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“In the Days of Herod, the King”

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.”