Historical accounts of Herod the Great suggest a ruler who was wily enough to switch allegiances at the drop of a hat and, when politics demanded, pragmatic enough to execute his own children. He was a descendant of Esau, an Idumean, rather than an ethnic Jew, but according to the Roman Senate he was the uneqivocable “King of the Jews.”
Once he had eliminated all challenges to his claim on the throne Herod settled down to the business of governing. He built cities and fortresses, improved Jerusalem’s water supply, and, most famously, rebuilt and expanded Zerubable’s Temple, the Temple of Jesus’ youth. He was known for his “progressive agenda”. Yet today, because of Matthew’s story, we remember him mostly as the man who ordered the slaughter of the innocents, a plot which, Matthew says, the infant Jesus barely escaped by the flight to Egypt.
W. H. Auden, in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, describes Herod as worried that a nacent King of the Jews, believed by some to be God Incarnate, threatened to destroy the reason, idealism and justice his progressive agenda had labored to advance. He has Herod say, “Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate? Oh dear, why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid.”
What Herod couldn’t grasp was to him no god worthy of the name would be so disrespectful of his progressive agenda, nor so foolish as to become human, and therefore vulnerable. Auden again speaking for Herod: “…for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy God’s self. I refuse to be taken in. God could not play such a practical joke. Why should God dislike me so? I’ve worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I’ve read all the official documents without skipping. I’ve taken elocution lessons. I’ve hardly ever taken bribes. How dare God allow me to decide? I’ve tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven’t had sex for a month. I object. I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.
I suspect all of us, in our own way, have trouble with an incarnate, vulnerable God who invites us to turn our life projects upside down and follow God to an uncertain end. We’ve all worked so hard, meant so well, sacrificed so much to trade away what we have coming for something so flimsy as faith. We all know Herod’s motivation, if not his power, from the inside.
So here’s a first question for us: Now that Christmas is past and the New Year is upon us, how will you live in light of the vulnerable Incarnation? How much of your agenda will you part with to follow “Jesus the Savior…come for to die?”
In her book Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris tells us 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 leave in their wake, where they have exercised their power in furtive, pathetic, and futile attempts at self-preservation. A young mother carries a handgun for self protection and her two year old squeezes the trigger. A Sheriff takes his wife’s life “I didn’t kown the gun was loaded…” A freightened police officer iin a struggle with a mentally ill person shoots them in the back. Stories flood our news from Florida, Arizona, Idaho and even here at home.
The tradition of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents”, offers an account of the tragic consequences of such defensive, self preserving fear. This brand of insecurity never leads to anything good. Herod is a case study that documents to truth of the first half of Proverbs 29:25: “The fear of others lays a snare, but the one who trusts in God rests secure.” It’s reflected in the flood of guns over sales counters.
In the process of fearing others, sadly, the one who fears seeks to douse the light of other lives and often succeeds. We could make a long list of the sufferings inflicted on others by those who in the past and today, on personal and international scales, are both powerful and paranoid. We hold to the faith that such fear cannot douse the light of the world we celebrate at Christmas. This passage forces us to stay real—paranoid insecurity is a persistent force.
Norris tells of preaching on Herod on Epiphany Sunday in a small country church in a poor area of an island in Hawaii from which tourists are warned to avoid, an area where those who served the tourist industry as maids and tour bus drivers could afford to live. That church had much to fear: alcoholism, drug addiction, rising property costs, and crime. The residents came to church for hope.
Norris pointed out that the sages who traveled so far to find Jesus were drawn to him as a sign of hope. This church, she told the congregation, is a sign of hope for the community. Its programs, its thrift store have become important community centers, signs of hope. The church represented “a lessening of fear’s shadowy power, an increase in the available light.” She continued to say that that’s what Christ’s coming celebrates: Christ’s light shed abroad into our lives. She ended her sermon by encouraging the congregation, like the ancient wise men, not return to Herod but to find another way. “leave Herod in his palace, surrounded by flatterers, all alone with his fear.” This is our second question, can we find another way?
James E. Lamkin wrote of what he called “The New Normal.” Over that last few weeks we’ve rehearshed one more time the ancient Christmas story with its’ awkward pregnancy and government mandated relocation. Then this couple become a nuclear family with the birth of a child followed by a series of holiday parties including farm animals, shepherds, angels and a mysterious delegation of astrologists. I’m guessing that it wasn’t too long before the Holy Family had had enough of Christmas. They must have been ready for things to get back to normal–whatever that is. But, as we all learn, they would never see normal again. This infant inaugurated a new normal.
