Isaiah 63:7-9 & Matthew 2:13-23

Tell of God’s Kindnesses

So it’s the first of January, the first day of another new year. I wonder how you’re feeling about that. For many of us, I suspect, there’s a bit of trepidation going into another new year. The last couple of years might have left us feeling a bit anxious about what the new year might bring. Rather than the positive sense of a new start, or hope for the future, excitement about the possibilities of a new year, there might be a bit more of a sense of “what else can go wrong”.

I wonder if Mary and Joseph felt a bit like that. They had been through a very up and down time. For them the last few years had brought an unexpected pregnancy, a house move, a delivery night filled with extraordinary events. So much to process, so much to ponder on, so much that might have left their heads spinning.

But then more things kept piling on. Since the night of Jesus’ birth more strange things have happened. The first few words of our reading from Matthew’s eye witness account of the good news of Jesus give us a clue. They say “When they had gone”.

When who had gone? Well, when we read the first section of Matthew chapter 2, we discover that the young family had had some exotic visitors. Wise people, from the east. Stargazers who had seen a new star in the sky and followed it all the way to Bethlehem, via Jerusalem. They had brought valuable gifts. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They had worshipped the small boy they found. What could all this possibly mean? What was going on?

But still it doesn’t stop coming. Another angel comes to Joseph, in another dream, but this time with a warning. There’s a bounty out on Jesus’ head – it’s time to move again, but not just from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This time it’s a journey of hundreds of miles, to a foreign country, to a place they don’t know anyone.

Eventually they do get back to their home country, but even then, it’s some years later, and not to the town they were planning to set up home in, but another town, in the north – Nazareth. What a few years, what a lot to process, what a lot of change. As they were going through those years, I wonder how they felt at the change of the year.

And not just that family either. In the middle of that reading, we heard about the tragedy and trauma inflicted on the families of Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside. That detour of the wise ones to Jerusalem had awful consequences for the people of Bethlehem. It had disturbed Herod, who was unrelenting and merciless when it came to dealing with possible threats to his rule, and his dynasty. Having failed in his sly attempt to discover the precise details of Jesus’ whereabouts from the oriental visitors, he goes for a blunderbuss approach, and orders the death of all the boys under two in the general area.

Just take a moment to think of the grief of the parents, the brothers and sisters, the grandparents, the wider community. At the trauma of the soldiers of their own king arriving in town to put babies and toddlers to death. How could they possibly face a new year?

The scale of the fury and self protection of the tyrant is fearsome to behold. And it still is. We can see this across the world. The illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine. The increasing subjugation of women and girls in Afghanistan. The treatment of protestors in Iran. The scale of the fury and self protection of the tyrant is still fearsome to behold.

So what does all this have for us going into a new year?

Well, for that I’d like to start be going back to the beginning of the reading that we had from the book of the prophet Isaiah. At the beginning of that reading we heard this, “I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is to be praised.”

Isaiah goes onto recount the ways in which God rescued God’s people, redeemed them, shared their distress, and carried them. He also recalls the people’s unfaithfulness and forgetfulness, and the consequences of that, before going onto say, “Then God’s people recalled the days of old….”

It is in the recollection of the kindnesses of God, that we are brought back to God. We praise God, because God is worthy of our praise and worship, but also so that we can remind ourselves and each other of what God has done in the past, to help build our faith that God will continue to act in the future. This is one of the reasons that we share communion together. We thank and praise God for Jesus did on the cross and by his resurrection, to redeem us, to rescue us, to give us life. But we also remember – we remind ourselves and each other, that this is our foundational reality. Not all the other stuff. We keep coming back to the table, to remember the cross, and to remember who we are and who God is.

Sometimes this is difficult, when we’ve been through traumatic or tragic times, when life has been hard, to decide to tell of the kindnesses of the Lord. We might not feel like it, we might find it almost impossible to remember any. Which is where we fall back on Scripture and on each other. This is the first step to face the future, the new year, with any kind of hope and faith. To tell of the kindnesses of the Lord.

Then, perhaps, we can be released to trust in God’s provision. Joseph and Mary faced some tough decisions. When that angel came to Joseph to tell him to take the family to Egypt, I wonder how the conversation over the breakfast table went the next morning. I wonder if the previous visits from angels came up. The way in which God had provided for them in the past. The way in which what the angels had said previously had come to pass. I wonder if these things strengthened their faith that God would continue to provide for them, even in a strange land.

Perhaps, also, we’ll take God’s warnings seriously. When we remember Jesus’ kindnesses to us at communion, we also remember why they were necessary. Jesus died so that we don’t have to. The natural consequences of our unfaithfulness and disobedience to God is our death. If Joseph and Mary hadn’t taken God’s warning seriously, Jesus would have died as a toddler. It is uncomfortable thinking and talking about sin. We don’t like to reflect on our own sin, because it can make us feel guilty and ashamed. The thing is, it is only when we do this, and acknowledge our sin, that we can be freed from all that guilt and shame by the forgiveness that God gives us.

It is also often helpful to have someone who can give us an outside perspective. I don’t know about you, but I know that there are things that I get wrong that I am entirely oblivious to, I just can’t see them. When we’re getting the caravan out of the drive, I can’t see it all – I need a couple of members of my family checking that I’m not going to hit the gateposts I can’t see. I need someone else to give me a warning. I wonder who we have in our lives that we trust to challenge us when they think we might be going the wrong way.

Telling the kindnesses of God, trusting in God’s provision, paying attention to God’s warnings, it seems to me that there then might be a couple of things that we can do positively, inspired by our reading from Matthew.

Firstly we can welcome refugees. I know that many of us are already involved in this. I have been so encouraged to see the way in which so many All Saints folk have opened their homes up to Ukrainian guests. I have loved the way in which we have worked together with House of Prayer to provide support groups and Bible study opportunities for them. We have made a good start, and now we are called to persevere with compassion and patience. There will continue to be opportunities for us to serve and welcome those fleeing from war, persecution, and famine. Let’s treat each of these people as if they were Joseph, Mary and Jesus, fleeing from Herod.

Secondly, we can stand up to tyrants. It might feel like we can do very little to have any impact on the conflicts and injustices that we are aware of around the world. But even if we don’t feel like we can do much, we can do something. Firstly, and most powerfully, we can pray – faithfully and persistently. We can give to organisations supporting those living in these places. Later in the spring we will have a visitor from Open Doors who will be able to tell us more about how we can do this practically. We can write to our own politicians to make our views known.

So, as we go into this New Year, whatever hopes and anxieties we might have, let us trust in God’s provision, listen to God’s warnings, welcome refugees, challenge tyrants, and tell of God’s kindnesses.

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