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The Dignity of Human Nature

  • January 5, 2020
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 5 January 2020 (Christmas 2 Year A)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Jeremiah 31.7-14; Psalm 84.1-8; Matthew 2.13-23

Title:               The Dignity of Human Nature

“O God, who wonderfully created, and yet MORE wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature.”

Merry Christmas, my dear friends. Today is the twelfth and final day of Christmas. And as we come to the end of our Feast, we are called to meditate on some of the consequences and reactions to the birth of the Messiah.

And we are reminded by that excellent Collect, that ancient prayer appointed for this day that, in the birth of this Messiah, God has changed the history and the trajectory of humankind.

To begin, we need to clarify who these characters are in the Gospel of Matthew. Who is this Herod? Who is his son Archelaus who ruled over Judah after his death?

First, you need to understand that there are many different people with the name of Herod, and this can be very confusing. The Herod mentioned in today’s reading is Herod the Great, the one who ruled over the regions of Judea and Galilee as King for about 40 years.

One of the most remarkable things is that Herod the Great had ten wives. Ten! Naturally then, he had a lot of children – 14 children, in fact, and the confusing thing is that he gave his own name to each of his sons.

Herod had an enormous ego, so all of his sons were named Herod  – but with unique middle names that differentiated them. And there were so many sons that they were forced to share the territory controlled by their father after his death.

Herod Archelaus is one of those sons who became governor of Judea after the death of his father. Another is Herod Antipas who became ruler of Galilee for 43 years. This is the Herod who is more familiar to us in the Gospels. This son was responsible for the death of John the Baptizer, and took part in the Lord’s trial on Good Friday.

But back to the father, King Herod the Great. He was King, and he made sure everyone knew it, but – honestly – he was just a tool of the Roman Empire. The Romans allowed local kings to remain in place, as long as they never interfered with whatever Rome wanted to do. If Herod caused no trouble and if he enforced Roman laws, then they let him stay in place.

To be fair, he did some good things. He entirely rebuilt and expanded the Temple, and the Wailing Wall standing in Jerusalem today was built on the order of  – and with the funds of – Herod.

But he was also vicious and violent. And toward the end of his life, Herod the Great lost his mind. He murdered his firstborn son and the wife he loved the most. He became suspicious of everyone around him.

There is no record of the murder of these Bethlehem children outside of the Bible, but it is entirely consistent with what we know about Herod the Great toward the end of his life. Any threat to his reign was crushed with cruelty.

After he died, Herod Archelaus ruled over Judea in his place. The people hated him and after a few years, their complaints caused Rome to send him into exile. But first, fear of him sent the Holy Family north, outside of his reach, into the neighboring region of Galilee. This was the bloodthirsty legacy of Herod and his family.

Now, by contrast, consider the other figure in this story from the Gospel of Matthew. An entirely different kind of figure: Joseph the guardian, the protector, the provider, the husband of Mary.

Compared to Herod, very little is known about Joseph. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he comes from the house of David, and that he is a carpenter. That’s about all.

In fact, did you know that Joseph never speaks a word anywhere in the Bible? Not one single word. And yet, would you and I even be here today if it were not for Joseph? Who knows? And would there even be a Gospel, a story of the Messiah, without Joseph?

In today’s story, and whenever we see him in the Gospels, Joseph is presented as one who is fears and loves God, one who listens to the voice of God, and one who obeys the voice of God.

Joseph never speaks, but he does what is required. He acts. And as we all know, talk is cheap. So go ahead and forget about the person who speaks and speaks and fills the air with pointless and silly words. Actions are what matter.

This Messiah protected by Joseph would grow up to teach us all about this later in life. He said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7.16).

Joseph is one who follows the guidance of God. And how does God communicate with him?

Through dreams. God communicates with Joseph through dreams. Three of them in this one story. Quietly, silently, in the dark of night, Joseph hears the message and does what is needed. And the Incarnate One, the Messiah, is able to fulfill his mission.

The Gospel of Matthew presents us with these two archetypes of human behavior: Herod and Joseph.

Could we imagine men more different than these two? They represent two different paths in life: one focused on wealth and power and protecting these things at all costs. The other focused on doing the will of God, doing the right thing and living a good and simple life. Which of these paths do we choose to follow?

Of course, none of us would choose to identify with Herod. To defend his power, he kills babies and infants. Defenseless little children.

In professional and governmental circles, these little ones are called collateral damage. They themselves are not the target, but their deaths are necessary to accomplish the will of the King. Or so he thinks.

The saddest part of all is the fact that this story continues. It would be one thing if this remembrance of the holy innocents was simply one unfortunate incident in the past. But it is not. It continues on and on, generation after generation. Men in power make decisions that take the lives of little ones.

No one here would claim to follow the path of Herod. And yet, how many have we killed to defend our power? The circumstances change, the motivations are different, to be sure, and yet the results – the actions – are the same. Innocent children killed as collateral damage to carry out the orders of the leader.

And yet we have to wonder: are we doomed to repeat these same atrocities over and over again? Is there no other way?

To contrast with this sad legacy of Herod’s path, consider the following sage guidance:

“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impacts of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

What would it be like if our leaders actually took this path? If those who made decisions for our towns, for our state, for our nation – if they rejected every idea that served only their own short term interests and instead actually considered the impact of each decision on the next seven generations, how would the world be different?

This guidance is wisdom that was incorporated into the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee – those American tribes commonly, and mistakenly, known as the Iroquois.

But just like most of those who have tasted power, Herod pursues self-interest above all else. The slaughter of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem is the tragic underside of our Christmas story.

And yet, even with this bloody tale, when considered in its totality, Matthew’s Gospel tells us a story of hope and celebration. This is the Good News of Jesus the Messiah. The child born to Mary and protected by Joseph is born to redeem all people, including those innocent ones who must die for his sake. One day he will die for their sake, just as they did, as yet another victim of ruthless oppression.

Now do you remember where we started? With the great Collect for this day?

“O God, who wonderfully created, and yet MORE wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 214).

In humility, in vulnerable powerlessness, sneaking away in the dark of night, defenseless  – this is how the Messiah comes to us. As a child who desperately needs protection.

But we know the end of the story, for this child has come to restore the dignity of human nature – and that includes even the heart and soul of King Herod the Great!

To be restored, to be redeemed, to share in the divine life of Christ, we need only to be like Joseph. To be open to the voice of God, to listen and to follow the guidance of God, to care for those around us, to protect life rather than destroy it, to love God and to love the Incarnate One.

How does that sound to all of you? Will you follow the simple and good path of Joseph? May it be so. Amen.

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