Again, we prepare to wait. We wait for Christmas and for the Christ child to be born among us.
We hear the stories and it is tempting to leave them as a story all on their own but our scripture is only powerful for us if we can read our own story between the lines. Most of us will have heard the Christmas story and we know how it goes. We know about Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus. We know about the shepherds and we even know about the wise men or magi bringing Jesus gifts. And that’s where the story often ends but there is more to it than that.
This particular part of the story focuses on Herod and his response to the news of Jesus’ birth. We know from history books that Herod was a violent and absolute ruler. He ruled with a reign of terror. The people in his corner of the Roman Empire were afraid of him.
The magi arrive at Herod’s palace looking for the infant king. Perhaps they arrived making a common assumption that the new king would be born in the palace. But imagine their surprise when they realized that Jesus was not born in a palace. Imagine Herod’s surprise to have someone knocking on his door looking for an infant king. “Nobody told me there was a new king in town.”
Herod has to decide what to do. He begins by gathering information. First he calls all the priests, religious leaders, the educated people asks them what they know about a new king.
The story quite intentionally pits Jesus the infant king against Herod the ruthless ruler. The Magi just showed up on Herod’s doorstep and announced to the current king that they are looking for a new king. Now Herod sends them off on a mission to find the new king so that he can worship and honour this new king that is about to usurp his throne. And the magi have to choose where their allegiance lies. Does it lie with the ruthless king who is terrorizing the people or does it lie with the infant whose future is yet undetermined?
We are told that Herod was afraid of Jesus. His supporters were also afraid of him. The people of Jerusalem lived in fear of Herod. When Herod ordered the killing of infants, he was obeyed. Everyone knew what life under Herod would be like. It would continue in much the same way that it always had. It would continue under the rule of the Roman Empire with the brutality and violence that kings and empires throughout history are known for.
Herod is afraid of losing his power. He is afraid that someone else is going to take over what has been his kingdom. Herod dealt with his fear of losing power through violence. He destroyed anyone who he thought was a threat. Herod was afraid and his rule created fear. It’s a bit of a vicious circle.
But Jesus, when he grew up, became a different kind of king. Jesus became a king where people were invited into abundant life. Jesus became a king that lived with love and compassion and expected love and compassion of his followers. Jesus did not force anyone to follow him. It was always by invitation. He did not rule by fear and he invited people to let go of their fear and step into God’s kingdom. And to follow Jesus, to be part of a faith community, to let go of our fear, to take risk continues to be an invitation extended to us.
We continue to choose which king we will follow. As people of faith, we choose to follow Jesus even though we still live in a world and a land ruled in a way that produces fear.
Our culture tells us that there are limited resources in the world. We will never have enough and so our default is often to fear there will not be enough. Our fear encourages to “batten down the hatches and hold on tight” to protect what we have. Ted Grimsrud suggests that Jesus’ way of being king created conflict because it required people to let go of their fear of scarcity. In our own community we have this tension between scarcity and abundance. This week the abundance was clear as people gave of their time, their finances, and other resources to help people displaced by fire. This is the kingdom that Jesus was trying to create where people help one another in times of crisis without thinking about their own sense of lack. In those moments there is abundance. As a congregation and individuals we need to choose whether we will live with fear or take a risk and be open to Jesus’ invitation to belong to his kingdom.
Fear suggests that there is something we need to be aware of and something we need to pay attention to. Our choice lies in how we respond to the fear. We can respond by trying to maintain the status quo and sometimes we want to do that because it is comfortable and familiar. Sometimes the status quo fits with cultural expectations of how the world should function. If we stay in the fear, we might feel like the future will continue in much the same way as the past and present.
Before I was in ministry, I had training is social work and worked with people with disabilities. There are a lot of similarities between social work and ministry—the ways in which we deal with people in crisis, the attempt to break down barriers and the ways in which we try to build up community are similar. What I found when I was doing social work was that I missed being able to connect my faith with my work.
