My first instinct for this Sunday’s homily was to avoid preaching about Herod’s murder of innocent children and instead preach from the lesson from the Hebrew Bible. Something about those three short verses struck me as incredibly beautiful, especially the language of verse 9: “It was not a messenger or angel, but the presence of God that saved them” and “he lifted them up and carried them, all the days of old.”
What a powerful image for this season of incarnation! For the twelve days of the season of Christmas, we ponder the unfathomable mystery of God – holy, omnipotent God – taking on a flawed and human form just like ours. The sixty-third chapter of Isaiah offers us a piece of that mystery. God does not want to save us from a distance. God does not want to rescue us second hand. God wants to see us face-to-face, to be present with us. God wants to hold us close, and to carry us when we cannot walk.
The more I let that passage rattle around in my head last week, the more it seemed like a much more warm and uplifting way to take us into the New Year. So I opened up the Bible and took a good look at Isaiah 63. I almost wish I hadn’t. It turns out that verses 7-9 are in fact part of a much larger poem, a lament for all that God’s people have lost.
The three verses we heard today are just the introduction. After describing God’s persistent faithfulness and deliverance, verse ten changes tone completely. Isaiah continues, “But God’s people rebelled and grieved God’s holy spirit, so God became their enemy and he himself fought against them.” One verse earlier, God stepped down from heaven to be present with Israel out of love. In verse ten, God does it to fight against and destroy Israel, God’s own people.
No wonder the lectionary editors stopped at verse nine. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of simply reading the passage out of context. We cannot proclaim God’s faithfulness, without also remembering the reality of our human response. Isaiah could not remember the miraculous liberation of the Exodus without remembering that God’s people quickly forgot all about it and began to worship a golden calf. We cannot tell the story of the arrival of the Son of God, the story of a tiny baby in a manger in Bethlehem, without also telling the story of Herod and the innocent lives he took.
Incarnation has a price, and no amount of Christmas cheer will let us ignore the cost of God stepping among us. Our Bible is too honest to let us do otherwise.
And so it seems that, whether we look to Isaiah or Matthew, we are faced with one version of the Herod story or another. So let us turn to Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus.
As you may remember, there are no shepherds and there is no stable in Matthew’s version of the story. We are simply told that Joseph obeys the advice of an angel from his dreams and takes Mary to be his wife. They have a son, and Joseph names him “Jesus.”
Afterwards, according to Matthew, a group of astrologers and magicians, sorcerers from Persia most likely, see a new star and determine that it predicts the birth of a new king in the land of the Jews. Gathering the provisions for a trip and gifts for the newly arrived noble, the astrologers set out for Jerusalem. Once there, they go to the palace – the most likely place to find a king.
It is there that they meet King Herod who, upon hearing their story of a new “King of the Jews” summons his advisors to find out the most likely place for the birth of the predicted Messiah. I couldn’t resist looking at some of those Messianic prophecies myself.
Presumably King Herod’s advisors told him at least some of the following. “Well, your majesty, the writings of the prophet Micah [Micah 5:1-6] suggest that a great leader will come out of Bethlehem. It also says that he will be like a shepherd who will feed and strengthen us, and that he will be so great that he will bring us security and peace. Incidentally, your majesty, a lot of the other prophets say similar things. Isaiah says that the Messiah will bring ‘endless peace and justice’ [Isaiah 9:2-7], and Ezekiel says that we will destroy all of our weapons of war when he comes because we won’t need them any more [Ezekiel 39:9], and all that we have lost will be restored to us [16:55]. Jeremiah says that he will be the sign of a new covenant, a new and even closer relationship with God [Jeremiah 31:33].”
So, Herod is faced with the news that the hope of all humanity has possibly been born in Bethlehem. A child has been born there who will sustain the people, bring a lasting peace to the world, and restore humanity’s relationship to God. Herod’s response is predictable, “Now that I know where he is going to be born, I can send soldiers to have him killed.”
On the most basic level, that seems absurd. Judea is a vassal state of Rome, completely under the control of an empire with minimal respect for the history and religious beliefs of its people. Violence and poverty are simple facts of life for many, if not most, of the people whom King Herod governs. His people desperately needed real and lasting peace, yet when the king is offered the possibility of that kind of peace he sets out immediately to destroy it.
It is here that we begin to see the price of incarnation, the cost of holy God taking form among us. However you define the doctrine of Original Sin, the end result is the same – human beings are flawed and broken creatures. This is not pessimism, it is self-honesty. We sometimes struggle against that brokenness and we even defeat it in places, but as a whole and – particularly when we gather into groups and form governments and bureaucracies – we human beings fall far short of the standard of generosity, kindness, and love our God has set for us.
The presence of God, even in the form of an innocent baby, reminds us of that fact. More dangerously, the presence of God threatens those whose power depends on our fear and brokenness. What use is a general, if there is no danger of war? What use is a king, if everyone is well-fed, healthy, and safe? What use is a corporate CEO selling silly baubles, if everyone is already happy with who they are and what they have.
