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Putting Herod Back in Christmas

Matthew 2:3 – 23
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

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It was the 13th century saint, Francis of Assisi, who first put together what is for us the iconic image of Christmas: the crèche, or the live Nativity Scene. St. Francis was a great lover of animals, and it was he who, for an outdoor Midnight Mass in the mountain town of Greccio, Italy, added an ox and a donkey to the Christmas scene described in the Gospel of Luke.

The animals were always my favorite part of that scene, until, one Christmas, I got a lesson in the real nature of donkeys. Katie, our first child, was 7 weeks old on Christmas of 1988, and so was the perfect age to play the baby Jesus in the live nativity scene at First Congregational, United Church of Christ of Downers Grove, IL. I played Mary, of course, and was more than content to have the entire congregation singing adoringly to my daughter, sleeping obliviously in the hay. Until the real donkey decided he wanted some real hay...the hay that was under my first born child. He got a little too close for my comfort before his owner, dressed as one of the shepherds, regained control of the situation.

I imagine that St. Francis’s living nativity scene, taking place as it did in the 13 century, was pretty realistic. It’s our Christmas cards and carols that sanitize it: the stable is warm and cozy, the hay is clean, the animals are humble and obedient, there are no loud noises or strong smells. There are no donkeys who hope for a nibble of hay in what is, after all, their own feeding trough.

Many of us had a taste of pre-modern living last week. Anyone still without power?

In a world with heat and electricity we can afford to invest our hopes and our money in “extras.” How we dress, how the table is set, how the tree is decorated and the gifts are wrapped become our focus...and sometimes our excuse for escaping from the less-than-perfect realities of our lives.

But life without the extras can be hard and cold, which is surely what Mary and Joseph were feeling that night in the stable. According to Matthew they had more than uncomfortable lodgings to contend with – they had Herod. One day we’re listening to the songs of angels and now, less than a week later, we hear the wailing sounds of mothers whose children have fallen victim to Herod’s soldiers.

King Herod operated out of a kill-or-be-killed mindset. Even historical sources outside the Bible testify to his cruelty and brutality. He killed at least one of his numerous wives and three of his own sons. Caesar is reported to have said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. With reports of the birth of the "king of the Jews" it was entirely in keeping with his way of thinking to seek to kill this new potential rival, whether or not many other innocents died in the effort.

It was not by accident that Matthew placed the dark evil of King Herod side by side with the light and hope of the birth of the Messiah. When God is at work, he is saying, the powers of this world will align themselves in opposition.

Kathleen Norris says that “Everything (Herod) does, he does out of fear. Fear can be a useful defense mechanism, but when a person is always on the defensive like Herod, it becomes debilitating and self defeating. Herod symbolizes the terrible destruction that fearful people can leave in their own wake... if they have power but can only use it in furtive, pathetic, and futile attempts at self-preservation.”

You and I are not King Herod, but we do live in a world where many forces work to exacerbate and sustain our fears. Scott Bader-Saye, who’s written a book called Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, says that politicians, the media, advertisers, even some religious leaders often play on our fears. Their profits come in the form of money or influence, but in each case we are encouraged to fear the wrong things or to fear the right things in the wrong way. Our heightened anxiety drives us to act in ways that override other moral concerns.

We fear letting go of the resources that might protect us against an uncertain future, and so we spend our money on fear rather than stewardship. In the name of security we refuse to love our enemies, so we make political decisions based on fear rather than the common good. Because we wish to be careful, we do not open our lives to strangers, fearing that they will take advantage of our hospitality. It is fear that constricts our hearts and thus fear that makes Jesus’ ethic of risky discipleship seem unrealistic and irresponsible.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus was born into a world of real pain, a world of deep suffering. And the evidence of today’s world shows us that Matthew’s talk of Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture does not mean that these ways of the world have ended. The birth of Jesus did not put an end to human tragedy.

We are often reminded to keep Christ in Christmas. Indeed, we must do so! But we would rather not keep Herod in Christmas. He is, as one preacher said, the "Ebenezer Scrooge without the conversion, the Grinch without a change of heart." But Herod belongs in the Christmas story, too, for the story begins in a stable, but it ends on a cross.

Herod recognizes something about Jesus that our clean and cozy visions of Christmas fail to acknowledge: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures of the world into which he is born. Although he is a king, Herod fears the birth of one baby boy. And in an effort to keep himself safe, has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so clean or cozy.

Putting Herod back in Christmas means that we must acknowledge that the world into which God came is broken. It means that we recognize that instead of welcoming God’s presence on earth, the powers of the world react to it with opposition.

Putting Herod back in Christmas is to see with open eyes the ways that the rulers of this world can and do use coercion and violence to maintain and increase their power. It is to recognize that the victims of that coercion and violence are often the most innocent and vulnerable. It’s the children of poverty who lack access to effective education. It’s the uneducated who have no voice in politics. It’s the politically powerless who are most vulnerable to the whims of tyrants, the effects of natural disasters, and the ravages of disease.

This is what the Christmas story according to Matthew tells us. Unfortunately it doesn’t tell us why God doesn’t just fix it all with the wave of a magic, divine wand. What a clean and cozy ending to the whole story that would be! But that’s not how God works.

God works through the power of love, not by manipulation or coercion or violence – not even for good ends. The birth of Jesus shows us that God is love and has all the power that love has. Thus God protects and warns and guides – not only Joseph, Mary and Jesus – but all who would follow the way of love. God protects and warns and guides and keeps alive from generation to generation this alternative vision of what is really real and powerful: that God is love and love is the only response that will ultimately end violence.

Putting Herod back in Christmas means that we must make a choice: whether we stand with the powers of the world because we think they will keep us safe from all that we fear, or whether we stand with Jesus in a place of vulnerability, taking a stand against the power of fear.

The martyred archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, once said that only those “who know they need someone to come on their behalf” can truly celebrate Christmas. To worship Christ because you know you “need someone to come on your behalf” is to know that you are vulnerable, yet it is also to have hope. It is to recognize that there is much to fear, but to refuse to let the power of fear reign in your life, or in the life of your family, or in the life of your church.

Once the shadow of fear clears, there is enough light by which to see ourselves truly. Then we can see our lives, our families, our church, as the vulnerable but glorious blessings that they are, and we can act as those ancient Wise Men did. We can refuse to return to Herod, to the forces of violence and the reign of fear. We can leave Herod in his palace, surrounded by his flatterers, all alone with his fear, and find instead, another way home.

References

Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Brazos, 2007, p. 31.
Quoted in by Rowland Croucher, January 4, 2010. http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/23132.htm Also quoted by http://cschaffner.blogspot.com/2008/02/following-jesus-in-culture-of- fear.html

Joy Carroll Wallis, “Putting Herod back into Christmas” Sojourners, 2004. http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=news.display_archives&mode=current_opinion&artic le=CO_041222_carroll_wallis

David Ewart, “Holy Textures, Understanding the Bible in its own time and in ours, Matthew 2:13-23.” http://www.holytextures.com/2008/01/matthew-2-13-23-year-a-christmas-1-holy- innocents-sermon.html

Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Riverhead Books, 1998, pp. 225-227.