Keeping Herod in Christmas 1-3-16

It is popular in some Christian circles to talk during Christmastide and in preparation for Christmas about keeping Christ in Christmas. I’m sure you’ve heard about the “war on Christmas,” which some commentators are talking about to help ratings among some cable news stations. Supposedly saying “Happy holidays” instead of Merry Christmas, or drinking out of a plain red cup instead of one that says “Merry Christmas” furthers this war on Christmas and is taking Christ out of Christmas.

While that kind of talk seems kind of silly to me, I am rather confident that much of the way we celebrate Christmas in our time is an abomination, totally antithetical to real worship of the Christ child. My wife was a little upset at how I let those feelings leak on Christmas Eve when I was encouraging people to give to God in proportion to how we give to each other. I hadn’t really thought that through ahead of time and I hope it did not offend too many others. I didn’t mean to scold or chastise. I know I spent plenty myself, so I can’t point the finger at any one else.

This morning, as we read this very familiar passage, I want to suggest that someone else gets short shrift of our usual telling of the Christmas story, and that’s Herod – the villain of the story. Listen for the word of God for you this morning.

Matthew 2: 1-12  After Jesus’ birth—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod—astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews?  We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage. At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him.  “Here is what the prophet has written: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no  means least among the leaders of Judah, since from you will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them “Go and get detailed information about the child.  When you have found him, report back to me—so I may go and offer homage, too.” After their audience with the ruler, they set out.  The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother.  They prostrated themselves and paid homage.  Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.

January 3, 2016

Keeping Herod in Christmas

Usually when I preach this passage, I avoid Herod as much as the Magi did. Herod the Great was no fun. A truly evil man, he took all he could from the Hebrew people and built fancy palaces for himself and his family. He was so paranoid about getting overthrown, that he killed anyone he perceived as a threat, including his own son.

He had incredible power, and yet he sensed that there was somebody out there in diapers who was more powerful than he was. When he heard about a baby being born ‘King of the Jews,” he ordered that all boys under the age of 2 be killed, to be sure he got the right one.

As you heard in this passage, Herod looms large in the thinking of early Jewish Christians, even decades after he was gone. They remembered his brutality, the betrayal by his collaboration with the empire, and the harm that his paranoia caused to all the people around them. He was Darth Vader to them, or Kylo Ren, if you’re keeping up with the latest villains in Star Wars.

Why did early Christians keep Herod in their stories, if they hated him so much and he was already dead? And why would we not jettison Herod in a nice sentimentalized version of the Christmas story? Well, we do. No surprise, there is never a Herod in a creche scene, and rarely does he get much play in a Christmas Pageant. Yet, in this church and in many like it, we say, “Keep Herod in Christmas.” Why would we do that?

We keep Herod in Christmas because our world is still full of Herod energy – of fear, paranoia, egomania, murder, and abuse of power. We keep Herod in Christmas because children are still being killed and are suffering greatly and unnecessarily because of greedy, power-hungry and insecure elites. (Just look at the presidential campaign.)

Finally, we keep Herod in Christmas because somehow we participate in that evil that we abhor. This is the hardest turn in this sermon, but I have to try to negotiate it. It’s really easy to hate Herod. We’re always setting up some bad guy to hate – especially in politics, but often in other spheres of life as well. That’s part of how we participate in the evil we abhor.

That’s one way – by looking down on people and thinking we are better than them people. That’s one way I participate in evil. It’s a strange way we have as Christians of saying – well at least I’m not bad like those unbelievers. At least I’m not as bad as those apathetic people. At least I’m not as bad as those kids who are getting pregnant or using drugs or those old people abusing the environment or whatever your favorite sin of choice is.

But really, I’m not as bad as Herod. That’s for real, right? It might not work to compare ourselves to anybody, but there is a reality that I don’t do the awful things Herod did. I don’t think I’m even capable of his level of evil.

So I’ve been thinking about this lately – about the fact that evil is not an individual problem. We individualize everything in our society. But the problem of evil is a collective problem. We want to blame a particular politician or Bill Cosby or the media or whatever, but the reason we talk about evil in the church is that it is a collective problem. We live in a highly imperfect society, full of evil and we participate in that evil much more than we ever want to acknowledge – in what we buy, in how we live, in who we vote for, in what we don’t do, what we’re not willing to do to help fix the problems.

And this is the reason we need to keep Herod in Christmas. We’d rather deny that we have anything to do with a Herod-run society, but if we hide Herod, we are not showing why we need Jesus. We need the baby born at Christmas because we so easily get lost in our own timid  temptations. We need God born into our lives because we so easily give in to the way things are. We need Emmanuel, God with us, God incarnated, because we so easily decide it’s too hard to work for the way we know God wants things to be.

Folks in Matthew’s time knew this better than we do. They kept telling about Herod, because it helped them remember what they were fighting against and why they were so completely committed to the One Herod was so scared of – the real King of the Jews, the real Messiah, the real Liberator, the real Savior.

We begin this year at the altar because we still need that love in our lives, whether we always want to admit it or not. We still need God’s renewing energy, Christ’s reviving life-giving, start-over, forgiveness, the Spirit’s never-ending presence. We eat this bread and drink this cup at Christmas because we want to be part of what God is doing to kick that Herod energy in the rear. We act as though this is just something we do, because we’re in church, but this little life-giving ritual, is Christ’s incarnation into our very bodies, calling us to be Christ for the world, calling us to fight Herod wherever we find him, even in ourselves.

This is God’s good news.