Sermon preached on the first Sunday of Christmas (28 December 2014) by the Very reverend David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the first Sunday of Christmas (28 December 2014) by the Very reverend David Ison, Dean

On the Feast of the Holy Innocents, The Very Reverend David Ison looks at innocence, concluding 'this day of commemoration of the innocent challenges those of us with power to repent of the ways in which we ourselves abuse the innocent to make ourselves feel better'.


Jeremiah 31.13-15, Matthew 18.1-10
 
If your mother only knew, her heart would surely break in two.

So runs the refrain in the fairy tale of the Goose-Girl by the Brothers Grimm. The story tells of an innocent princess who’s sent off to a far country to be married. The princess’ maid-servant bullies her and changes places with her and marries the prince instead, and forces the princess to look after the geese.
 
Of course it becomes apparent through magical happenings who the princess really is, and in the end the wicked servant gets her come-uppance and the true princess marries the newly-widowed prince, and everyone except the wicked servant lives happily ever after.
 
But through the story, as sufferings are heaped on the head of the innocent princess turned goose-girl, the couplet keeps on coming:

40 days after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple to be dedicated, and were met there by the prophet Simeon, who not only spoke of the child’s future destiny, but said to Mary his mother: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul also’, a literal depiction of which is in the crucifixion window at the east end of this cathedral.
 
To watch your child die as well as live is a devastating trial for any parent; for Mary it was no different, given added poignancy by her faith that Jesus would be the saviour who would come in triumph, not facing death on a cross. 

Two years after Jesus was born, shortly after the wise men had been and gone, Herod’s men came knocking on Bethlehem’s doors, and Mary and Joseph fled while the children of the village were massacred.
 
A friend of mine who’s a Palestinian Christian in Bethlehem and who can trace his ancestry back over 700 years says that they reckoned that, given the small population of ancient Bethlehem, maybe 20 children of that age would have been killed.
 
So it wasn’t a large event. But that doesn’t make it better. Children born in hope for the future, children whose mothers had compared notes on their growth with the future saviour of the world, those children were murdered because Jesus came and set off the insecurities of a narcissistic and egotistical tyrant. All those hopes, those potential futures, rubbed out in a moment, because of the fears of a tyrant.

And it goes on through history: the hopes and potential of so many children, twisted, warped, murdered, destroyed by human malice and foolishness, weakness and disunity. The massacre of 132 children in Peshawar by the Taliban is only the latest in a long line of evil deeds against the innocent.
 
What must it be like to be a mother or father dying of AIDS in Africa, fearing for your soon to be orphaned children and their future? To be parents of children who have been kidnapped or abused, taken off to war, dragged into prostitution or drugs and preyed on by others.
 
Rachel’s voice in Ramah weeping for her children echoes down the ages, as the joys and possibilities of a new birth turn into the bitterness of loss and sorrow.
 
But mothers do not know, not at any rate until it happens. And neither do we. We can look back over 2014 and see what kind of year it’s been, for good and ill, for us and for others. But we cannot know what will happen in the year ahead.

God gives us no guarantees; indeed, we know that suffering and sadness will be part of it as well as hope and joy, because that’s how the world is and how people are. People will be cruel, and prey upon the vulnerable.

And who knows what will happen next?
 
Which is why Christmas is such an important festival for us.

God doesn’t promise the innocent an easy ride, or that nothing bad will happen to us or to others.
God does promise to be with us through it all; that coming in Jesus, God suffers along with us.
God has known what it is to be innocent, to be hunted, to be at risk and abused as an innocent at the hands of others.
 
Jesus took a child and stood her in the middle of his disciples and said: ‘Unless you change and become like this child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’

Someone who is innocent is easy prey for men and women with fragile egos and violating hearts, men and women who fear being helpless and so grasp at power and control over others.
 
But to God, the God who becomes vulnerable for our sake, one who is innocent is our role model: that we should turn away from power and control, and give our lives in the service of God and others.
 
If your mother only knew, her heart would surely break in two – yes; but if we carry with us, not only a broken heart, but also the presence and love of God, then being broken will not be the last word for the innocent.
 
This day of commemoration of the innocent challenges those of us with power to repent of the ways in which we ourselves abuse the innocent to make ourselves feel better – whether bullying children or shop staff, maltreating animals, or doing far worse.

We must repent: for ‘Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’