It was just a few days ago. All of us were gathered in this room hearing the words of the angels: “Do not be afraid… To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior who is the Messiah.” Then all the world answered with songs of glad rejoicing. Right, remember? And then what…Today we hear the story of the baby Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew.
To begin with, Herod was at home when he learned the magi had come to town. They were looking for the newborn king, the Messiah. When Herod heard this, he was afraid, and all Jerusalem with him. Consider the scene. There was no “Do not be afraid” from the angels; there was no singing. Terror had seized the city.
Herod summons the bible scholars he keeps on staff. They tell him, according to the prophets, the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Next, Herod secretly calls for the magi. They tell him about the star; he tells them about the scripture, now they’re off to Bethlehem.
“Once you find the baby, come back and tell me. I want to, you know, pay homage” says Herod. Yeah okay. Well the magi do find the baby, but they don’t go back to Herod. An angel of the Lord got to them first. Here Herod is waiting for the magi to return and they don’t. He becomes enraged! You have to understand how his power was threatened, not just by the magi who ghosted him, but by this baby!
Somehow Herod knew what was in Mary’s song. Herod knew this baby will topple the tyrants and lift up the lowly; he will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty; he will scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. This baby will turn the power of the world upside down. Somehow Herod believed this. He was threatened to his core. All Jerusalem was afraid.
So. Herod ordered his agents to go into Bethlehem and the surrounding communities and kill every baby. Meanwhile, the angels got Joseph, and Mary, and baby Jesus to flee to Egypt and seek asylum. If you’re wondering where the angels were for all the other babies, me too. And if you’ve seen the news lately and think there’s something about this that seems dreadfully familiar, me too.
To be clear, here in the U.S., one problem we don’t have is a cartoon villain who strokes his beard, and laughs Mwahaha while rubbing his hands together, and on a whim gives the order for infanticide. We’re not in that cartoon. Nobody thinks all the babies should be killed.
It is the case that in our world, there are people in charge who are deeply threatened. Not coincidentally, we also live in a world that is dangerous for children.
After journeying for miles from Guatemala, eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo died from the flu while in U.S. custody after being detained at the border with his father. A few weeks earlier, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died in detention from dehydration and shock. Nobody wanted this! U.S. detention processes and facilities were designed for single, adult men. We’re not set up to care for families and children.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, fifteen million children in the United States live in poverty.1http://www.nccp.org/topics/childpoverty.html They never asked for this. No child chooses the circumstances they’re born into. Whenever parents go to prison, children pay for that. When communities erupt in violence —whether in Mosul or Chicago— children pay for this first. As of June two thousand eighteen, the U.N. reports that there are twenty-five point four million refugees in the world. More than half are children.2https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). All you have to do is listen for a minute. Fathers and mothers are weeping for their children. This is not just a biblical metaphor; these are actual people, we can hear them, and we never asked for this.
Herod’s problem was that his power was threatened by a baby, so he became afraid. First fear is a feeling, then it’s a choice, and he chose it. In this, you see Herod’s deeper brokenness. So here’s what I’m wondering: What if underneath the political, economic, and cultural unrest, what if our world is reeling from spiritual brokenness… It’s not just violence, it’s that violence comes from hate. Hate comes from fear. If we can learn anything from the angels, it’s that fear is not our human destiny.
Now I know how this sounds. I am not suggesting our prayers and kumbaya will make everything all better for children who have been displaced into camps or detained at the border. As a nation, we need tangible, practical solutions. And. What if there is also a deeper wound…
If I’m onto something here, this means there’s something more we can do. It means, every act of compassion is making a deeper impact than we might realize. Every act of compassion is answering the underlying horror. Every act of compassion is slowly and subtly turning the world toward healing.
It’s a different kind of power. I know we won’t see its results in our lifetime. This is the kind of power that made Mary sing and Herod tremble. It makes the angels conspire. It makes all the world hear the weeping of parents who will not be consoled. We have this power. We already have it.
When I was in seminary, we had chapel at noon every Wednesday followed by community lunch. Sometimes community lunch felt just like one of our potlucks in fellowship hall. It was not uncommon for babies to get handed around the room. You could just be eating and talking, and somebody’s baby would turn up at your table getting passed around. You know, there’s a universal response when somebody turns and hands you a baby, you take her. You just know how. Doesn’t matter that you never asked for this. This is one of our best traits as human beings —just take the baby for a minute. You have what it takes, you’ll be glad you did.
A few minutes ago, we took our star words. You never asked for the word on your star, I know. Now it’s yours! Whatever word you have is the word you need. But here’s the thing. It’s not just you who needs it. The world needs the word written on your star. The world needs this from you; please do not withhold this. May our gift become our offering.
Let us pray:
Today we remember the magi who set out to follow the star in the sky.
They were looking for you.
When they found you, they fell down on their knees and gave you the gifts for a king.
You never asked for their gold, and frankincense and myrrh,
here you received it.
Today we’re sitting here with stars in our hands.
We each chose these words at random,
but you bring meaning to things that happen by chance.
You bring the light.
May the word on each of our stars come to mean something to us this year.
May this word be more than a random choice.
By your Spirit, may this word become a blessing to our lives.
Again and again, you teach us the truth of blessing.
There’s no way to receive it without giving it,
no way to give it without receiving it.
Just as we receive these words
Help us see how our word is a gift the world needs,
and it might be up to us to give it.
God, will you guide our discerning…
Don’t be afraid to interrupt our dreaming with your direction.
Bless the stars in our hands.
Help us follow the star
Until it leads us to you.
Until this gift becomes our offering.
We bless you and ask your blessing on these words, and these stars.
May your wisdom guide us through this new year. Amen.