It must be Christmas 1, Year C because the dreaded “slaughter of the innocents” passage is the Gospel text this week. Of course, there are other options and most of us will choose one of them. Just in case you are feeling called away from God’s reclaiming of God’s people in Isaiah, or the joyful praise of Psalm 148, or the proclamation of Jesus’ lordship in Hebrews, here are a few thoughts about the dreaded text.
What we know is that there has always been something in the world that abhors Love, Justice, Light – you know, the power of God made clear. When people pay attention to God showing up in the world, they do risky things. They start questioning the powers that be. They start looking at their neighbors with less fear, less hate. They start to see injustice and work harder for justice. God coming into the world upsets the balance of power and there have always been those who cannot tolerate it.
Herod was one of those. He was a tyrant among tyrants. Brilliant in some ways and insecure in others, Herod was threatened by a child who was born to be king, not just of Israel, either. The potential power in this baby scared Herod into showing his true self. He would do anything to maintain his place in the world, anything. Including order the slaughter of other people’s children.
To my knowledge there is no historical evidence that this order to kill all children under the age of two was carried out. It didn’t have to be, though, did it? Just the fact that Herod would say such a thing is enough to remind us of the fact that not everyone wants to see the world transformed by Love. Herod represents that force in this story. Herod thrived on keeping the people oppressed. He was strongest when people were afraid of their neighbors. He was strongest when no one dared oppose him.
There are leaders in the world today that operate in much the same way Herod did. Tyrants, dictators, presidents… it doesn’t matter what label we give them. They are people who do not want Love to have its way. They are willing to do anything, including sacrifice other people’s children. Think how many ways our children are dying in the world today. There is war, violence on our streets, rising suicide rates, the opiod crisis, lack of access to health care, lack of access to mental health care, border walls, and the list goes on. All this things are not from God; they are from the Herods of today.
The question for us in this Christmas season is how the church participates in this. Ideally, the church is incarnating the Love that broke into the world so long ago. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes churches are deceived by the power of Herod and have fallen into serving one of the modern empires. We sometimes forget that serving Love is risky, scary, and challenging just as often as it fills our hearts and mouths with praise.
This is a hard passage to preach, especially within days of Christmas. The rest of the world has moved on. The church, however, cannot move on so quickly. Christmas isn’t a clearance-shelf item. Are we truly the Body of Christ breaking open the hard, desperate place in the world with Love? Or are we somehow complicit in the sacrifice of our children?
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com.
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