notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Epiphany: Hope for Bethlehem
Good Shepherd 2/01/2005 (Epiphany Communion Service)
Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12
In Bethlehem recently, a 17-year-old boy named Johnny was walking across Manger Square at noon. An Orthodox Christian, he had just been at worship with his family in the Church of the Nativity, the oldest Christian church in the world. He was carrying his cousin's baby, trying to make the baby laugh.
Less than 100 feet from the church, he was shot by an Israeli sniper from a hill nearly a mile away. Johnny gently lay the baby down on the stones of Manger Square and then fell over dead. He died, but not before making sure the the baby was safe. He left the child behind alive.
In Bethlehem it seems that some things never change. It's often been a turbulent place, a violent place, a dangerous place for anyone travelling.
It is dangerous now because of the conflict over land being fought out between the leaders of modern-day Israel and Palestine.
It was dangerous at the time of Jesus for very similar reasons - leaders of countries always want to hold onto their territory, they're always looking to expand their lands if they can. And so King Herod got very nervous when he heard talk of a new king being born - Herod thought this new king would be a rival to him, and because of that he wanted to see him dead.
So it was dangerous for the magi two thousand years ago as they became pawns in Herod's deadly game. Imagine their horror when they discovered how Herod had used their information - his decision to kill all Israel's new-born sons, an act of brutality which we could call primitive, except that sadly, things like that still go on around the world today.
But the magi travelled in faith and hope, with a very important question on their hearts: can anything new come about in Bethlehem? It is a question which people of goodwill still carry in their hearts, even this New Year.
The Christmas story ends as those visitors from the far east disappear furtively, leaving Mary and her family with a choice of either escaping themselves, becoming refugees, or facing the death of their new-born son.
They say there's three of them, those visitors. But there's no evidence of that. Could have been two of them. Could have been ten. They get called wise men. But they may have just have easily been women.
And they get called kings. But they weren't kings. From what we've heard today about them and about kings and rulers, the magi were just the opposite of kings.
What we do know about them is that they were travellers in Bethlehem bringing gifts of love to share, wanting to worship God, to be faithful to God and their beliefs and the people they cared for, despite the violence fostered by the leader of the state to preserve his status, in the same old time-worn way.
In another recent Bethlehem incident, a little girl called Amal offered to carry a wedding gift from her uncle to their friends who lived a short walk away. With parcel in hand she headed towards her friends' home, but she was shocked to see a big Israeli army tank blocking the entrance. She stepped off the pavement and walked towards the tank intending to go round it and into the house.
To her horror, the tank gun swung around and pointed itself at her. She must have looked suspicious carrying her parcel. She stood in the middle of the road, terrified and frozen, a tiny figure in the shadow of the giant killing machine. Fortunately her friends arrived in their car to rescue her. She was glad to see them, delivered the parcel and ran back home, shaken but safe.
I suggest that Amal's tale is a modern-day version of the story of the magi. Like the story of Johnny I told earlier. These young people were travellers in Bethlehem, seeking to share gifts of love, to worship God, to live faithful lives, to celebrate family life, and protect their precious young, despite the violence going on around them.
In the old story there is hope. The new-born child brings hope; hope that there are new ways for different peoples to live together. The adults who loved and protected the baby Jesus ensured that there could be a better future ahead for those who stick with him.
It is our New Year faith that the old story is still true; and that it carries a holy power which can break into the dark and difficult world in which people like Amal and Johnny, you and I live. Those who let the old story come alive in their hearts can literally change the world.
The great peacemaker Archbishop Desmond Tutu visited Israel-Palestine recently and said:
"God is weeping over what He sees in the Middle East. God has no one except ourselves, absolutely no one. God is omnipotent, all-powerful, but also impotent. God does not dispatch lightening bolts to remove tyrants, as we might have hoped he would. God waits for you to act. You are his Partner. God is as weak as the weakest of his partners, or as strong as the morally strongest."
It's another kind of new year's message: that though the old ways of violence and terror continue, newness can come through the people who share God's vision.
These are people who share St Paul's vision, who see their role in life like he did. He said:
Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the [people] the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
If people will share this great vision; if people will keep carrying gifts, protecting children, journeying together in pursuit of peace, then Bethlehem may yet be at peace again.
As we keep in our prayers the suffering people of the Asian lands hit by that terrible storm last week, let us also remember the people of Bethlehem this week, preparing for elections for a new Palestinian leader. With the hope of the magi in our hearts.
Draws from assembly talk at Blue Coat School, 8 January 2003 and other previous Epiphany sermons;
Stories from various Sabeel newsletters