Never as bad as it seems
Matthew 2: 1:12 & 13-18.
This is a pretty horrible story.
It’s true to what we know of Herod.
As a king he was paranoid of someone taking his throne.
He killed his own wife and son because he thought they may be thinking about it, so killing a bunch of poor innocent children who couldn't defend themselves, that wouldn’t bother him at all.
And who could stop him?
Herod was all powerful.
Herod had an army at his disposal.
And often we think life is a bit like that.
There are the powerful and then there is the poor.
There are those that make a difference and there are those who are nothing more than victims.
I have two problems with that.
The first problem I have is a subtle one that sneaks into our brain. It is the idea that we deserve what we have.
If we are comfortable, if life is good, then that is because we deserve it, that it is because we have worked for it, we owe nothing to no one.
However the other side of that coin is that others who are struggling, who are powerless don’t deserve good in their lives, because they haven’t worked as hard for it as us, they are scroungers.
I have a nice house because I have worked hard to get that nice house.
My children have good jobs because they have worked hard to get their jobs.
And though I don’t deny that I work hard, and I don't deny that my children have worked hard...to say that we deserve it...maybe that is pushing it a bit far.
You see I know of others who don’t have nice houses and don’t have power and I know they don't deserve what they are facing.
Like Ian Begg (from BBC News 23/12/19). He worked for Thomas Cook. Was told that he should claim Universal Credit which meant he got nothing for five weeks, then the day before he was supposed to get his first payment they cancelled it saying he should have been trying to claim for Job Seekers allowance.
Or Rebecca who was pregnant when she was made redundant from Thomas Cook...Because of loosing her job she lost out on maternity. Eight weeks later she had still received nothing because they sent her the wrong paperwork.
Both of them went into Christmas having had no help from the government, struggling to keep a house over their head, struggling with stress and worry to know if they could afford electric bills and food bills.
Did Ian and Rebecca deserve that?
Equally the top of management of Thomas Cook were still living off huge bonuses given even though they knew the firm was going down the tubes. Did they deserve that?
I am weary of those that think that we are doing all right because God is blessing us, and others are doing badly because God is justified in not blessing them.
I think the Bible is very clear.
We are all pretty undeserving of the blessings we get.
The reason we get our blessings, is so that we can share them with others so that they too can be blessed.
God doesn’t give us stuff because we deserve it; God gives us stuff so that we can help others.
Herod believed that he was king because God made him king.
He had a divine right to be king.
In Herod’s head that means he had a divine right to use that power and that authority in any way he wanted, because in his eyes God had given him that right.
If God didn't want him to be able to kill his enemies, then God wouldn't have given him the power to kill his enemies.
Now we know that is twisted thinking.
But how much more twisted thinking is it than us believing that we can spend the money we have any way we want, we can use it to do whatever we want or go wherever we want, wasting it on whatever way we believe, because if God didn't want is to use the money in whatever way we wanted, then God wouldn't have given it to us.
It may be a comfort to us to believe that we get what we deserve.
But I don't think it is real.
Do we really believe that Herod deserved to have all that power and wealth?
Do we really believe that Jesus and his family deserved to be made refugees?
This is what I think is real; this is what I think God expects from us.
I think God expects us to enjoy the blessings we have. I think God expects us to realise that if life is good for us then we should be truly thankful. And show that thankfulness by not taking it for granted and not wasting it, by being generous to others because God has been generous to us.
I think God expects us to understand that when life isn’t good then it isn’t because we have done something wrong and we are getting punished
and it isn't because God is testing us and trying to work out if we are worthy of his love.
God is more than smart enough to know all that stuff and he doesn’t need to test us.
I think God hopes that when life isn’t good for us then we are smart enough to know that he doesn’t desert us but has put people in our lives that can help us and support us and be the blessing that we need at that time.
So lesson 1.
We don't get stuff and power because we deserve it.
We get stuff and power because God is generous, and he expects us to be answerable for how we use his generosity.
There is a way of reading this passage that is scarily wrong.
You can read this passage and believe that what happened was this...
God cared for his son; God didn't care for anyone else's son.
That night the only child that was saved was God’s. God let all the other children die.
We can read this passage and believe God gave Herod amazing power, Herod then abused that power and God just watched and done nothing.
I find that version of events terrifying.
I find it terrifying because if we believe it then it gives us permission to do nothing to help anyone.
What is the point of helping anyone?
There are those with power and those without power and those without are just going to be trampled on.
Those without power are just going to be trodden underfoot.
Those with power will just get away with it.
Those with power are never going to be accountable.
There is no point in us trying to save the planet by recycling because China will always pollute the planet.
There is no point in unions as the wealthy will always control the wage structure; the nurses will always get less than what they deserve and the managers will always get more than they deserve.
There is no point in giving to the food banks because those on zero hour contracts will never earn enough to be stable, so you would end up supporting them forever and nothing changes to sort that out.
And the truth is always more complex.
Our victories may not be great, but every time we get one then the darkness looses.
Christ came to earth to let a wee bit of heaven enter.
And everywhere that Christ went heaven gained a wee bit more power.
The blind saw for the first time.
The lame walked.
The poor felt hope.
The victims felt freedom.
Even in this passage today.
There is what is said to have happened, and the reality that probably happened.
Because the poor are always with us, and the poor are ignored by the rich, the poor are invisible to the rich.
The rich believe the poor can’t do anything.
So Herod makes a decree that all the boys under two in Bethlehem should be killed.
Who hears that decree?
Well the commander of the guard.
But who summoned the commander of the guard?
What slave was sent to fetch the commander of the guard?
What slave was forced to serve the commander of the guard?
How many slaves did Herod insist served him while he briefed the commander of the guard?
Herod is all powerful; he wouldn’t lower himself to fill his own cup.
The commander of the guard is a man of influence, but he wouldn’t dare to serve himself in front of the king, he would wait for the servants of Herod to serve him.
How many slaves hear this edict for Herod?
And how many of them have relatives in Bethlehem?
How many of them have a son, a nephew, a cousin, a neighbours son in that age range who has just been sentenced to death?
So while the commander of the guard sends some private to get the sergeants and then tell the sergeants what is to happen, who then get their squads ready which means waking them up and then getting them dressed and armoured and then marching to Bethlehem,
while that is all going on,
who is running directly to Bethlehem to warn their neighbours or their wife or their nephew to get their wee boy safe.
By the time the soldiers arrive in Bethlehem how many boys are actually there?
But would the soldiers tell Herod that they couldn’t find any boys, Herod who would kill anyone who gave him news of failure?
You daren't lie to Herod, but there is a truth and there is a truth.
‘Yes Herod, we killed every boy under two that we found in Bethlehem. Not a single boy under two is alive in Bethlehem.’
And just don't mention that you didn’t find any boys under two in Bethlehem to kill.
Sometimes our victories are small, but they are still victories.
A mother is sent home to die because the cancer treatment has failed, but it still gives time for all the family to be there in the end and support each other, it still gives time for everyone to realise what a blessing that life was, and the example of that life will bless generations afterwards.
A child you never meet but who you sponsor gets an education that she would never have got otherwise, and that child then becomes a doctor who has a passion to help those who, like herself, had little. So she becomes part of a good practice and earns a lot, and with that money can volunteer her skills and give medication to others that would probably have died without her being there.
We avoid passages like this because it feels like evil wins.
But this passage reminds us that the blessings we have are gifts, which God wants us to use to bless others.
And that the powerful don’t always win, and every time we help the struggling, then Heaven breaks into the dark and God’s hope shines in just a wee bit more.
And just a wee bit more may be just enough to make a difference.