Suffering and Redemption
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
30 August 2007, 10:30 (Christmas 1)
Heb 2:10-end, Matt 2:13-end
The compilers of the lectionary weren’t stupid. They knew that there are certain Sundays to bury bad news. The Sunday after Christmas normally attracts considerably smaller congregations, so if you have a particularly difficult reading to include somewhere, this is a reasonable day to have it.
I think today’s Gospel reading, the so-called Slaughter of the Innocents, is one of the most difficult readings to preach upon. It’s like trying to find good news from the massacres at Columbine or Hungerford or Dunblane.
The idea that Herod would have ordered the mass extermination of young children, in order to eliminate a potential future threat to his throne, is difficult for all manner of reasons. But let us suppose that he did, and that his order was carried out entirely as recorded for us in the Gospel. Where is meaning to be found in that?
Let me try to provide an answer in a slightly unusual way this morning. You may have noticed that the NT reading from Hebrews is a passage that we more normally associate with Easter. It’s to do with the death of Christ. There is a fascinating link between the birth and the death of Jesus, which has always intrigued me, and that link has something to do with the age-old and universal question of suffering.
Some years ago I wrote a meditation about this, based on this difficult story of the slaughter of little children, but joining up the dots with the slaughter of Christ himself. So with apologies to those of you who heard me present this meditation on Good Friday just under 2 years ago, here it is again.
It’s a reflection on the theme of suffering that runs like a thread through the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth – a theme that continues to resonate with our world every bit as much at the start of the 21st century as at the beginning of Anno Domini itself.
My name is Meliakim. I work metal. Have done for years.
Usually on a Friday you would find me in my shop, smelting down the ore, forging the metal. Nails, that's my bread and butter. Nice little contract for nails with the Romans. Usually you would find me there about this time on a Friday.
But not today. Oh no. I have waited too long for this. Laid awake too many nights. Cried too many tears. And all because of you, Jesus, the Christ!
He would be about your age now if he had lived. Ironic, isn't it. We'd called him Joshua too, just like you. The Lord saves.
The Lord saves! How did he save our Joshua? Where was his saving power when the soldiers came in the night, burst into our room, brandishing swords and clubs and killed him before our eyes?
For the love of all that’s holy! He wasn't even two years old.
It was only later I learned that Herod had ordered all the boys under two in our district to be killed.
We lived in Bethlehem then, and Herod had been told a child who would be king had been born there. Red rag to a bull. Such misery I have never seen.
They say the blood ran red in the streets for that boy. They say the screams of the mothers could be heard the other side of the Jordan.
I vowed that night I would see that child die.
My wife never recovered from the shock. She died soon after, of a broken heart.
Since that day over thirty years ago my whole life had been eaten up with bitterness towards the child born to be king.
And finally, here we are, face to face.
I watched the soldiers hammer the nails, my nails, into his left hand and I cried out. "That's for my son".
And when the nail, my nail, went through his right hand I cried. "That's for my wife".
It’s strange, I thought I would gloat. I thought I would feel some great surge of satisfaction.
But when he heard me cry out he raised his head. It was the first time I had really looked at his face.
He didn't look like I expected. I thought he would be proud, self-satisfied, smug even. Most kings are – oblivious to the suffering they have inflicted. Cushioned from how they make their people suffer.
But he wasn't. There was more suffering etched on his face than you can imagine. Not just his own suffering. God knows that was bad enough. But somehow he seemed to be carrying............ the suffering of the world, my suffering.
I looked at the nails.
I thought of how I had worked them in the forge, red hot, white hot.
And suddenly I felt the same heat, red hot, white hot, surge through my breast. And all the bitterness of the years was burned away in one unbelievable moment.
I closed my eyes and gasped. The power of the moment had taken me by surprise. I did not think it possible to forgive and be forgiven in the same instant. But that's what had happened.
When I opened my eyes he was dead.
But for the first time in more than thirty years, I was alive.