Well, the tinsel is still falling to the ground, that plate of cookies left on the counter has yet to go stale and having just barely been blown out the candles we held while singing Silent Night still hold their red glow - while we gather now on this the first Sunday of Christmas and read aloud the Christmas story not of sheep or shepherds or angels but of the slaughter of innocent babies. Yeah, That Christmas story. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas indeed. I’m not gonna lie. Given the death of my Granddaddy on Thursday and the 3 whole days I’ve spent cooking for family and sitting at my mother’s side as she grieves I was secretly relieved when Matthew offered to preach his sermon from this morning at House for All tonight and the relief I felt was more than just “O good, now I don’t have to write a sermon” It was O good, now I can avoid trying to figure out if there is any good new in the slaughter of innocent babies. But in the midst of grief Herod was never far from my thoughts this week as though he was taunting me….daring me to give it a try.
So just to get it out of the way…no. There is no “good news” in the slaughter of the innocents. There is only terror and weeping women. But this story is not going to be removed from the Bible any time soon so I say screw it. Let’s dive in deep.
You see, I think the trouble is that we’ve heard the Christmas story so many times that it’s not shocking anymore. It simply takes its place on a dusty shelf of over familiarity among all the other worn and tattered stories woven into our unconsciousness somewhere between George Washington and the Cherry Tree and Star Wars Return of the Jedi. The Christmas story sits among other things we know so well and we brush it off once a year without even bothering to notice how shocking it really is. But it’s ironic that we fail to be shocked by the story of Christmas - even though its ground shaking in it’s unfathomable beauty - and yet we hear the story of Herod and are shocked… even though innocent children suffer in our world as a result of human pride and greed and fear and hate every day. Herod is nothing less than common.
But you know how we’re used to hearing Christians say “let’s keep Christ in Christmas” well, My friend Joy Carol Wallis, wrote an essay called “Let’s keep Herod in Christmas”
And after thinking about this text all week I have to say, I’m with her, because the thing is…the world into which Christ is born is not one of a Normal Rockwell painting….the world has never been that world. God did not enter the world of our nostalgic silent night snow blanketed peace on earth suspended reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own. Herod was the Jewish puppet king for Rome…and the wise men were honestly kinda stupid to show up at Herod’s doorstep and say “Hey where’s the child who has been born the King of the Jews” to the guy who is supposed to kinda sorta be king of the Jews. What did they expect… that he would Mapquest it for them? Whatever it was, I’m sure they didn’t expect infanticide on a large scale. The murder of children by a scared little man trying to protect his feeble grasp on worldly power. Here in this Christmas story there simply is no mistletoe and reindeer… this scene of a despotic ruler slaughtering children out of little more than his personal insecurity somehow never makes it onto wrapping paper and the display window at Macys….yet the slaughter of the holy Innocents is as much a part of the Christmas story as are shepherds and angels.
And if you do a little research you’ll find that Bible scholars are all a flutter about how there are no historical documents from that time that mention Herod killing all the babies in Bethlehem so it probably didn’t actually happen … as though this clever academic crap can keep away the reality that this has actually always happened and is actually still happening all around us. Let’s just say I looked up the term ethnic cleansing on Wikipedia yesterday and wished I hadn’t. Tyrants like Herod and Pharaoh and Pol Pot and Slobodan Milosevic have always taken that little Lord of the Flies instinct which is really within us all and played it out in three terrifying acts on the human stage. And that thing which resides in the human heart, when unchecked and filled with power, demonstrates itself in killing fields and showers of gas and the slaughter of babies…that thing in the human heart is nothing less that the desire to be free from God so that we might be Gods ourselves. And history has shown…we make lousy Gods. And what makes it worse is that we tend to take the image of what we would be like as Gods (despotic, angry, wanting to be worshipped sycophantically, defensive, insecure, seeking vengence and retribution) then we take that stuff about us and project that on God….as though God must be as lousy at this being-God-business as we would be if given the chance. And when God had had quite enough of our projections, quite enough of our characterizing God as being as vengeful and paranoid as we are - God’s Loving Desire to be Known overflowed the heavens and was made manifest in the rapidly dividing cells within the womb of an insignificant peasant girl. And when the time came for her to give birth to God there was no room in our societies and institutions and business or any of the other things we are so proud of …and let me just say this: (as much as I love Joy to the World) I’m fairly certain that every heart did not prepare him room. Because we already thought we knew what God was like….and how can a heart prepare room for that which it cannot fathom? So rather than waiting till our hearts were prepared instead God simply broke our hearts… like only a baby can do.
So I guess I wonder if keeping Herod in Christmas might remind us that God did not wait till we as the human race got our collective crap together before joining us in the difficult reality of being human. God didn’t just plop God’s self down into a Nostalgic Norman Rockwell painting but entered a world as violent and dangerous as our own. And the weird thing is that God did this heart breaking thing to be with us. Even those who will crucify him. Even Herod. Because the fact is that God is continually breaking our hearts so that the true nature of God can be known – so that in breaking our hearts God can replace them with God’s own. Perhaps this is what is meant when we sing O Holy Night. Long lay the world in sin and error pinning till he appeared and the soul felt it’s worth. May you all allow God to be God for you. May your soul feel its worth. Amen