Christmas: Herod in trouble

December 19th, 2016

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. — Matthew 2:1-3 CEB

Matthew begins his Gospel ironically. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, City of David, fulfillment of the messianic hopes of Israel. And yet the first to recognize and to worship him are the magi, Gentile stargazing magicians, immigrants from the east. An even greater irony: compromised, corrupted, lackey-for-the-oppressive-Romans Herod, though he knew little of the scriptures knows enough to be “troubled” along with nine-out-of-ten Judeans. What does the future hold? Can a baby threaten the government? Is there some other operative in history other than the empire?

The Feast of the Nativity, Christmas, could be the most “political” time of the Christian year. Matthew doesn’t give us the babe lying sweetly in the manger with adoring shepherds and singing angels. Instead, Matthew gives us once powerful Herod trembling in his boots, cowering like a frightened rabbit, terrified by the thought of this bombshell of a baby. There’s a new king in town who rules not from the Herod Tower in Jerusalem but from a stable in backwoods Bethlehem, welcomed not by the biblical scholars at the temple but rather by immigrant nonbelievers from the East.

Eventually, Herod will get his act together, move decisively, and ensure national security — his troops will slaughter Judean boy babies (Matt 2:16-18). That’s what kings do when national sovereignty is threatened. The state’s answer to just about any problem? Violence.

Matthew’s claim: that baby, who causes consternation among Herod and his ilk, that infant who gathered about him those whom Herod oppressed, that baby and his people are now dismantling Herod’s empire stone by stone without raising an army or firing a shot.

This Christmas, here I am trembling, along with my whole congregation, due to political reasons. We’ve elected a new president who is moving decisively to surround himself with a frightening group of rogues who promise to make the empire great again through a militarization of American democracy. We tremble. What fresh outrage shall occur after Christmas?

Matthew’s Christmas story suggests that we ought to be trembling not out of fear at Trump, but by the prospect of God With Us, God’s Anointed Messiah, God getting what God wants through a baby and his presaged revolution.

Herod got so many things wrong, bloodily wrong, during his administration. This one thing he got right: Jesus means “God saves,” and God’s salvation is not just personal; it’s political, a divine shake up, an assertion that God’s truth shall not be mocked by any human power, that God, not nations, rules the world and determines the future.

I can’t join those Christians who respond to the current political climate with calls for civility, unity, harmony and healing of our nation. Matthew’s story says to me that ours may be time, not for pacification, but for resistance and revolt. We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.

I say that not simply because I think the Trump administration will be bad for America but because I’m a citizen of that baptized band who believe that the Babe of Bethlehem is the only true sovereign and that Jesus’s people, though marginalized and ridiculed by the powerful, are God’s politics.

I know a woman who has spent hours writing letters to every Muslim in her town saying, “You are a valued, child of God. Here’s my phone number. Let me know if I can be helpful to you in this time. Our president does not speak for me. I speak to you in the name of Christ who loves you and has given me responsibility for you.”

Herod trembles.

I heard a priest who said the Sunday after the election, “OK. America has elected a president. Fine. But the most important, decisive election was when God elected us to be light and salt to the world. Lying is wrong! Hate speech is wrong! Adultery is wrong! Let’s try to live so that people might look at us and see something that America is not. God has chosen us to witness. What a great time to obey God and not human authority! Acts 5:29.”

Herod trembles.

So, Troubled Christmas to you, Herod. Thanks for reminding us, without intending to do so, that the Babe at Bethlehem is not only gift, joy, but also threat. Teach us, Saint Matthew, again to tremble before the one who is King of Kings, Lord of Lords and he shall reign forever, and ever, hallelujah!

William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Willimon is the author of Fear of the Other from Abingdon Press, and Pulpit Resource, a homiletical weekly published in partnership with Abingdon Press and Ministry Matters.

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