December 25, 2011

ON EXCLUSION AND EXILE

  A second sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
    at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 25 December 2011

 

At this time of the year we all like to feel the warm glow of the season.  We see the Christmas story told on television and we hear it told on the radio in drama and music.  We see the greetings cards in the stores – well, they have been there since August – and we have watched as the little white van draws up to our mailbox and another handful of cards and greetings letters arrive.  And those cards portray pretty scenes of wintry days, days that we never see in Florida, or of a jovial figure in a red suit, or perhaps a red, red robin.  And many cards will portray a scene in a stable, of shepherds and a baby in their manger, or three figures riding on camels following a path across the desert illuminated by a great big star.  Or there will be holly and ivy and perhaps mistletoe.  Yes, we like to receive all these greetings cards and the messages they contain wishing us well in the coming year.  And yet do they really portray what that series of experiences that Mary underwent to bring her first born into the world really means? 

We have two versions of the Nativity of the Messiah in the New Testament, neither of which comes from an eyewitness.  We have come to church for so many Christmases and we have heard the old beloved carols so often that we think we know exactly how the event occurred.  Yet do we?  Are those scenes that we see in our Christmas crèches in our churches (and we have three here this year!), anywhere near close to what the two evangelists actually describe?  When you get home this afternoon, I would ask you to take down your Bible, if it is on a shelf, or take up your Bible, if it is where it should be, at your bedside, and read again, as though for the first time, what those two men actually wrote.  I am going to give you a foretaste this morning, but I urge you to go home and make sure that what I tell you is drawn out of the words found in the Gospels and are not words put into the Gospel, no matter how beloved the imagery on the Christmas cards and in our crèches might be. 

First the two accounts are set in different decades, even different centuries, even different millennia.  From the information in Matthew 2 we learn that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great.  Herod died in the year 4 B.C.!  We also learn that Herod ordered the massacre of the children of Bethlehem who were up to two years of age, to ensure that the infant Jesus would be killed.  That would suggest that Jesus was born in 7 B.C., to cover the age group of the massacred innocents and to allow for the fact that Herod lived on after the massacre, as Matthew tells us. 

From the information in Luke 2 we learn that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the year A.D. 6, the year of the census that was ordered when Cyrenius (to use the version of his name in the King James’ Version) was Governor of Syria.  

Now I am not going to say which evangelist, if either of them, got it right.  Each is telling his version of the story for the benefit of his own audience and for reasons that were significant and meaningful to each of those audiences.  All I am saying is that we should not take for granted what we see on our Christmas cards or what we sing about in our Christmas carols.  We really do need to read our Bibles carefully and, I would add, often. 

I am leaving it up to you to read the stories of the birth of Jesus for yourselves when you get home, although I am tempted to say that there will be a test!  No.  That is only a temptation! 

What I want for us to do this morning is to consider two details of the accounts, one from each Gospel.  One, the one from Luke, is concerned with what happened leading up to the birth of Jesus, while the other, the one from Matthew, is concerned with what came after the birth. 

Luke has Joseph and Mary travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  They went by road, or rather by mountain trail.  Their route was not along a paved highway like US 1!  They walked.  Luke makes no mention of a donkey on which Mary might have ridden, and besides what nine-months pregnant woman would choose to ride on the back of a donkey over such a harsh trail?  It is possible that Joseph had a donkey to help him haul his tools and materials for his trade, but that is to read something into the story that Luke does not mention. 

Then Luke has Joseph and Mary arriving in the village of Bethlehem looking for somewhere to stay.  The King James’ Version, from which we draw so much of our imagery, has it that there was “no room for them in the inn.”  Now let us not think about a Hyatt or a Marriott, or even a Days Inn or Motel 6!  Let us not even think of a quaint olde worlde inne of centuries ago.  What Luke is describing is an open area, an open space, in the middle of the village, as we still see in villages in that part of the world, called a serai, where travelers could roll out their travelling blankets and sleep safely within the walls of the village under the night sky.  But the owner of the serai would not let a so obviously pregnant woman sleep in such an area because she might give birth there, and then the whole area would have had to be declared unclean for a period of several weeks, depending on the gender of the child.  No businessman was going to risk losing that much income simply to accommodate this pesky, pregnant stranger. 