It is not just the thieves and the criminals who depend on the failings of our society to survive. It is also the political, corporate, and military powers of the world as well. This may explain why they are often the same people.
And so, despite millions of political advertisements to the contrary, we must admit that no political party, no institution that awards temporal power or wealth, can ever be the instrument of divine will or divine justice. In fact, when those institutions do encounter the presence of God, they act like King Herod who searches for the baby Jesus in order to control or destroy God’s holy gift.
I do not say any of this to encourage you toward any kind of religious paranoia. There is far too much of that already, and it is directed at getting Christians to worry about all the wrong things. Politicians (and their lackeys) who want to take on the mantle of God’s blessing try to convince us that they are God’s chosen leaders and that some mythical, secular machine is trying to squelch their voices.
The reality is that a political leader who presumes divine sanction is far more dangerous to the work of God’s people than any ten secular leaders. Atheism is not the real enemy of Christianity. Atheism is not even a threat to Christianity, since a real and living God is not threatened by disbelief. The real enemies of Christianity are those cowardly and deceitful leaders who use the language of faith to increase their own wealth and power.
King Herod is one of our oldest and best examples. This is the “pious” man who rebuilt the Temple! This is the king who surely kept every feast and fast in the public eye. King Herod, a publically proclaimed believer, knows the Bible and trusts it enough to believe that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.
Herod is more than comfortable with using the Bible, but rather than using the words of sacred scripture to guide him into the service of Jesus, Herod uses the Bible to figure out how to kill the Savior of all humanity. In this regard, he is no different from any of us who have ever turned to the Bible hoping to find a justification for our own bigotries, our own selfishness, or our own laziness.
This is certainly a story about whom to trust, and fortunately for us, the pagan astrologers know better than to trust the king who claims piety and faithfulness. The powers of the world can never be trusted with the good news of God’s love. So when the astrologers find young Jesus in his home, they deliver their presents with much joy and then head home by a different route, without revealing to Herod the child’s location.
After their departure, God warns Joseph to take his young family to Egypt because, despite the astrologers’ efforts, Herod will eventually come to Bethlehem looking for them. Matthew tells us that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled the town in the night and went to make a new life among strangers in Egypt until the danger has passed.
As scary as that must have been for them, the consequences for those who remained in Bethlehem were far worse. When Herod does not get word from the astrologers, he is furious. After all, if a lying hypocrite cannot trust his astrologers, whom can he trust? Herod sends his soldiers to Bethlehem, and they slaughter every male child there under the age of two.
There is no way to mitigate the horror and injustice of this part of the story. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of innocent children murdered by a ruthless king while the true king, God in the flesh, flees into hiding as a helpless child. As you can imagine, interpreters have spent hundreds of years trying to find a palatable way to present this text; and I confess that I find many of their attempts unsatisfactory.
Some interpreters argue that we should simply look at the text from the perspective it offers, without stepping into the story and considering its implications for the other characters. In other words, they say that Matthew is trying to show us that God, through the faithfulness of a few, protected the Christ child from the evil forces arrayed against him. Matthew is not trying to discuss the ethical issues of murder and evil that are also present in the text, so we shouldn’t either.
I don’t think we can let ourselves off that easily. According to Matthew, the arrival of the salvation of the world came at the cost of human lives, the lives of children whose only mistake was the time and place of their birth. That alone is enough to cause some to skip over this story and others to go looking for another source of salvation entirely.
I would rather choose a different response, one that assumes both the honesty of the text and the goodness of our God. Part of the answer is in verse 18, where the prophet Jeremiah laments the fall of Judah as a mother would grieve, inconsolably, the loss of her children. I do not think there is any question that the raw grief Jeremiah describes is exactly what God, our loving and nurturing Mother, felt at the death of the children of Bethlehem; the heart-broken pain that God feels at the death of any child.
The question that remains, then, is simply, “Why?” Why would God allow the story to play out this way? Why would God allow this or any injustice on such a profound scale?
The inescapable answer is that God has no choice. I am not saying that Almighty God is not powerful beyond our understanding. God is still holy God. Somehow, however, in entering into direct, physical contact with the human world, God’s power must be limited in ways we likewise cannot understand. In allowing us to be human, flawed, and broken in places – and likewise in becoming human – God must risk and absorb the consequences of the weaknesses that weigh us down. That means grief, loss, and death – even on a cross. And so, even in the celebratory time of the birth of our Savior we see the shadow of Golgotha.
For us, I think, this is ultimately a reminder of the astonishing fragility of the presence of God. While politicians rage in their palaces and as soldiers kick down the doors of the innocent, God is present as a defenseless child who relies on the strength of his mother’s arms and the depth of his father’s faith to reach safety and the hope of adulthood. Each in our own way, we too have been entrusted with the fragile presence of God, a God who depends on our strength and our faithfulness if we are to ever change the world.