You all know how we tend to sentimentalize Christmas. This is the season of beautiful bows and shiny ribbons and bright colored wrapping paper. Stockings hung by a warm, cozy, flickering fireplace. Mulled wine, warm cider, and hot chocolate in hand. Lights strung round and round a beautiful green tree, surrounded by ornaments that remind us of someone or something special. There is Christmas music playing gently in the background. Loved ones have made travel plans to come home. And all the while the Hallmark channel spins out one romantic, syrupy sweet, holiday fairy tale after another.
Even the Christmas lyrics lull us into a tranquil peace of mind. When all appears calm and all is bright. And a child lays his sweet head in a manger. And a little town of Bethlehem rests in the stillness. While angels we have heard on high sing like heralds welcoming the newborn king.
It’s Christmas time. It’s angel time. It’s Mary and Joseph time. It’s shepherds time. It’s deck the halls and jingle bell time. It’s the most wonderful time of the year time…
There’s only one person who’s not with the whole program. And that person is King Herod. You see, King Herod thinks this time is his time. Herod is confident, in fact, as most rulers in a similar situation would be, that the Christmas story centers around him. He believes he is the one in control. Mainly because he has the biggest ego.
You see Herod was busy reaping all the benefits of being a king when God came along and interrupted everything. Interruptions being the way God often works. This particular interruption, however, seemed like a head scratcher. A tiny baby born in the small town of Bethlehem to a couple of non-descript parents.
Outside of Christmas, the truth is the birth of a baby is not particularly special. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the birth of a baby isn’t special in and of itself. It’s just that the birth of a baby isn’t particularly rare. Almost eleven thousand babies are born in this country alone every day. About four million babies every single year. Outside of the parents and the family and the dearest of friends, news about the birth of a baby isn’t likely to move the world’s needle.
If you sift through the Bible, there are plenty of big splashes God could have duplicated at Christmas time. God was the author of more than a few showstoppers guaranteed to shock and awe. A burning bush that was not consumed…that was pretty special. Forty days and forty nights of rain that covered the earth with floodwater and wiped out entire species, save for the pairs of animals and select humans that stayed dry aboard an ark. Really special, and not necessarily in a good way either. Ten consecutive plagues sent down from the heavens to destroy the people of Egypt while the Hebrews prepared to flee from bondage and eventually forge their way across the Red Sea on dry land. Hard to beat that one.
But a baby? A baby who can’t walk and can’t talk? A baby who can’t see more than a foot or two in front of their eyes. A baby who doesn’t really know anything except how to cry and sleep and spit up? What’s so amazing, so dramatic about this baby? Doesn’t read like much of an interruption.
Yet when the wise men showed up from the East and told King Herod about a child born king of the Jews, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Herod was terrified. And all Jerusalem along with him. Clearly this birth of this child was a big deal, but it’s hard to imagine why…
And what about these wise men we read about in today’s Gospel…what’s their story? They were astrologers or astronomers. They were priests or they were kings. Maybe they were magicians…no one really knows. But we know they came from the East.
It’s funny though how the East isn’t really a place. It’s a direction. Perhaps the wise men came from Babylonia to the east. Or India further to the east. Or Japan, really far to the east. Wherever they came from, they came from a place not on the map. They came from a place off the grid…far enough that even a GPS might not locate it.
The wise men came from the East on a mission to search for the future. But they couldn’t resist stopping to stir the pot along the way. So they appeared before King Herod with news to share. And the moment King Herod heard the news, he was spooked. All of a sudden, while he was basking in his own smug power and free reign, Herod realized it wasn’t just his time. And he wasn’t the only person in the narrative. Out of nowhere, Herod had some competition, an identifiable adversary, a potential threat to his domination. The news of a baby came as a mighty blow to his ego, and Herod quickly figured out he wasn’t as in control as he thought he was.
Unfortunately, a spooked King Herod also turned out to be a dangerous King Herod. Just because Herod understood he wasn’t in control of the story doesn’t mean he wasn’t willing to give up without a fight. Even if it meant resorting to violence to try and restore order. And that’s where the story continues in Matthew’s Gospel once the wise men offer their gifts to Jesus and then leave to return home to their country out of Herod’s way.
For the time being, as far as the Christmas story, we have rabble rousing wise men from the East and a paranoid King Herod willing to use any means necessary to hold onto his power. All in pursuit of a helpless, newborn baby. It’s not the kind of story that shapes up as though it will have a sentimental, happy ending. It hardly sounds like a story where a woman gives birth to a baby in a barn on a calm, bright, silent night. Most of all, it doesn’t really have the feel of the warm, nostalgic Christmas story we have learned how to tame just enough to know it and love it.
Not to mention one lingering, nagging Christmas question that won’t go away. Do we live in a world that worships King Herod and devotes itself to King Herod and honors King Herod more than Jesus Christ? How often do human beings acquiesce to the notion that the people who are in authority among us are indeed the ones in control of the story? How many ways do we find to stroke the egos of the ones who are rich and famous and dominant as though their lives matter more than the lives of others? Do we exalt power and profess and practice greed and wallow in self-absorption the same way Herod once did? All while casting aside sacred values like peace and justice and good will to all?
Cynicism is not the same as wisdom, but if you look around and listen carefully, you wouldn’t necessarily know that fact. Not to mention the reality that it’s harder to feel warm and fuzzy about a child born in a stable when too many children in our world are being shot in schools and separated from their parents at the border and barely surviving in squalid refugee camps and born addicted to opioids and other life-threatening substances…
If you look at this season through a wide angle lens, the world Jesus was born into is not all that different from the world we live in today. A world where too many turn to violence. A world where people will resort to almost anything to maintain their own power and influence. And a world where hope is mocked by those who are convinced the story is all about them and not about something bigger than them.
Nevertheless, the same God who once interrupted and ruined King Herod’s Christmas is coming again to earth to interrupt everything this year. As sacred as every birth in the world is, the truth is that very few babies change the world as we know it. But this year, this holy season, the world’s needle will move again.
The birth of Jesus Christ is one of God’s surest signs that hope wins. King Herod and all the ones down through the ages who have sought to follow in his footsteps may not believe it. Nevertheless, the angels and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and the stable animals and the wise men and the people who lived in that little town of Bethlehem can all attest to it. And so can you. And so can I.
It’s not Herod’s time. It’s baby Jesus time. Thanks be to God!
NOTE: Inspiration for this morning’s sermon came from a sermon preached by the Rev. Grace Imathiu. Her sermon, entitled “After Jesus Was Born,” was preached on May 22, 2018, at the Festival of Homiletics in Washington, DC