondered the words of these visiting wise men with a feigned sympathetic interest, all the while plotting the destruction of the child. For what was it for a man who had slaughtered his own sons in the grip of fear to slaughter the children of his Judean subjects, fear once again encircling his hardened heart? The sad reality is simply that Herod grasped the truth that if Jesus was Lord, he was not, could not, or ever be Lord. What will a frightened ruler do to hold on to power? Herod did what so many despots had done before and so many despots have done since, he took up the sword against the weak and the powerless in a frightful rage against all reason. Behold what fear can do. Who amongst us can imagine the threat of a tiny child in its mother’s arms?
Yet, time and time again, fear trumps reason, virtue, and compassion. Scholars may dispute the historical veracity of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, but we know this, that innocents continue to be slaughtered throughout this world when frightened tyrants cling to power. Herod represents the worst of what we can be, the depths of depravity to which each of us, as human beings, has the potential to descend. And we should never delude ourselves, the descent is not as distant as we might imagine. As a human race, and as members of that human race, we teeter constantly on the precipice of evil, with fear threatening to tip us into the chasm. Each of us has within us the potential to be like Herod.
Into this world of darkness, death, and terror, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and spoke these words: “Fear not.” Do not fear, for your wife Mary will bear a son who will save his people. “Fear not,” words spoken to Joseph, and words spoken to Mary. “Fear not,” the trumpet call of God that ushers in the dawning of a new day. “Fear not,” the light shines in the darkness. With the “yes” of Joseph and the “yes” of Mary, a new day truly dawned. For in the willingness of human hearts to cast away the works of fear and let the hand of God enter in, a new world of human possibility, mingled with divine purpose has been inaugurated.
Herod and Joseph were two men who both received the news of the coming of the Lord. Herod and Joseph, two human beings, just as we are human beings, with a choice before them: Fear or fear not. Herod allowed his fear to consume him and overpower him to the point that he spilled the innocent blood of little ones. But Joseph held in his arms the precious gift and nurtured the boy, cared for the boy, protected the boy. Joseph had every reason to be afraid. He could have feared the condemnation of his community when his young bride was found to be with child out of wedlock. He could have feared the responsibility of raising this important child. He could have feared the threat to the child and Mary by the wicked King Herod. Certainly he was confronted by such fear, and yet, the word of God through the voice of the angel resounded in his heart: “Fear not.” Facing those fears, he took up his task, against all odds, against the judgment of the world, in the face of a murderous tyrant, and protected and nurtured the tiny babe who would save us all.
“Fear not.” These words are still offered to us in these latter days. In these days of scandals, assassinations, of genocides, these words still resound. Herod is long since dead, and Joseph slipped quietly away into the background of the Biblical narrative, never to be heard from again. But the word of the Lord remains, “fear not.” As frightening as the world might seem today, the world into which our Lord was born was equally frightening. In the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, all the picturesque sentimentality of stable, shepherds, and lowing animals gives way to the harsh reality of the human condition. But this is the world into which Jesus was born.
The world in which we live can be filled with joy and wonder. Often it is also a world filled with pain and terror. And yet into this world the Christ is born again and again in the hearts of the faithful, as he was born so long ago amidst the pain and terror of the Judean people. His coming is heralded with a cry, “Fear not!” It is a word that came to Mary and a word that came to Joseph. It came to some shepherds in the Judean hillside. It came to the disciples of the Lord as the met him in his resurrection. As he spoke it to them, so he speaks it to us, “Fear not, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” It is a word that comes to us again and again. We can let fear grip us. We can let fear overwhelm us. We can let fear control us. Or we can hear the words of the Christmas angels, and indeed the words of our Lord, himself, “Fear not.” We can be strengthened by the presence of Emmanuel, God with us, and be like Joseph who chose forever to remain a steward of the precious gift. In our baptism, we have been given the gift of Emmanuel, we have no reason to fear, for He is indeed with us.
Copyright 2007, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, by any means, either in whole or part without the express written consent of the author.