The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s010g06 Epiphany 31/12/06
'he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him' Matthew 2.3
It is tempting to equate the fear of Herod and the fear of the populace of Jerusalem to a supposed systemic fear that secular society inherently has for any divine intervention. But neither Herod nor Jerusalem can be automatically associated with secularism. We are told that Herod liked to listen to John the Baptist and was distressed that his ill-considered oaths led to John's death. And Jerusalem was the centre of religious orthodoxy. The kings come to the most likely place to find a nation's new religious leader the centre of religious orthodoxy - but they were mistaken.
So I suggest that it was not secularism that was the issue, but that the new-born King was supplanting both Herod and Jerusalem that precipitated the fear. I am suggesting that it was not just Herod who found that his position of power and authority was being questioned but the religious authorities in Jerusalem who feared the same. The new leader was not to be born there, 'he' was not to be one of their 'sons', but some country bumkin from Bethlehem. I suppose in Sydney Australia, it would be equivalent to suggesting that Jesus was to be born in Kings Cross (the 'red-light' district) definitely on 'the wrong side of the tracks'.
Confirming this view, when John the Baptist starts his preaching and lots of Pharisees and Sadducees came for baptism, John was scornful, saying: 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?' Matt 3.7
I am reminded of the last words of that lovely hymn of Charles Wesley: 'Love divine, all loves excelling' (TIS 217) 'till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise'. We have crowns that we have to cast down before God the crown of our Christianity, the crown of our faithfulness, the crown of our Anglicanism, the crown of our achievements, the crown of our church attendance we have to cast these down, to come to the Almighty on the same terms as each and every other person. The fear that Herod and all Jerusalem had was that they would have to come without their crowns also.
The reference is of course to "the twenty-four elders (in the book the Revelation, who) fall before the one who is seated on the throne and .. cast their crowns before the throne .." Rev 4.10
Recently Sam Harris (the atheist author of the book "Letter to a Christian Nation', a graduate in philosophy from Stanford University, who has studied both Eastern and Western religious traditions, along with a variety of contemplative disciplines, for twenty years and is now completing a doctorate in neuroscience) was interviewed on the Religion Report by Stephen Crittenden. In part of that interview he said: "You (moderates) have to recognise that the status quo, which you are supporting by your non criticism, and by your indulgence of your tradition, the status quo in which generation after generation we raise our children to believe that there is some important difference between them and other people on the basis of religion, on the basis of which book their ancestors worshipped as a magic book that is perpetuating conflict in a world that is now brimming with destructive technology and we just have to take an honest look at the ramifications of these beliefs.'
These are powerful words and they deserved to be heeded, yet the essence of the feast that we call the Epiphany that we celebrate today, is that these is no difference between 'them' and 'us'. Indeed the appearance of the wise men is actually an affirmation of secularism, that the things of God are welcomed by those 'outside' but feared by the very people who were supposedly sacred, so much so that they should have recognised and welcomed them. And they were feared by these very people who should have welcomed them because they recognised that 'others' were included and not just their sacred selves.
In the 4th Century the Epiphany was considered along with Easter and Pentecost as one of the three principle feasts of the Church rather than Christmass it was the beginning of the gospel.
So right at the beginning of the Christian gospel the issue of 'them' and 'us' raises its ugly head and is dealt with decisively, yet some who take the Bible so seriously often seem oblivious to it. How many times have I heard: 'no one comes to the Father but by me' quoted as if Jesus is the heavenly bouncer there at the pearly gates ready to eject those who do not hold the faith, the right faith, or even enough of the right faith?
Recently I heard from someone who has been doing a locum in a parish where I thought there would have been predominantly 'moderate' people and she wrote that 'there is a battle between two high profile women which I feel should be addressed before (the new priest) goes there'. The propensity for us to battle our way through seems almost universal.
And I strongly suspect that the belief that there is a 'them' and 'us' lying at the very heart of our 'faith' is precisely why Sam Harris is an atheist. If God distinguishes between 'them' and 'us' then this god must have some benefit to gain from the continuing conflict between people ensuing from this differentiation. This is not a god but a demon and an enemy of all human civilization. If God were actually like this then I would be an atheist too!
If we allow that others are going to be welcomed as readily as us, the whole exercise of trying to win God's favour becomes irrelevant. Just think of a world without religious conflict! Surely that is good news? Surely that is something to strive for? Surely any 'effort' we put in (taking off our crown) is simpler than continuing fighting. All we have to do is what the Bible says: 'love our neighbour' whatever his or her colour, gender, creed, language, custom, with whom he or she relates intimately .. (Paedophile activity is not intimate relationship it is one of cowardly dominance.)
The visit of the wise men precipitated the massacre of the innocents, which shows the extent to which King Herod was frightened of someone usurping his power and authority and the extent that he considered other people expendable. But he is not the only one to consider others expendable. When we happily consign others to eternal damnation (by our non criticism, and by our indulgence of our tradition) because they do not hold the same faith as we, are we not similarly considering others eternally expendable? We might not fly planes into skyscrapers, but we still consider others expendable, and this is about as far from the gospel of Jesus as I can imagine.
Does the thought that others are welcomed as readily as we are frighten us like Herod or the religious authorities or excite us enough to travel great distances to make sure it is true, like those wise men? Our answer to this question is pretty telling. It determines whether we are following a demon of our own making or the living God.
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