Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Holy Innocents

Sunday 28 December 2014

Stewkley and Soulbury, Buckinghamshire

Reading Jeremiah 15

15 This is what the Lord says:

‘A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.’

16 This is what the Lord says:

‘Restrain your voice from weeping
    and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,’
declares the Lord.
    ‘They will return from the land of the enemy.
17 So there is hope for your descendants,’
declares the Lord.
    ‘Your children will return to their own land.

Reading I Corinthians

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 

Gospel Matthew 2

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.

The escape to Egypt

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’

16 When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 ‘A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.’


There’s a choice of service provision in the lectionary, set for today. One is the festival of The Holy Innocents . The alternative is just the 1st Sunday after Christmas.

Normally, churches would decide to celebrate a festival in these circumstances, moving it from the nearest weekday to the Sunday if need be. But today, especially with many clergy taking a well-earned rest, a lot of churches will instead observe Christmas 1.

The reason is pretty obvious. It’s the subject matter. After the joy of the Nativity, we are plunged into the massacre of babies and children by a despotic tyrant. It’s not likely to lift the spirits. Continuing the Christmas season is easier and more pleasant.

But isn’t that the very reason why we shouldn’t duck the issue? The Christmas season is filled with happiness, and that’s right and proper, but our world is not always perfect, and our lives are sometimes tinged with sorrow as well as joy.

Matthew’s gospel sets the story of Joseph, who was warned in a dream to take the baby Jesus and his mother away to Egypt, in fulfilment of prophecy. Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 15:

‘A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.’

It all seems so wrong. There was no night time warning for the mothers of the babies in Bethlehem. Those families were just caught up in the politics of the region. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet God let this happen to them.

Fast forward 2,000 years or so and we find nothing has changed. Just before Christmas, 180, mainly children, were injured or killed in the attack on an army school in Pakistan. What had they done to deserve such cruelty and horror?

If anyone feels these incidents take place a long way away and don’t affect us directly, we only have to look at the intercessions in Common Worship suggested for today. In them, we pray for the children of our world, that they may grow up knowing love and security, but we also remember those who suffer physical and mental abuse. We pray for those communities that still live with the memories of massacre and gross cruelty. We pray for those corrupted by power, who regard all human life as cheap. Most of us know families who have suffered the death of a child, and of course they come to mind on a day like this.

Where, then, is the message of Christmas against the background of so much suffering? Surely it can only be that God comes to bring new life, Emmanuel — God with us — even into this madness of want and evil. He comes to show us the way.

This is why our focus on the Holy Innocents instead of the First Sunday after Christmas is a strong way to proclaim the gospel. The image of salvation in the midst of cruelty is accurate. It is crucial rather than something to avoid. We should not be afraid of it.

A shallow faith will not want to hear about the murder of children, but such horrors are not endured by failing to hear about them. What overpowers the bloody spectacles human beings create is the overwhelming truth that God gives not only a means for responding to evil but also a reason: God’s creation is holy, intended for good.

The ways of God are not easy to understand, with our limited comprehension, and the fact that evil seems to flourish provides a stumbling block to faith for many people. God is not an absentee, of course: he does intervene, as we all know in our own lives.

Joseph had 4 dreams, giving guidance and warning, telling him not to fear, and enabling him to act against his own strong instinct and social conventions. After that, his job was done. We don’t hear anything more of Joseph throughout the rest of the gospels.

We might prefer a God who is more like Superman — a power constantly intervening to put wrongs right and protect the vulnerable, but that’s not the way things are. Christians do not worship a God who fixes problems, but in tune with the whole Christmas story, a God who suffers, and comforts those who suffer.

This is the importance of The Holy Innocents. Jesus came to a world of suffering in the midst of Herod’s brutality. This same Jesus knows our suffering, comes to the frightened and the sick and the hungry, feeds and heals, and teaches the presence of God’s power wherever there are tears.

‘I will comfort you,’ says the Lord, ‘ as a mother comforts her child,
and you shall be comforted.’

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas Day

25th December 2014 at Ivinghoe

Reading Isaiah 52: 7 – 10

7 How beautiful on the mountains
    are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
    who bring good tidings,
    who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
    ‘Your God reigns!’
8 Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
    together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
    they will see it with their own eyes.
9 Burst into songs of joy together,
    you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
    in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
    the salvation of our God.

