Dangerous business – Dec 29, 2019
Christmas is dangerous business. As much as I, perhaps like you, would like to just stick with the tenderness and lullabies and good feelings of our cultural celebration of Christmas, the Gospel marches on. And as much as we might wish it otherwise, the Gospel is not a Hallmark Christmas movie, with its sticky sweet plot and guaranteed happy ending. Of course, we know the gospel does have a happy ending, of a sort, but the journey to get there… and the on-going journey of faith, is far more wrought than the holiday movies we love so much. Christmas, we are reminded today, is dangerous business.
Christmas is about God breaking into the world… again… proclaiming peace and justice for those who need it the most. Christmas is about “God with us” in a new way, to show us the way… God’s way. And the rulers of this world will not stand a new system breaking in. They will act, as quickly as possible, to maintain the status quo. Through the wise men in the story immediately before what we hear today, the story of Epiphany that we’ll actually hear next week, King Herod hears that a child has been born king of the Jews. And he is afraid, and all Jerusalem with him. “A king is born, but a king is already here; and there is room for only one king.” (NIB, 139) Anyone claiming otherwise… anyone claiming a different authority in their life or in the world, is a threat to the existing authority. There can only be one supreme authority.
It has always been thus. Further back in our sacred history than Christmas, way back at the beginning of the book of Exodus, we hear how the king of Egypt felt threatened by God’s people. The Israelites had fled to Egypt to escape a famine in the land and it went well for a time. But then “a new king arose over Egypt… [so the story goes. This new king saw that] ‘the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them…’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour… They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them… [but still the Israelites grew strong. And so] The king of Egypt [commanded the midwives to kill any boys born to Hebrew women.] When that didn’t work as well as he had hoped, “Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’” (Exodus 1:8-22) It was a massacre of the innocents. And yet when Moses, a new Israelite leader was born, he escaped Pharaoh’s evil and led his people to freedom.
And now here we are, so many years later. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, to save the people from sin. And yet a most insidious nature of sin is becoming what we hate. King Herod is the new Pharaoh. Back in Exodus, it’s the Egyptians oppressing and murdering the Israelites; now it’s the Judeans doing it to their own. Such is the power of sin: we become what we hate. To become our anti-selves, the anti-us, is a great temptation. The rock band U2 once sang about it in their song “Peace on Earth” with the lyric: “And you become a monster, so the monster will not break you.” To avoid pain or vulnerability or suffering, we become what we hate. The abused becomes the abuser. The victim transforms into the perpetrator. The line between these roles is shockingly, frighteningly, thin and porous. King Herod is the new Pharaoh and Jesus is in danger.
Herod is significantly invested in the status quo, because it benefits him. And not just him, but others too. It is tempting to dismiss King Herod as pure evil. An anomaly. A mad man. But we do so at our peril. King Herod the Great, the first King Herod, who is the Herod in this story today, also did a lot of good in and for his kingdom. In many ways, he was a good leader. He did a lot to put Judea on the map… economically, in terms of trade, and infrastructure. You can actually tour some of his incredible accomplishments in Israel still today. Most notably, at Herodion, just 12 km south of Jerusalem and 5 km SE of Bethlehem, King Herod the Great built a palace fortress and small town on this highest peak in the Judean desert. He is believed to be buried there. It was overtaken and destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish war around 70 CE, but in modern times, Herodium has been excavated and is a designated national park in Israel.
An incredible building campaign was one of the ways King Herod the Great did a lot to enrich certain people, certainly the elites. So people were willing to make all kinds of concessions to him. If killing a bunch of little kids is necessary to maintain the good times, to avoid disrupting the status quo, well… as one commentator describes: “I can imagine a lot of people saying: ‘This is the price of doing business in the modern world. Some people have to die. And we’re going to have to trust Herod on this, because if Herod gets mad at us, we’re going to lose, this, this and this… The people who die are just chalked up to collateral damage by onlookers. Yeah, this is horrible, but Herod’s been really good to us.” (WP)
It happens again and again, in all manner of times and all manner of places. Modern Israel has built settlements on disputed land and created thousands of Palestinian refugees along the way, who have now lived in camps for decades. There is no disputing that Jewish people have been victims of violence and oppression far too much through history. The modern state of Israel has also treated others with violence and oppression.
Here in our own province, a tragic dichotomy has been set up in recent years between our energy sector and the environment. There are those on both sides who benefit from pitting oil workers and businesses against those who want to prioritize environmental protection and transitioning our economy away from such a reliance on oil and gas. Key in our decision-making is what matters the most. Underlying many arguments, on both sides, are values about who or what is expendable… what is the acceptable price for doing business?
For many months now, we’ve seen the status quo in Hong Kong threatened by a government bill that led to concerns that Hong Kong residents and visitors would be subject to the jurisdiction and legal system of mainland China. And the status quo is threatened by the resulting mass protests in favour of protecting civil liberties. We saw a massacre to regain control back in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. Is there a necessary sacrifice this time, so that the powerful can maintain their authority?
We make such trade-offs regularly. It is why Christmas is such dangerous business. A new king is born, threatening the kings who are already here. If God has broken into the world, again, this Christmas, what status quo could be disrupted in your life, or our life together as the community of St. Andrew’s? If God is with us in a new way this Christmas, to show us the way, what other ways might need to be let go? As our story goes on, we must guard against the temptation to become what we hate – to become a monster, so the monster will not break us.
And we must remember that as God’s own self lies vulnerable in the manger, God makes a way for life. God did so for Moses. And God does so for Jesus in our story today, with warnings and travels to and fro. And God will do so for us. God always makes a way for life… even through the dangerous business of Christmas.