Sermon: Second Sunday of Christmas, 1 January 2017, St John the Divine

Reading  Matthew 2.13-23

Preacher  The Revd Alan Sykes

I’ve found that one of the little freedoms that getting older has bestowed is that I no longer feel the slightest need to go out on New Year’s Eve and make some half-hearted attempt to enjoy myself among the frenzied revellers.

So yesterday, boringly and blissfully, we spent a quiet night at my mother-in-law’s, watched the fireworks on TV for a few minutes and then went to bed.

Not that I’ve got anything against the New Year. It’s always an interesting point in our lives, and, legitimately, a time to take stock and look to the future. Fair enough, if people want to celebrate it more flamboyantly than I do.

Now, just before Christmas I was reading an article by John Simpson, the BBC reporter, the now veteran BBC reporter, was taking stock, as he looked back on his career, and he was saying that in his time things around the world have actually got better.

In the 1950s the number of people killed in wars was 250 per million. Now it’s 10 per million. That by any standards is a massive improvement.

In 1966 there were nearly 90 dictatorships. That figure is now down to 20.

There are now nearly 100 democracies in the world. In 1966 there were fewer than 40. As we know, living in a democracy isn’t by a long chalk the same as living in paradise but it’s probably preferable to living under dictatorship – whether of some individual dictator or the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Along with John Simpson you could cogently argue that things, at least internationally and politically, are indeed better than they were.

So someone might say that the story we’ve just heard about King Herod’s massacre of the innocents is just a throwback to a bygone age that no longer exists.

Try telling that to the people and to the children of East Aleppo.

The massacre of the innocents isn’t documented in any historical source other than Matthew’s gospel. But it’s a story that is entirely in keeping with what else we know about Herod. He comes across as the very epitome of the ruthless oriental despot – the epitome of the despot from any age or country.

Let me give you a for instance.

By all accounts he loved his wife, who was called Marianne. Herod professed to love her so much that, on more than one occasion, he gave orders for her to be killed if he himself died, so that he might not be separated from her in death. Despite this somewhat questionable love for her, he ended up executing her before he died, as well two sons she had by him, her brother, her grandfather and her mother.

So much for Herod’s conjugal affections. For good measure he also had another son executed, though this one was born to another wife.

The emperor Augustus once allegedly quipped that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son, the joke being that, since Herod was a Jew, he didn’t eat pork and his pig would be safe.

It’s entirely in character that he should see the infant Jesus as a potential rival for the throne and try to make sure that he is liquidated. It doesn’t matter how many innocent lives have to be destroyed in the process.

Herod is a man who has been morally dissolved by the acid of his lust for power – the lust to achieve power and the lust to maintain power once achieved.

He may have spent vast sums on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem but his heart seems to have been pretty much as far away from God as it is possible to be.

It has often crossed my mind that the only people who really deserve to hold power are those who don’t want it. Unfortunately, those who don’t want it and therefore don’t seek it are rarely given it. And, of course, the mere fact of not wanting power is no guarantee at all that someone would wield it wisely. There are many other necessary qualities but I still think that not wanting power is a good basic qualification for holding power.

Democracy may not be perfect but at least in a real rather than a sham democracy power can change hands without bloodshed. In our society we still have people who crave power but they know – or are forced to know – when to withdraw more or less gracefully from the struggle.

The number of democracies may be high these days and, as John Simpson suggests, things may be getting better on the whole, but there’s one thing we can know for certain about the coming year: terrible things will be done by human beings to other human beings, to other sentient creatures and to creation as a whole.

It’s what human beings have come to excel at in their quest for power, wealth and status.

We may not know for certain or in detail what is going to happen in the next 365 days. We may work for it and we may pray for it but the future will always remain an unknown country, which it is impossible to map reliably.

The future can be a frightening prospect for individuals as well as for nations.

All we can do – our task, you might say – is to trust in God that in the last analysis and in the context of eternity, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

I shall end with a few words that many of you will know and which you may well have heard in the last few days.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

King George VI used those words in his Christmas broadcast of 1939. They were highly relevant then of course. They are relevant now also. And they always will be.

In the Christian life it is of course important to believe in God but it is much more important to trust in God. That, as they say, is where the rubber really hits the road.

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