"Who is King around Here?"
Matthew 2:13-22 | 24th Jan 2017
A week ago, on Christmas day, there was a small hubbub in the news world when the Republican Party put out a brief Christmas message. Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, released a holiday message, which included the following words:
Merry Christmas to all! Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King.
To most readers the message was straightforward and innocent, but some found ambiguity in the reference to “a new King” to be celebrated today. Was Reince Priebus alluding to Donald Trump? Was he drawing a comparison between Jesus and the President-Elect? Some people read it that way, and the Twitter universe lit up with expressions of outrage at the perceived blasphemy or, at least, inappropriate politicizing of the Christmas message.
Count me among those who think that neither Reince Priebus nor the Republican Party would ever think that Trump is another Jesus, or that the United States has a King in any sense. The statement could have avoided any ambiguity simply by saying “a new born King,” rather than simply “a new King,” but I can’t imagine that the authors of the message really intended to cast Donald Trump in the guise of our Lord.
The alleged controversy largely blew over in a 24 hour news cycle, but a closely related question remains important for us. One might even say that it is the question at the heart of the Gospel passage for today: Who is the King around here?
Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus has the familiar cast of characters: Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, the wise men, Herod… and a host of angels flitting about the scene as though they were prompters directing the action of a play. The story has the well-known themes of the nativity: the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy, the revelation of God’s plan, the miraculous conception of Jesus, the worship of the newborn child, the prophecy of Jesus’ future importance, and JOY.
Matthew 2:10 says, “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” The Greek of the New Testament actually says, “They rejoiced with great joy exceedingly.” I imagine that the wise men were high-fiving one another, doing the chest bump, dancing about and shouting, “Go Jesus, Go Jesus!”
But Matthew has a feature in his birth story that is unique… uniquely dark and grim. He tells of the savage reaction of King Herod, a reaction that results in violence and death… what the Christian tradition calls “the Slaughter of the Innocents.”
What is this episode doing in the Christmas story?! Isn’t the birth of Jesus about peace on earth, good will,… overwhelming joy? Yes, but the Gospel is not naïve. Matthew isn’t gullible and Pollyannaish. He knows that Good News is often accompanied by Bad News. Joy is mingled with sorrow. Peace struggles against violence. Matthew lives in the real world, the same world that we inhabit, a world in which some people do unspeakable things to others. They try to suppress the truth and crush those who threaten their hold on power. This is our world, and it is the world of the Gospel, even the world surrounding the birth of Jesus.
But let’s back up a bit to pick up the story in Matthew 2. Wise men, or Magi, came from the East to Jerusalem. They were seeking “the one who has been born King of the Jews.” This created a stir; after all, they had come to KING Herod, also known as Herod the Great. He was the King of Judea, enthroned by Rome in 36 BC, decades before Jesus arrived. Surely if anyone was King of the Jews, it was Herod.
Think about the arrival of the Magi. It must have been perplexing, even surreal. The Magi arrive, show the proper deference to Herod and then ask, “Where is the One born King of the Jews?” Herod must have been caught up short and said, “Excuse me? You just entered my royal courtroom. Didn’t you see the sign – King Herod, Ruler of Judea? Which part of ‘King Herod’ are you having trouble understanding?”
So Herod did some quick research. He called for the theology scholars. Somebody got the bright idea to Google the term “Messiah” or maybe check the Wikipedia page. They found a verse in the prophet Micah and verified that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. He would rule the people of Israel.
But there couldn’t be two Kings in Judea. Herod’s power had to be protected. This newborn rival had to be dealt with decisively … but not openly. Herod had to be sly, play along with the Magi and use them to further his plan. So he summoned them and found out the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to find the child and report back. He would then come and offer his worship.
It was a treacherous plan, and an almost successful one. To find Jesus, Herod needed both the chronology and the geography of Jesus’ birth. Learning the time of the star’s appearance gave Herod a chronological window. Getting a detailed report back from the Magi would supply the geographical details. This was Herod’s Global Positioning System by which he hoped to identify the Messiah. He would find this new threat to his kingdom and eliminate it.