Gospel Luke 2: 1 – 20

Alleluia, alleluia.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.


In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Christmas Message

Paper aeroplanes thrown.

What we do as a child influences the way we are as adults. Designers of Concorde seem to have looked back at attempts to fly paper planes as far as possible with minimum drag.

Birth Narratives

Events surrounding birth of Jesus. Background to where he was born, and in what circumstances.

Story unfolds in three episodes:

1. We sympathize with Joseph and (especially) pregnant Mary, as they make the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Mary delivers her first-born son in the lowliest of conditions.

2. We delight in the shepherds and get to share in the angel’s joyful “birth announcement” of the Messiah.

3. Finally, we get to accompany the shepherds to the manger, where they share the remarkable birth announcement to the amazement of all. These are indeed words that we, like Mary, treasure in our hearts.

Designers of Concorde had to move on from childish attempts at design to high tech world of modern aviation construction. Radical new materials instead of paper. Supersonic engines instead of elbow grease. Safety and control, instead of crashability.

So it is with Christmas. Window displays — Christmas carols — cribs — are today what Christmas is all about.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.

wrote Charles Wesley — if that’s the impression we get of Christ, even in church, and pass it on to our children, then we do him and ourselves a disservice.

Focus on the child

Without the man, there is absolutely no reason to focus on the child of Bethlehem. The baby is unremarkable. Many others would have been born in squalid, unhygienic conditions to homeless, unmarried mothers.

What I want us to think about, this Christmas, is that this child became a man. His background, whatever it was, surrounded by drama and prophecy, was just the precursor of what was to come.

It’s no coincidence we hear nothing more of Jesus fate until he was in his thirties. Nothing about his childhood, adolescence or adulthood. Certainly no reference to a marriage, whatever Dan Brown might say.

Surely this is because the baby and the child are nothing without the man — what he was to become — his ministry, teaching, life, death, and eventual resurrection.

Christmas has no meaning without Lent, Holy Week and Easter.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

God the Helper of Israel

Isaiah 41 – Mid week Holy Communion at Wing Church – 11 December 2014

Reading Isaiah 41: 13 - 20

13 For I am the Lord your God
    who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
    I will help you.
14 Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob,
    little Israel, do not fear,
for I myself will help you,’ declares the Lord,
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.
15 ‘See, I will make you into a threshing-sledge,
    new and sharp, with many teeth.
You will thresh the mountains and crush them,
    and reduce the hills to chaff.
16 You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up,
    and a gale will blow them away.
But you will rejoice in the Lord
    and glory in the Holy One of Israel.

17 ‘The poor and needy search for water,
    but there is none;
    their tongues are parched with thirst.
But I the Lord will answer them;
    I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights,
    and springs within the valleys.
I will turn the desert into pools of water,
    and the parched ground into springs.
19 I will put in the desert
    the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.
I will set junipers in the wasteland,
    the fir and the cypress together,
20 so that people may see and know,
    may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    that the Holy One of Israel has created it.

Gospel Matthew 11: 11 - 15

Alleluia, alleluia.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
All Alleluia.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.

All Glory to you, O Lord.

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Context — Babylon — exile — 6th C. To c39 concern for fate of Jerusalem. Leading citizens exiled — dispersed, no threat.

c40ff — setting Jerusalem — leading men able to return — Persians looked on with favour.

Sunday reading“Comfort ye my People...” “A voice crying in the wilderness...” — c40 opening — time of punishment is passed Prophet’s role and message has changed.

Today — “The helper of Israel...” is God. Trial scene — “Be silent...” Accused no longer Israel — they have paid double for all their sins.

God opens accusation — claims to rule nations — subdues kings before him. God roused victor from the East — might be Cyrus Persian acting as agent of the Lord?

Idea of Servant introduced —appears 20 times c40-55 — Israel bidden not to fear — echoes of Jesus.

c41 today“Do not fear...” oracle. Israel a “worm” or “insect.” Akkadian word might mean louse. God is the Holy One of Israel. Now called Redeemer — not necessarily in religious sense — bondsman, kinsman needing help.

Israel has important part to play in God’s purpose. But for us — parallels of redemption, suffering, power of God to rule despite all to contrary, not being afraid — taking our part in God’s purpose whole heartedly. Amen