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Herods all the way down

First, a funny story.

I misread the lectionary last week. You may know (or may not) that right after Christmas, the Episcopal Church goes a bit off-road, and insists on reading John 1, then does Matthew 2, or Luke 2 on Christmas 2. No other RCL church does this. I forgot (mea culpa) and so I wrote my sermon for last week on Herod on the slaughter of the innocents. I arrived at church, and realized that oops, this was not a thing I could preach just now.

So I figured out something else, about icons and imagery, and things, and you can hear that via the podcast. And I saved Herod for this week.

Then the president got a bit trigger-happy and we all got a bit closer to war and suddenly talking about Herod and the deaths of lots of people felt a bit more relevant than even last week. So I rewrote a bit, with a fair amount of trepidation.

Here’s what I said.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 29, 2019

Christmas 1, Year A

Matthew 2

—This is the Christmas story we don’t often hear

—Comes around once every three years, on the Sunday everyone’s usually still working off Christmas dinner.

—it doesn’t get animated specials; it doesn’t get carols (except the Coventry carol)

—yet for non-western Christians, this story is Very Important.

—for Coptic Christians in Egypt, it’s their claim on the Christ Child (we gave him shelter!) 

—for my South Sudanese parishioners in Kansas City, this was their favorite story every year.  They sang about it, they made up a dance about it.  This was THEIR story.  Jesus became a refugee—this was a story they could get behind.

—After all, this is the part of the story that for many around the world feels familiar.

—Baby born in a stable, lauded by angels, maybe not.  But baby born to parents who immediately have to flee their home, because their political leader is a murderous jerk?  Oh yes.  

—that’s a really familiar tale to all too many people in today’s world.

—And while we don’t have independent evidence for Herod the Great ordering the deaths of thousands of babies, we do have independent evidence for Herod being a generally awful human being.

—Herod was made king of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 36 BCE, in a move that was popular with really only Herod. He had used political allegiances and various marriages to get to the top of the pyramid, and he had the added bonus of being Jewish.

—Though, he was Jewish by conversion, and wasn’t too serious about it, and for devout Jews who could remember the time a few decades back when the Jewish Maccabean kings had ruled Judea themselves, this was not a small matter.

—Herod tried to curry favor with the local population and with Rome by building things and then taking credit for them.  He built many fortresses, and trading ports.  He built the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  He build a massive tomb complex for himself called Herodium that basically made an enormous man-made mountain south east of Jerusalem so he could be the tallest thing around after death.

—However, his “win fans through building” program didn’t really work.  The Pharisees objected to his building cities and temples for Roman gods, since he was supposed to be a Jewish king.  The Sadducees objected when he wouldn’t take their advice on how to build a properly devout Temple.  And no one liked that he bankrupted the treasury with his enormous buildings.  

—There was the additional problem that he was a paranoid narcissist.  He ended up killing off all his immediate family members, convinced they were turning against him.  He was so worried that no one would mourn his death, that he demanded the entire aristocracy attend his deathbed, and then be killed once he had died, so that the whole nation would suitably mourn.  (The queen declined to carry this through.) 

—My point here is twofold—

—one, that this kind of person as Herod evidently was would conceivably react by ordering a full scale children massacre

—and that the kind of person as Herod was is not unfamiliar in the halls of power, sadly.

—it can be easy to see Herod as a one-off villain, a sort of supernaturally evil person who is there to thwart and threaten Jesus.

—But the gospel text remarks that “Herod was filled with fear, and all Jerusalem with him.”

—Leaders like Herod occur all throughout history.  It’s not a one-off aberration.  For every evil Herod-tyrant king, there are hundreds of soldiers who carried out his orders.  Dozens of courtiers who flattered and bowed to him.  Hundreds of merchants who didn’t stand up because it would be bad for business.  There was a whole vast system in place to support this.   One person doesn’t make injustice; it takes a village.

—Part of the shock of the incarnation is that Jesus’s life, the life of God incarnate, rests so clearly on humanity making the right choice.  We have to choose to stand up to tyrants.  We have to choose to welcome the refugee.  We have to choose.  And our actions have consequences to God.

—Now, God’s will for the world will never be thwarted for long by our wrong choices.  God is God, and God can and will always work through our mess to find another way.  But our choices affect God.  Humanity and God are now bound together and affect one another, and we see that so clearly in the life of this baby.

—In the earlier story that Matthew is hearkening back to, two midwives, Shiprah and Puah defy Pharoah’s orders and save babies from the slaughter.  They make a flimsy excuse to Pharoah, “You know those Israelites!  They just have babies so fast!  We don’t have time to get there and kill them!!”  but manage to stand up against the injustice they see around them.

—here, that heroic choice is made by the Magi.  Zoroastrian priests coming from Persia. Strangers by language, strangers by nationality, by faith, who see in this baby something worthy of saving, and so they defy the order of a tyrant for him.  

The Magi defy Herod in this story, and so give the Holy Family time to escape.  

—What prompts people to thwart injustice, and create conditions for God’s reign to come is not always massive  heroic actions.  Sometimes it’s small defiance.  Sometimes it’s listening to that still small voice.  But always, it’s recognizing that their actions make a difference—both to other people and to God.  

—we are never just going along—we are making choices that affect others, and affect God.  

—whether consciously or Unconsciously, because our human lives are intimately bound up in the life of God now.

—So when we keep that in mind, we create space for God to break in and establish the kingdom, even among the reign of Herod.

The reign of God doesn’t depend solely on our actions and decisions,  but it is especially important to remember today, as the drums of war have begun to beat again, that our tradition tells us that life of God Incarnate was saved by Persian wise men.  Not because they necessarily understood the message he brought, not because they forswore their previous allegiances and identity, but because they saw in him something worthy.  Something reflective of the God they sought, that we all seek.

God’s reign comes into this world when we love each other.  When we cross boundaries that usually divide us.  When we challenge the death-dealing tyrannical powers of our world. When we care for each other, because we see in each other the reflection of Christ.  That is how the reign of God enters this world. not through war, not through killing, and not through death.  Only when we brave the wrath of Herod and we care for each other, as we would for that baby.  

It is a scary time right now; there are Herods everywhere.  But I believe there are also magi everywhere.  And as we learn to embrace the reality that our existence depends upon the grace of others, and of God, then surely, with God’s Grace, we can learn to extend that same grace to others.


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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