The birth of Jesus, the King of Kings, is a disruption and a threat to the established order of King Herod and the Roman Empire. Jesus’ family became refugees because of Herod’s plan to kill Jesus. This story reminds us to a) remember the pain and suffering in the world and not try to “whitewash” history, b) stand in solidarity with those affected by injustice, and c) honestly ask ourselves, “how am I like Herod and “uncurvatus in se” (bent in on myself and away from God)?
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Matthew 2:13-23
At our Christmas Eve candlelight service, we ended by singing “Silent Night”. With our candles lit, we sang “all is calm, and all is bright”, and that’s how we usually think of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, that the baby Jesus slept in heavenly peace, and that everything was peaceful and good in Bethlehem, and throughout the world.
But there’s a whole other dimension to the birth of a child and particularly the birth of this child, that is overlooked if we over sentimentalize Christmas.
First, anyone who has brought a baby into the world finds out pretty quickly that all is not calm, and babies don’t always sleep in heavenly peace, or act like angels when they’re awake.
A friend and former co-worker of mine in Ohio has twin boys who are 1 year old, and this is what she posted on social media the other day:
“All before 10 am and only ONE cup of coffee. One baby up an entire flight of stairs. One baby eating a handful of dog food. Baby splashing in toilet water. Baby licking an extension cord.
Needless to say, the twins are winning today!”
Becoming a parent disrupts our peaceful, ordered world.
But there’s a whole other layer to Jesus entering the world that is beyond what we experience when we have a baby, a reality that Joseph and Mary experienced, and which sent shockwaves throughout the land.
The birth of Jesus is a disruption not only to a family, but to the entire world order. Jesus, the new King, is a challenge to the Roman Empire that Israel lived under.
It’s a disruption because the old King does not take kindly to it. We see this clearly in our scripture today, that hearing of Jesus’ birth is an affront to King Herod of the Roman King Herod.
Herod can’t stand to have someone challenge his authority as King, so much so that he orders all the male children under 2 years old to be killed in order to get rid of Jesus once and for all.
This doesn’t quite fit into our sentimental thoughts about Christmas, does it?
Anyway, Joseph was warned about Herod’s plan in a dream—this is one of those dreams that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, and in this passage we see three of those four dreams.
So Joseph loads up Mary and the baby Jesus onto a donkey and they flee to Egypt as refugees, at least until Herod’s rampage is over.
In the Roman Catholic church, today is called the Feast of the Holy Family, or Feast of the Holy Innocents, and it’s a call to remember refugees and all those who flee violent situations in order to save themselves and their children.
The great theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said:
“Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants [like Herod].”
In today’s world, children continue to suffer and die and the hands of tyrants like Vladimir Putin in Russia, or Kim Jong-un in North Korea, or the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Consider the political implications that Jesus’ birth had on society, through the words the angel of the Lord used in announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields:
“for behold, I bring you good news of great joy for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord….”
This is language that was reserved to describe the Roman emperor.
Emperors were said to bring “good news” to the people. Emperors also brought “peace on earth” through military victories. The emperor Augustus was the son of Julius Caesar who was worshipped as a god, so Augustus was called the “son of god”.
And the way that people showed their loyalty to the empire was by saying “Ceasar is Lord!” Now Jesus’ arrival on the scene presents the challenge of allegiance to a different Lord and King.
So the birth of Jesus is a disruption and a threat to the established order, and those who dared to cast their lot with Jesus and his kingdom, instead of the emperor and his empire were upsetting the status quo.
So what does this story of Herod’s plan to kill the baby Jesus, his family fleeing as refugees, and the conflict between two kings, mean for all of us, for those of us who dare to say “Jesus is Lord”?
As we get ready to wrap up the Christmas season and begin a new year, here are a few things that I feel it might be saying to us:
First, just as Herod’s plan to kill innocent children is a part of the Christmas story that we would prefer not to hear, we must remember these unpleasant parts,
And in the same way, we are called to face the pain and suffering and injustice in the world and in our history, and not gloss over it.
Here in the United States, there are people trying to “whitewash” our history, leaving out the ugliness of how people of color have been treated.
In Texas, a group of educators has been trying to remove the word “slavery” from the history curriculum of 2nd graders and change it to “involuntary relocation”.
As of now, the Texas board of education has rejected that proposal, but I’m sure that more requests will be coming in the name of protecting children from “feeling discomfort.” as this group argues.
