Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Tale of Two Kings - A Homily for Christmas I, 2013

A Homily for Christmas I, 2013
Sunday, December, 29th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 2:13-23

“Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went into Egypt…”
--Matthew 2:13

Today we hear the story of two kings.  The first king is a jealous king, a threatened king, an angry king.  The second king is but a child, and yet a child who holds the salvation of the world in his tender hands.  In the background are three others who have been traditionally described as kings, the magi, who have just departed from the stage.  In the forefront is Joseph, the righteous, obedient servant of the Lord; and offstage is the terrible slaughter of the innocent children, victims of Herod’s unrighteous wrath. 

It is one of the peculiarities of our liturgical calendar that we read this story out of sequence.  On Christmas I, we read the second part of the story first, namely, the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents.  Next week, on Epiphany, we shall read the first part, the arrival of the wise men, the magi from the East, the “three kings” of legend to worship and offer gifts to the infant Christ. 

Perhaps in some way reversing the order might seem strangely appropriate in that we know in advance, and we have already seared into our minds, that awful image of Herod’s wrath against the children of Judea.  If the wise men were so wise, why did they visit the insecure Herod and tip him off that they were searching for the one who would be king, the one who would challenge his rule?  Perhaps the natural place to seek out a future king is in a palace and not a stable, but we know what the wise men inadvertently unleashed in their visit to Herod, and we watch with different eyes as they lay their gifts before the infant child, knowing that their actions have set in motion a genocide.

Questions without answers are ever before us in this story.  Why would God allow this massacre? But then, why does God allow any massacre?  What is clear, though, is the darkness into which humanity is fallen, and how dark was the world into which our Lord was born.  Even as the light comes into the world, the darkness still rails against the light. 

Yet, the light comes into the world, and God, in his great condescension, in his great vulnerability in becoming man, trusted himself to man.  God trusted himself, in Christ Jesus, to the righteous man Joseph and the faithful handmaiden Mary.  In a world in which tyrants destroy the lives of infants, God yet had enough trust in humanity to allow himself to be born into the poverty of a stable, nurtured in the womb of the faithful virgin Mary, protected by the hand of the righteous Joseph.  Into such a world in which a Herod reigns, God trusts himself to humanity.  God is indeed the source of all hope.

As we learned in the nativity story according to Matthew, Joseph was indeed a righteous man, but more than that he was an obedient man. When the angel came to him in a dream and told him not to put Mary away because of her unexpected pregnancy, he obeyed.  One must ask: which of us would trust an angel who speaks to us in a dream?  Joseph trusted.  Joseph was obedient to the Lord’s word.  And so when an angel once again came to him in another dream, he was obedient again and led his family out of Israel into Egypt.  Why does Joseph trust?  Why does Joseph obey?  In the nativity according to Luke we read of a faithful and obedient Mary.  I have suggested at other times that Mary’s obedience and faithfulness grew out of being deeply steeped in the story of salvation as she would have learned it through hearing the biblical story read and retold throughout her life.  When she heard that God would use a lowly one such as herself, the words from Isaiah would have resonated within her.  Because she knew the ancient stories, she knew how God acted, and thus that what he was doing was completely in character with all she knew of God.  It was a risk for her to be faithful – faith if always a risk! – but she had faith that God was acting in and through her, and that his actions were completely in character with the God she had learned about and had always worshiped.  And so I think is the case for Joseph.  He was a righteous man, which means a man who would have known his Scriptures, studied them carefully, understood the Law and the Prophets.  Therefore, when an angel in a dream came to him, telling him to depart to Egypt with his family, did he think of another angel who came to Jacob in a dream (Gen 49), telling him to take his family into Egypt?  And what did Jacob find when he got there? That the son he thought was lost, Joseph, was alive, a leader amongst the Egyptians! Joseph, like Jacob obeyed God, and his family lived. 

