Isaiah 63: 7-9

Matthew 2: 13-23



DECEMBER 26, 2004

Sunday in Christmastide



a sermon preached




the Rev. Maxwell Vines


at the


First Baptist Church of Oakland


Telegraph Avenue at 22nd Street, Oakland, California


In the Contra Costa Times yesterday there were pictures of 70 babies born during 2004, a tiny fraction of those born worldwide. While these were being born, I wonder how many thousands died through war, hunger, poverty; and of those remaining how many of those born during the current conflict in Iraq will have a positive effect upon the world of the future? I read of one man who made a special project of researching births which took place in the year 1809, another year of great conflict. That was the year when everyone was following with apprehension the march of Napoleon Bonaparte across Europe. People waited with impatience for the latest news of the battles. Meanwhile, as in any other year, all over Europe, and in America, babies were being born. A whole host of heroes entered the world during that troubled period.

William Gladstone was born at Liverpool in England, Alfred Lord Tennyson was born at Somersby Rectory, Fredric Chopin in Warsaw, Felix Mendelssohn at Hamburg, Elizabeth Barret Browning in Durham. In the U.S.A. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born that year in Massachusetts, Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath in Old Kentucky; the list could go on and on. Everyone was so preoccupied with what was happening on Europe’s battlefields that hardly anyone thought about babies, except the babies, parents and relatives. Yet, viewing that period from the perspective of later years, we may ask which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies of 1809. Someone has said that when a wrong needs righting, or work wants doing, or a continent needs opening up, God sends a baby into the world to do it. That is why a special babe was born in Bethlehem. Battles may seem, superficially, more important than babies in the history of the world but the future is always with the babies! So it was for the world away back . . the child born in Bethlehem was of special, unique significance for the future.

We often tend at Christmas, however, to think of everything only in terms of sweetneess and light. Here is the hovering, youthful mother, all flushed with the glorious joy of her newborn, and there is the silent, protective father, concerned for his gentle, tender, adoring wife . . and this new child of wonder. The focus of their attention is this innocent, lovely baby. Soon there are wondering shepherds and later gift-bearing wise men from the East will come; but that is not the whole picture. Lurking in the background, according to Matthew who supplements LukeÕs narrative at this point, out towards the horizon is the troubled, threatening, and threatened King Herod. He is part of the picture also. One bright editor of a religious magazine, someone with a sense of humor, once wrote a lead article called Let’s Keep Herod in Christmas. This was a grim reminder that there is in fact a dark side of reality. There is a dark side to Christmas. The term the dark side became popular in modern film and literature during the years of Star Wars and Darth Vader when Hollywood began to moralize about good and evil.

Whatever else he did not understand King Herod realized the significance of babies for the future; in this case his own future was threatened and what he did about it came to be known as “the slaughter of the innocents”. Herod ordered the extermination of all male children under the age of two years. Perhaps this had some relationship to those haunting sentences in the prophetic words which the old man, Simeon, spoke to Mary when the baby Jesus was brought to the temple a short time later: This child is chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart. (Luke 2: 34-35).

We are given here a glimpse into the life of Mary. Her child is to be Emmanuel, God totally present in a human life. Not only does a jealous, frightened, threatened Herod order the murder of helpless children in a vain effort to eliminate the One who may become his rival, but as Mary’s child reaches manhood and begins his ministry of compassion he will be rejected, and resistance to his message will culminate in his passion and death. A sword will surely pierce her heart, for in this birth there is the shadow of his death. Herod makes sure of that and Herod’s people, all people, our people, we ourselves, participate in the lack of whole-hearted acceptance of him who comes in the name of the Lord. There is a dark side to Christmas, powerful forces resist the grace of God, and this dimension of darkness can never be quite escaped.

Concerning our own time, Edith Lovejoy Pierce has written -

                        We are not ready for the little King.

                     After two thousand years we are not ready

                     For any eye so clear or hand so steady,

                     Or for the justice which his rule will bring.

                     Not voted into office, but imposed

                     Upon a world recalcitrant and grim,

                     He does not reign by reason of our whim.

                     Accept his reign before the books are closed:

                     Elect yourselves participants thereof,

                     Hardhearted people, reconsider Love.

   Matthew is careful to tell us that in the very shadow of the threat from King Herods intemperate behavior, the providence of God protects the infant Saviour. An angel messenger warns Joseph of the danger and bids him escape with his family, by departing for Egypt. So the final word of Christmas, the message of the incarnation, is always that while the darkness is there, it never overcomes the amazing power of the emerging light: In him was life and the life was the light of humanity. According to the testimony of John’s Gospel, the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (1:4).