In the time of King Herod
Rev. Doug Goodwin
University Hill United Church : Sun, January 2, 2005
“In the time of King Herod”… that’s how this story starts… and immediately we know that the story we are about to hear will not be an easy, gentle one. It starts with the real world, with harsh reality, with known cruelty and callousness, with betrayal and death and brutality… all the things that Herod was known for and stood for. This is no “once upon a time” beginning. And the ending is not “and they lived happily ever after.” This story is bracketed by Herod, beginning and ending. In Matthew’s gospel, Matthew’s witness to the good news, the good news is surrounded by the real, harsh world. In fact, Herod dominates this story. Of these eighteen verses Herod controls the action in sixteen of them. Matthew did not shy away from recognizing that the good news of Christ is almost buried in an unforgiving world, in a cruel world, in a world where innocent children and babies die. That’s what makes it an incarnational story… the story of incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us… because it is a story of being in carnal, bracketed by Herod, in the midst of the life of Herod, in real life, in flesh, and because in flesh, then also in death. Two weeks ago I had all kinds of good ideas for today’s sermon; it would just be a matter of choosing the right theme, maybe stolen from one of Ed’s earlier sermons from past Epiphanies. Gerald had picked out some wonderful Epiphany hymns. The ceramic magi were closing in on the cave and I knew how I wanted the time with the children to go. This week all that changed. Jesus as the light of the world makes sense when the world is light, right?… but when it is dark….. that is when we cannot rely upon our own senses and imaginations but need to feed off of the stories, to listen again to how even in the midst of the world of Herod, a child – the Child – was born. If we are to speak about Epiphany – which means something like manifestation, or unveiling, or revealing the truth — if we are to be people who worship in the Chapel of the Epiphany, as we do, we need to know how to cling to and point to the light of Jesus in the midst of Herod’s world… in the midst of a world where our parents age and die, where loved ones have cancer or AIDS, where our children sometimes get lost and confused, where 150,000 die. We need the courage and eyes of Matthew to hear and tell the story in the midst of Herod. We could read parts of this story with humour or with a spirit of whimsy. It is easier to do so if we stopped with the magi returning home another way, the place we usually stop – Herod fooled, the baby given gifts, magi heading home… everyone happy. But not today; not this week. We read further than usual and find out that Herod may have been fooled but not beaten. He fights back as cruelty does, and we end with the inconsolable grief of a mother crying for her children. Today we read with the ache of asking “where is God?”, what epiphany is there here?, and we see the story differently. Perhaps you notice, as I did, that for an epiphany there is not much unveiled here… and what little there is is hardly noticed. No one notices except some foreigners, and them suspect because they practiced the forbidden, ungodly discipline of astrology. That wasn’t acceptable in Israel. They were not God’s people. And even they caught only a glimpse, a rising star, probably unnoticed by everyone else, and they recognized it only enough to get them to Jerusalem where they had to ask directions. It is not an auspicious beginning. When God enters the world, the world does not really notice. Herod finds the directions and sends the magi on their way… but now they are a threat to Jesus for they are now spies. If they find Jesus, it means his death, but if they do not then there is no epiphany. There is nothing to show to the world, nothing revealed, no story worth telling. The world of Herod threatens the epiphany, the truth-telling. Doesn’t it? I love that part about the star appearing before them again and stopping over the place where the child was. I am mystified by it. How does a star stop over your house? I know all the Hallmark Christmas cards have the star with a huge tail on it lighting up a manger scene… but forget that for a moment. If an epiphany is a star stopping over your house, how do you actually know it is an epiphany at all? How do you know a star has stopped over your house when the rest of the world sees only the usual night sky? How does faith see Christ when the rest of the world sees, well, whatever it sees? It is a very tenuous thing to be able to see the Christ, especially in times of trouble… at least as difficult as being able to know that a star has stopped directly over your house. And the little bit of epiphany there was is kept alive only through another very tenuous strategy – a dream. The magi are told in a dream not to return to Herod but to go another way. They, for some reason, listen to the dream… and