Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Christmas, Herod, Jesus, slaughter of innocents, vision
The splendor of the LORD is over earth and heaven. (Ps. 148:13)
Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers in Christ. I hope you all enjoyed a wonderful Christmas! Jeff and I have enjoyed three Christmas celebrations, and are still on our way to enjoying two more. We decorated for Christmas back in November, and we’re likely to remain bedecked until late January. Our central focus is our Christmas tree. I have fond childhood memories of bundling up, walking through rows of trees- poking, prodding, shaking, and measuring until we found our perfect family Christmas tree. I remember the pungent aroma of pine filling our home with holiday perfume. Jeff and I have a fake tree. But I have no less a fond memory of coming upon our perfect tree at a church garage sale. And there was something classically Christmas about our fluffing wire branches and balancing the tipsy treetop on its base. While I may enjoy hours of looking at our tree, its blinking lights, or remembering Christmases past through my ornaments, Jeff’s focus has been centered under the tree. He’s been watching with childlike glee as presents slowly emerged throughout the season. As we entered the weekend before Christmas, questions of when those presents would be opened began. I enjoyed our home gift exchange. But I remember as a child, exchanging gifts, especially at my grandparents’ home, always made me rather anxious. I might not be very excited about a new sweater or socks. But my Mom told me I had to look really happy with any gift I got.
Our practices of gift-giving are bound up in our social conventions. Show gratitude for whatever gifts you’re given. Always write thank-you cards. Be sure to give a gift to those who give you one. Gift-exchanging binds us to others. Sometimes we’re able to give a gift to someone in return for their gift to us. At other times, gifts are simply more extravagant than we could ever reciprocate. Faced with such a gift, we have a choice: refuse the gift and avoid any sense of indebtedness, accept the gift and constantly strive to repay the debt, or simply accept the gift as a gift, given in love, and allow ourselves to be changed by that love, that we reflect it to others. Jesus’ birth is a great gift. In our Christmas readings, we heard the angels declare his birth as good news for all people. And yet today’s Gospel is filled with anything but good news. We hear a horrifying story of King Herod slaughtering all the children under two. Herod is a Jew, serving as a puppet king for the oppressing Roman forces, over his own Jewish people. He is in a precarious position, unlikely to be adored by his own people, and yet not able to be completely accepted by the Roman ruling culture. Here is a portrait of a man in great fear and paranoia, a man for whom any gift carries with it complicated political and personal pressures. Raised as a Jew, one would expect that he would be waiting and hoping for the promised Messiah. But he just can’t accept this gift of God’s love. To accept Jesus would be to free himself from the systems of oppression that he has become complicit in.
Herod doesn’t have the depth of vision to recognize God, Rome, or himself. He just can’t place things in the right order. He doesn’t recognize that he is a limited person, with limited power. Or perhaps he recognizes his limitations all too well, and so he is trying desperately to protect himself from anyone who would be a threat to his position. He closes his eyes to the casualties of the Roman occupation. He is like the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh in the story of Moses. Who is so focused on himself, that he orders mass killings of young children. Who only worries about himself as his people are suffering under the oppression he helped to create. Who rejects the one God sends to save all people. Clouding his vision is an image of himself in central importance, in power, in control. Who can God be to one so trapped in an illusion? Does Herod see God as sanctioning his ruling role? Or is he in opposition to a God who would favor the oppressed? These wise men from the East, who tricked Herod, must have recognized in Herod’s eager questioning about the birth of the new king, not joy that God has sent a savior into the world, but self-centered fear. But Herod isn’t the only one who is lacking a depth of vision. I wonder if you can think of anyone else who can only see about this far in front of his or her face. Could it be me? Could it be you? What do we do with the good news of Christmas? What do we do with the knowledge that God comes into our world as a dependent infant? That this Jesus spends his life teaching and healing, and eventually dying to bring in the kingdom of God?
We celebrate among family and friends, sharing gifts of love and generosity. Here at Zion we extended our celebrations to join in ethnic festivities and neighborhood parties and provisions. But now that our season of giving is over and a new year is beginning, I wonder what we will do with the good news of Christmas? Does the birth of a savior really mean good news for us? Herod didn’t think so. But he did recognize the power of this savior to change the world. He had enough faith to recognize that being on the opposite side of this new king would be dangerous to his career. He just couldn’t get the depth of vision to recognize that this savior was coming to save him. Herod couldn’t recognize that while salvation might mean relinquishing his power over others, it would bring him more freedom and peace than he was able to experience while he was enslaved to his vision of self-importance. What is our depth of vision? Even though we aren’t in Iowa or New Hampshire, I don’t think we have been deaf to the political process in full swing around us. I’ve been hearing that pollsters are learning that Americans are now more concerned with issues of money- the economy and health care- than foreign policy and our war. Does our vision stop at our country’s borders? Do we need to hunker down and declare ourselves the last enclave of Christian society? Or is it just the reality of our lives that we need to take care of our own matters before we have the resources to expand beyond our immediate needs? Herod’s story leads me to question my depth of vision and my self-focus pushing God to the periphery. Psalm 148 leads me to consider breadth of vision. This ancient song asks me, “what does not praise God”? And I begin to realize that my breadth of vision is altogether too narrow. When Friday’s storm hit and I thought to myself, “really, another winter storm”, all I cared about was myself and the fact that I’d be spending another three hours in the car, inching along and hoping I wouldn’t crash. I really needed to open my eyes wider and see the absolute beauty of the fresh snowfall. What joy could be mine if I only considered the delicate intricacies of each tiny snowflake, a silent testimony to God’s awesome creative power. Or if I had sat nearer the earth and considered how the bulbs I so carefully planted this fall were slowly preparing for their new spring birth and that this fresh snowfall would provide the necessary moisture for their life. Even a Christmas tree declares God’s praise. We spend so much of our time in filtered and temperature controlled buildings that I think we miss something that the ancient Hebrew people must have caught on to. They were aware that God’s praises are sung by fruit trees and shining stars, snow and fog, even the great sea monsters. It is good that God’s praises are found on the lips of those gathering in churches around the world this morning, but it is not only on our lips that praise of the Creator is sung.
The great promise of Christmas is this: that unto us a savior is born, Christ the king, who is God with us. But this promise is much greater than our near-sighted and narrow vision often allows. Jesus Christ, through whom all of creation came into being, comes to creation, born in Mary’s womb. The fear that is a part of living with a self-centered focus is not a fear we need live with. Jesus Christ comes to all creation, to those forces of nature we do not understand and cannot control, to the stranger in our world who we do not know and whom we may fear, and to us, however powerful or insignificant we may feel on any given day. God does not leave us alone with our troubled vision. God comes to us and will keep coming to us even when we lose sight of God.
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