Despite evidence to the contrary – good will prevail

Christmas 1 – 2013

Matthew 2:13-23 (Holy Innocents) 

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

 If we are honest, we have to admit that the world is an ugly place in which to live. On Christmas Eve 2013, a three year-old Palestinian child was killed in an Israeli strike on Gaza in retaliation for the killing of an Israeli civilian. The ABC website carried a photo of the dead girl, Hala, being cradled by her uncle. She looked beautiful almost doll-like – a lovely round face framed by dark, wavy hair. Now she will never grow up. Her family will not know her loves and hates, will not have the pleasure of seeing her mature and take her place in the world. Imagine if she were your child, your niece, your grandchild. It is estimated that since September 2000, 1,519 Palestinian children have died in the conflict as well as 129 Israeli children – so many parents whose children will remain children forever.

Sadly, that situation is far from unique. In Syria an estimated 11,000 children have died as a result of the war – one million more now live in refugee camps, their future uncertain. Here in Hamilton, a wealthy suburb in one of the richer countries in the world – a country that has largely known peace – it is almost impossible to grasp the fact that, on a daily basis, millions of children around the world have their innocence stolen from them, millions never have an opportunity simply to live and millions endure such hardship, cruelty, poverty and disease as is impossible for us to imagine.

The statistics for children who are trafficked, children who are forced into the sex industry, used in pornography or compelled to fight in adult wars are nothing less than horrific. When we celebrate the birth of a child, we can have some degree of certainty that we will be able to protect them from harm, that we will be able to access health care in a timely manner, provide them with a home and with education. In this country we can allow ourselves to imagine a happy future for our children. To be sure, as many of you know, we cannot protect our children against every calamity. It is impossible to prevent accidents and our medical advances cannot cure every disease. However, the chances that our children will be sold into slavery are small, our labour laws will ensure that they will not be made to work in appalling and dangerous conditions, our relative wealth means that they will not starve and the stability of our government means that civil war and its associated costs and horrors will not be part of their experience.

All this, I know, is depressing material for a Sunday morning – or any other time for that matter. The figures are incomprehensible and the degree and scale of suffering are beyond our ability to grasp – especially when they relate to children. That said, today’s gospel is disturbing and, among other things, it compels us to come to terms with the consequences of human greed and the lust for power.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Herod, afraid that the child sought by the Magi might prove to be a threat to his hold on the throne, orders that all children in Bethlehem who are under the age of two be slaughtered. Can you imagine the anguish of the parents, their despair at not being able to protect their children and their confusion at such a random, unexpected and irrational act? What a violent contrast to the account of Jesus’ birth. There are no angels to celebrate these children, no angels to protect them and no angels warn their parents to flee from Herod’s soldiers. Instead, there is a sudden and wanton destruction of the innocent, the slaying of children caught up in a power struggle that has nothing to do with them.

You may be relieved to know that there is no historical record to back up this part of Matthew’s account. The author of this gospel appears to be exercising poetic license in his attempt to show Old Testament prophecy was brought to fulfillment in Jesus – a dominant theme in these first few chapters of the gospel. The fact remains however, that horrendous things do happen and the Bible does not provide a cocoon of innocence that allows us to shut ourselves away from the world and to pretend that all is well. Within its pages, we are constantly faced with the harsh realities of existence, the cruelty of human nature and the indifference of creation. Our scriptures provide us with accounts of the worst of human nature – murder, adultery, genocide, fratricide, infanticide, incest, rape, political intrigue and execution. They remind us, through stories of flood and famine, that the world is not a benign place in which to reside. As Christians, we cannot escape the knowledge that life is precarious, that people are selfish and avaricious and that faith does not provide assurance that we (or the innocent) will be protected from harm.

The child who held the hopes of the world on his shoulders was, ultimately, unable to save us from ourselves. In his own time, not only was his message ignored, it was considered sufficiently disruptive that the messenger, Jesus, had to be destroyed. Worse than that, in the last 2000 years since Jesus coming, the world has not changed significantly as a result of his presence. In the face of such an unpromising beginning and such a lack of progress in the present, why do so many of us continue to hold the faith?

You will have your reasons – these are some of mine.

I believe that the innocence and promise of the Christ-child invites our love and time and again draws us into a relationship with him and therefore with God. The baby in the manger provides us with promise, fills us with hope and encourages us to believe that the world can be a better place. The selflessness, generosity and compassion of Jesus inspire us to model our lives on his – to work for justice and peace in the world and to confront oppression, cruelty and greed. Through his death Jesus shows that there is no price too high to pay for the salvation of the world and the power of the resurrection gives us the confidence that in time good will prevail and evil will be utterly destroyed.

While children and adults alike are exploited, denigrated, threatened and abused in this world, we who believe are confronted with the baser side of humanity and we are reminded that it is a baseness that we all share. Jesus, through his life demonstrates that humanity is capable of so much more and he shows us through his life how we can be the people God created us to be. Jesus’ example challenges us to recognise and to respect the dignity and worth of all people, to see others as who and what they really are – children of God.

As we wonder yet again at the innocence of the Christ-child, may we remember how much still remains to be done to bring salvation to world and may we commit ourselves to do all that is in our power to be part of the solution and not the problem.

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