I once heard a story about a church. This church, like most other churches, featured an annual Christmas pageant in which children would dress up as Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, and wise men and together tell the Christmas story. The Christmas pageant had two rules which were never to be broken: First, the baby Jesus had to be played by a real, live baby. Second, the baby Jesus did not and therefore would not cry during the pageant. When the congregation sang, “Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” they wanted to mean it.
So, each year a group of eligible infants would be collected from the ranks of this church’s families, and each year a line of parents holding stand-in babies would form behind the stage during the Christmas pageant. Should the baby in the manger make even the slightest noise, the next one in line would be ready to take his place from behind the back curtain. This revolving carousel of baby Jesuses ensured that the scene was quiet, serene, and not at all threatening to anyone. Every time I read the story of Jesus’ birth, however, I wonder if a screaming baby Jesus might be more appropriate. The circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth were anything but peaceful.
Each Christmas the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City displays a nativity scene that’s a bit more to the point. In many ways the elements are familiar – it has shepherds, and cattle, and the holy family. What is unusual, however, is that the scene is placed, not in the rustic setting of Bethlehem, but amid the fallen and ruined columns of a once-proud Roman building. The theological claim of this nativity scene is clear, and it happens to be the same claim that Matthew is making in his gospel: The humble birth of the Christ child shakes the foundations of the world and announces the fall of the mighty. While it’s true that the birth of Jesus was joyful and wondrous and good, it was also disturbing and frightening and threatening. No one knew this better than King Herod.
King Herod knew only that a child was to be born, and this child would be called King of the Jews. One day three wise men showed up on the doorstep of his temple looking for the newborn king, but he wasn’t there. The only king they found was Herod, who was predictably shaken by the news that a new king had come to supplant him. The news of Jesus’ birth sent tremors into his mighty temple, and threatened to undo the kingdom that Herod had done. Originally Herod employs the wise men to find this newborn king and then return to him so that he might know the location. His intent is clear: he wants this new king dead, and he’s not above resorting to a little bit of treachery and deceit in order to rid himself of this new threat.
When the wise men engage in a little trickery of their own, choosing not to return to Herod at all after seeing Jesus, Herod becomes livid. Consumed by fear and anger, he orders every child under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem to be killed. To Herod, it is better to have thousands of dead children than to have one alive who would take his precious throne away from him. And so one night in Bethlehem a great and horrible darkness descended upon the families that lived there. Herod’s soldiers massacred every young male child they could find. In that time and place a family’s existence and livelihood rested on having a son in the family, as women were not allowed to own property or conduct the family business.
Killing all the male children not only served to protect Herod’s throne against the threat of a new king, but also had the side effect of robbing these families of hope for their future, and in some cases destroying their future altogether. Herod becomes a king of hopelessness and death, all because he fails to understand the implications of Jesus’ birth. To him, it’s a threat rather than a promise. From the beginning, the very existence of Jesus, before he had uttered a word or done anything at all, was a threat to the status quo. From birth, Jesus threatened to change everything and turn the entire world on its head.
And so we have in this scripture reading a clash between two kings and their kingdoms. One is a king who slaughters children in order to save himself. The other is a king who saves the children and then goes to death that they might live. One is a king whose life is lived in fear over what he might lose. The other is a king whose life is lived in hope at what the world might gain. One is a king who goes to great lengths to preserve the status quo. The other is a king who ushers in a new kingdom in which the last shall be first and the first shall be last. One is a king of threats. The other is a king of promises.
The difficult part of this for us is that both kingdoms are alive and well in our world. Acting upon each of us are dual forces of fear and hope, complacency and change, threats and promises, life and death. There are times that we find ourselves living in Jesus’ kingdom of life and hope. We know these times – they are the times when we feel assured, the times when we feel the closeness of God, the times that we give of ourselves and serve others, the times when we know beyond all doubt that God has given us a Savior and nothing in the whole world, not even death, can change all of that.
But then there are times when we cross the border. We wander into Herod’s kingdom of gloom and doom, of fear, hopelessness, and death. We know those times as well – they are the times when we feel afraid, the times when we feel like God is far away and we’re living our lives alone, the times when we are self-preserving rather than self-giving, the times when we feel like darkness, and sin, and death have gotten the better of us, and we have been weakened and changed forever by the struggle.
Of course, God knows this about us. God knows the depths of our struggle and the battles we fight with our fears and sins and finite natures. This is why he became one of us, so that we might know that no matter how bad the struggle gets, or how long we walk through Herod’s dark kingdom, our God has been there before and is there with us even now. Jesus does not arrive into this world in comfort, because he’s coming to be with those who live in misery. He does not come here to live an easy life, because he’s come to lift up those who struggle. If he is to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, he must be with us where the pain is. That’s what the birth of Jesus is all about.
There will always be Herods in our lives and in our world. There will always be circumstances and events that seem to rob us of our lives and create in us nothing but hopelessness and a sense of fear. It may be a crisis in your life. It may be a disease or financial hardship or even the loss of a loved one that seems to assault you like Herod’s soldiers in the night, leaving you fearful and hopeless in the face of an uncertain future. Yet this text (and the entirety of the Bible) is an overwhelming promise that the Herods of the world are always outwilled and outlasted by God, even when it doesn’t seem like it at the time.
Now this isn’t to say that the threats of fear, and hopelessness, and death will never come to you. If you are human, they will. It is, however, a promise that no matter what foul and dark forces you find yourself fighting against, God is always stronger. Herods come and go. God’s grace, mercy, and love are everlasting. And if that’s not the good news that we are celebrating at Christmas time, I don’t know what else there is. We celebrate the fact that in the cries of that newborn baby lying in a manger, we hear good news. Those infant cries will one day turn to full-on shouts, proclaiming release to captives, victory for the oppressed, freedom to slaves, forgiveness to sinners, and salvation to a world in need.
Ann Weems, who is one of my favorite authors, wrote a poem that speaks to this, entitled The Christmas Spirit. It reads:
The Christmas Spirit is that hope
Which tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful.
And announces in the face of any Herod the world can produce
And all the inn doors slammed in our faces
And all the dark nights of our souls
That with God all things still are possible,
That even now unto us a Child is Born!
Thanks be to God. Amen.