But God intervened because Herod’s Kingdom did not coincide with the Kingdom of God. As a matter of fact, the much heralded Herod was not God’s chosen Messiah. So God warned the Magi via a dream not to return to Herod with the report he had requested. This took away any precision in Herod’s geographical data. Now he had only a general time – a two year period – and a general place – somewhere around Bethlehem. The street address and nine-digit zip code that he had hoped to get from the Magi were not forthcoming.
But the Holy Family was still in the vicinity of Bethlehem and still at risk. So God intervened again by an angel in a dream, warning Joseph to flee with the family to Egypt. Now we learn what you already suspected: Herod’s professed interest in worshipping Jesus was a lie. When he learned of a new King of the Jews, he wasn’t thrilled; he was threatened.
Do you get the feeling that Herod was not right in the head? I think he was one candlestick short of a menorah. He was certainly paranoid. Jesus was an infant. Herod was in his late 60s at this time. What could Jesus do? Drool on him? But extremely powerful people are not always extremely rational. Herod was known for killing people he perceived as rivals, including members of his own family, because he feared that they would challenge his power.
So Herod carried out one of the most heinous actions recorded in the Bible. To destroy Jesus, he would destroy all male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem up to the age of two years. The geographical breadth of the destruction would cover the whole town. The chronological breadth would be sure to include any child born from the time the Magi saw the star up to the present. It was an unthinkable atrocity, truly a slaughter of innocent victims.
Let me note a small but very important detail in the biblical story here. Verse 17 says, “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah.” Matthew is very fond of seeing connections between the Old Testament and the life of Jesus. More than a dozen times in his Gospel he uses a formula that connects an event in the life of Jesus with a passage in the OT. Again and again he says, “This occurred in order to fulfill what was said by the prophet so-and-so.” But the formula is a little different here. He does not use the conjunction “in order to.” Instead, he simply notes that what Herod did was an echo or enactment of what Jeremiah referred to. But Matthew does NOT imply that the Slaughter of the Innocents was part of the purposes of God. Evil things happen in the world, but we should not think that God causes evil in order to fulfill some scheme.
In plain terms, the God whom we know as the Father of our Lord Jesus does NOT kill little children. You might say, “Well, of course God doesn’t do that!” But have you ever heard someone say, when a child dies in infancy, that “God needed another flower in the heavenly flower garden,” or “Everything happens for a purpose; this is God’s mysterious will”… or something similar? We say such things because we want to comfort grieving parents, or because we just don’t know what to say. But, brothers and sisters, the theology lying behind those statements is faulty and needs to be rethought. In our attempt to make sense of tragedy, let’s not imply that God kills little children.
Herod is the villain in this story; he is the one who causes the death of children. But the King of Judea was unable to destroy the newborn King of the Jews because Herod himself dies in the very next verse.
Again an angel appears on the scene and directs the Holy Family back to Israel and eventually to Nazareth. This is the third time that angels have directed the action of the story. They are major actors in the drama, entering at critical junctures and prodding Joseph and Mary in the right direction. But the angels are not so much instigators as they are agents of a higher power. You see, God is on the side of the angels, … or maybe it’s the other way around. Between God, the angels, Mary and Joseph, and a series of dreams, the newborn King is not only brought into this world but into the town of Nazareth. It took some doing. There were twists and turns in the journey. Mary wasn’t quite as fast as Domino’s pizza. She didn’t deliver in 30 minutes or less. But the rest, as they say, is history.
But the history of God’s Kingdom and of God’s people is ongoing, even into our day. There are still Magi – foreigners who take a keen interest in the Gospel message and respond with worship. And unfortunately there are still Herods, people who oppose and hinder the purposes of God. There are still empires and Kingdoms that rise against God’s Chosen One. They rattle their sabers, fire their rifles, or launch their missiles in an attempt to slaughter the Innocents.
