Epiphany - Kings of this World

A sermon preached by Margaret Houston at St George's Campden Hill, 6 January 2013

Most Christmas cards focus on the domestic details of the Nativity.  If the Wise Men are shown at all, they are kneeling in the stable, offering gifts to the Christ Child.  The contrast of their rich clothing with their humble surroundings gives a powerful message about Christ’s kingship.

But the image is one of isolation.  Often, the stable is shown on the very outskirts of Bethlehem, surrounded by farmland.  It is a self-enclosed domestic world.

Today, however, we hear about the broader political context in which the story takes place.  When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

Herod has a job I would not wish on my worst enemy. On the one side, there is Caesar, backed by the most powerful army in the world and all the pressure of Pax Romana.  On the other side, there is an angry mob, demanding independence for Judea through armed rebellion.  The history of Judea was one of continual armed uprisings against the Roman order, all in the name of religion and nationalism.  Herod, through brute force and clever policy, kept the peace for thirty years.  Because of this peace, he was able to maintain a certain degree of freedom for the Jews.  When his own son and his beloved wife conspired against him, he had them killed.

Now suddenly there are foreign emissaries seeking an audience with him, spreading rumours of a child born to be priest and king in Israel. What does Herod foresee?  Civil war.  Armed insurrection.  Bodies in the streets.  The temple sacked and the Jews enslaved.  The fragile, hard-won peace, destroyed in an orgy of killing and looting. And when Herod sneezes, Jerusalem catches a cold.
When Herod the King heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod was no cartoonishly evil king, bent on the deliberate murder of God.  He was a real-world politician, in occupied territory, trying to preserve what freedom his people had left.  In his position, what would we have done?

But the story continues. Four verses after today’s reading ends, we hear: “then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under.” This is realpolitik at its purest.  It is possible to sympathize with Herod, to understand his calculation that it is more important to save the entire nation than the lives of a few children, that the hard-won peace and security are worth preserving at all costs.  But what this shows us is that Jesus was not born into some self-contained, enclosed domesticity.  He did not just come into part of our lives, into the nice, neat, pretty picture set apart from the mess of the rest of it.  Rather, he came into the real world, a world in which innocent children are massacred in Bethlehem two thousand years ago and Connecticut three weeks ago, and however many times in between.  He came into a world full of darkness and death, a world of politics and power.   And I think it’s important to consider what the Epiphany story can teach us, as Christians, about power.

Herod’s power is earthly and real.  If his massacre of the Innocents is historically real, it is gruesome and we rightly recoil at it, but it is no worse than has been done thousands of times by thousands of politicians, many of whose motives were genuinely admirable.  It was not a plot to kill God. Herod had no idea who Jesus was.  It was politics.

Earthly power is often an impossible tightrope, in which both action and inaction have the potential to lead to death, in which it is sometimes necessary to balance two competing goods against each other.  Innocent children lose, stability wins.  Freedom of religion rises, Roman favour declines.  That is the reality of earthly power.  It is a hard, morally problematic game to play.  And it is, inevitably, temporary.  Within fifty years of Herod’s death, the Jews had risen in revolt and Rome had hit back – Jerusalem lay in ruins, the Temple destroyed, and Jewish independence handcuffed. 

Jesus was not politically naive.  He told his followers to be wise as serpents – he knew the world in which they had to live, and did not sentimentalize it.  He himself could play the game; how often did he give the Pharisees a slippery answer, pacifying the crowds and the power players who were both out to turn him into something he was not?  It is crucial that good people know how to play the game of power politics – otherwise we turn over the world and all its innocent children to ruthless megalomaniacs.  Spiritual power does not mean sitting on the sidelines being aloof and morally pure while not actually doing anything, like the enclosed domestic Christmas card scenes I mentioned before.

But spiritual power – God’s power – the power of Jesus in this world – remembers that the greatest power is not that of force or compulsion but of vulnerability. The power of vulnerability is that of giving up control.  We are not in control.  We are vulnerable.  When we acknowledge that, we stop lying to ourselves.  Counter-intuitively, we become less afraid.  When the thing we are afraid of finally happens, we can say, “this is it.  This is what I was waiting for.  It’s terrible, but it’s as bad as it’s going to get.”  And when we are no longer afraid, we are free.  When the Apostles were no longer afraid of death, they were free to proclaim, loudly and joyfully, the good news of Jesus.  They didn’t care if they were arrested.  They didn’t care if they died.  Because they had accepted their vulnerability, and it liberated them.  This is the kind of power Jesus wants us to exercise – a power of vulnerability that is stronger than earthly power, stronger even than death.

For 300 years, Rome tried to eradicate Christianity.  When anything bad happened, Christians were the natural scapegoats.  Burned at the stake, thrown to the lions, crucified – and yet, somehow, the movement grew stronger.  The Apostles and those who followed them, unleashed a power no earthly king could control.  The history of nonviolent resistance, particularly in the 20th century, shows this again and again – Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers sat in silent prayer as fire hoses and police dogs were turned on them, Mahatma Gandhi and his followers marched peacefully and successfully for independence.  The Truth and Reconciliation Committees in South Africa and Northern Ireland brought people together to share their most vulnerable selves with their former enemies, and forged a way towards peace where there had been none before.

The story of the Epiphany, with its complex imperial politics, reminds us that God was born into the real world, and into the reality of our messy lives and political systems.  His presence is in every part of our lives and every part of our world.  We must not sit on the sidelines – we must tangle with the moral compromises of life, the difficult questions, the shades of grey. But we must not, in doing so, forget that the foundation of God’s kingdom is the power of humility and vulnerability – the child born, helpless, in a stable.  The prisoner, in agony, on the cross.  The freedom and new life that come from vulnerability are at the heart of the Gospels, and God’s incarnation as a vulnerable child reminds us that any earthly power we do wield should be used in the protection of the weakest among us.  When we forget that, we can easily become Herod, justifying the massacre of the innocents for the sake of stability.  We must be wise as serpents, yes, but gentle as doves.  It is a paradox.  But then, so is the King in the stable.
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