Some say that it was after the Oklahoma City bombing, when we discovered what domestic terrorism could mean, that the phrase “new normal” first entered our language. It’s how we express our anxiety over global and local economic concerns, political and international disputes and technological uncertainties each accompanied by it’s own bitter residue of latent fear. And it is so personally threatening: a neighbor who was going to retire only to discover that the company took what was there’s into bankruptcy; the friend who was let go when the company downsized; the premature shot from an anxious police officer’s side arm; shrinking church attendance, budgets and staff.
We may prefer a different topic today… a different text on this second Sunday of Christmas and first on a new calendar . But the terrain of life changes quickly. Glory to God in the highest can nose dive to a new low in less than a human heartbeat. Even the Holy Family was not given the luxury of sleeping in heavenly peace for very long. No. An evil tyrant was on the loose going door-to-door looking for babies to kill. So flee!
If joy has felt illusive for you this holiday season, you are in good company. And yet we contend God’s power to save is greater than evil’s power to destroy. With any “new normal”—from prolonged family crises to financial fears to a haunting sense of uncertainty–grief and loss is a real reality even during Christmas.
But there’s this truth that wherever we find ourselves God has been there before us. Even in the land of the loss, even in far away Egypt, even in the “new normal,” it is not new to God. God has been there before us. Fascinating, isn’t it…that right off the bat, God’s own Son becomes a transient, homeless, migrant, alien. Within a few pages the baby will be all grown-up and we’ll hear him say, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Wherever we go God is nearby to fill full our often empty lives. So we ask of the evangelist: Matthew, tell the story when Jesus calmed the waters…we need it because it feels like we are about to drown. Matthew, tell us the story of Jesus bringing food to the wilderness…we need it because it feels like we are marooned and are lacking sustaining nourishment. Matthew, tell us the story of the fatigued fishermen who do their all-night-long-best and still catch nothing…we need it because we too have grown weary in well-doing and we have little to show for it.”
Wherever we go, whatever we feel, faithful people have found that God faithfully has been there, done that, and meets us there. The old prophet Isaiah (63:9) knew it to be true. He sang of God: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Even the testy times of life can be handled faithfully because of Christ. The writer of Hebrews (20:18) says, “Because he [Jesus] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
Kathlene Norris says that like the suffocating fear of Herod and there is another kind of fear, a life giving fear of the Lord, exemplified by Mary and Joseph which, as we are promised, is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Pr. 1:7). When we open the doors of our life, even just a crack, to allow the fear of the Lord to enter in, we have taken the first step in a lifelong process of exchanging the fear of Herod for the faith of Mary and Joseph.
The fear of the Lord is the Bible’s code word for a very different kind of fear. It is a full-bodied faith that includes trembling before the mystery of a transcendent God and trusting in the tenderness and faithfulness of an imminent God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of our being able to say, with Mary, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). It is the source of Joseph’s wordless obedience (Mt 1:24) and Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). The fear of the Lord opens us to the comfort and stamina God offers even in times of undeserved and profound suffering. The fear of the Lord is the impulse that shuts our self-righteous lips when we look upon the suffering or mistakes of others. It impels us, rather than to retreat in cold judgment, to reach out with comforting, capable hearts and hands.
When we put aside our paranoid, self-centered fears and embrace the fear of the Lord, we face the reality of an unknown future with the goods news that we are accompanied by a God who never abandons us. The shadows of fear are illuminated by the light—Immanuel, God with us!
So, here we sit with a New Year waiting to be explored and in our hearts we hold a Christmas story. A bizarre Christmas story – with foreign tyrants and heavy taxes and bloody swords and innocent suffering and homeless refugees. And, remarkably, prayerfully, God somehow uses this collage of odd images to fulfill a commitment to us. It can be stated so simply, it almost is embarrassing to say; but here it is: With our anxiety, loss and grief in one hand, and our gratitude in the other, we bask in God’s big promise to never leave us or forsake us.
Whatever this new year’s “new normal” brings our way–the good news is it is not new to God. And that is part of Christmas that should not stored away ’til next year but kept out in a prominent place in our lives. All-loving God, for your grace that hath brought us safe thus far, and for your grace that will lead us on, we say, “Thank You.” In Christ’s Name, Amen.