a sermon based upon Matthew 2: 1-15 (also verses 16-23)
Most of the time when we think of the Christmas story, we like to imagine peace on earth & goodwill toward all. We feel the love of God and we celebrate the joy of a new-born baby. We think of the glorious angel chorus that sang about “Peace on Earth and Goodwill” to the shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem. And we picture Mary wrapping the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes and laying him in a manger.
Those indelible images come from Luke’s Gospel, and I’m glad we have those stories.
Even so, the Christmas story in our Bible does not avoid the hard facts of history. Luke, for example, sets the stage by naming a certain Emperor (Caesar Augustus), who sat on the throne in Rome, and a certain governor (Quirinius) who ruled the province of Syria (which included administering Palestine/ Israel). And the Gospel of Luke tells us what these men were doing... They were checking the tax-rolls, and requiring a first-time census of their subjects (much like our own federal government will be doing in the U.S. Census this spring).
As the old year closes and the New Year begins, for most of us, the Internal Revenue Service “paperwork” requirements have also started again! Our employers’ W-2s and 1099’s, as well as Year End bank statements, are being prepared this very week. We’ll get them in the mail before the end of the month. At home, we’ll be gathering our collection of receipts, expenses, and tax-deductions, in order to file our annual IRS Form-1040. (Happy New Year… We can’t avoid death or taxes!)
I guess what I’m saying is that we know what it’s like to have to pay taxes, as did the people in Jesus’ day. They were subjects of Rome, instead of Washington DC, and governed by Syria, rather than Lansing. But rulers are rulers, in the end; and law-abiding citizens (generally) do as they are told.
Luke tells us that it was in an effort to register their family in the right jurisdiction (that is, to be counted as Judeans in the census… who belonged to the house and linage of David) that Joseph took Mary with him on a journey 80-miles South from Nazareth (in Galilee) to the little town of Bethlehem... where their first-born son, Jesus, was born. That’s the Christmas story as Luke tells it.
In today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, nothing is said about Caesar and the Census, nor about the governor of Syria. Instead, Matthew focuses on Herod, the King of the Jews, and on the Capitol City of Judea (Jerusalem): Now, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King, behold, wisemen from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matt. 2:1-3)
This week’s Christian Century magazine (Vol. 137, No. 1, January 1, 2020, page 18) says of today’s text: “These words launch the familiar story of the Magi and their search for the infant King, inspired by their explorations of the night sky.
The story includes their encounter with Herod’s dubious enthusiasm to join their search, and the culmination of their journey with beautiful gifts offered to the holy child.
Imagine the awe and wonder at the arrival of these unique guests from the East! The whole scene appears idyllic – but we know the situation around the baby Jesus remains ever more uncertain and perilous, as eventually the astronomers themselves are warned in a dream. Why? Because Jesus was born “in the days of Herod, the King.”
These words are more than a temporal marker. They highlight the specific cultural, social, and political climate. … When King Herod heard the message from
the Magi, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. … [This] indicates that these powers and principalities are ever ready to annihilate any glimmer of God’s salvation at hand. (unquote) The news of a newborn king was “frightening”…?
King Herod -- who had been the reigning “king of the Jews” for 30 years already! -- was “troubled” to discover that there was someone somewhere out there who had been “born King of the Jews”. (!) You see, Herod himself was not “Jewish” – he was Idumean, from the Arabian Peninsula to the South of Judea. Herod was a foreigner… who had first been made “king of the Jews” by Julius Caesar! Herod was then re-confirmed “King of the Jews” by Octavius (Caesar Augustus!) and had been ruling Israel from his palace in Jerusalem for 30 years!
Herod knew that many of the leading Jewish families were offended that the king was not a blood-line descendant of David. (!) To get a “feel” for it, imagine the uproar if a Palestinian were elected to be Prime Minister in Israel today! (Out with Benjamin Netanyahu… in with someone from Hamas or the PLO? !) The orthodox Jews in Jerusalem would have a “fit”! Well, such was the resentment in Herod’s day that he was not “born” a Jew.
