The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Sarah’s sermon for Sunday 29-Dec-19

What rituals have held your family together these last few days? I came across several families a couple of years ago for whom pork pie is the breakfast choice on Christmas morning.

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Deeply present in the Bible is the idea of remembering. Remembering was an activity knitted into the rhythm of day, week, month and year for the people of Israel. Rituals and celebrations called the families and the clans and the tribes together to tell again the stories. As Christians, we are inheritors of the Jewish tradition in which the early church was steeped. And we are inheritors also of the things that each generation of Christian believers have held dear. “Almighty God, you make us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of your Son Jesus Christ”

  • Christmas – the feast of the nativity, Bethlehem, a manger, shepherds and angels.
  • Naming and Circumcision of our Lord – on the 8th day ie 1st January
  • The Epiphany — the wise men, whose arrival precipitates the crime against humanity that formed our gospel reading this morning, 6th January
  • Candlemas — 40th day — Anna and Simeon’s moving encounter with Joseph and Mary, with their little boy in their arms, 2nd February

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Spurgeon: “Her memory, affection, and understanding were all intently fascinated with the things which she heard. Friend, remember what you know about Jesus, and what He has done for you. Let your memory treasure everything about Christ which you have felt, or known, or believed, and then hold Him in your joyful heart forever. Even if your mind cannot fully comprehend all of this, let your affections apprehend fully. And even if your spirit cannot grasp the Lord Jesus in understanding, let it embrace Him in the arms of affection. Be with your Lord. He shouldn’t seem far away, because He is always with you. Hold Him, and do not let Him out of your thoughts. Remember Mary, who “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

Beautiful image – but reality bites! Homeless with a new husband and a baby, possibly estranged from her family – and at some point the images we never see on Christmas cards will be enacted.

The Holy Innocents — with Christmas pudding till filling our tummies, the church liturgical year pivots sharply from tinsel and carols to this gospel reading. Herod is a wicked and his choices anathema. Feeling his political power slipping away, he lashes out with great malice but also in vain. “And when the wise men had returned to their own land, and Jesus had been carried into Egypt at the Divine suggestion, Herod’s madness blazes out into fruitless schemes. He orders all the little ones in Bethlehem to be slain, and since he knows not which infant to fear, extends a general sentence against the age he suspects.” [Leo the Great]

Thank God Mary could never see a live report from Bethlehem on the evening news. Imagine the burden for her.

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

As Christians, we are a community of remembrance: we remember the good, the bad and the ugly. This cruel deed of Herod is not mentioned by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, although he relates quite a number of atrocities committed by the king during the last years of his reign. The number of these children was so small that this crime appeared insignificant amongst the other misdeeds of Herod. We remember because we know that Mary remembered.

Our sentimentalism about the manger scene must at some point give way to the seriousness of our human predicament and the Bible makes it clear as by recounting the story of the slaughter of innocents just how serious things are. Whilst Jesus is never recorded as saying anything directly about the slaughter of these children I can only imagine the deep sorrow he felt when he grew old enough to hear about this story and understand it … no wonder the theme of little children shapes his ministry.

We remember because we see that Jesus remembered.

Mind you, remembering can be hard work. A Mirror for Monks ~ Louis of Blois, 1506-1566 “Be not troubled if many of those good things which you  hear or read slip out of your memory. For as a vessel which often  receiveth water remaineth clean, although the water poured in be  presently poured out again, so likewise, if spiritual doctrine often run  through a well-willing mind, although it abide not there,  nevertheless it maketh and keepeth the mind clean and pleasing to  God.”

Stanley Hauerwas once observed that sentimentality is one of the greatest enemies of understanding the gospel. Perhaps there’s no time when we’re more susceptible to this danger than at Christmas. Maybe we should save this story for another day — Lent, maybe, or some late night adults-only occasion? No. This is a brutal world. Today the victims are more likely to be from Sudan or Yemen, or caged in detention centres sleeping on the mattresses on the floor on the southern border of the Trump’s America, but the sounds of Rachel weeping for her children are not uncommon.  Do we dare hear them?

We remember because the world would rather forget.

Thank God we weren’t asked to write any of the Bible – would we ever have had the courage to write as our forebears did? But thank God that we are asked to be a community of remembrance, of worship and of mission right where we are. That, my dear friends, we can do. Mission, John Taylor tells us, “is the opening of our eyes to other people.” And when we do that, we hear stories of resilience that rewrite our hearts.

Mission in a parish life this is not to bless others in order to change them, but to bless others in order to be changed ourselves. Our task is unchanging — we are to shout the uncomfortable truth. Ours must be worship that shames the oppressors and inspires the oppressed, that stills the hand of the bully whilst binding up the wounds of the broken-hearted. And what stories we are given as gifts with which to do just that. We inherit a tradition that lives in the real world – the good, the bad and the ugly.

With Mary, we treasure all these things and ponder them in our hearts.

The good,
the bad and maybe,
especially the ugly

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