This is a bit of a strange Sunday, we’re in the in-between time. Neighbors are taking down Christmas decorations. Truckloads of returned presents have been exchanged for gift cards. It’s already Valentine’s Day in the stores. Here in the Church, it is still Christmas. But today, we’re not quite ready to spend time with the Wise Men. We’re not gathered around the manger with the shepherds and Angels. We’re not telling that familiar story. Today we hear a different story, a competing story. Today we are introduced to the conflict of Christmas, because today we hear the story of Herod.
I’ve been thinking of Herod for the past few weeks. Preaching about this figure is a little intimidating. How do you talk about Good News, and Herod together? I’ve been thinking a bit about other powerful figures, and I’ve been thinking about the power of a narrative, of a story.
Today we heard part of his story. The Church is trying to spare us the darkest bits. You’ll notice a comma in your program where it lists the Gospel passage. Watch out for commas in Biblical citations. Commas can mean we’ve skipped something. Today we skipped verses 16, 17, and 18 of the Second Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. These verses tell about the “massacre of the innocents.” Herod has heard tell of a child’s birth from the wise men. (In a strange twist, we get that part of Chapter 2 next week). After Herod hears of a threat to his power, he has all of the children in Bethlehem under two years of age slaughtered. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus have escaped only because Joseph was warned by God in a dream to flee to Egypt, the land of Moses and Pharaoh.
To understand what could motivate such an act of terror from Herod, it may help to understand a bit more about him. Now the name Herod can be a bit confusing in the New Testament, because there are as many as six different Herods who appear. But Herod in our story is the man who started the dynasty, Herod I, Herod the Great. He was a man with great ambition.
Herod was not well loved by the Jewish people. The Roman Senate, settling disputes among client rulers, declared Herod to be “King of the Jews.” (Does that title sound familiar?) Herod ruled as a client king. His authority came from the Empire. Herod was a man of great ambition. His political success in Rome was matched by his buildings. His construction projects across Israel can still be seen. From the desert fortress of Masada to the Roman port of Ceasaria, to the mountain he had built for his own tomb, Herod had a lasting impact on the landscape of Israel. His most famous work was an expansion of the Jerusalem Temple, including a huge retaining wall around the temple complex. Part of Herod’s wall with its giant perfectly fitted stones is today known as the Western Wall, or the wailing wall, where thousands of faithful Jews, and other pilgrims still go to pray.
Herod made sure that the architecture of the Holy Land told his story, and like many of history’s powerful figures, Herod was terrified of losing power. We do not have evidence outside Matthew’s Gospel for the slaughter of the innocents but the story seems in character. Contemporary historians tell us that Herod killed his wife and three of his own sons out of fear that they might try to usurp the throne. This Herod was a megalomaniac, a murderer, and a madman, and still he is called “Herod the Great.”
Herod the Great, you could understand the title if all you saw of Herod’s story were his buildings. If you heard how he kept the peace in a tense time, maybe Herod would seem great. But, we have the benefit of another point of view. We hear from the Gospel about the terror he wrought on his own family and his own people.
If Herod’s official biographers were the only writers of Herod’s story, we wouldn’t have the picture we have of the terror. But Christian people are the people of another story. We are not a people who rely on the official biographers. At Christmas, we celebrate another story, another king. Herod pales in comparison.
Jesus was not powerful by worldly standards. Rome was not on his side. Pilate, a Roman, later asks if he is “King of the Jews” but he does so in jest. The senate doesn’t vote for Jesus. Jesus’ story is so different from Herod’s story.
The tension of these two stories should not surprise us. Herod wanted the world to know his story. Herod’s attitude is not uncommon. Have you heard the TED talk by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie? She talks about “The Danger of a Single Story.” If we allow a single story to dominate. If we allow one story to be told and no other stories, we end up with a skewed view of history.
Have you ever heard the adage: “History is written by the winners.” Adichie questions that idea of storytelling. It’s dangerous to allow the Herods of the world to suppress the stories that do not feature the powerful. She talks about the difficulties growing up a black Nigerian girl, when the only stories available to her featured white children who played in the snow. How do you see yourself in that story? How do you come to understand yourself as a principal character and not see your story on the sidelines.
Herod wanted there to be one story about Israel, and he wanted that story to be about Herod. He wanted to be the one remembered as King of the Jews. Herod was part of the wider story of the power of an Empire. There were official stories being written. God had a different idea. God chose to be born among the marginal, the poor. In Jesus God chose a different story than the story of the powerful.
When we remember Jesus, it is important to remember the life and times in which he lived. The story of Jesus is a counter-narrative. When Matthew put together this Gospel, he made sure we understood that right from the beginning, Jesus was a threat to the status quo. Matthew sends him to Egypt, to connect him to Moses, the great prophet who saves the People Israel. Matthew connects him to the prophecy of Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to make sure we know that Jesus is in this line of prophets, who stood up to kings.
We are coming to a time in the history of Christianity where an important shift is occurring. Starting with Conversion of Constantine, the emperor of Rome, The Church was fused to the empire. Reading today’s story that might seem impossible, but it happened. For most of Christian history, Christianity has been used by the powers that be to enforce those powers. Kings and Queens claimed “divine right” to the throne.
The theology that supported the story of the empire caused a distortion in Christianity. The faith seemed to be focused not on this life, but the next. Christianity was about the afterlife. You had to behave, to obey, in this life so that you could get pie in the sky when you die. But as we read this story, and continue to get a picture of Jesus, we have to challenge that narrative. From the moment Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt, Jesus’ story is a story of resisting suppression, resisting oppression, resisting the powers of this world. The Gospel is not just about what happens to us when we die. The Gospel asks us to play a role in writing the story of today.
You may have heard about the “secularizing” culture. You may have heard certain newscasters lamenting the loss of our “Christian” nation. I have to tell you, I’m excited by the church today. I think we’ve come to a really interesting time in the history of Christianity, a fascinating time for our faith. I’m glad for the divorce between the church and the powers that be, because it might just free the Gospel to tell its story of resistance. Christianity challenges us to look beyond a single story, to hear more voices, more stories.
I think part of what is happening is that we are starting to see that the Story of Jesus has been, since the first chapters of the New Testament, a counter-narrative to the powers that be. Make no mistake, the forces of Herod still exist. There are those who would write a single story, and who would like to be the central character. Beware those who would suppress others’ stories. This last Sunday of Christmas we hear the tension of the stories. Jesus story asks whether true power lies in commanding violence, or inspiring love. What will be your story?