During those 30 years in power, Herod had tried to “appease” the people of Jerusalem (first) by building them a fabulous Temple -- on a grand scale! -- one of the wonders of architecture in the ancient world. (Herod’s huge, grandiose Temple had just been completed when Jesus visited it when he was 12-years old.) This is where the chief priests & scribes worked – Herod’s own set of “wise men” whom he consulted.
King Herod had (secondly) tried to “legitimate” his royal position by marrying Mariamne, the last of the Maccabees (a grand-daughter of the former Hasmonean dynasty). These are the people who are remembered in the annual “Hanukkah” story: celebrating the Maccabean revolt which had successfully re-claimed the throne in Jerusalem (!) They ruled for nearly a century, until the Roman Empire came to town & shut ’em down!
Because of that very recent history, every time the Jews celebrated Hanukkah, Herod was afraid that his wife’s family would again make moves to re-claim the throne! His throne! He became so fearful of losing his power that King Herod eventually executed his popular wife (Mariamne), and -- while their two eldest sons were in Rome (being trained for military & civic leadership) -- King Herod had them assassinated as well! Herod’s cruelty was rooted in his insecurity!
And now, according to Matthew’s account of the Christmas story, wise men from the East – that is, from territory outside his domain, from Parthia or Persia, perhaps – show up in his Capitol City saying: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” A new king of the Jews has been born and Herod isn’t it!
King Herod’s chief priests and scribes were very explicit: the Messiah (the Christ) would be a descendant of David, and therefore would come from King David’s hometown, Bethlehem in Judea. (Matthew 2:4-6)
King Herod then summoned the wisemen privately… and sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” (Matthew 2:7-8)
When Herod realized that the wisemen failed to return to Jerusalem, he flew into a furious rage.
The threat of state-sanctioned violence drove the Holy Family to seek asylum. (!) As we heard Beth Petty read for us: Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said: “Rise. Take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt; and remain there till I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him!”
Matthew tells us that the Holy Family departed by night to flee to Egypt, where they were granted asylum until the death of King Herod. What this means is that when Jesus was a child, apparently, he had no official “home of record” at all – not Nazareth, nor Bethlehem… They were “refugees” in Egypt. (I’m sure you have been reading about the world-wide refugee crisis. Thousands of asylum-seeking families have been clogged and backlogged along our American border with Mexico. It’s terrible.)
But the worst was yet to come. How would you like to be the person whose birth triggers a massacre of infants and toddlers? (!) We didn’t read the rest of the chapter, but Matthew reports that (in his rage) King Herod sent soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding region; all who were two-years old or younger. It’s a horror to read about -- state-sponsored terror! -- a trauma for those poor families in & near Bethlehem!
Would this not be a heavy burden for Jesus and his family to bear? All the other children in town were dead -- only yours survived, because you sought asylum in a neighboring country. (It’s hard to imagine…but it seems like current news even today.)
Of course, we would say, Herod is really to blame: he issued the order. And the soldiers are to blame: they carried it out. But Jesus, the innocent baby -- the target of King Herod’s genocide -- is forever burdened with the knowledge that “he caused it.”
If it weren’t for the fact that the travelers from the East ‘spilled the beans’ to King Herod, the Bethlehem massacre of infants and children might not have happened! I guess those wise men weren’t such wise guys after all! They may have thought that the King of the Jews wanted to welcome the Messiah; they trusted that he and his advisors were looking & longing for the Deliverer, just as they were doing.
But they didn’t know how things were “in the days of Herod, the King”! They did not know what a megalomaniac he was… how insecure he was. If it weren’t for the dream that warned them to escape by another route, the Magi may well have returned to Jerusalem and told Herod just where Jesus was to be found. Had that happened, we can only imagine the change it would have brought to world history... Perhaps Jesus, Mary, and Joseph would have been captured and killed by Herod, thus ending the “Jesus Gospel” before it began... Although also (perhaps) it might have spared those innocent children of that region from the wholesale slaughter which followed. Oh, what a burden for Baby Jesus to carry as he grew up!
