Herod - then and now A non lectionary sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23
Councillor David Horton gets it wrong. In The Vicar of Dibley the local councillor gets asked to play the part of Herod in the local nativity. Unable to accept that poor shepherds might be closer to God than Israel’s King - albeit a puppet King who danced to Rome’s instructions - Horton subverts the nativity by giving sweets to the children leading one to pitifully reply;
“I Love you Herod.”
The reality is that Herod could have gone a fair way to writing “The Prince” fifteen hundred years before Machiavelli wrote his masterpiece of political cynicism.
He had ability. He left quite a legacy of building projects. And he knew how to play diplomacy somehow managing to walk a tightrope between the demands of his Roman masters and a Jewish people who never regarded him as one of their own.
His reign begun with an act of bloodshed in which he massacred practically the whole of the Sanhedrin. It ended with a King by now crippled with extreme pain having a great number of distinguished people brought to Jericho with instructions (not carried out as it turns out) left for them to be killed on Herod’s death so that his death might be accompanied by displays of grieving.
As for his family, he killed a number of relatives including at least three sons and his favourite wife. Not for nothing did Caesar Augustus comment that it was better to be such a man’s swine than to be his son.
So David Horton aside, most of us feel discomfort at Herod figuring in the Christmas story. Now to be fair theologians have long debated the historicity of the story of the massacre of children in Bethlehem. Some argue that this story is more about Matthew’s gospel proclamation than it is about history. Certainly there are no historical records that attest to such a massacre although it might be argued that if confined to Bethlehem the numbers killed would be small and thus ignored. Quite frankly it strikes me as a case of you pays your money and makes your choice.
But the story is such that it should never be ignored. It is a story that takes us into the darkness of the world. It is a powerful response to the sort of facile optimism that fails to take evil seriously and believes we can simply be happy all the day. Indeed it reminds us that it is for a world of imperfections that sometimes are horrifically grotesque that Jesus came.
In fact in this regard Matthew offers a similar understanding to John’s Gospel. There the evangelist speaks of light entering a world in which there is darkness. Matthew demonstrates this through the Herod story. And Christian hope suggests that wherever the darkness’s of cruelty and injustice exist Christ shines a light and bids us to join in incarnational ministry by bringing light to the darkest corners of our communities and world.
Back to the story. The Holy Family under threat are forced as others had been in previous centuries to seek refuge in Egypt that had once been a place of bondage. Israel has become unsafe. Only in Egypt can they be safe. And in this we see a story constantly repeated today as millions of people live as refugees across the globe often badly treated which makes it good news that next year Nottingham City Council are set to make Nottingham one of a number of Cities of Santuary in the UK. Indeed according to Matthew when the Holy Family return home after Herod’s death they are forced to return not to Bethlehem but due to the brutality of Archelaus who now rules in Judea to go north to Nazareth and the relative safety of an area ruled by another son of Herod where in the meantime there had been a devastating massacre by Rome’s army but a short time earlier less than an hours walk away.
But this is a story that must not be left in the past. For it is in so many ways an ongoing story. Indeed I would suggest that what should concern us more today is the ongoing presence of Herod. Look to resource conflicts around the world in places such a Congo. Look to the sale of weaponry to countries that cannot afford the bare necessities for their own peoples. Look to tyrants waging wars on their own people as with Assad’s Syria to use but one of many examples. Look to the use of torture in so many countries and it being ignored when convenient by other counties and yes standby for gloomy revelations of our country being caught up in at the very least covering up of some renditions to the torturers of Damascus and Tripoli amongst others during the past decade. Look to those who have sought refuge but are deported to places such as Uzbekistan as has been British practice for a number of years. Look to gang war on the streets. Look to the continued rampage of diseases such as HIV and the all too common failure to provide the necessary drugs to sufferers and would be sufferers. Look to the lives blighted by alcohol, drugs and yes the insidious disease that is gambling. Look to the homes where there is choice between consuming heat or food. Look to the homes where unemployment low pay or whatever mean than not just adults but children also lose the capacity to hope. Look to a rich west where incredibly many are consigned to dependence on food banks. Just look!
For this Jesus will soon tell us that he has come for the most vulnerable. He will speak of bringing life with abundance. Still he struggles with Herod.
But because we recognise with John’s gospel that darkness cannot put out the light of Christ, we move forwards even into 2012 with hope in our hearts. We gaze in wonder at possibilities for transformation knowing that being a friend of justice is part of the calling of followers of Jesus. And then engage with the cries for justice because anything else is playing games!