The Belief of Herod: An Epiphany Sermon

I’m so grateful for New Creation Fellowship Church for letting me preach recently. The reading is from Matthew 2:1-12 , which is the Epiphany reading each year.

In case you missed the last 20 years of Fox News coverage around this time of year or even just a recent letter to the editor of the Harvey County Now, we’re still apparently in a War on Christmas. Each year, rightwing media and a handful of conservative Christians who buy into rightwing politics and theology raise the alarm that Christmas is under attack. Their evidence is that some people say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

They continue to claim to be victims in an attack on Christmas, even though over 70% of the US population says they’re Christians, even though Christmas is the only federally-recognized religious holiday, even though we literally organize our school and work calendars around this Christian holiday, even though cities around the nation continue to use tax money to decorate their downtowns and hold Christmas parades, and even though the National Retail Federation estimates that we will spent $218-226 billion this year on Christmas–between ten and twenty billion more dollars than last year. From my perspective, if there is a War on Christmas, it isn’t because Christians are no longer able to force everyone to participate in our religious rituals; it’s because we as Christians so often fail to keep Christ in Christmas, turning it into a festival of consumption. Even worse, we fail to keep Christ in Christian. Our Christmas Warriors are angry that public schools cannot include Christmas pageants and that store clerks say “Happy Holidays,” but they are rarely angry that children are born in poverty, that immigrants are still imprisoned along the US-Mexico border,  or that homelessness is rising.

So, yes, perhaps there is a War on Christmas, if we consider Christmas to be something other than coerced participation in Christian consumerism. Christmas is a season of remembering Jesus’ birth, including its promise to “cast down the mighty from their thrones… lift up the humble, fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.” It is also a season for remembering that this effort has always been met with resistance, with both overt violence and the violence of systems–in Christianity, we call them principalities and powers–that oppress, including unjust economic systems, unfair legal systems, environmental racism, and other structural ways of doing harm to God’s most vulnerable and therefore the people God is most tender toward.

This “War on Christmas” is not some new conflict rooted in rising levels of secularism. It is, instead, as old as Christmas itself. It’s not the one we depict on Christmas cards or in Christmas pageants, but if “Jesus is the reason for the season,” we might also add that Jesus was also the reason, inadvertently, for the Massacre of the Innocents, a scramble for political power, and the refugee status of Joseph and Mary’s family.  When Jesus declares in Matthew 10 that he came “not to bring peace, but to bring a sword,” we might remember that it was his birth, not just his ministry, that inspired violence.

Today’s text from Matthew 2 is a familiar one.  The text doesn’t clarify this, but Herod is actually Herod the Great, the first of at least five men named Herod (Herod the Great, two of his sons, and two of his grandsons) who will rule.  The second Herod is the one who beheads John the Baptist when John rebukes him for his affair with his brother’s wife.  His father is equally violent. Herod the Great has been declared “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate and, presumably, he likes the job. He’s ruled for more than 30 years when the magi enter his life with this weird warning that a child has been born king of the Jews. That sounds like a far more valid claim to authority than Herod’s appointment by the Romans.

Further, the NRSV says that the magi identified the place of the new Messiah’s birth because they witnessed “his star at its rising.”  If there is one thing old men hate to hear, it’s news of a rising star.

Herod recognizes the threat to his power, but he’s not the only one afraid.  According to Matthew 2:3, Herod “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”  It’s hard to say why.  Maybe by “Jerusalem” here, the author refers to the powerful and elite, which may make sense since the next verse describes the scribes and Pharisees with whom Herod consults.  Or maybe it really means that everyone was afraid because, after 30 years under Herod’s rule, the people knew that their king was unstable, so they feared any threat to him not because they loved him but because they feared his response.

In any case, Herod’s anxiety sets in motion a terrible genocide: all male children two years of age and younger in the Bethlehem area are killed.  It recalls Pharaoh’s genocide of Hebrew boys in Moses’ day and even the death of Egyptian first born males at Passover.  In a time period when children regularly died before reaching maturity, this episode of infanticide was particularly horrid. Matthew later tells us, quoting Jeremiah, that the women were inconsolable: ““In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”  The loss wasn’t just the loss of their sons, which would have been enough, but the reminder that they were under the absolute authority of a tyrannical, impetuous, and violent king whose only goal was the maintenance of his own power.

