Sermon preached at the Northumbria University Carol Service,
Newcastle Cathedral, 10.12.15
O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Bethlehem, the iconic sleepy little town of carol and christmas cards, the dusty backwater that was the long-prophesied birthplace of the Prince of Peace. How ironic that sounds to us today.
Now, Bethlehem is a living symbol of human division at the moment, nearly surrounded and cut off by the Israeli separation wall.
In fact, Bethlehem, dusty backwater as it was, doesn’t seem ever to have been particularly peaceful. The earliest recorded mention of the town, back in the 14th century BC, comes in a letter asking for a neighbouring king to send some archers to help take it back from insurgents who had overrun it. More recently, in the mid twentieth century it became home to three large refuggee camps as a result of the 1947-8 conflict, and ever since then has had a large population in semi-permanent refugee settlements.
In the prophecy from the book of Micah that we heard at the start of our service, Bethlehem is referred to as the quintessentially small, insignificant place. Its only claim to fame is a distant historical royal connection, as the original birthplace of the legendary King David.
This historic royal connection throws into strong relief the contrast that Micah is drawing, between a small, insignificant backwater and all the powers that be in the world. King David was famously plucked from obscurity as a humble shepherd boy to become King of Israel and establish the dynasty that included such great names as King Solomon. In a similar way, the little town of Bethlehem - and all that it symbolises of the tattered remnants of Israel's faded greatness now it is surrounded by burgeoning foreign economies and new emergent superpowers - is promised as the source of a new kind of royal power that will change the world for good, and finally, hopefully, establish a lasting peace.
Fast forward 800 years, and in Matthew’s account of the nativity, we seem to see that promise beginning to be fulfilled. And yet the peace of a baby sleeping in a manger is a very transitory thing in Matthew’s account. It is swiftly followed by a bemusing visit from foreign academics, bringing strange and worrying gifts, and then by the terror of a flight from persecution and potential massacre.
Matthew is the only gospel that tells us of the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt. And just as for those fleeing and displaced around the world today, the focus of their flight is on terror being escaped, not the reaching of some sort of 'promised land'. And it is worth pausing here and noting just how ironic it is that they escape to Egypt in this telling of the story.
Egypt features quite heavily in the Bible, but not as somewhere that the people of God want to reach, not as some sort of safe haven. On the contrary, Egypt is the paradigmatic place that they want to escape from in the history and mythology of the Old Testament. The Exodus from Egypt, from slavery under Pharaoh, crossing the Red Sea, and then spending 40 years in the wilderness rather than go back there, was foundational to the Jewish identity that Jesus and his family were born into.
Egypt was the place the people of God escaped from, not the place they escaped to. It was a place where slavery and luxury lived side by side, a rich powerful neighbor, a place of labour exploitation and consumerism.
Egypt was the place where Joseph – he of the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – was trafficked to. A place where he narrowly escaped sexual exploitation only to be thrown into prison.
Egypt was the place where Joseph’s family later came to as economic migrants, driven there by years of famine in their homeland.
And now Egypt was the place where the Holy Family fled to as refugees from a local tyrant who wanted to kill them to neutralize any threat to his political power.
Like so many millions of displaced people around the world today, they fled to the nearest place where they would be safe – not the nearest place they could have gone, but the nearest where they knew that international politics meant they’d be safe from extradition or a friendly chat between leaders leading to their assassination. Somewhere where they almost certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable or at home, but where they could at least be secure from the credible threats against them. And like so many hope and pray to be able to do, we are told that they returned home some years later, as soon as they heard the news that Herod had died and so thought they could do so in safety.
In Matthew’s version of events, the birth of Jesus is almost skipped over, and the focus on the terror to come as Herod massacres infants. It is a clear foreshadowing of the clash that will come later, when the grown up Jesus proclaims the coming of Gods kingdom, and this clashes with the interests of the powerful ruling elite. The passages we have heard this evening function as a prologue or overture, setting up the themes to come. Themes of powerful elites and vulnerable masses; themes of innocence and violence; themes of fear and hope.
Wherever you look, the books of the Bible are searingly honest about the propensity of humankind to do evil. Nowadays, we often speak of things like Isis, or a school shooting, or the vicious murder of an innocent passer by, as Biblical or Medieval. We use these words as distancing mechanisms: it is comforting to think that such actions are aberrations, done by people who aren’t really people at all but ‘monsters’. It’s the same human and rhetorical impulse that leads people who wish to deny the humanity of refugees and migrants to refer to them as insects or swarms. Language matters.
And the carefully chosen language of the Biblical writers refuses to let us of the hook. It doesn’t allow us to distance ourselves from evil and brutality, but forces us to confront the fact that these impulses are in all humanity, and in every generation. For thousands of years, human beings have yearned for peace, for a secure world order that will be able to guarantee that people can go about their business in safety. And every generation discovers again that the impulse to maintain what power and security and lifestyle we have at the expense of others is not just an impulse felt by those people out there, and those people long ago.
Herod, we are told, was ‘frightened’. And in his fear, he planned to do away with the one he perceived as a threat. The story goes on to relate how he massacred all the infant boys under 2 years old in Bethelehem, in the hope of killing the right one and also, I imagine, of killing any risk of a rumoured challenge to his authority.
The biblical stories invite us to reflect on ourselves. That fear that Herod felt is not far from the fear of a dilution of our lifestyle, and a challenge to our privilege, that lies behind so much of the rhetoric against allowing refugees and migrants into this country. Think of debates in our own parliament over the last few weeks and months, about bombing Syria, about how many refugees and of what kind and quality to allow in. How much of that rhetoric was actually about our government’s fear of losing its own authority and power in this country, if it didn’t pander to the fears and self-interest of the voters and of our allies? How much of our own inner conflict about how much it is sensible to help refugees is caused by fear of what we might be risking? Do we give a tenner? A hundred pounds? Something that would actually cause us to sacrifice our own standard of living?
It is easy to feel paralysed by the sheer volume of the difficulties and complexities of the situation. It is easy to feel that our small actions, however generous or self-sacrificing, will make little difference in a world where millions of people are displaced, or to feel overwhelmed by the problem of how to help 5,000 new refugees entering Greece alone every night. But as Aidan and Ridley’s experience shows, when you break that problem down into individual people, helping them is as simple as giving out a bottle of water, a blanket, a pizza; or texting a donation to allow others on the ground to buy another bottle of water, blanket, or pizza. [this was a reference to the story, read earlier in the service, of the experience of two Northumbria graduates who ended up helping refugees in Budapest on their travels]
Bethlehem was famously a small, insignificant town, a dusty backwater, its only claim to fame a distant historic royal connection. Yet to that small insignificant town, came a small, apparently insignificant family, and they had a small, apparently insignificant child. They had to flee for their lives, to a place where they were even smaller and even more insignificant; but we still gather here, 2000 years later, to give thanks to God for the birth of that child, and to pray for peace.
So don’t despise the small and apparently insignificant. Don’t be put off helping by the smallness and apparent insignificance of what you can do. It is from the small, the lowly, the forgotten and insignificant that a tiny flame of hope and love and peace is lit. And that light is still spreading its message of hope and love and peace in a dark world.
Martin Luther King said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’
As we remember the light of Christ coming into the world this Christmas, let us resolve to be ourselves agents of light, committing ourselves to meeting hate with love.