What will the message be at your church this Christmas?
I’m up to Matthew 2, the conclusion of his birth and infancy narratives.
The whole chapter is about the clash of two Kings, two rulers on earth. King Herod, and King Jesus. The incumbent, and the newcomer. In this chapter Herod’s style of rule, representing ordinary human despotism, is exposed. And Jesus’ new leadership is also introduced. The clash between the two is not only one of style: Herod mounts a complex, all-out assault designed to wipe out the new Lord.
famously murderous, his fit of anxiety has all Jerusalem trembling. When Herod gets upset, lots of people get hurt. His scheming mind hatches several plots at once. Plan A – get the Maji to find pretender to the throne, so Herod can deal with him. Plan B – if that fails, use a scatter-gun approach: destroy all the boys in the area of about Messiah’s age. Neither plan works. The only result is unspeakable suffering.
Unable to speak for himself, Jesus’s rule is witnessed to by the Maji and by the prophets. The Maji, finding the child, are overjoyed. They clearly believe that a new era has dawned, a reign of peace, heralded by the new star. And we are intended to think that they are right. Their obeisance and gifts express the dignity and honour of this new potentate. In their view the child is quite simply Lord.
The two prophets quoted, Jeremiah 31 and Micah 5, both speak of a shepherd who will bring the people of Israel back from exile. Exile is clearly where Israel still is, at this time. The shepherd will protect his flock, overcome all their enemies, and make them glorious in the midst of the nations.
To ram home the message, Matthew describes Jesus re-enacting the exile, as his family flees to Egypt, and later returns to the promised land.
The Two Kings Contrasted
The contrast could hardly be greater. Herod, a client-King of the Romans, is the embodiment of Israel’s exile experience. He is what happens to an unprotected Israel. Jesus’ arrival then spells the end of Herod and of all Herods. Their days are now numbered, their reign relativised. A new reign means the overthrow of the old one. The oppressed and fearful will be relieved and encouraged, the crushed will be healed and nurtured.
We are not meant to identify with Herod. Only the overweaning egos of rich westerners could imagine that they were serious contenders against the kingdom of Jesus. Few people in the world’s history have deluded themselves that they were in charge of their own lives.
No, we are not like Herod. Perhaps a little like the Maji, foreigners who want a share in the kingdom of Jesus, who rejoice with great joy to have found him. But the Maji are not a close fit for us little readers.
If we are intended to identify with anyone, it is probably with the poor citizens of Jerusalem, living lives of fear, their wellbeing threatened by the whims of a cruel Lord. Or the poor mothers of Bethlehem, their children taken cruelly from them and lost to death. Many, many of the first readers would have known such experiences, would know many stories of friends and family who had suffered in similar ways. In those violent, dangerous and oppressive times, and indeed for most of world history, this was the normal lot in life.
Would these people prefer Herod’s rule, or Jesus’s? That’s the punchline, the point of the comparison. No-brainer.
Most of us today are conscious of suffering under forces that enslave or trap us. Many people live in fear under the power of abusive family members. Or are trapped in poverty, or fear of death, or bitterness or depression, or unemployment, or employment, or any number of other powers that push us around and keep us in misery. We are not Herods, but rather those who suffer under Herods. This world is a cruel master.
For little people like us, the news of Jesus’ new reign comes as a breath of fresh air, a ray of hope in our darkness. We can get free of the harsh masters that make our life a hell on earth – and come under Jesus’ protection. We now have the hope that
we will live securely, for our Shepherd’s greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth. (Micah 5:4)