But, as Herod knew, his power wouldn’t last forever.   Unlike the rest of us, who get to retire, though, the end of a king’s power happens at his death—so when a new king was born, it didn’t just mean that Herod wouldn’t be king anymore; it also was a prediction of his death, which he well knew, and, in his defense, as one of my favorite Tom Waits’ songs says, “It’s the same with dogs as with horses and men—nothing wants to die.”  Herod wasn’t just fighting against this infant for his throne.

We don’t know if Herod reacted to all potential threats with such asymmetrical warfare, so to speak–in this case, by killing an entire birth year of boys.  It could be that these magi weren’t the first to visit Herod with news of a new king. It could have been that Messiahs were popping up all over and that Herod was waging a perpetual War on Messiahs.  But what we do see, at least in this case, is that Herod is a believer.

What do I mean? I mean that, if you or I were approached by some pagan astrologers who told us that our replacement had just been born, we might be creeped out but we probably wouldn’t believe it.  And in this regard, Herod shows perhaps his only redeeming quality: he believes that Jesus very well might be the Messiah, the new King of the Jews whose birth promises the people of Israel a new shepherd, as Matthew 2:6 says.  What exactly his new king will bring is unclear, but Micah’s words, quoted in Matthew, suggest a peace, a return to God, and a justice—themes we know concern Micah. And that, of course, is in opposition to Herod’s plan for the Jews.

And here is the real tragedy of Herod’s life: He believes but doesn’t change. He—along with Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the shepherds, and the magi—is one of the first to hear the good news of the birth of the Messiah, and he suspects it might be true.  He believes enough to kill an untold number of children. He believes enough to use terror and violence against the people over whom he rules—a tactic that cannot endear him to them and can only, ultimately, foment dissidence and revolution.  (I wonder: When all those women who saw their infant sons murdered see Jesus, will they be reminded of their own lost sons? How will they feel?)  He does this because he believes.  The tragedy isn’t his belief—it’s in his response to it. We see in Herod a man whose love of power produced an anxiety to protect it and a paranoia.  As a result, he could never be a good ruler, whether the Messiah came during his rule or not.

Imagine if, instead of attempting to protect his power, Herod heard the news that the magi brought and did as he told them he would—sincerely worshipped the newborn king.  If he valued, as Micah did, peace and justice in his kingdom.  If, when he believed, he had responded with compliance to God rather than defiance of God, if he had loved the Jews as a shepherd rather than a despot.

Each Christmas, our family reads aloud The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever, a short, comic children’s chapter book about the unruly Herdman children, who interrupt a local church’s boring, perfect nativity play with their questions about the birth of Jesus and their anger that anyone would be so unkind to a pregnant woman as the innkeeper was to Mary. But they save most of their outrage for Herod. They’re so outraged at his violence toward children–which is something that no one else in the church production has ever been bothered by–that they march to the library to check out some books to learn more about him, hoping that he’s deposed, beheaded, and strung up. They’re terribly disappointed to discover that Herod the Great apparently died peacefully–we think maybe heart disease. Because they find this unfair, they ask the play to be rewritten so that, in the end, Herod is publicly executed–a more profound theological conclusions to his story than even prophetic Herdman’s realize, as it echoes the death of Haman in the Esther story.

For the Herdmans, Herod’s sin is his attempt on Baby Jesus’ life, something very upsetting to the comically pro-natal Herdmans. And, for us, too, that is a problem, which is why the babies he did kill are commemorated as Christian martyrs–really, the first ones, even before Stephen’s stoning by the Sanhedrin.

But there is another problem with Herod, one that we’re more likely to share with him. It is the failure of belief to transform, to spur us to action. When we are confronted, like Herod, by God’s desires for the world to be turned upside down, but we act in defense of the status quo, then we are sinning like Herod. When we pursue power over justice, we are sinning like Herod. When we are defensive of our positions rather than open to change. When we hold on to power with a closed fist, striking people who threaten to take it from us, rather than releasing power and sharing it. When we ignore the magi of today, those who call our attention to God’s will for the world, we sin like Herod.

Herod reminds us that obedience does not necessarily flow from belief, that it is a choice, like the one Mary made, to participate in God’s vision of a new world. In fact, when our faith ends with belief and never results in change, it can be as dangerous as Herod’s. Later in the New Testament, in the book of James, the author warns us of this in an imaginary conversation:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that God is one. Good for you! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

I imagine Herod, discovering that a new king has been born, shuddering like a demon, not because he didn’t believe but because he did and he knew–better than many Christians today, I fear–that if Jesus was who the Wise Men declared he was, then the whole world, him included, would have to change.

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