So where was Mary to go to have her baby?  Somewhere that was considered unclean in the first place, and that would be in a shepherd’s manger.  As Luke tells his story, there was little risk of the shepherd needing to use the manger at that time of the year.  It was not the winter, since the shepherds were outside with their flock in the middle of the night.  And it was probably not the lambing season, what we would call spring, because Luke writes about their flock – and notice it is only one flock, at least as the King James’ Version has it!  So we have an empty shelter of some description, probably open to the air, surrounded by a protective wall or hedge, and it is there that Mary gives birth to her first-born.  Despite the artwork and the carols there were no sheep, no cattle lowing, no ox and no ass standing by.  Just a teenager and her husband doing all that had to be done.  Luke does not even mention a midwife. 

What we get from Luke’s account is a woman, forced by bureaucratic dictates to travel from home and loved ones to a strange community several days walk away from her mother and the other women in her family, who could have assisted at the birth, only to encounter what amounts to ostracism and discrimination because of a businessman’s fear over losing a few weeks’ income.  In other words, right from the start Jesus was shoved out by Gentiles and Jews alike.  He was an outcast from birth. 

Matthew, as we see from chapter 2 of his Gospel, tells the story in a very different way.  Here Joseph and Mary do not come from Nazareth at all.  They move there later on to avoid the clutches of Herod’s successor.  Instead we have Joseph and Mary living in a house in Bethlehem, and it is to this house that the mysterious visitors come with their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.  And as we read the account in Matthew 2 we realise that we do not know how many there are in this party, except that it is more than one, and that we do not know the gender of all of those in the party, except that one had to be male.  Oh, the King James’ Version talks about “wise men”, but that is only an intelligent guess at what is there in the Greek.  We do not know from where they came, except that it was from somewhere vaguely east of Judaea, but if you look at a map that could be almost anywhere from what we call Iraq and Iran around to Yemen and even the Horn of Africa!  And we certainly are not told whether they travelled by foot or rode on some sort of animal, or rode in litters or maybe chariots like the Ethiopian treasurer in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9. 

What Matthew does tell us is that as a result of a misguided conclusion that they drew from the evidence in front of them they made a serious error.  They went to Jerusalem, where their logic told them the child should be found, rather than Bethlehem.  And this led to Joseph and Mary having to abandon their home and belongings to flee for the safety of their young son to Egypt.  Again, we are so familiar with the paintings of the so-called Flight into Egypt that we overlook the fact that Matthew makes no mention of any ass or donkey.  The likelihood is that they fled by foot so that they could the more easily hide beside the roadway, such as it was, should Herod’s search parties seek them out. 

Matthew’s account then is of a forced exile that the Holy Family had to undergo.  Once more the story is of Jesus being forced out by the misguided actions of some Gentiles and the jealous reaction of the King who saw himself as the King of the Jews.  Once more he is thrust out by the actions of men, misguided or deliberate though they may have been, into a life of exile and this time into a community where he and his parents would be regarded as aliens, with all the discrimination that goes with being an alien.

There was a hymn, “Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown”, that we used to sing in England and wherever Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised was used.  So perhaps many of you have sung it as well.  It is not in the Hymnbook 1982 but let me see how well I can do with it. 

                Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown,
                When thou camest to Earth for me;
                But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
                For thy holy Nativity:
                                O come to my heart, Lord Jesus;
                                There is room in my heart for thee.
 
                Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
                Proclaiming thy royal degree;
                But in lowly birth didst thou come to Earth,
                And in great humility:
                                O come to my heart, Lord Jesus;
                                There is room in my heart for thee.
 
                The foxes found rest, and the bird had its nest
                In the shade of the cedar tree;
                But thy couch was the sod, O thou Son of God,
                In the desert of Galilee:
                                O come to my heart, Lord Jesus;
                                There is room in my heart for thee.
 
                Thou camest, O Lord, with the living Word
                That should set thy people free;
                But with mocking scorn and with crown of thorn
                They bore thee to Calvary:
                                 O come to my heart, Lord Jesus;
                                There is room in my heart for thee.
 
                When the Heavens shall ring, and the angels sing,
                At thy coming to victory,
                Let thy voice call me home, saying, “Yes, there is room,
                There is room at my side for thee:”
                                O come to my heart, Lord Jesus;
                                There is room in my heart for thee.
 

That is my prayer for all of us at Holy Faith this Christmas morning, that we shall all make room in our hearts for Jesus!  And not just some imaginary figure that we have in our mind’s eye that we think of as Jesus, precious though that image might be to us.  For it was not just the Christ child that was excluded or exiled, depending on which version of the story you choose to follow.  It was his mother and her husband as well, people who might be called the nearest and the dearest of Jesus.  And today we are challenged to invite into our hearts those who are nearest and dearest to the Christ, no matter who they might be, for that Christ child was to die not just for me, but for the whole world, those who have been, those who are and those who have yet to be.  We need to make room for all of  them in our hearts, for if we do not, we are not making room for him.