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. Continue reading