We look forward to the triumph of Christ
Acts 12 : 19b - 25
What does Christianity offer the world? What are we that is unique? What do we give that is unlike any other comparable thing? For a start that’s not how the BBC in particular understands or expresses Christianity. It lumps it into the unsubtle category ‘religion’. Were we to do the same back, we would not use the term BBC; we’d just say ‘a broadcaster’…yesterday evening a broadcaster’s news programme reported such and such. Lazy, inaccurate and unscientific - that is how the BBC’s description of Christianity comes over, time and time again.
Christianity’s unique contribution to the human condition is this; it offers first hand knowledge and evidence of our Maker’s involvement relationship with us as humans, personally and collectively. God with us - Immanuel. God among us. God around us. God within us. Neither the other two monotheistic faiths, Judaism and Islam come close to this harmony of human and divine as seen in Jesus. Hinduism is different altogether having many gods and goddesses and Buddhism is atheistic, having none.
The presence of God in our worship and in our lives is Christianity’s unique contribution to the human community. That is what Advent is about. That is what Christmas is about. That is our witness and our purpose. To apprehend the influence of God in our midst.
In the New Testament we learn about the fate of Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, the villain of the Christmas story. You could argue that he had had a terrible life. His father was murdered by his grandfather. He belonged to a large family riven with jealousies, rivalries, hatreds, incest and violence. He was a despot but these people were never secure on their regal thrones. They had wealth and power but they did not sleep well of the night. They ruled little kingdoms but were responsible to Rome for peace, stability and taxes. Herod Agrippa was king from 41 - 44 AD only. He saved the Temple from being destroyed by the command of the mad Roman Emperor Caligula who ruled from 37 - 41 AD.
Think of some of the business empires in Britain today. Wonga - giving money loans to people at interest rates of hundreds and even thousands per cent. Profiting from human misery, weakness and necessity. Do these people sleep at night? Marketing experts skilled in trickery to get money from people under dishonest pretence and lack of transparent small print. Free broadband - for 3 months. Then there’s all the PPI mis-selling and the current industry of firms wanting to take a slice of your compensation if you let them. The internet is infected with dodgy deals among the many genuine commercial enterprises. It is hard for us to imagine what it is like to have to earn a living by dishonest means. But many do. And lots of workers have to tell lies to customers or they will lose their jobs. But at the top of certain business empires there are people who still defend the manufacture and sale of cigarettes, who aggressively market cheap alcohol, and who trade on every form of human weakness and sin.
Herod Agrippa was up there with the confidence tricksters of human nature. Maybe he thought he was great as he preened himself in front of the mirror each day. Even petty monarchs were surrounded by flatterers and a culture of obeisance. The Roman Emperors created cults of divinity for themselves. The Stewart monarchs were full of personal pride. Mohammad Morsi of Egypt has just tried to make himself a life long absolute pharaoh.
We learn that Herod Agrippa went to hold court at Caesarea on the coast where the air was fresher and the climate cooler and more pleasant. It was less intense than Jerusalem and there were not so many priests, high priests and members of the Sanhedrin around to scrutinise his life and living. He had been quarrelling about money with the cities of Tyre and Sidon. They were like the city states of Switzerland and Italy in the middle ages, like Geneva and Zurich and Genoa and Venice. Herod had a bit of a stranglehold on them however due to geography. If he diverted trade from these ports, their revenues would fall. But they were dependent for food on Palestine and that was even more crucial to their existence. So they had to come to some form of agreement. Representatives of Tyre and Sidon asked to meet Herod to sign a deal.
A large public meeting as arranged to hear the respective pleas. It was held in an open air amphitheatre. Herod arrived all dolled up to the nines a bit like a modern day pop star. Often royalty is about acting, something which the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother understood well. For some reason there is fascination about what the Duchess of Middleton wears. There was a wonderful piece of satire decades ago when 'That was the week' that was began poking fun at royalty. There was a film of the Queen and Prince Philip on a royal barge about to enter a harbour in Devon. The commentary went thus. 'And there is Her Majesty and His Royal Highness waving to the crowds. But a problem has arisen. The barge is taking on water; it is beginning to sink. The queen is now swimming for her life. She is wearing a lemon dress and coat and a matching hat by the milliner Jean Townsely. There is Prince Philip also swimming beside her. The water is lapping at his mouth. He seems to be saying something. I think he is saying “Dear me, how did this happen?"' Herod made a spectacular entrance dressed in a silver robe - like Gary Glitter or for those of vintage years, the pianist Liberace. The sun glinted on and reflected off the robe making Herod seem more than human. The people shouted extravagant greetings and responded to Herod’s speech with false and self interested worship This is the voice of a God not of a man. They knew which side their bread was buttered on - so to speak. They had no great standards by which they could compare Herod. In these places in the past child sacrifice had been practised.
The historian Luke says 'Immediately because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died'. The Jewish historian Josephus records in detail what happened. 'Herod…put on a garment made wholly of silver, of a truly wonderful texture, and came into the theatre early in the morning. There, the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays, shone out in a wonderful manner, and was so resplendent as to spread awe over those that looked intently upon him. Presently, his flatterers said that he was a god…Upon this the king neither rebuked them nor ejected their impious flattery....A severe pain arose in his belly, striking with most violent intensity. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me…I am bound to accept what Providence allots, as it pleases God..”….his pain became violent…he was carried into the palace…when he was quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life'. Today’s knowledge of scientific medicine diagnoses his condition as a form of gangrene.
But this was the man who sought to destroy Christianity at its outset. He had the disciple James murdered and would have killed Peter also but for God’s miraculous intervention. Had he lived, it is possible that he would have successfully annihilated the early Christian Church. He was prevented from doing so. When we look at human history, we see that tyrants rise and fall, their ends are inauspicious and often shameful, and they are remembered only for their crimes against humanity. In our own land these past weeks and months we have learned for the first time about the abuse of children by household names. The perpetrators may have thought that they had gotten away with it but they will be remembered only with profound disgrace, to say nothing of the judgement of God on them. No matter what happens and is kept hidden, sooner or later, it bubbles to the surface of human consciousness and is seen for what it is.
This works in two ways also. Some people are rehabilitated by history. Some were persecuted and martyred for their Christian Faith. Others suffered simply for their ideas or unconventionality. History proves kinder to them than the times in which they lived. Jesus is a paramount example of such. Patrick Hamilton the first Scottish Reformation martyr followed his Master to early sacrificial death. But there have been others in many human fields of endeavour who were laughed at or ignored in their lifetimes, only to be much praised for centuries afterwards. We know that the living conditions of some of the greatest discoverers, music composers, poets and figures of literature were appalling. Many died young, worn out by their efforts having left a heritage for others to enjoy.
We look forward to the triumph of Christ. In this world, we are not left just to preach our faith. The truth of God is corroborated in the way the world works. Justice comes out in the end of all things. Truth may be hidden for a time, but it reaches the daylight and surface of our understanding. St Peter told the congregation in Jerusalem that physical death could just not hold on to Jesus. It was impossible for physical death to contain him. Because He was the Lord of Life. That is our Gospel. That is the Advent message. A time of good tidings of great joy. The true knowledge of God, salvation, eternal life - all to come.
Christianity is not beaten in this world today. Not here in Scotland. Not here where we are. We can prepare for its future and for its triumph. It will never die. Because Christ will never die. And he has promised us that we will never die. We look forward to the triumph of Christ.