"Another Way Home" - Sermon by Rev. Stephen Milton
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the day when the Magi arrived to greet the Christ child. It is a magical story, featuring a star that leads them first to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem. It has captured the imagination of Christians since the beginning. They appear in Christian art early, following the star to find Jesus and Mary.
Here’s an image from the 300s. We see the Magi with their gifts and camels, pointing to the star above Jesus on Mary’s lap. It is an enchanting story.
But as we heard, there is a dark side to this tale which we don’t include on our Christmas cards. After the Magi present their gifts to Jesus, an angel appears to them in a dream and warns them to go home another way. King Herod wants to kill the child prophecy says will be the king of the Jews. When the Magi don’t go back to Jerusalem to tell Herod where to find Jesus, Herod flips out. He orders that all boys under the age of 2 should be killed in Bethlehem.
This is called the slaughter of the innocents. It is horrific, babes being pulled out of the arms of screaming mothers. Fortunately, an angel has told Joseph to escape to Egypt with Jesus and Mary.
This part of the story doesn’t sound magical or Christmas-like at all. You can see why we leave it out of our Christmas pageant plots. Why is this detail even in there? Scholars believe that the gospel writer Matthew is trying very hard to draw parallels between Jesus and Moses. Moses was a baby who escaped a mass slaughter of male children – so did Jesus. Moses rescued his people by coming out of Egypt, and Jesus will, too, by being a Messiah who left Egypt later in his childhood to become the Saviour.
But could this have even happened? There’s no independent evidence that there was a slaughter of babies in Bethlehem. However, Bethlehem was a small town back then, so if a dozen babies were killed, it might not have made it into anyone’s history books. What is clear is that this mass murder was in character for Herod the Great.
He was a puppet king for the Romans, a king of the Jews without actually being a Jew. He made alliances through marriage, and had ten wives. However, when he suspected that his family was plotting a coup, he arranged to have his wife and three of his sons killed.
Then as now, leaders who are willing to kill members of their own family are to be feared by their subjects. If he can kill his own, he won’t hesitate to kill you, too. Indeed, not long after the birth of Jesus, King Herod punished a small rebellion by having some rabbis burned alive. He also gave orders that after his own death, leaders of all the Jewish villages should be slaughtered in an amphitheatre. Once he died, that order was not carried out. So, even if Matthew is engaging in some fictional flourishes with his slaughter of the innocents, the historical Herod was a serial murderer, against his family, and his own subjects. By modern standards he was an Idi Amin, a Hitler. Matthew portrays Herod as the worst kind of ruler, one who will slaughter even innocent children to keep his power.
Matthew starts his gospel with this event, as a kind of overture to the entire Jesus story. Matthew is saying that the stakes are high. Jesus has come to preach a message that will be resisted by those who are willing to kill the innocent to keep their power. On the face of it, it is a ridiculous contrast – the baby against the baby killers, the child against the power of a military state. It is a contest no mere child could possibly win. How could a single baby ever stand a chance at fighting back against all the Herods, the Hitlers, the Idi Amins, the Talibans, the Trumps?
Matthew tells us that a baby will provide the answer to this kind of evil. The Christ child holds the key to a new way of living that will defeat evil. That part of the Christmas story seems so far fetched now that we have stopped even telling it. We don’t teach it to our kids, we don’t feature it in our pageants. The idea that a baby, a child, could be the key to bringing down an empire is so fanciful and unrealistic that it has faded away.
Or, so I thought, until I was watching this season of Disney’s smash hit, The Mandalorian. I know that not everyone subscribes to Disney’s channel, but it’s been hard to ignore all the posters for the show. It is a Star Wars spin off, a television series that takes place in the years after Luke and Leia have defeated Darth Vader, and brought down the empire. But in the television show, the empire still lives on in some of the outer sector of the galaxy. The Mandalorian is basically a western set in space.
The title character, the guy with the mask on, is a bounty hunter who is protecting a baby alien of the same species as Yoda. The child is incredibly cute, and buying his toys was one of the challenges of this past Christmas. What makes him special is that he can use the Force to move objects with his mind. And in the second season, we learn that he learned the ways of the Force at the main Jedi temple. It was here that Darth Vader committed his first major evil act – he massacred all the children training to be Jedis. Turns out this one child escaped. So, here, in 2021, Disney’s biggest hit is the story of a little child who has escaped a massacre of the innocents. This child has powers that threaten the reign of evil, and they are desperate to capture him. Sound familiar? Our Christian story, which we have lost interest in, has become part of secular culture’s most popular Star Wars fantasy. So maybe it is time for us to take a second look at what Matthew was trying to say.
