After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.
Matthew 2:1-3 CEB
Matthew begins his Gospel ironically. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, City of David, fulfillment of the messianic hopes of Israel. And yet the first to recognize and to worship him are the magi, Gentile stargazing magicians, immigrants from the east. An even greater irony: compromised, corrupted, lackey-for-the-oppressive-Romans Herod, though he knew little of the scriptures knows enough to be “troubled” along with nine-out-of-ten Judeans. What does the future hold? Can a baby threaten the government? Is there some other operative in history other than the empire?
The Feast of the Nativity, Christmas, could be the most “political” time of the Christian year. Matthew doesn’t give us the babe lying sweetly in the manger with adoring shepherds and singing angels. Instead, Matthew gives us once powerful Herod trembling in his boots, cowering like a frightened rabbit, terrified by the thought of this bombshell of a baby. There’s a new king in town who rules not from the Herod Tower in Jerusalem but from a stable in backwoods Bethlehem, welcomed not by the biblical scholars at the temple but rather by immigrant nonbelievers from the East.
Eventually, Herod will get his act together, move decisively, and ensure national security — his troops will slaughter Judean boy babies (Matt 2:16-18). That’s what kings do when national sovereignty is threatened. The state’s answer to just about any problem? Violence.
Matthew’s claim: that baby, who causes consternation among Herod and his ilk, that infant who gathered about him those whom Herod oppressed, that baby and his people are now dismantling Herod’s empire stone by stone without raising an army or firing a shot.
This Christmas, here I am trembling, along with my whole congregation, due to political reasons. We’ve elected a new president who is moving decisively to surround himself with a frightening group of rogues who promise to make the empire great again through a militarization of American democracy. We tremble. What fresh outrage shall occur after Christmas?
Matthew’s Christmas story suggests that we ought to be trembling not out of fear at Trump, but by the prospect of God With Us, God’s Anointed Messiah, God getting what God wants through a baby and his presaged revolution.
Herod got so many things wrong, bloodily wrong, during his administration. This one thing he got right: Jesus means “God saves,” and God’s salvation is not just personal; it’s political, a divine shake up, an assertion that God’s truth shall not be mocked by any human power, that God, not nations, rules the world and determines the future.
I can’t join those Christians who respond to the current political climate with calls for civility, unity, harmony and healing of our nation. Matthew’s story says to me that ours may be time, not for pacification, but for resistance and revolt. We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.
I say that not simply because I think the Trump administration will be bad for America but because I’m a citizen of that baptized band who believe that the Babe of Bethlehem is the only true sovereign and that Jesus’s people, though marginalized and ridiculed by the powerful, are God’s politics.
I know a woman who has spent hours writing letters to every Muslim in her town saying, “You are a valued, child of God. Here’s my phone number. Let me know if I can be helpful to you in this time. Our president does not speak for me. I speak to you in the name of Christ who loves you and has given me responsibility for you.”
I heard a priest who said the Sunday after the election, “OK. America has elected a president. Fine. But the most important, decisive election was when God elected us to be light and salt to the world. Lying is wrong! Hate speech is wrong! Adultery is wrong! Let’s try to live so that people might look at us and see something that America is not. God has chosen us to witness. What a great time to obey God and not human authority! Acts 5:29.”
So, Troubled Christmas to you, Herod. Thanks for reminding us, without intending to do so, that the Babe at Bethlehem is not only gift, joy, but also threat. Teach us, Saint Matthew, again to tremble before the one who is King of Kings, Lord of Lords and he shall reign forever, and ever, hallelujah!
This article is also published with Ministry Matters, an online community of resources for church leaders. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Willimon is the author of Fear of the Other from Abingdon Press, and Pulpit Resource, a homiletical weekly published in partnership with Abingdon Press and Ministry Matters.
18 thoughts on “Christmas: Herod in Trouble”
Will, have you forgotten the words of the Apostle Paul found in Romans 13? Have you forgotten that we are to pray for our leaders; and through our actions, the grace & love of God should be displayed so that those who oppose us may see Him? I believe that the Church today is living in times that are closer to the days of Peter, Paul, Silas and the 1st Century Church than ever before.
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Yes, we must always pray for our leaders while resisting them
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Bishop Willimon, may I have your permission to republish this excellent essay on United Methodist Insight? http://um-insight.net. The reprint would include your entire essay, with full attribution and links back to this original site. Please respond at your earliest convenience. Thank
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I should be honored, Cynthia, any and all.
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Thank you so much. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Excellent article. Glad to learn there are 7,000 out there who have not bowed the knee to Baal.
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Bishop Will, you inspire us with your wit and wisdom as always. (This morning I’ve been reading John 8:31-59, as a guide on how to confront persons, who remain convinced of their faithfulness as Christians in supporting the president-elect. I like your response to someone that we can both pray for and also resist a leader, but how do we persuade the self righteous that they are sadly children of the father of lies?) Grace and Peace, Clint Spence
This brings back fond memories of your devotionals in the Christian Century 30+ years ago. Thank you so much!
Love the article and comments!
I wonder if you would have written the same article if Clinton had won. Our new President is a vulgar lying oaf. The former First Lady is a nasty corrupt liar. Not much to chose from. However, with Trump there is at least a chance that abortion rates will plummet. He has promised to appoint pro life judges, defund Planned Parenthood as long as it continues to do abortions, make the Hyde amendment permanent and outlaw partial birth abortions. Time will tell if he will keep those promises, but we know that with Clinton, abortions would have increased. It is virtually the only thing she is passionate about. 60 million babies killed in the United States since Roe v. Wade. While my hope is in Jesus Christ, for the first time in a long time, I have hope that this slaughter of the innocents will no longer be legal in our country.
The enemy hates clarity
The songwriter Bill Mallonee once wrote a song called “The King will see you now” which he described as:
Christmas…from the eyes of King Herod. The hands of the powerful will usually try and “hush up” truth. “Business as usual,” is their mantra. Truth is often “inconvenient.” Pilate’s famous “What is truth?” maybe the most thoroughly “modern” phrase ever uttered by an ancient.
The Christ Child’s salvation is peaceable, merciful and above all, lasting.
This song is as relevant as ever in the age of Trump:
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Is there a way we can talk about being civil while resisting? I ask that because much of what the opposition to President Obama’s agenda was talked about in terms of resistance and revolt. What was lacking, and what continues to be lacked in much of our discourse in this country, is civility.
When I say that I long for civility in our dialogue, I long for truthful civility. The sort of conversations that tell the truth (i.e. the gospel calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Full stop… No exceptions….), stands firm in that truth, but does it in such a way that is shrewd as a snake but gentle as a dove. I’m not saying let’s stand around the campfire together and sing “Kum-by-yah,” but I am saying Christians who speak against Caesar (whoever s/he will be) can do it in a way that gets the point across without playing into the nastiness that has marked our life together over these last years…. To show that there is another way that is radically dissimilar from the world’s way of doing things.
A fellow South Carolina boy living in Texas…
Your excellent post made me think – so i used a couple of quotes in my own blog, Not with you 100% – but grateful for the provocation – https://derekmaul.wordpress.com/2016/12/21/speak-truth-to-power-and-also-to-ourselves/