Preached by Rev’ Emma Pennington at Garsington and Horspath on 28th January.
It’s during this in between times, the period after the celebrations of Christmas and before the parties of the New Year, that has traditionally become a season of reviews; a time in which to look back and ponder the events of the last year. Newspapers and radio programmes love to remind us of the headliners, the people of 2014 which we have already forgotten. For example this was the year of the Sochi winter Olympics, Andy Murray didn’t Wimbledon and of course the centenary of the start of the First World War commemorated. Ebola devastated West Africa. The plight of the people of Syria worsened and ISIS expanded their territory across the Middle East. We saw at last gender barriers legally irradicated from the orders of priesthood in the church of England and our cluster became a benefice. These are the events which are remembered and will go down in history as what happened in 2014.
We may have still watched the fabulous final between Djokovic and Federa or delighted in the sporting heroes of snow and ice but essentially, many of these headliners which will make the history books have had very little to do with us. Most of them we have observed from the side lines. That is not to say that they do not affect us in some way, how can anyone not remember the plight of the Syrian people or the call for help from an Ebola victim without a sense of compassion. Yet they are perhaps not why 2014 will be remembered by us. For each of us, I am sure will have our own headliners, as a village, church community, a family and also personally. I wonder what yours will be?
I have kept a diary for over the last ten years. The few lines written every night gives a record of what I have done in the briefest of words and yet they have captured the time as it moves so rapidly through the year. A glance down the Memories list at the back is a vital resume of all the significant events of 2014, for as we all know, it is surprising at how quickly you can forget what has happened or when. Most of the time what I thought only took place this year was in fact two years ago. There is something about the turning of the year that makes it inevitable that we look back on what has happened or failed to happen in the past twelve months. It can a joyous opportunity to give thanks for our lives, as we pause and pull back from the minutiae of everyday life and contemplate the larger picture or our lives, seeing how the speed of time has been filled, not with emptiness but with specific moments. Yet it can also be a slightly depressing time, as we are reminded of the fact that, however we fill our days, we are not ultimately in control of the quick onward march of the clock and many of the things we contemplate are responses to times and events that have been thrust upon us.
So in this strange in between time where we stand, like Janus, one face looking back on 2014 and another looking forward to all the new year will hold, we hear an equally strange story from Matthew. Our gospel reading is a remarkable mix of the personal, national and divine headlines converging into one narrative. We have the account of supernatural happenings, alongside personal calamity, and sovereign dictates, all given divine reference through the words of scripture. Like a good Jewish Christian Matthew is looking back at the historic events at the time of Jesus’ birth and revealing how they are all held together and given meaning within the divine plan the Lord has for his people. God enters into his world as a specific human person, at a moment in history when certain events took place.
We have no specific account of a massacre in Bethlehem but the Annuals of the Jewish historian Josephus records the ruthless nature of Herod, and his ability to wipe out whole families that such a decree was not unlikely. The Gospel writer Matthew was not a learned historian like Josephus, but someone who’s life had been changed by a personal experience of Christ, and here, in his story, he is trying to make sense of events by looking back at Jewish history. For Matthew, the actions of Herod are not just random acts of violence but are seen from within the narrative of redemption. Just as the voice in Ramah spoke of Rachel wailing for her lost children, now Matthew names those children as the innocents of Bethlehem. The prophets said the Messiah could come from Nazareth, so the place where Jesus lives, in an ordinary human family, resonates with words spoken long ago. For Matthew the events of Jesus’ first few years are not just simple diary entries, as he looks back at them from the in between world of the future, he sees how they are full of significance and meaning. How God was present in the moments of time and they were held within his will.
Believe it or not, we are all interpreters of history – our own. Sometimes we may look back and see a pattern or feel that things have gone as we thought they would or how we would like. Sometimes, we might look back and see a jumble of events that leave us confused or sad. But whatever we see there, in our past, be it recent or distant, it reveals who we are today and how we live. It informs the choices we make. One of the gifts which the Jewish tradition has given to us as Christians is how to read and interpret the past with the eyes of faith. Like Matthew we are all called to place God at the centre of our interpretation of the world and to trust that there is some divine sense and purpose underlying all of life; that there is a pattern to the chaos, even if we may not always understand or comprehend it.
It is often the way that only when we look back on our own lives that we see how God has been present within them. At the time, it can feel as if we are swept up in a series of random acts of which there is little meaning or control. One of the gifts, which this ‘in-between time’ before the New Year gives us, is in fact to have the space and cultivate godly eyes to look back over the last year and see the traces of God’s presence and discern some divine meaning which was not possible at the time. Unlike Janus who had two faces, one fixed with his eyes on the past and the other on the future, we have but one which may see all that God has done in 2014 and then with confidence in his purposeful love for us we can turn to face the coming year with joy and hope. Amen.