One of my clients came to me asking whether or not his mom was in heaven with Jesus. We talked a bit about the ways in which we continue to be connected to people we love whether they are alive or dead. Shortly after that another client came to me saying that she was really angry with God about something that had happened in her life. We talked about the anger and how God can handle it even when it seems too much for us. My manager found out that these conversations were happening and I was told not to talk about faith at work. I was quite clear that I was not initiating the conversations and that I was not attempting to convert anyone but it didn’t matter. Faith was not allowed. There was a fear of offending someone. There was a fear I would be zealous in my faith and even though my faith might not be offensive someone else’s might be and therefore no faith was better. Shortly after this experience I started the discernment process towards becoming a minister. I could no longer live with a split between my faith and my vocation.
As I have grown into ministry and worked with many congregations I see this tension at work in congregations. My home congregation is closing even though they have lots of money in the bank. They were left a bequest, became afraid that they would close when the money was gone and so they focused on preserving their money. The fear of losing what they had became the thing that defined the congregation. They lost sight of how God could work through them.
One of the ways we can deal with fear is to try to control as many variables as possible. Our culture teaches us to be rational, to think clearly about any decision, to make sure we have answered all the possible questions. And that is what Herod does in the story. He goes looking for information because he is afraid. His response to fear is more control and our culture continues to teach this lesson. Herod wanted to hang on to the power he had and did so without consideration for violence and destruction of other lives. Life is never going to be good with Herod in power but it is what the people know. The fear feeds itself prevents positive change from happening.
But there is also another response to fear in this story. Imagine Mary and Joseph hearing that Herod was going to kill Jesus. Imagine the Magi’s fear that they have unintentionally put not just Jesus but many babies at risk by alerting Herod. They could try to hide in their houses. They could try to gather a group of townspeople and defend their community together. But they chose something else. They didn’t rationally think up a plan. Mary and Joseph responded to a dream and left everything and everyone they knew to live in another land. Not because it was particularly logical but because it had come to them in dream. They were drawn to the intuitive part of their faith, the part of their faith that spoke to them in dreams and visions.
We also need to be open to the part of our faith that speaks to us intuitively and that maybe isn’t as rational or concrete as we have been taught. This is the part of our faith that has the ability to transform lives and the world. It can be hard, even in a church community, to talk about God. In many cases our rationality trumps God. If we take God out of the equation then we are no different from the social work job I started with…One with good intentions but one that cuts us off from our source and our ability to dream. When we cut ourselves off from God we are no different from the culture around us.
I have been taught to value stability. In a world of constant change it might feel like we need a place of stability and the church should be that place. Stability does not equal abundance. Life under Herod was stable but not safe. Mary and Joseph setting off towards Egypt was neither safe nor stable and yet that journey allowed Jesus to live, to thrive and to become a gift to the world. We need to be able to risk the journey into the unknown.
We can choose only in the land ruled by fear or we can choose to follow Jesus even in the midst of that fear. Jesus invites us to live in two kingdoms at once: the kingdom that our culture creates around us and God’s kingdom. When you step into God’s kingdom things look different. No one requires you to be a part of the kingdom. It isn’t based on geography. You choose God’s kingdom because it is one of love and compassion and because in God’s kingdom we can imagine a world transformed into something better than what we have. Entering God’s kingdom allows us to let go of fear and open ourselves to the intuitive part of our faith. This is the part that we can’t necessarily explain.
This is an invitation that is open to all of us—from youngest to oldest. We are always welcome. When we choose God’s kingdom we often do it imperfectly. Even when we want to live in the kingdom Jesus creates we still hurt each other, we still respond with fear at particular moments, sometimes we can’t see the love and compassion that surrounds us and sometimes we do close ourselves off from the dreams and intuition that is necessary for faith.
We aren’t expected to get it right every moment. But as we come closer to Christmas and the birth of an infant king we are invited to choose whether we will live only by Herod’s rule of fear or whether we will live by Jesus’ way of compassion and love and fear transformed.