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Over the Mud

magiMatthew 2: 1-12 and 13-23
Introduction to the reading
The Christmas pageant tableau is now complete; the three Wise Men have arrived at the stable in Bethlehem. How that came about was our first reading for today, Matthew 2: 1-12. In Church tradition, the visit of the Magi is called the Epiphany, the revelation of God incarnate to the Gentiles and thence to the whole world beyond Israel. Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, twelve days after Christmas, yesterday.

The Magi were about as distant from Judaism as possible, both geographically and theologically, but they were the ones, after the poor shepherds, who recognized that the newborn Jesus was truly Immanuel, God with us. Their arrival seems to be the fulfillment of the poetic prophecy of Isaiah:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. - (Isa. 60: 1-3, 6)

Our second reading for today, however, is post-Epiphany. And it is far from a lovely story.

We never see Herod in any Nativity scene, but he has been lurking in the shadows all the while:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him …

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the wise men] left for their own country by another road.

Who was he, this King Herod?

  • A member of the Herod family, who governed Palestine under Roman authority for a century and a half. Six of the Herods are mentioned in the New Testament, including Herod the Great, ruling at the time of Jesus’s birth, and Herod Antipas, in power at the time of his crucifixion.
  • A strict Roman loyalist, who mounted large-scale building projects in order to enlarge the importance of his Jewish kingdom. Herod himself was not Jewish.
  • A moody, cruel and sometimes violent ruler who was known to imprison or execute even members of his own family to maintain his grip on power - understandable that he was fearful and jealous of any threat to his rule. And the Wise Men had clearly said that they were searching for a child who was born king of the Jews. Well, Herod was king of the Jews, was he not?

In the second section, Herod’s paranoia reaches tragic expression:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

This is simply awful! How far we have come in such a short time from the glory and joy and simple peace of the Nativity. Not what we want to hear about; not what we want to know; not what we want to think…

And yet, that is the way the world is, isn’t it? Evil and atrocities, violence, hate, and subterfuge – the sweep of human history has always had a dark side; individual human lives have always known dark times. All the wars the world has seen; all the injustice, slavery and mistreatment; all the despotism and dictatorship; all the murder and rape and pillage; all the disregard for the earth and for one another. It seems that there is no escaping the darknesses.

A particular essay in the Perspective section of the December 24th Star-Ledger speaks to this point, yet moves beyond it: “How We Can Overcome Our Mean World” by John Farmer. After listing the many disruptive technological, scientific and political changes he has lived through in 60 years, he wrote:

But none of these changes has made the world seem utterly strange. That change has been something more fundamental, an unsettling of human decency, a rising tide of sheer meanness of spirit that is transforming the world… [a different kind of darkness]. This pervasive meanness is visible everywhere in our culture… Fairness is mocked, judgment rushed, compassion mistaken for weakness.

Farmer then moves to the message of Christmas (which is interesting, I think, in a secular press):

The world has, of course, witnessed prior ages of sheer meanness, if not total madness. Jesus was born into a world of unspeakable violence and oppression; according to the Gospel of Matthew, in the weeks after his birth every Jewish boy in Bethlehem 2 years old and younger was slaughtered by government order. … Fractured families, displaced multitudes, slaughter of innocents; the story is all too familiar. What has evaporated is the modern consensus that those things are wrong.
So, what is left to celebrate? What has the Christmas tradition to say to the world’s essential meanness? The Nativity answers not with an argument but with a simple image… of a mother adoring her child.

Want to answer hate? Let’s start with that form of love. (Farmer, D6)

Sometimes, as Farmer notes, the point is made not in words but in pictures.

Our son Tim and his wife Kristen gave us a subscription to Netflix for Christmas. Tim and his little girls came up last Saturday to help us set it up, and we’ve been exploring films on Netflix for the past week.

The first movie we saw was the recent release “Mudbound”, a story of interracial tensions, the role of women, and the effects of war in the rural deep South of Mississippi just after the end of World War II. The story is told through members of two families - one white, one black – who occupy the same piece of land.

It rains all the time in this movie – the rains of misfortune, hate, violence, injustice and stupidity in the lives of the characters … and rain on the fields and property around the cabins they live in. The rain produces mud – thick, dark mud to slog through, mud to get filthy in, mud to ruin crops, mud to ruin lives.

I noticed, however, that the black family had laid wooden planks from the road to the front porch of their cabin, enabling them to walk over the mud and enter their cabin with clean feet. The white family did not. The black family walked over the mud; the white family just kept getting bogged down, muddier and muddier.

Spoiler alert: the very last scene of “Mudbound”, however, does not end in mud. The young black veteran returns to France to reunite with the white woman who is the mother of his son. He cannot speak because the KKK had hunted him down, strung him up and cut out his tongue. But his thoughts are spoken. And the last word is love.

All those years the black family walked over the mud on the plank of love. God’s love… for the whole world, generation to generation.

After Christmas, the Light of the world – Jesus the Christ - still shines even in all our thick mud and darkness and the darkness does not and will not overcome it. Amen.

Farmer, John. “HOW WE CAN OVERCOME OUR MEAN WORLD.” The Star-Ledger,
24 Dec. 2017, D1, D6.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
January 7, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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