One of those empires has a history with an interesting connection with the season of Christmas. The Soviet Union had its roots in the so-called October revolution of 1917. Vladimir Lenin led the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the Russian czar. A civil war raged for the next few years and in 1922 the Communists formed the Soviet Union. A few years later Stalin came to power and ruled for almost 30 years. Various other leaders followed Stalin, but the Communist empire under all of its rulers had similar effects.
Historians have estimated that as many as 68 million men, women, and children were killed in Russia alone over the nearly 75 years of communist rule, making it one of the cruelest and most brutal episodes in human history. The economic basis of the Soviet Union was Marxism, the religious ideology was atheism, and the practical method of exerting power was the brutal suppression of all opposition.
Professor Pitirim Sorokin, a sociologist in Petrograd, kept a daily journal of life in Russia during the revolution. An entry in 1920 includes the following…
The machine of the Red Terror works incessantly. Every day and every night, in Petrograd, Moscow, and all over the country the mountain of the dead grows higher … Every night we hear the rattle of trucks bearing new victims. Every night we hear the rifle fire of executions… Getting up in the morning, no man or woman knows whether he will be free that night. Leaving one’s home, one never knows whether he will return.
Stalin continued this lethal strategy in the Great Purges of the 1930s. He personally signed off on 1000s of death warrants and orders for 1000s more to be sent to the Soviet Gulags.
Now you are probably wondering – “Interesting history lesson, Preacher, but what does it have to do with the Gospel or the Christmas story?” Well, in the late 1980s the world witnessed a wave of freedom that swept across the Soviet Union. This event caught many experts and pundits by surprise. Political analysts attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to a variety of forces, all of which played their part.
But the untold story in this victory over oppression was the role of Christians. A blossoming of spiritual life preceded the political changes and was arguably the source of the courage and character of the resistance movement. In the Soviet Union a major event in Orthodox Christianity set things in motion. Christianity came to Russia in the year 988, so in 1988 Russian Christians celebrated their first millennium. Thousands of Russian Orthodox believers flooded the streets of Kiev in spontaneous worship and prayer. Another major force was the Catholic Church, in particular the contribution of Pope John Paul II. Through prayer and non-violent resistance then, Christians played an important role in the downfall of the Soviet Union, and that downfall came at Christmas.
Twenty five years ago, on December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the President of the Soviet Union and declared the office extinct. That Christmas night, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time, and the Russian flag was raised in its place. The next day, the Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body, voted the Soviet Union out of existence. After nearly 75 years and the Slaughter of untold millions of Innocents, the reign of these 20th century Herods – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and others – came to an end. If Matthew had been around in 1991, he might have written, “Those who were seeking the Church’s life are dead. Wake up and take the Gospel of Jesus back to the land of Russia.”
So both the first Christmas and that Christmas of 25 years ago present us with a picture of hope amid despair, of the promise of peace in the midst of violence. The very real world that Jesus was born into, the very real world in which we live, is cloaked with darkness and cruelty, and yet is also penetrated by a persistent light of divine grace and redemption.
In July 1982 a Pan American Boeing jet took off from New Orleans International Airport headed for Las Vegas. A drenching rain had reduced visibility, and wind gusts and lightning further complicated matters. For some reason the jet never gained altitude. It struck a power line and careened into the suburb of Kenner, destroying thirteen homes. One resident described the scene as “a wall of flame.” Firemen fought the inferno for two hours before ambulances and medical personnel could enter the site. Then, a full two hours after the time of the crash, Deputy Sheriff Gerald Hibbs saw something move in the debris. He called for a doctor as he heard a baby start to cry. Sixteen month old Melissa Trahan, wearing only a diaper, was rushed to a hospital and survived, suffering only from burns on her feet. A policeman on the scene remarked, “Just one ray of life in all this… one tiny little baby.”
In 2017 make it your aim to be on the side of the angels, on the side of God’s Messiah and King, to live in the light of “this one tiny baby” and to oppose Herod wherever he may manifest himself.
Who will be the King at the final day? Not Herod. Not Lenin or Stalin. Not an American President of any political party. But the One born King of the Jews – Jesus, who will save his people from their sins. Amen.