Today’s gospel seems hard to proclaim as good news. We often times want difficult texts such as this to be excluded. Or at least the hard, uncompromisingly inhumane detail edited a bit so it’s not so confronting. And yet, sadly, the hard bits we read continue to be made real in the life of our world. If God is with us, as we say, that means in all of life. Please don’t hear me say God is with us, as in on our side or on the side of those who use such title to justify perpetrating such inhumanity. Rather I mean God’s not just about the good bits but is present, in, to all of creation, in, to all humanity enacts.
In today’s gospel we hear Matthew’s continuing narrative of the early life of Jesus. Mary and Joseph flee Egypt and the wrath of Herod, a wrath that results in the terrible massacre of innocent children. Later we hear, Joseph’s urged to enter Israel. For political reasons however they settle instead in Nazareth in the area of Galilee. All this, according to Matthew, in order to fulfil the prophetic predictions about the coming Messiah made by and for the Jewish people.
Joseph and Mary, we hear, protect and nurture the fledgling life of God in the world. They need to provide a safe environment for this life to grow in strength and mature – for it is precarious and vulnerable to the powers of the world. We don’t live in a context where the shadow of persecution or threat of death for our faith looms. And yet to live as a person of faith, especially overtly, can be a vulnerable experience. The smallness of difference our faith seems to make in the face of a world that largely speaking doesn’t hold a vision of a world where each person is equally valued or that our greatest potential comes to fruition as we allow ourselves to be transformed by God.
As today’s gospel illustrates our experience is not new. Those who have power and influence in our societies dominate at the cost of others and will use any means to retain control. And yet … they die just as did Herod and their influence passes. None of us live just to ourselves but understand we act and have purpose in continuity with what has been. How we contribute to and become part of what has been determines what gets perpetuated. For those who do and have lived mainly to benefit themselves, who’ve misused and abused power to secure their place, few, if any will perpetuate their influence and story. By contrast the Christmas story that declares ‘God is with us’ is a story of hope and light in and for the life of the world. As we speak, act and live as people of hope, as bearers of light, revealing God as present in the world, as this birth story tells, this story will be perpetuated.
Jesus birth is framed by Matthew to threaten Herod’s power, seen in Herod ordering the massacre of innocent children. What threat did Jesus pose? We could construe that it related to the Magi telling of a new King being born, but really, with the humble start Jesus had, was this likely? Perhaps the threat lay in his alternate vision, that there is another viable way to live with one another, not trading with the same currency of domination. A way that disempowers simply by not giving power to the systems, people and structures that determine that the strongest dominate by misusing and abusing the rights and dignity of each person.
Such threat is more than theory for bullets are used to kill those who work for fairer, more just societies – the Benazir Bhutto’s, the Martin Luther King’s, the Ghandi’s – to silence those who stand against, who speak against evident injustices. Those who refuse to take up the cudgels, to engage the weapons of destruction against which they speak, for doing so would deny their alternative vision. Their silenced voices however echo in the hearts and minds of people throughout the world, echo a deep truth in their and our hearts that in our humanity we’re not so far from one another, that what separates and divides us is of our own making and not intrinsic to our existence. The echo soon fades however and we step away, seeing only our separating differences.
This is the way of incarnation to which we join, our voices joining with the voice of others through time that sound that heart echo common to our humanity. Let me finish with this story of incarnation told by Athanasius in the 4thcentury, it’s been slightly adapted and expanded by Brian McLaren.
“Once upon a time there was a good and kind king who had a great kingdom with many cities. In one distant city, some people took advantage of the freedom the king gave them and started doing evil. They profited by their evil and began to fear the king would interfere and throw them in jail. Eventually these rebels seethed with hatred for the king. They convinced the city that everyone would be better off without the king, and the city declared its independence from the kingdom.
But soon, with everyone doing whatever they wanted, disorder reigned in the city. There was violence, hatred, lying, oppression, murder, rape, slavery and fear. The king thought: What should I do? If I take my army and conquer the city by force, the people will fight against me, and I’ll have to kill so many of them, and the rest will only submit through fear or intimidation, which will make them hate me and all I stand for even more. How does that help them – to be either dead or imprisoned or secretly seething with rage? But if I leave them alone, they’ll destroy each other, and it breaks my heart to think of the pain they’re causing and experiencing.
So the king did something very surprising. He took off his robes and dressed in the rags of a homeless wanderer. Incognito, he entered the city and began living in a vacant lot near a garbage dump. He took up a trade – fixing broken pottery and furniture. Whenever people came to him, his kindness and goodness and fairness and respect were so striking that they would linger just to be in his presence. They would tell him their fears and questions, and ask his advice. He told them that the rebels had fooled them, and that the true king had a better way to live, which he exemplified and taught. One by one, then two by two and then by hundreds, people began to have confidence in him and live in his way.
Their influence spread to others, and the movement grew and grew until the whole city regretted its rebellion and wanted to return to the kingdom again. But, ashamed of their horrible mistake, they were afraid to approach the king, believing he would certainly destroy them for their rebellion. But the king-in-disguise told them the good news: he was himself the king, and he loved them. He held nothing against them, and he welcomed them back into his kingdom, having accomplished by a gentle, subtle presence what never could have been accomplished through brute force.” 
 Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (Zondervan; Grand Rapids), 2004, 64, 65.