1 January – “In the Time of King Herod…”
Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber
One of the more absurd dogmas of the secular society in which we live is the assertion that politics and religion occupy parallel universes. Religion is about the private, so it is said, politics is about the public. We can be quite clear about this. If religion is presumed to be about the private, then neither Jewish nor Christian faith can be called religions. Those mouthing this mantra about religion being private have clearly never opened the Bible. It is sufficient simply to keep repeating what suits the prejudice.
Today we need nothing more than the first words of this second chapter of Matthew to assert what is the truth about politics and God: “In the time of King Herod”. By the time we get to the end of the chapter we will encounter Herod’s son, Archelaus, who will similarly be allotted his time to be another political player. And everywhere else throughout the New Testament, and certainly the Old, Kings and Emperors and political States and cities abound as the context for religious engagement. So much for politics and religion being hermetically sealed. In any case, whether we like it or not, and for good or ill, when the chapter of the next four years for both world and Church comes to be written it will be headed: “In the time of President Trump”. Theological time and political time are bound to converge here with a vengeance.
Instructive then is it for us today to hear how theological time intersects the everyday time of King Herod. The story of Jesus’ conception and birth is not some mythological story, but rather a story that shapes the time in which we live. It is a time in which rulers rule, on the manifestly wrong assumption that it will be only their power which determines the story that constitutes time.
Herods, however, and we can only profoundly hope Trumps as well, are seldom as powerful as they imagine. Certainly, in today’s gospel, Herod is king only because it pleases the Romans to have him rule over this province, peopled as it is by a troubling population. Herod is simply a pawn used by Rome to maintain an order useful to Rome. That’s how politics works. And it is here, that Jesus is born; in an occupied land, a small outpost on the edge of a mighty empire. And it is here that he will eventually be killed under Rome’s authority. What’s more, without a shadow of doubt it will be a death that will prove to mean nothing to Rome. For how in Herod’s time could Rome possibly know that this man would prove to be the most decisive political challenge it would have to face?
Rome, of course, knew how to deal with enemies; you either kill them or you co-opt them. But how do you deal with an enemy called the people of God who will come to understand that they have all the time in the world to challenge the world’s impatient violence?
But for now everything looks like being over. The wise men had been duped. Trustingly they tell Herod about the timing of the star, naively believing his assurance that he, too, would also like to travel to pay homage to the one who, when all is said and done, as another king has to have been born as a competitor.
But mercifully the wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go home by another road – that is to say, that already, as Gentiles, they anticipate what will prove to be the major theme as Matthew’s gospel unfolds. The wise men already just here are forerunners of the larger mission to the Gentiles. Already in the figures of the wise men, the gospel anticipates a day that in due time eventually will come to include us: a day in which the followers of Jesus may well find that they are strangers even when they consider themselves to be at home, as we, too, are now experiencing daily in common with other Western churches. Not surprisingly, then – like the wise men – Joseph soon discovers through yet another dream that he must take Mary and the child on the journey to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. So Jesus is taken to Egypt in order in due time to recapitulate the original exodus of the Hebrews, soon to be the new Moses who will lead his people to a new land of faithfulness.
So the wise men do not return to Herod. But Herod is no fool. He trusts what he has been told. The threat to him of a new king is to be found in Bethlehem. Realising that power can never be secure, Herods always know no limit when they sense that their power is being threatened. Power and killing are natural collaborators. So Herod cunningly estimates that two years sets the time boundaries for the wise men to reach Israel. Consequently, to ensure that the infant competitor Jesus will die, all the children of that age born in and around Bethlehem must be exterminated.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed. Can there possibly be anything more to scuttle the sentimental depiction of Christmas that we have gone though yet again? Christmas refuses to let us hide from the fact that children are killed, and continue to be killed, as in the ghastly Syrias of this world to protect the power of tyrants.
To be sure, we are offered the possibility of living a gospel of resurrection, but that does not mean that these and other children down through the ages are any less dead, or that their parents are any less bereaved. Resurrection, rather, makes it possible for future followers of Jesus not to lie about the nature of the world that we believe has been redeemed. If we want to know what mission in our day means, refusing to lie might be mission enough in and for a post-truth world.
Notice how our text is striking in the fact that no attempt is made to explain or justify this horror. Instead Matthew reminds his readers that Jeremiah had prepared us for just such a terror – warning of the loud lamentation that would come from Ramah, where Rachel, lamenting for her children, would rightly refuse to be consoled.
The point in all this is that the Herods of this world begin by hating the child Jesus, but end up hurting and murdering other children. That is the politics, the politics of murder, to which the Church is called to be the alternative. In other words, those who would follow and worship Jesus are a challenge to those who would kill children.
The fear of the Herods of this world must be resisted, but – take account of this – that we are also told that “all Jerusalem” was equally frightened by the news of this child’s birth. What could this possibly mean? Well, it has to be the case, since thirty years later all of Jerusalem will consent to this child’s death.
What’s more, such a fear is not at all absent from our own lives. It continues to possess cultures that believe that they have no time or energy for children. Unrestricted abortion is just one of the names for the fear of the loss of time that children make real.
But the good news is that Herods die. Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers come and go. But God’s people endure, difficult though that might be for us today to comprehend.
So two times are being given to us this morning. Both speak of children. The first is the stark reality of the fate of the world’s children predicted in the opening words of the chapter: “In the time of King Herod….”.
The second time is that offered to us in the Epistle today:
“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death … and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
Two times: times of death and a time of resurrection. It is just this alternative time to the time of Herod that is the gospel for us today.