St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at St Peter's Chaplaincy, Manchester, on 26th December 2011
I wonder if you’ve seen the Marks and Spencer lorries on the motorway, the white ones shaped like tear drops. On the side they say, “Plan A: Because there is no Plan B,” advertising Marks and Spencer’s commitment to the environment.
How many of us want a Plan A life at Christmas — the way the holiday should be, with our family just right, the presents bought in November, the children or grandchildren well behaved, the cards sent out in good time. . . because there is no Plan B.
These days parents write birthplans with their midwives and healthcare team, talking at length about how the mother would like the birth to happen. Reading the gospel stories about the first Christmas I wonder if God even had a Plan A. With the chaos around Jesus’ birth, and his first few years, it looks like things got to Plan C or D pretty quickly. Mary is pregnant before she and Joseph are married; Joseph’s plans are interrupted twice by angels; the family has to flee into exile immediately from the intentions of a tyrant; when they finally return it is to Nazareth, not their hometown of Bethlehem. If we are looking for comfort and order in the way God works, for God’s Plan A at Christmas, the joke is on us.
And what a Plan B this is. Herod is enraged by the trickery of the magi – the wise men whom we will hear more about next week. Herod orders the killing of every child under two in Bethlehem, the so-called slaughter of the innocents, the first martyrs killed for a connection with Jesus. Plan B, indeed.
It’s not unimportant that the event may not have actually happened. The ancient historian Josephus records many of the violent, sadistic deeds of Herod the Great, who lived and ruled in the area when Jesus was born. Josephus pointedly records many of his violent actions, but not this one; and you think it would have been mentioned given its brutality. It’s not mentioned in Luke or the other gospels, and it also bears a suspicious similarity to Pharaoh’s murder of the children in Exodus at the time of Moses.
But the historicity of the event is hardly the point. Jesus was born into a violent world, a Plan B world, a world quite far from our Plan A, the way things ought to be world — a world many of us, to be honest, would like to avoid, especially here in church, especially this season. Reading a children’s book with my daughter last night called “The First Christmas” Mahalia said, “I don’t want to read that one, it has Herod in it, and he’s scary.” We would rather not think about this kind of tragedy and suffering, thank you very much — and yet this Plan B is essential to the Christmas gospel. As I heard recently, we need to put Herod back in Christmas.
Why? Perhaps because God works precisely through the chaos and disorder. Just ask Joseph and Mary. As we adore the baby Jesus, we hear Rachel’s lament over her children in the town Mary and Joseph fled from. Both are the cries of joy and pain are real. We don’t have to listen for it; it’s there. None of us lives very long without encountering a Plan B world, a world of pain, a world of suffering — a world Jesus was born in, grew up in, and ultimately died in. It’s this world that God is active in, using Plan B, or C, or D, or Z. And thank goodness, because this world is ours, too, where cries of joy and pain ring out together.
This year our Christmas was different because of the death of Clare’s grandmother, Mercy, two weeks ago. We went down to the funeral last weekend and it was a time of tears, of sadness, but also of real connection and sharing and remembering on the part of Clare’s mother’s siblings for which we were grateful. We felt so close to life and death, and so aware of the fragility of life. The Christmas story brings us closer to that fragility, too, and the inexplicability of our world. Jesus is born today in the inexplicable sorrow as well as the joy, in the places of struggle as well as the places of ease and comfort. Jesus is born today into the Plan B chaos, not the Plan A nativity scene.
And yet Jesus is born, a real life, a real hope. God works through the darkness of the struggle. God hears the cries of Rachel. God works gradually and stubbornly for the sake of the world, and asks us to do the same. Perhaps we do need to put Herod back in Christmas — or at least to face the Herods in scripture, and the Herods in our world, without fear; to face death knowing that God is a God who works surprises out of impossibility — in the Christmas story, and in our own.