A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 3, 2010 (Christmas II, Year C)
It’s irrational really. Big bad Herod afraid of a little baby. King Herod the Great, powerful and feared ruler of Ancient Palestine, terrified of a helpless infant lying in a manger in Bethlehem. A man who ruthlessly ruled for 37 years as the appointed Roman king scared of a newborn child.
For all his bluster Herod lived in constant fear of losing his throne; which only made him tighten his grip, brutalize his subjects, and abuse his power. When he encounters these three Wise Men from the East who inquire about this child who “has been born King of the Jews” Herod’s hackles are raised. Seething with anger and driven by insecurity he plots to destroy this perceived threat to his sovereignty. But of course this child was no danger to Herod’s reign, for Jesus was a different kind of king; one not concerned with earthly power but one possessing heavenly authority.
You can almost hear Herod’s internal conversation: “Newborn king? But I’m the king! And it’s good to be the king. This pretender must be eliminated.” So he tries to trick the Wise Men into telling him the exact location of this new king so that he, too, can go “worship” him. But, of course, it doesn’t work out this way.
Now what truly frightened Herod was not, obviously, a newborn child. It was the potential loss of power and control. Never mind that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world; that he had no interest in overthrowing temporal rulers. The mere hint that Herod would lose his grip on his kingdom led him to drastic measures. In an attempt to rid himself of this potential threat he would order the murder of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two. This slaughter of those who would be known as “the Holy Innocents” gives a glimpse into Herod’s true character and the lengths he would go to maintain control of his kingdom.
Herod’s reaction to this perceived threat to his power is a pretty natural human response. Not the slaughter of innocent children – that’s diabolical. But we all get territorial at times; and when we get territorial we get defensive; and when we get defensive we sometimes do irrational things.
The stereotypical fiefdom syndrome is the lady at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. She has a job no one else really wants; she deals with cranky people all day; she’s heard every excuse and plea ever created; and she has to deal with the annoying masses day after day after day. Maybe she has a great life outside of work but probably not. She’s a lifelong civil servant, waiting for that pension to kick in so she can leave all the joy behind. But what she does have is the ability to impact people’s lives on a daily basis. She’s a gatekeeper and she’s in complete control. You don’t have that third form of ID? Sorry, Charlie. You can rant and rave all you want but when it comes down to it, she’s both judge and jury. She’s the Ruler of the Registry and she’ll cling to that power with a death grip at least as strong as Herod’s. In a world of uncertainty and change people will do almost anything to hold onto the things they can control.
Now let’s contrast Herod’s approach with that of the three Wise Men. We don’t know much about these three kings except that they came from the East. We don’t know anything about their kingdoms. But we do know that they were on a journey; they followed a star seeking a force beyond themselves, beyond their own control. They were willing to let go and enter into the unknown. Even if it meant behind leaving the familiar; places where they were the top dogs, or at least the top camels.
Herod sought to “worship” Jesus by killing him. But the Wise Men paid him homage not only by bringing gifts but also their joy. We hear that when the star stopped over that stable in Bethlehem they were “overwhelmed with joy.” Something it’s hard to imagine Herod ever being overwhelmed by.
Of course the Magi brought some pretty lousy baby gifts. Gold’s a choking hazard, you can get a nasty burn from an incense pot, and no one really even knows what myrrh is. But these were symbolic gifts rather than practical ones. If they were trying to be really helpful to a couple with a newborn baby they would have brought a supply of sippy cups, a stroller, and a bunch of diapers.
I’ll say a word about the significance of these gifts of the Magi and I’ll start with myrrh since it’s the least common of the three. It’s actually an oil that comes from the sap of certain trees. During Biblical times it was considered very valuable and hence was quite expensive. It was used as an embalming ointment. And so the significance of this gift is the foreshadowing of Christ’s death upon the cross. This young infant will one day hang upon a cross as savior of the world.
Frankincense is, of course, a type of incense. Like myrrh, it also was a resin from a particular tree found in the Middle East. Once it hardened and was scraped off it was put onto hot coals and used as incense. And incense has been used as a companion to prayer for thousands of years. The Psalmist writes, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” So Jesus would be a man of prayer in intimate relationship with God his Father; the one who would teach us to pray in what became known as the Lord’s Prayer.
Finally, there’s gold. Not a great mystery as to what it is but symbolic as a sign of royalty. Again, not the earthly royalty of Herod but the heavenly realm of which Jesus is the one true king.
Being territorial – in small ways like the woman at Motor Vehicles or in evil ways like Herod – usually draws us away from God because it’s such an inwardly focused posture. It’s hard to be joyful or open to the movement of the Spirit when we’re fighting to keep hold of a fiefdom. Be that at work, at home, or even in church. Yes, churches are often breeding grounds for fiefdoms, as hard as that is to imagine. But the only authentic fiefdom is the realm of God. God does deserve our full attention and the inherent control over us that this implies. The Wise Men understood this; Herod did not. So I bid you to think about ways in which you can give up some of the fiefdoms in your own life and hand the control back over to God. Which is where it rightly belongs.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2010