The sad story that is told by Matthew raises the question: Is it better for one innocent person to die than for dozens to feel the bloody wrath of an outraged tyrant? I imagine the question haunted Jesus as he began his ministry… If Jesus were willing to die “in place of” the many (taking their death-sentence upon himself), should he do so?
As we enter the new year (the new decade) – 2,020 years since the events described by Matthew -- how relevant is this story? Bethlehem is far from Michigan, and King Herod is long since gone from the throne. We have other powers ruling in the White House and in Congress -- in the Lansing legislature & the governor’s office -- in the United Nations, & so forth. Nobody has allegiance to Caesar anymore; no one follows King Herod.
In this “Happy Holiday” season, we probably prefer to avoid thinking about the harsh realities of political power… or we may want to ignore our own insecure leaders and to discount the irrational violence we see on the nightly news. We prefer Christmas carols that are about shepherds and angels, rather than what Ted Sherwood sang: “I wonder, as I wander out under the sky, why Jesus the Savior did come for to die! For poor, ornery people like you and like I. I wonder… as I wander out under the sky.”
We’d like to keep things “merry and bright”, but Matthew’s Gospel won’t let us. The scribes & priests & ruling authorities in Jerusalem knew that a new king had been born in Bethlehem … one promised by the prophets, and pointed to by star-gazing astrologers! But instead of celebrating, they sent death squads! King Herod thought he’d win… because people in high political office think that they hold all the cards: they receive the taxes; they command the armies; they’ve got the weapons & power.
God forbid that any arrogant, insecure tyrant ever think that way in our day! While I like to think that we have become more civilized since the days of Herod, the King, I was surprised to read in yesterday’s The Alpena News (Jan. 4, 2020, front page) that our President said of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani who had been assassinated on Friday: “He was a ruthless figure who made the death of innocent people his sick passion … We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over.”
I suppose it is naïve for me to hope that over 2,000 years of Christian influence would have softened the hearts of men in high political office, such that they would no longer think and act like tyrants did in the days of Herod the King. But apparently it seems some folks are still doing it in that callous, brutal way.
Fortunately, the Gospel reveals a reversal. This New Year 2020 is measured not by Caesar’s name, but by Jesus Christ’s: “A.D. -- Anno Domini”… “the year of our Lord!” It was the coming of Jesus Christ that marks the start of a New calendar Year… the beginning of a New World Order!
The “hard” facts of history -- including tyranny, taxation, threats of violence, allegations of scandal, genocide, asylum-seeking refugees, death-squads and massacres -- may make the news, and may seem to rule the day. But the Christmas story reminds us that eternity belongs to the innocent -- the meek shall inherit the earth. Caesar may have his day, Herod may have his moment, but today belongs to Jesus Christ and God has eternity as an ally! Relax – all will be well. (Regardless of who is elected to power later this year, be not afraid! God rules!)
The Baby Jesus was burdened with rumors of illegitimacy, with poverty, with a childhood spent as a refugee in a foreign land…and with the unbearable awareness that his birth triggered a massacre of innocent children. (!) None of this was his fault, of course, but the hard facts of history burdened him (& us all).
Rather than repeat history, in all its hardness & harshness, may we commit ourselves in this New Year to advocate non-violence… while resisting the powers of evil -- and may we com-mit ourselves to an earnest change of heart, which will seek to find solidarity with those who -- like Baby Jesus! -- are born into poverty, illegitimacy, brutality, & forced immigration. Let’s not add to their already heavy burdens by being unconcerned about their plight. And in this election year, let’s not support national policies that further victimize people on the margins – poor people (like Jesus’ displaced family), people of color, gay couples, transgendered individuals, unwed mothers, asylum-seekers on our own borders, and immigrants in general.
Even if it infuriates the insecure, mean-spirited King Herods around us, may we ally ourselves with Jesus Christ… and with Eternity, for God’s sake…and the flourishing of life. Amen!