For the past three weeks, I have been preaching at a pastor friend’s church. She is on maternity leave and asked me to step in for her during the Advent season. While I’m “helping” her, it has really been a huge blessing for me as well. The church has been reading Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking, during their Bible study. I have been preaching on topics that coincide with the chapters of the book. One chapter dealt with the issue of Herod’s massacre of baby boys being a part of the Christmas story. McLaren suggests that while it is shocking to have the violence perpetrated by Herod in the story of Christ’s birth, it is necessary to keep Herod in Christmas.
I agree with McLaren on this point. Herod’s decree is an integral part of the story and while it may be shocking, it should not be a surprise that someone like Herod would take the news of Baby Jesus’ birth as a threat. As I prepared for this sermon, I could not help but recognize that this account of Herod’s massacre of baby boys to maintain his power and position reminded me of the history of violence perpetuated against African American boys and girls, men and women in our nation. Slavery, lynchings, whips, chains, rape, dogs unleashed, billy clubs, water hoses, hangings, 16 shots… sometimes it has felt like a decree was issued even when there were no laws written down. I also couldn’t help but think that Herod’s decree was terrorist activity, particularly for those living in and around Bethlehem and for the families whose child was slaughtered. Consider what Matthew records:
“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’” Matthew 2:16-18 (NIV)
It may seem cruel, abrupt, even uncalled for to insert this story about Herod into the middle of the account of our Savior’s birth. I mean, everywhere around us, sometime after Oct. 31st are signs of the joy that is Christmas. Giving to others and charitable works are at an all-time high during this time of year. Cities and Main Streets across the country are decorated with holiday cheer. Lights and trees, holly and mistletoe all let us know that the season is upon us and that we are supposed to be happy about it. Just a few hours on Hallmark Channel and even the Lifetime network during the Christmas season and you’ll know that Christmas means you get everything you want, there’s always a happily ever after, the good guys always win and the bad guys either learn their lesson or get what they deserve…and, sometimes both. Scrooge’s heart is changed forever and those who don’t like Christmas are touched by the season in profound and meaningful ways. Everywhere we look there is blessing upon blessing with crises working out exactly the way we think they should. How nice…
While this overload of holiday perfection is harmless on the surface, in fact, it dilutes and distorts the real story of Christmas and sets us up to think that the birth and Coming of Christ represents a romanticized fairy tale of miracles and blessings without struggle, hardship or injustice. I believe that while Christ’s birth is a romance about God’s great love for God’s people, it is also a story about a decree, a massacre, about principalities and powers and rulers of wickedness in high places.
That’s why we have to keep Herod in Christmas.
Herod reminds us that Christmas was never about egg nog and candy canes and mistletoe…or even Santa Claus for that matter. Herod reminds us that there are those who have been taken too soon and communities that are lamenting their loss, refusing to be comforted because of the injustice they’ve witnessed around them. Herod reminds us that on life’s journey there are obstacles, detours and danger along the way and people who want to stop us from reaching our destination.
Herod reminds us that in spite of evil intent, a baby is born to a virgin in a manger and his birth stops time and turns the world upside down. His birth confounds the wise and powerful. His birth brings in a new era, a new testament of God’s journey with us. God with us. Immanuel!
Now, I have to admit that I approach this Matthew text weighted down by current realities. I approach this text knowing that there seems to be a Herod who has sent out another decree. This time on African American boys and girls, men and women in our land. I approach this text as an African American woman, a single mother with deep concerns about the safety of my own son and daughter in the world we live in 2,015 years after Christ’s birth. I approach this text recognizing that my own sensibilities and psyche, that my very soul, has been overwhelmed by accounts of African American boys and girls, men and women, being murdered because of the color of their skin and a perceived threat that turned out to be little more than a figment of the imagination of the person who took their life. I approach this text with the backdrop of my friend’s son, 20 years old, everything ahead of him and having followed the rules but murdered in the street with no one coming forward to answer why.
I come to this text, recognizing that I still hear Rachel weeping and sometimes that sound of anguish, the cries that I hear, are my own.
We cannot take Herod out of Christmas because to do so would distort the truth of what God has done in salvation history. You see, if we were to take Herod out, it makes it all miracles and no mess, all #winning and no weeping, all victory and no violence and as I look around, there is mess. There is weeping. There is violence! And, I need to find in this Christmas story some answers, some solutions, some peace and some resolve as to how I deal with the mess in the midst of the miracles; how I negotiate the weeping while I’m working on winning at this thing called life; how I deal with the violence, while I’m claiming and walking in the victory that is in God our Savior, Jesus Christ!
That is why I believe this text calls us to be courageous, to resist fear-mongering, to fight injustice and to recognize that God’s promises are true, even in the face of danger and when the odds are against us. Like Joseph and Mary and the wise men. We don’t have to give in to Herod. There is a way of escape, a more excellent way of being than what Herod has to offer. A way that does not include destroying other people to maintain power and position or living in constant fear of others.
Ultimately, we can keep Herod in Christmas because of what it says in Matthew 2 verse 19 a, “After Herod died…” Herod died. You see, that’s what we really need to remember. Herod and his evil acts did not have the final say. He did not win. He was not victorious. He died. And, every device of the enemy will also die one day! Herod is assured defeat, no matter what name Herod goes by. There’s no need to hide what he tried to do or to sanitize Christmas with all good and no bad. Herod died but Jesus lives! Our Savior lives today! Hallelujah! Glory to God and Merry Christmas! Amen.