When it came time to return to Judea, the angel came to Joseph in another dream, telling him of the death of Herod.  Joseph and his family returned, but learned that Herod’s son reigned, so again in a dream he was advised to go into the Galilee.  We learn that the sojourn out of Egypt was to fulfil the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  To most Jews the was a reference to the delivery of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, but Joseph clearly understood it on another level.  Joseph knew that another work of salvation was afoot, a salvation of which the former delivery from slavery in Egypt was but a sign.  Recall that Joseph was told to name his child, “Jesus” literally, “the one who saves his people.”  Obedient, righteous Joseph knew that he had a special guardianship of God’s new work of salvation, God’s decisive work of salvation.  And in all of this, Joseph, for our sakes, was obedient.

Yes, the exodus of old is fulfilled for us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Into a world in which tyrants slaughter innocents, comes the saving hand of God.  Into a world in which darkness threatens to envelop us and never let go, comes the light of Christ.  Into a world in which hope seems lost, the hopeful God entrusts himself to the care of the righteous man and the faithful woman.  And that same gospel is entrusted to us today.  It can be hard to believe that in a world such as this God’s hope can prevail. It can be hard to believe that in a world in which tyrants still slaughter innocents, that God is bringing about salvation.  It can be hard to believe that in a world in which much darkness prevails that he light of Christ can still shine.  But not only do we believe it, we proclaim it! For shine it does.   We are witnesses to that light.  Each of us is here, and we worship Christ, because of the saving work he has worked in us.  We are here and worship because God in Christ has acted decisively in our lives.  In Christ we have chosen the King who is a saviour, not the pretender king who is a destroyer.  In Christ we have chosen the King who is gentle, not the one who is jealous.  In Christ we have chosen the King who says suffer the children unto me, not the one who slays all the children that threatens his precarious reign.  We know from the ancient historian Josephus that Herod even slaughtered his own sons when they were a threat to him.  This may seem like a distant, fabulous story from a long-past time, but the human condition has changed little.  Those who seek after power still guard it jealously, and maliciously.  We have the inclination and the ability to do awful things with power.  These acts are not isolated acts found only in first century Judea.  They happen today.

The presence of Jesus, though, has the power to transform us.  As the embryonic Christ grew in the womb of blessed Mary, his presence shaped and transformed the lives of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth.  Were they as capable as any other human beings of terrible deeds?  Could they have rejected the Christ?  I imagine they could have, and yet, his very presence even in the womb, inspired a faithfulness and hopefulness in them that changed and shaped their lives forever.  And so it is true for us.  Without Christ what are we?  Without Christ, consider who we might be?  But with Christ, think of who have become, and are becoming!  As Christ is born in our lives, consider how our lives, our hearts, our meaning are reshaped, remoulded, and reformed.  The presence of Christ in the lives of Mary and Joseph inspires faith, encourages obedience, and fosters righteousness.   As the infant Christ shaped Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, so too Christ shapes us.   The Christ leads us on a new exodus, an exodus away from the prince of this age (who would shape and mould us as Herods) into a new and promised land in which we are shaped and moulded in to the image and likeness of the loving God, who has come to us in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The People Who Walked in Darkness - A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2013

Homily for Christmas Eve, 2013
Tuesday, December 24th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
-Isaiah 9:2

Many have been in the dark in the days leading up to Christmas.  Ice has weighed down power lines. Branches and even the trunks of trees have snapped.  Many have sat in coldness and darkness, and yet wonderful stories of hope, of generosity, and of joy have emerged.  Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a sign given to us in all of this.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the darkness and cold might have awakened us to the insatiability of the consumerism of the season and the unrealistic expectations of family to be in two or three places at one time.  When the angels sing of peace on earth, for many, this may seem the least peaceful time of year.  For many, it is a time filled with pressures, with angst, with exhaustion.  The loss of power and heat, the loss of light and warmth, the snow blocking driveways and entrance ways, perhaps these are a sign to us to be still for a moment and seek the meaning and truth of a season somewhere else than malls and parties. 

Where shall we seek?  Where shall we look?  And where shall we go when our road is blocked and the way seems dark and cold?  The shepherds of old, on a cold, dark wintery night, in the quiet of the darkness heard the song of the angel, and they responded, “Let us go then, even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”  We may not be able to travel to the literal Bethlehem, but can we, ourselves, go even unto another very real Bethlehem and witness this thing which the Lord has done?  With lights out, with driveways blocked, can we yet go even unto Bethlehem?