the dream is what keeps Jesus alive. Where do we see Jesus in the midst of this world? Where do we see Jesus this week? And Matthew reminds us… not, he doesn’t remind us, he instructs us… that epiphany is not obvious. It is fragile, tenuous, dreamlike, vulnerable as an unnoticed baby in a god-forsaken little village, witnessed to by unreliable witnesses. Epiphany, truth-telling, might be little more than unreliable witnesses telling the story of a star that stops over a house, of a baby within, of a dream obeyed. We would prefer an epiphany in power. I certainly would, some irrefutable demonstration, proof, of God’s power, God’s control… heck, just God’s presence. Show me! How many times have I prayed that, especially this past couple of years. Show me yourself! Speak loudly, just once. As a fairly young child – a budding theologian, obviously – I remember asking my mother, “why didn’t Jesus come down off the cross?” That would show everyone. That would be an epiphany worth proclaiming. It is not one that Matthew offers. Epiphany is only a handful of witnesses, a star, a baby… hardly noticeable at all. In contrast, many of us had a life-shaking epiphany this past week, a revealing, a tearing away of illusion – the illusion that beaches anywhere on this globe are for suntanning and pleasure, that the earth is always a caring Mother Earth, that the world is on solid foundations. We have long known it, I guess, but somehow now we really understand that we are on a thin crust of shifting rock floating on a ball of liquid fire. I think it was the callousness of the earthquake and tsunami, and the resulting need to treat bodies with the same kind of callousness, that strikes me hard… as if people do not matter, as if the life and death of a little child means nothing… the kind of callousness of Herod when he ordered the deaths of all children two years old and under. Historians suggest that if this actually happened there would have been a maximum of about twenty children killed. Tradition over the centuries recognized that the cruelty that would kill babies could not be managed by manageable statistics so it assigned unthinkable numbers to the death toll, up to 144,000. The solitary child, Jesus, could almost be forgotten, overlooked, neglected, in the face of such tragedy. Did you notice in this story that the title most often used of Jesus is “child”? It could have been Saviour, or king, or Messiah, or even Jesus but it is not; it is “the child.” And did you notice that he does not do anything? If this is an epiphany, it is a strange epiphany. In the midst of this story of Herod’s unchecked power, in the middle of this week’s story of unimaginable destruction, we overhear the counter-story of a baby, dependant upon foreigners, a star, dreams, escape… and somehow are asked to call this one “Jesus”, God saves. At the beginning of the story, “God saves” means a baby threatened by Herod’s power and cruelty. Near the end of the story “God saves” means a cross which is the instrument of Roman power and cruelty. That is the story we tell… and tell over and over again, Sunday after Sunday, because we can hardly believe it. In the face of naked power manifested in the ability to kill, we look to a vulnerable baby, a crucified man. I don’t blame most of the world for not believing it. In the face of the tragedies and grief we face, that the world faces, clinging to a manger and a cross seems too small, too vulnerable, too unsteady, too unsure. But it is the only story we as Christians have; it is our epiphany, the light we follow and, really, the only light we shed. Earth spoke with a power and fury and cruelty December 26 that we may have been told about and glimpsed from time to time but now is unavoidable. The sound of Rachel weeping for her children is too loud, too inconsolable, to turn from. We recognize those cries. And we know, although it is hard to believe and harder to see, that that is not the whole story. It is just part of an even larger story, one not often noticed, one almost whispered, where a child is born – vulnerable, hunted, almost forgotten – who is the Child Jesus, God saves. What Child is this in a world where Herod reigns, where the earth’s surface slips and thousands die? What Child is this when the earth’s epiphany is so huge, destructive, callous? What Child is this whose epiphany is so quiet, so unobtrusive, little more than a whisper, a rumour, a story told over and over again among small groups of people like this group here… who is known in a small morsel of bread, in a sip of juice? A child born in a manger, witnessed hardly at all, killed on a cross… a story from start to finish surrounded by loss and grief… a story that ends in resurrection. If this is the light of epiphany, it is not much light to cling to... but maybe, just maybe, the epiphany observed by the magi is actually a true one, and maybe, just maybe, the gospel writer John is right when he says, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Thanks be to God. Amen.