Benediction Online

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Why was Herod afraid?

I’m sure that Herod knew in advance that the wise men were on their way from the East, from some part of Persia, perhaps Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia – or even all three – but perhaps he thought they were coming to visit him. Until they told him something his own soothsayers had neglected to mention, that there was a new star, probably a comet, indicating that an amazing event had occurred – a royal baby had been born - the one who would be king of the Jews. King of the Jews. But Herod was the ruler of the Jews and he didn’t want any competition, not for himself and not for his sons who would succeed him. He was angry, he was ambitious, but why was he afraid?

I imagine that he was afraid because he knew that this would bring unrest. The most important thing for Herod was keeping things quiet so that the Romans wouldn’t decide to get involved. Keeping things stable. Now these so called wise men from who knew where had come with stories about a baby born to be king which tied in with the old ideas about a Messiah. Herod was afraid that whatever the truth of the matter, once people got wind of it this was going to rock the boat and upset his carefully laid plans. All he wanted was a comfortable, secure life for himself and his family. It wasn’t much to ask.

And if this really was a new king, or if enough people thought so, it would threaten his power. Giving up power is one of the most difficult things we get to do. In a few weeks Bob will be coming to the end of his term as Senior Warden. I know he can’t wait! But I also know that many Senior Wardens go through a time almost like a bereavement, when they keep thinking of things and then remembering they’re not in charge any more, or they start to feel left out of the communication loop. However much it may be a relief to give up responsibility, giving up power is tough.

Herod was not about to give up on any of his power. But this is exactly what God did in Jesus. God became human. God didn’t stop being God, but allowed Godself to become human with all the limitations and powerlessness we have. And God chose to be an especially powerless human. A carpenter, an itinerant preacher in a small country which had been ruled by the superpowers for longer than anyone could remember. A member of a nation whose members had emigrated again and again to avoid oppression and danger at home.

A strange king. Would Herod have been so afraid if one of his advisers had been able to tell him what was coming? if one of his advisors had told him that this king would be crucified after a quick and very questionable trial during which he put up no kind of defense and even told his followers not to fight? Perhaps he would have been more frightened because Jesus changed the rules. He didn’t play the human power game. He played a different, a new, an unfamiliar game.

It’s the game he calls us to. And even after two millennia it’s still a new and unfamiliar game. We’re still learning the rules. It’s a game where you are ready to lose all your cards. Not a game where the winner is the one who loses all their cards first, nor a game where the winner gets all the cards but a game where no-one wins until everyone wins. A game where the best defense is to admit that you have no defense, where the most powerful play is to admit that you are powerless. It’s a game that makes no sense in human terms.

Is that why Herod was afraid?

It certainly makes us afraid. When we begin to seriously engage with gospel values we discover a totally different way of thinking which threatens much that we hold dear. Our little egos are attached to bolstering our self-esteem, to making us feel good about ourselves, to helping us feel that we are powerful agents in our world. Our little egos and our culture are in a conspiracy to make us feel it’s a game which we have to win. There used to be a bumper sticker, ‘The one who dies with the most toys, wins’. Most of our lives are spent in competition with each other, building our own little empires and creating defense systems so that we won’t be attacked. Some of us specialize in attacking first - pre-emptive attack, so that we won’t be seen to be vulnerable.

That’s what Herod did. He became so alarmed that there was this small child who might grow up to be a threat to him that he determined to kill him. No knowing how to identify the child, only knowing that he was a boy in Bethlehem, he ordered his soldiers to kill all the boys of two years and under in the city. Of course it didn’t work, because the divine life cannot be killed like that, but it caused untold devastation and suffering for those families. Rather like the devastation we’ve seen recently in places like the Sudan, Northern Uganda and Darfur.

Our little egos do a similar thing. As soon as we start to get really serious about the gospel, as soon as we start to experiment with new ways of thinking, our little egos become enraged. They feel threatened, they’re ready to attack.

I want to give you an example of how this happens for us as a church.

Someone comes to us and asks for help with her rent and we are delighted to be able to provide assistance. Then she comes again and we feel a little less comfortable. Then she comes again and again and again…
What are we to do?
We feel threatened because here is someone whose need never seems to end. Someone we are afraid will take all we have to give and still be needy. Someone who will drain all our resources and prevent us from helping other people. We know that we are not the only people she goes to for help, which is good because we can’t meet all her needs, but it also makes us wonder if she’s not making an excellent living from begging. We think that there must be a more permanent solution, there must be state agencies that can help her and her family, there must be ways for her to find work. We think that if we continue to help her perhaps we are preventing her from solving the situation in a permanent way which would be better for her self-esteem, after all haven’t many of us had times when we’ve been down on our luck, but we’ve found ways to pull ourselves up by our own bootstrings? We think of possible solutions, but she doesn’t seem interested and she doesn’t want to tell us much about her life, she just needs the money.
We feel confused and threatened, and think that perhaps we should create a policy so that we will know what to do.

What are we called to do? For all we know, this person may be the Christ. Would we turn Jesus away? If Jesus came every Sunday asking for help, what would we do? Jesus’ teaching seems very clear that we are to share all that we have, and he doesn’t put time limits on it or dollar amounts. We are to give freely and trust that all our needs will be met. Jesus healed the sick and told them not to sin again but he never told a beggar to stop begging.

But, but we argue, that was a different culture and a different time…

I am not offering answers here. I want to use this as an example of how the radical demands of the gospel conflict with the way we usually think and when they do, we often feel threatened and try to use our minds to solve the problem. There is a dissonance between what Jesus teaches and they way we think. It’s not comfortable. Cognitive dissonance is never comfortable.

Herod solved the problem by slaughtering children. We don’t consider that an option. We are rather more subtle. Our little egos persuade us that the gospel isn’t really that radical – it’s just about being good people and being loving and that’s not too hard, and anyway when we confess our sins Jesus forgives them so we don’t need to worry. There’s no need to change. Or perhaps our egos take a more direct path and ‘Just Say No’ to anything that threatens to disturb our peace.

Which kind of sovereign do you want? Herod or Jesus?


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