In this Star Wars fantasy, the child’s power is an external one – he can lift up spaceships and bash storm troopers into each other. The power to do good is still expressed through violence. But for Matthew, Christ’s superpower is not the magical ability to move objects. That won’t be enough to defeat evil. Rulers like Herod and Hitler have always believed that power is the ability to destroy people and things. That kind of power is all about externals. No, Matthew’s point is that this baby is going to conquer evil not with more destruction, but with something else. Another kind of power.
While the Herods of the world use violence to hunt down and kill their enemies, that baby in the manger has come to teach us that we should love each other, including our enemies. That is very different from killing them. Loving your enemy means making sure they survive so you can talk to them, show them another way. Loving your enemies means resolving the conflict so that both sides can live better lives, and put violence aside.
That sounds like Sunday morning moralism and wishful thinking. But the fact is that it is the only approach that works to end violence. One of the new developments in 2021 is that Britain has finally pulled out of the European Union. For a few months last year it looked like no agreement would be possible. One of the sticking points was that the trade deal Britain wanted looked like it would violate the terms of the Good Friday accord. That was the peace treaty that was negotiated in the 90s to end violence in Northern Ireland. It is considered so important that Boris Johnson’s government had to back down on some of its Brexit demands so the accord would remain in place, unviolated.
You may recall that before the 1998 Good Friday accord, Northern Ireland was a very dangerous place. Bombings were frequent, so were shootings between rival Catholic and Protestant militias.
British Protestants wanted to remain part of the British Union, while many Irish Catholics wanted to separate from Britain and join with Ireland. A few years before the Good Friday accord, the governments of Ireland and Britain invited Canadians to come over to meet with both sides. Their two month mission: see if they could convince the IRA and Unionist militias to hand in their weapons and create a true peace.
The head of the Canadian team was John de Chastelain, a senior general in the Canadian army. He arrived in 1995. His job was to meet with leaders from the IRA and the Unionist militias.
These meetings often took place in secret at first, in safe houses. Early on, one of the protestant leaders told de Chastelain that , quote, “what was needed in Northern Ireland was not a decommissioning of arms but a decommissioning of mind-sets. “ People needed to trust each other, without that, more weapons could always be bought or made to resume the violence. Eventually, de Chastelain and the negotiators got the leaders of both sides in the same room, with tables that stretched for 30 feet long so all parties could be seated. Those meetings were laced with anger, yelling and profanities. But de Chastlelain discovered that when he had both sides meet in smaller rooms, facing each other across a single table, there was no hollering or swearing. Seeing each other, eyeball to eyeball, reduced the posturing, and increased their appreciation for each other’s humanity.
It took ten years of meetings in person to broker a deal where each side handed over their weapons. These were tough talks, nothing magical about them. Each side broke the ceasefire agreements from time to time, hoping to end the talks. De Chastelain learnt that it was critical to never cancel a meeting, even as bombs were exploding on the streets, killing innocent civilians.
This is what loving your enemy looks like in practice. Long, tedious talks and negotiations as both sides break the peace, over and over again. Herod’s way seeks to destroy the enemy; Christ’s way requires creating a relationship that lasts, even during the most violent periods. Building trust takes time, it is much harder to do than building a bomb. Loving your enemies doesn’t mean liking them. It does mean showing up, listening to them, being with them until they find another way to live without violence. But when an agreement is reached, as it was with the Good Friday accord, it is too precious to give up, even decades later.
In our story of the Magi, it seems likes Christ’s way is magical, no match for the murderous fury of the king. But the fact is that the birth of that child signalled that there was an alternative to herod’s violent way. It doesn’t come with more violence, but with a totally different approach, based on generating trust and building relationships.
And that power can be yours. In fact, for the survival of this world, it must be yours. Christ didn’t come to show off a power that only worked for him. No, he came with a gift, more precious than anything the Magi brought. Christ’s gift was a way of living and loving that can undo the violence of the world. When things seem utterly hopeless, ordinary people like us can make the world better by embracing this message of love and loving even our enemies. That approach can stop the bombs, disarm the guns, melt the most hardened heart. We can do this in our families, among our friends, among our co-workers, and even among nations. This approach is a gift that can help save the world from hatred, bitterness and resentment. Like the Magi, we are invited to go home by another way, a better way. Christ’s way.