This past Thursday, Dec. 29, was the anniversary of the Battle of Wounded Knee, where the US Army massacred over 250 men, women, and children of the Lakota tribe.
The book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is about the mistreatment of Native Americans by settlers and the US military, but I don’t recall that it was a book that we were encouraged to read in high school or college.
So first, we need to honestly face the prejudices and exploitation and abuses of power in the world and the suffering they have caused and continue to cause to people, usually to the most vulnerable like children, women, and people who live in poverty.
Second, we’re not only called to become aware of these injustices, but to act, to reach out, and stand in solidarity with those affected by them.
Here at DRPC, we know firsthand people from the Ukraine and from Afghanistan whose countries have been devastated by war and oppression.
We’ve heard some of their stories, and it has been heartbreaking. As I look back on this past year, I’m grateful that our little church has been helping refugees who have come from these countries to get settled here in our area.
I wonder what God might be calling us to do in 2023. Is there more can we do to not only support our friends, but also advocate for people who are still suffering in their countries?
Also, right here in our own church, and in neighborhoods and communities, there are people who are hurting. Is there someone you know who is grieving the loss of a child or other loved one? Or is going through a dark time in their life?
We all know that the holidays can be an especially hard time for lots of people. Is there someone that you can reach out to and lend a helping hand, show compassion, or just walk with them so they don’t feel so alone?
Third, our story today invites us to put ourselves into King Herod’s shoes, and ask ourselves, “are there ways that I am like Herod in my attitude towards God and others that need to change?
I was reading a commentary on the gospel of Matthew by Matt Woodley, and he put it this way:
“Like Herod, when left to my own devices I possess a tragic urge to resist God and devalue others…I am, in Martin Luther’s terms, “uncurvatus in se”, which means curved in upon myself and bent away from God.” (P. 37, The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us”.)
Woodley goes on to say
“All of us, like Herod, are threatened by the presence of Jesus, because it disrupts our kingdom of self.”
Then he tells the story of the conversion of author Anne Lamott. Lamott had resisted giving her life in service to Jesus, and it seemed to her to be “an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen.”
Those among us who are cat lovers can relate to what she says next: She said that Jesus was like a cat outside your door who wanted to get let inside the house.
But she said “I knew what would happen if I let it in. You let a cat in one time, you give it a little milk, and guess what? It stays forever.”
So she said “I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left…and finally I just hung my head and said, “All right. You can come in.’ Such was my beautiful moment of conversion”, Lamott said.
Even those of us who have already let Jesus in the door can be stubborn in protecting our little kingdom of self from being infiltrated by Jesus too much;
In a world where we hear so many messages to look out for #1, and be in control, and climb the ladder of success, we may find it hard to respond to Jesus’ invitation to live humble lives in service to others.
It seems like the more power and influence that we get, the greater is the temptation to protect it at all costs, it feeds our ego and causes us to bend more toward ourselves.
We can becom protective of what’s “ours”. Which is the opposite of the humility that God desires of us, especially those in leadership roles.
Yesterday the world learned that Pope Benedict died. Most popes die while they still hold the office of pope. But Benedict did something that was unthinkable for a pope, someone in one of the most powerful positions in the world—
He resigned, back in 2014, because he felt like it was time for him to step down and new leadership to take over in the Catholic Church. Benedict did what was right for the future of the Church instead of just holding onto power for himself.
This was an act of humility that shocked the world, and gave a great example for all of us to follow.
As we begin a new year, this is a good time to do some reflection and self-examination. Are there ways that we have become prideful, and stubborn, or hard-hearted and bent toward ourselves?
How can we live with more humility and bend ourselves more towards others, not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less, and using the resources and any power and influence that God has given us to empower those around us?
In closing, Matt Woodley says that the scripture for today could be titled “A Tale of Two Kings”.
Herod, the prideful, pompous King, appears to have all the power; but in reality, Jesus, the vulnerable, powerless, humble king, actually rules the cosmos.
It’s important to remember this contrast between the ways of these two Kings, especially in light of the increasing popularity of Christian Nationalism in the church today, which is tempted to seek after Herod’s kind of power instead of Jesus’.
Let us also remember that history—even our own personal histories, which may have experienced betrayal, failures and losses—cannot overwhelm the hope of God’s story.
This is the good news of the Christmas story, that the Savior of the world, the true king, the lord of all history, has come to dwell with us, and because of that, the world is pregnant with hope. AMEN.