Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 4 January 2015: The Second Sunday of Christmas
Text: Matthew 2:1-23
Seeking the light
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Imagine I had time machine, and was able to go back in time and find King Herod. And supposing he agreed to come with me to the twenty-first century, so that he could come to this church and speak to us today. What might he have to say to us…
You people think you know all about me. You have me categorised- you have me filed away in your minds with the tyrants you hate and fear- Herod the baby- killer, lumped in with the likes of Stalin, Hitler and the Arab dictators killing their people in your own age. But that’s too easy. You’ve made me a scapegoat, without ever having heard things from my point of view.
Consider my position. I had mighty responsibilities. First century Judea was a difficult place to rule. A rumour of a new king threatened to upset the balance of power. When these wise men from the east appeared in my palace and said, ‘We have come to worship the baby born to be King of the Jews’, my first thought was, ‘That’s all I need’.
For a start, I was the King of the Jews. Now, you may think that sounds great- king, I can do what I like, get to live in a palace and all that. Well, let me tell you, getting to be King of the Jews, and staying there, was hard work. I might be the King of the Jews now, but, as you say in Scotland, my jacket was on a shoogly nail.
For Palestine was an uncertain place in the first century. A bit like the Central Asia, or much of Africa, at the start of the 21st century. Lots of little kingdoms and tribes battling for supremacy, years of minor wars fuelled by ethnic and religious rivalries. And just over the horizon, a superpower- the Roman Empire. Rome needed someone to sort things out in Palestine. They preferred not do it themselves- perhaps one of the local warlords would oblige. I was their man.
With Rome’s backing, I went to war, and made myself the most powerful man in the region. I brought ruthless war to Palestine, but in the end I brought a kind of peace to the warring factions- even if it meant the execution of most of my opponents. The Roman Senate rewarded me with the title of King of Judea. I built great cities, and built a grand new temple for Jerusalem. I looked after my people, even remitting their taxes when times were hard.
But as time went on I had to be more ruthless. When you are a king, even your family can be a threat. Family squabbles among royals can lead to civil war, if you aren’t careful. I had my wife, my mother-in-law, and three of my sons assassinated. For political reasons, of course. The same kind of political reasons that led me to murder hundreds of other religious and government officials during my reign. Collateral damage. The had to die, for the sake of my position, for reasons of high policy, to keep the peace, to keep Rome happy.
None of you are allowed to kill children. There’s never any reason for it, in the life of a citizen, a civilian. But we rulers- those of us in government- we operate by different rules. Sometimes you have to be tough, ruthless. Sometimes there is collateral damage, innocent people get hurt- even children. So heads of state are allowed to kill.
There were those who said I overdid it. They said it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. They said I got more suspicious, more cruel, as my long reign continued.
But Judea was a dangerous place. I had to make sure Rome was happy, make sure they got their taxes paid, if I was to keep my position. Rome would have no truck with any weakness from me.
This incident about the children of Bethlehem- pretty minor. A small town, so perhaps 20 or 30 children involved. Only infants after all, none of them over two year old. It began, as I said, when the Magi turned up. I knew these sorts of people, have a lot of respect for them. Advisers and teachers of the kings of Persia. Experts in astrology, in law, in religion. The sort of men you could respect, for they were guardians of an ancient tradition, their word was reliable.
When men like that travel a distance and demand to see the King- well, of course, you meet them. I thought that perhaps they were ambassadors from Persia. But no, they were here on their own account. They had been watching the stars- that was their job, after all, to watch the stars and advise their masters accordingly. And they had seen a new star- or some kind of strange phenomenon in the sky. A sign that something special had occurred.
They came to me because the rumour was that a new king would sometime be born in Judea- a king who would be greater than all the kings who came before. They put two and two together, and had decided that the new star meant that the new king would be born in my domains.
I was troubled by this news, and so was all Jerusalem- that is, everyone in government circles. I decided to bring in my theological advisers. Where is the great king to be born, I asked. ‘Bethlehem- the birthplace of King David’ came the reply. I now needed to send the astrologers on their way, and use them to help me find the baby. I got together with them again, made sure of their dates and times, and sent them off on their quest, piously telling them that I would like to know the result of their search, as I too would like to go and worship this special king.
Well, they did find him- but they must have sussed me out. They slipped back to their own country without telling me where they had found this special child. Drastic action was called for. And so I sent the army in. They tracked down all the children in Bethlehem born within the last two years, and killed them. Oh, there was weeping and wailing- killing innocent children is never exactly popular. But what did they expect me to do? I had my interests to protect. Rome was breathing down my neck. I couldn’t possibly countenance the thought of another King of the Jews. And the annoying part of it is that apparently the one I was looking for got away…
Do you find Herod’s explanation believable? It’s the explanation used by trying to justify war, or terrorists justifying violence. When children were massacred at Dunblane, it was terrible, but it was one deranged man who did it. What was so awful about the more recent school massacre in Pakistan is that, somewhere in that region, there is a man who gave the order for it, and that people carried out, and in some warped philosophy they thought they could rationally justify it. That’s what’s terrifying for the rest of us, and that’s what’s terrifying about Herod, that’s what terrifying about anyone who finds a way to rationalise the killing of children.
Most of what I just put into the mouth of Herod is based on what we know of him, not just from the Bible, but from other sources. He was in some respects a ‘successful’ ruler. But his success was bought at a heavy price. It is said that when he knew he was dying, he had many of the most important people of Jerusalem arrested on trumped up charges and gave orders that they should be killed when he died. ‘He said grimly that he was well aware that no one would mourn for his death, but that he was determined that some tears should be shed when he died’. So you see the story of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem, although it is only found in the Bible, is perhaps not so far-fetched after all. It is entirely consistent with what we know about Herod’s character- it may well have been that way.
