Sermon for Leopold Uniting Church
29 December 2019
I spend way too much time on social media, particularly Twitter, time that I’m sure could be spent more productively elsewhere. But sometimes Twitter throws up fascinating conundrums. Before Christmas I became part of a discussion between people who were pondering why Jesus grew up poor, given that at his birth an unspecified number of magi from the east had brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Surely, the collective Twitter hive-mind thought, Joseph and Mary could have sold the frankincense and myrrh for vast sums and added those to the gold. They would have been rich! No need for Jesus to grow up the son of a carpenter in an obscure town in Galilee.
There are, as I told the Twitter hive-mind, two possible answers. The first is the ‘theological college’ answer. The story of the magi isn’t to be taken literally. The two nativity stories, in Matthew and Luke, are among the latest additions to the early church’s traditions about Jesus. Mark, which most scholars agree was the earliest of the three synoptic gospels to be written, has no stories about Jesus’ birth. If we read Matthew and Luke’s nativities side-by-side we see that they are contradictory, which is a huge hint that we aren’t meant to read them as factual history. It would have been easy for the people who wrote the gospels, or those who collated the Bible, to clear away the contradictions. But they didn’t; those contradictions are still there for us to see and ponder. If, pondering them, we read the nativity stories as meaningful metaphor rather than literal fact, then we say that in these gifts of the magi Matthew might have been signalling Jesus’ identity: gold because he was a king; frankincense because, as today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews says, he is ‘a merciful and faithful high priest’; and myrrh to show that ‘through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death’. We don’t need to worry about what happened to the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that the magi brought, because they were symbolic, rather than real.
On the other hand, there is an answer that makes sense within the story that Matthew is telling us. Immediately after the magi visit this little family in their house in Bethlehem (no need for a manger in Matthew’s version) we get today’s reading. The magi, the so-called ‘wise men,’ had been incredibly unwise on their way to Bethlehem. Looking for a new king, they stopped in Jerusalem, the city of the existing king, and asked for directions. The existing king, Herod, was understandably frightened by news of his rival, and when the magi didn’t return to him to tell him which one particular boy child would be his replacement, ‘he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men’.
This Massacre of the Innocents didn’t succeed in killing Jesus, because an angel had warned his father Joseph in a dream to flee Bethlehem for Egypt in order to escape Herod. And here we have a second answer to the question: ‘what happened to that gold, frankincense and myrrh?’ As we know, it can cost a lot of money to escape one country and seek refuge in another. (Sometimes not even money will do it; there were Jews who managed to pay for passage out of Nazi Germany who were then turned back at the borders of countries like the USA and Canada because they didn’t have visas; which is why the Refugee Convention now says that it is lawful to cross borders without a visa for the purpose of seeking asylum.) Back in Jesus’ day there would have been no need for a passport and visas to travel from Bethlehem to Egypt, but Jesus’ family would have needed to pay the costs of their journey, and then to pay to find somewhere to live in safety in a foreign land, far from their families and friends. Reading the story of the Flight into Egypt immediately after the story of the Visit of the Magi, we can imagine that the gold, frankincense and myrrh the magi brought were used to enable Joseph to find sanctuary for himself and his wife and child.
The Massacre of the Innocents isn’t usually part of our nativity pageants, but it’s as much a part of the Christmas stories as shepherds and stars. Liz Gibson, of the Iona Community, says that rather than worrying so much about putting Christ back into Christmas, we should put our efforts into putting Herod back into Christmas. She writes:
To include in the Christmas story the slaughter of the innocents only serves to show that Jesus was born into the real world. Horrible though it was, it’s no worse than many things that happen today. When we question God’s whereabouts and intentions in the catastrophes of life there are no simple answers.
If we include the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt in the Christmas Story, then the answer to the question, ‘where is God?’ is: ‘right there in the midst of danger and slaughter, vulnerable and defenceless’. This is the message of the Nativity, that God took on flesh and blood, becoming like his brothers and sisters in every respect, in order to share humanity’s sufferings and through those sufferings to save us. That means that whenever we see our sisters and brothers suffering, we see Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis and one of my heroes, wrote:
Joy to the world! … For the sake of humankind, Jesus Christ became a human being in a stable in Bethlehem: rejoice, O Christians! For sinners, Jesus Christ became a companion of tax collectors and prostitutes: rejoice, O Christians! For the condemned, Jesus Christ was condemned on the cross on Golgotha: rejoice, O Christians!
And here in Australia we can add: ‘For all those in immigration detention, here or on Manus or Nauru, Jesus Christ became a refugee seeking asylum in Egypt: rejoice, O Christians!’
The Christmas stories are stories of power and protest and politics. We can often forget how revolutionary and counter-cultural Christianity is and has been from its very beginning. So, let today’s story remind you. When you hear or read about asylum seekers and refugees, remember Joseph taking Mary and Jesus and fleeing to Egypt. When you see news of children being mistreated, abducted, or killed, remember the innocents massacred in Bethlehem. When you see injustice perpetrated by people in power, remember the fear of King Herod that led to the deaths of his subjects. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that it is because Jesus himself suffered that he is able to help those who suffer. Whenever we care for those who experience rejection, pain and suffering, we are caring for Jesus. This Christmas season, may the Christmas stories inspire us to continue serving Christ by caring for the people and the world for which Christ died. Amen.
 Liz Gibson in Hay and Stardust: Resources for Christmas to Candlemas (Wild Goose Publications, 2007) p. 189.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) p. 67.