Matt 2- The death of the innocents

Our Gospel lesson today is not the sentimental picture we are used to seeing associated with the birth of Jesus. In the life of Jesus danger seems to be always looming. The birth of Jesus disturbs the balance of power. The messiah will bring with him a kingdom that is in opposition to the oppressive powers of this world.

The powers of this world are not comfortable with Jesus. The Pharisees are bothered by him. The priests, the Sadducees, and eventually the Roman Empire, represented by Pontius Pilate, are all disturbed by the presence of Jesus. Those who have power in this world do not want to give it up, and don’t like having their power challenged.

Jesus will deal with constant opposition from the powers in this world and we see the beginning of this in our Gospel reading. King Herod was a bit of a puppet king placed in power under the Roman Empire. One of the things rulers like Herod are most paranoid about is loss of their power. Herod even killed three of his own children for treason near the end of his life. We see this same sort of paranoia in Pharaoh in the Exodus story when he commands the killing of the Hebrew children out of fear that the Hebrews will rise up against him. In Herod we see a man with great power who is paranoid about the potential loss of it. He realizes how fragile his power actually is. And so, when he hears about the birth of this particular child, he is especially afraid.

Strangers arrive in Herod's kingdom. They are stargazers or magicians, and somehow from a distant land they noticed something that has happened right under Herod's nose, and Herod has missed it entirely. A new king of the Jews has been born. And of course where else would the king of the Jews be born but in the powerful city of Jerusalem, so that is where they go to look for the child. Herod, the present "king of the Jews" hears about the newly born king from strangers, who arrive from another land, and who are foreign Gentiles. When King Herod hears this news he is surprised and frightened.

Herod gathers his scholars to find out where Scripture says the child king would be born. His scholars report to him that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Herod then secretly calls the magi to him to pass on the information. The last thing he wants is for the people to flood into Bethlehem and replace him with a mere child. So he secretly calls them to himself and after finding out how old the child would be according to when the star appeared to the magi, he sent them off saying, 
"Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
 And when we hear Herod say this we should hear a hiss. He has no plans to pay homage. He sees the child as a threat and would have the messiah killed to protect his fragile throne. He would use the magi to find the child, but when the magi escape Herod's manipulative tactics, he turns to violence killing the children two years and younger in and around Bethlehem.

The Gospel is describing the kind of world Jesus is born into. Jesus is born into a world where a powerful king will kill children out of fear. Jesus is born into a world where children are killed to protect the power and control of tyrants. He is born into a world where the powerful get their way- regardless of right and wrong.

We still live in a world where the powerful get their way. Even killing children who threaten their power, control, and ideals. We look back to Nazi Germany and we see Jewish children being killed for the ideals of Nazism. More recently we can look back to the genocide in Rwanda where children were slaughtered over the ideals of an ethnic group. In China there have been strict and brutal policies concerning who is allowed to have children and how many. If the child didn’t fit into the government's ideal of the 'one child policy', or the social ideal of having sons rather than daughters, then the child may be killed. Sometimes they aren't killed. Sometimes they are offered as living sacrifices. We sacrifice children in sweat shops as we seek cheap clothing. In some places children die as they seek clean water while we complain about cell phone connectivity. … 
Did you know that Iceland has almost completely eliminated Down’s Syndrome?  Through prenatal screening they can tell if the child will have certain disorders and they have an almost 100% termination rate when the child has been confirmed by these tests to have a disorder. I get that this is controversial, but shouldn’t we stop and ask ourselves what this says about how we value people that don’t fit into our image of success? … Many children are sacrificed because there are considered inconvenient in the society we have created. There have always been vulnerable people sacrificed for the sake of certain images of success.

This image recurs in modern stories too. Harry potter is the boy who stands in the way of Voldemort getting what he wants. In the Mandalorian, "Baby Yoda" seems to be a threat to the empire and they seek to eliminate him.

Lest we feel too self-righteous, Herod can sometimes live inside us as well. He lives in us when we abuse our power, and conveniently overlook the vulnerable. Our culture gives us a certain vision of success. Sometimes we put that vision of success ahead of people’s lives, and sometimes that leads to people suffering. The homeless, those with mental illness, the elderly, those who are severely disabled, children, and the unborn are all potential victims when people try to hold onto a particular image of success over the value a person. The vulnerable are usually those with little voice and little ability to fight back when confronted with oppression. When we place society’s vision of success ahead of people that can't defend themselves the Herod within us is exposed. … If we were to follow the Christian vision of love, then instead of seeing people who are threats to our power and success we would instead see people created in God's image.

The child, Jesus, and the movement he starts will challenge the power of tyrants. Yes, Jesus is born into a world of violence and manipulation. … Jesus is born into a world that needs to be saved. … The power of Jesus breaks that voice we live with that says that the powerful always get their way. There is another kind of power available now.

When the Magi were searching for truth. God gave them a sign in the sky. King Herod tried to manipulate the magi to help him find the Messiah in order to kill the baby who is his competition. However, God used King Herod and his scholars to point the magi in the right direction using the Scriptures. It is God's will that prevails, not the tyrant’s will. God then uses a dream to protect the wisemen. And then another dream is given to Joseph, the baby's father, which thwarts Herod's plans to kill the messiah. God's will prevails.

Eventually, the child is ready to face the tyrants of this world. Jesus chooses to stand before them. They give Jesus all the brutality they can muster. The powers of the world torture and kill Jesus on a cross. And when they are tired and believe that the threat of Jesus is behind them, three days after the battle Jesus comes out of the tomb, and dusts himself off. And they have nothing more to throw at him. Jesus took it all onto himself, and he came back.

The power of tyrants will come to an end. … But, the power of Jesus is the power that created the stars and keeps them in existence. He was not born in a place of power, like a palace in Jerusalem. He was born in the humble town of Bethlehem, and placed in a manger used for feeding animals. He will eventually enter Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war horse. He will rule, but it will not be the rule of a Tyrant. Jesus will rule like a shepherd who loves his sheep. He will choose followers, but they will not be Herods, or Pharoahs, or Roman emperors, each with an army. The followers he chooses will be fishermen, tax collectors-  ordinary people. They were the vulnerable- uneducated, and from a people under the boot of an occupying army. The kingdom Jesus sets up is an alternative power- its people work differently, its politics function differently. In the kingdom, power is not used to crush the defenseless. Jesus even says that it is in the least that we find him and serve him. He identifies with the vulnerable.

Jesus' kingdom and his people cannot be destroyed because that kingdom is Jesus himself and the people are the Body of Christ, which though they may lay in the tomb briefly, will eventually rise again. We, as the followers of Christ, have the power available to us to stand against Tyrants who use their power to kill toddlers to protect their fragile throne. AMEN


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