In the days of the Prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel walked in darkness.  Perhaps they, too, felt as if their way was blocked. Perhaps they, too, felt a coldness and darkness that cut them through to the core.  For them, the darkness was the boots of tramping warriors.  For them the darkness was their loss of faith amidst oppression and corruption.  For them the darkness seemed unending.  But Isaiah reminds them that even the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Yes, even those who have dwelled in the land of deep darkness, upon them a light has shone.

For the people of Isaiah’s day, the hope came in the birth of a new heir – someone who would bring justice, righteousness, and peace. Although this child about whom Isaiah spoke was a king who predated Christ by about eight centuries, Isaiah’s words were also a prophetic utterance concerning another king who would come centuries later, and who, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is with us still.  The name of the king about whom Isaiah spoke to his contemporaries is lost to us, but the name of the one who ultimately fulfilled his prophecy is written on our hearts for ever and ever, and that name is Jesus Christ, our King and Lord—the one who was born in a stable in Bethlehem, heralded by angels, worshiped by shepherds, adored by magi. 

But in this present time, amid the stamping of feet in Christmas malls, and the reverie of Christmas parties, can we hear the angels’ song?  Can we hear the mother’s lullaby?  Can we hear the babe crying in the night in that cold, dark stable?    With all the clamour our ears become deaf.  With all the hysteria of “doing Christmas right” is it possible that the artificial warmth of our hearths will prevent us from receiving the Good News about which the angels sing? Or of making that journey even unto Bethlehem?

Then suddenly God acts in a surprising and unpredictable way. When the world is struck dark, when our artificial fires fail, when the way to the mall is blocked, we are given a special gift.  It is the gift of being able to gather with that small group of shepherds around that meagre fire, a fire that is soon paled by the warmth of the angelic apparition that fills the sky. Then, and only then, are our hearts prepared to make that trip to Bethlehem.  Then, and only then, are we able like the magi to leave riches, and opulence and the safety of our earthly palaces behind and  make the journey along desert road, our path illumined only by the light of a distant star.  In the darkness, with all light extinguished, we seek the light that never goes out.  In the cold night, we seek the warmth that cannot fail, along our snow-blocked, ice-laden paths, we seek the one whose way is ever open to us.

Oh how difficult it can be to see his light, perceive his warmth, travel his way, when other lights distract our eyes, other fires burn within us, and other roads seem to beckon down their paths.  These things become for us the meaning of life, they masquerade as the meaning of Christmas, they encourage us to rely on them to such an extent that we do not know what we shall do when they fail us. What can we do? Where may we go?

Let us go then, even unto Bethlehem!  No, not that distant war-torn place we see on TV and read of in our papers and on the internet, but that place where heaven touches earth and the cold turns to warm, the darkness turns to light, and the way of life is open for us. Let us turn to the Bethlehem of our hearts, where Christ is born this day! Let us go then even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which the Lord has done!  For in Bethlehem, there is no artificial light.  In Bethlehem there is no artificial warmth.  In Bethlehem there is no road but one, one that leads directly to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  In Bethlehem, his gates lie open continually. There is not wanting nor destruction within its borders.  Even as all other lights fail, so too shall all nations come to the light that shines in Bethlehem.  And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

Advent began with a prayer that we might be given grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life.  But darkness deceives us. Darkness masquerades as light. Sometimes we do not know that we travel in the darkness, for the lights are so bright, and the fires burn so brilliantly, and all roads seem lit.  Yet, make no mistake, the light we create because we are afraid of the dark is of no enduring consolation.  The fires we light because we are afraid of the coldness within us shall not warm us continually.  The roads we build to make the rough places plain will crumble.  There is only one light, one divine flame, one holy way, and that is Christ our God. 

Sometimes we need to have our lights turned off; sometimes we need to have our furnaces quit;  sometimes we need to have our driveways blocked, to remind us of the true light, the true divine flame, the one true way,  and to seek it.  The angel voices herald it again. The shepherds make the journey again.  The magi once again follow the star.  And in stable, cold and dark, the light shines in the darkness.