And so Herod goes down in history as the first person to try to resist what God was doing in Jesus Christ. A new born baby is harmless- surely it can’t be a danger to anyone. But this child was a danger to Herod. He knows that, his advisers know that. Perhaps the wise men realise that two. But these pagan astrologers react quite differently to Herod. Herod, a Jewish ruler, reacts with alarm to the news that the greatest ever King of the Jews has been born. The Magi come and worship.
Already, Matthew the Gospel writer is setting the story he is going to tell. Jesus is born as a result of God’s action- he is a special child, born of a Virgin, his birth heralded by a star. And yet it is not all plain sailing. He will not be immune to the dangers and perils of human life. Some will resist him- no sooner is he born than King Herod tries to kill him. Some will be faithful to him. His father Joseph listens to what God has to say, and does his part. He doesn’t break off his engagement to Mary, and he takes his young family into exile in Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. And some will realise just how special he is- the Magi travel from afar to worship him.
And some will suffer because of him. Life is messy. Jesus might escape with his life- this time- but it is at the expense of other the children of Bethlehem- his contemporaries. In Matthew’s Christmas story there is real pain, as he quotes the Scriptures:
‘A sound is heard in Ramah,
the sound of bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted
for they are dead’.
This is a terrible story. Here is a massacre, carried out in cold blood, just so that a suspicious and murderous old king can get rid of a rival. Nothing can excuse Herod’s actions. Yet such things happen in our world. Children get killed for all kinds of reasons. And there is something terrible about the death or abuse of innocent children, something that provokes in us some very deep repulsion. We are talking about children less than two years old here- children who depend on adults for all their needs. For adults to abuse that trust is something terrible. For adults to be able to rationalise it- for political or religious ends- is terrifying.
And yet it is often the way. Children so often fall victim to the adults of the world. They are so often the first victims of war, violence, famine, abuse, poverty, disease. Rachel will not be comforted. The death of children is a dark, terrible event. And it has happened throughout history, and it is still happening today.
How can this happen? How can God allow this to happen? What explanations can the Bible give? Perhaps no explanation- Rachel refuses to be comforted. Instead- this story, this terrible story, about how the birth of God’s son- the Prince of Peace- is accompanied by the death of innocent children. God, it seems, cannot come into our world without provoking a reaction, without there being suffering and death and grief.
This story offers no explanation as to why children suffer. It simply tells us that we knew- that helpless children are subject to the whims of adults, and that they all too often become victims. And yet perhaps the fact that that story is there in the Bible tells us something. The fact that such darkness is to found in the Bible, even among our best-loved Christmas stories, is a reminder that Scripture deals, not with fairy tales, but with real human life.
For in the midst of this massacre, as the women weep as their children are killed- God is there. God has come into this world in which innocent die and suffer, into this world of grief and uncertainty, into this world where the sort of wickedness we find in a Herod is always present. God comes into this world, and acts, and it is painful, and it is not simple. God allows himself to depend on a carpenter for his safety. God becomes a refugee, has to flee into exile, has a narrow scrape with death.
The Magi Journeying James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Yet this story also gives us a clue how to react to such evil. The Magi were, I suspect, establishment figures in the country they came from. They were the wise men of the Persian Empire, advisers to the king in their own country. They were astrologers, but in an age when astrology was a respectable science. So it is not surprising that, when they work out a new king is being born in Judea, they head for the capital city, and are admitted to see King Herod and his advisers. They are used to the corridors of power, used to the sort of off-the-record meeting that they have with Herod: ‘So Herod called the visitors from the East to a secret meeting and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions: “Go and make a careful search for the child; and when you find him, let me know, so that I too may go and worship him”’. Herod would fully expect his distinguished visitors to comply with that instruction.
After their consultations in Jerusalem the Magi head for Bethlehem, and since they trust the stars, they seem unfazed at finding the child there. They worship the child, present their gifts. And then they do something unusual, we might think, for people so much part of the establishment, used to serving kings, used to obeying higher authority. They commit an act of civil disobedience: ‘Then they returned to their country by another road, since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod’.
In so doing, they save the child born to be king. They put God’s revelation above the demands of the local ruler. And sometimes we will have to do that. For the sake of the children, for the sake of the good, sometimes conscience demands that we return by another road- even if that means defying the demands of the powerful.
Another great religious teacher, the Buddha, once remarked that ‘It is… our perception that existence is awry that forces us to find an alternative which prevents us falling into despair’ 3. There is something wrong with the world when children suffer. Pretending that our world is not like that- pretending that our world is a Christmas card world- will not help. But the Bible says that into this awry world comes God, in Jesus Christ.
He was called Emmanuel, God with us. That’s the real meaning of Matthew’s story. In this world of grief, pain, and innocent suffering, we are not alone. God is with us. This can be uncomfortable. It might lead to a violent reaction- and ever since the massacre of Bethlehem, violent people have made more martyrs in an attempt to suppress the Kingdom of God. But God is with us, and depends on us, just as God once he depended on Joseph and the Wise Men to protect the Christ-child. When innocents suffer, we are to speak up and resist. When brute power threatens humanity, we are sometimes to go home by another way. And we can do so safe in the knowledge that even when we weep, and cannot be comforted- God is with us. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out, says John’s Gospel (John 1.5). We need no more.
Let us pray.
whose children suffered at the hands of Herod
though they had done no wrong;
give us grace neither to act cruelly
nor to stand indifferently by,
but to defend the weak from the tyranny of the strong;
in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for us,
but is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
The two quotations about Herod are from W Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 p29
Buddha is quoted in K Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, px
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo