Second Sunday after Christmas
January 5, 2020
He wore a long ponytail, ragged jeans and always, always a black pocket t-shirt.. He perched his reading glasses on the very end of his nose as he lectured to his in his rough northern English accent. We loved him, because he was the finest professor of Roman history at the University of Texas. We feared him, because he was the toughest grader in the entire history department.
One day, something must have really gotten him worked up. In a lecture on the ancient Roman gods he stopped, and sneered at us, especially targeting anybody that looked like he belonged in a fraternity. “The gods,” he said “are like frat boys. They do whatever they want, and you can never make them happy.” My guess is some actual frat guy had parked in his driveway or something, and he was going to take it out on on during our next exam. I wanted to duck under my desk or crawl out the door. But I stayed, because what he said is true.
The gods of the ancient world, you remember them - Zeus, Apollos, Hera, Aphrodite, the whole lot of them - were fickle gods that you could never please. And even if you pleased one of them, you probably made another one angry in the process. Now, the Canaanites were people who lived in the area of Israel and Palestine in the ancient world. However, the Canaanites did not worship the God of Israel, they were not Jewish. They had their own pantheon of gods similar to the Greek and Roman gods. If you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ve come across some of their names - Asherah, Baal, and especially menacing, Moloch.
According to the religion of the ancient Canaanites, the only way that one could appease Moloch, was by sacrificing your children to him. Throughout the Old Testament, the law and the prophets denounce this horrendous god and his reprehensible offerings. The Lord God Almighty can barely stand the ancient offerings of animals in the Jewish Temple. This, this offering that Moloch requires, an offering of children, is an abomination. The God of Israel, the God of the Church, has always been sticking up for those who cannot defend themselves especially children.
Today we read from the Gospel of Matthew a story about just that - God defending those who cannot defend themselves.
Let’s set the scene a bit more. King Herod calls himself, “King of the Jews.” But he has no true authority of his own. Rather, he is a puppet king for the Roman Empire, though he is a Jew. So, wise men from the east come to Herod saying that they have seen a star that signified to them that a child has been born as King of the Jews. “Well, hold on,” thought Herod, “I’m King of the Jews.” Herod asks the wise men to return to him and to tell him the location of this new king child under the pretense that Herod will also go and pay homage. In fact, Herod plans to kill the child, to kill Jesus, because Herod is afraid of losing his position as “King of the Jews.” Imagine that, a mighty king, propped up by the military might of the Roman Empire, is afraid of a child.
Well, the wise men sense that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, so they skip town by another road. Joseph, as we read, has a dream in which he is instructed to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus to avoid the violence Herod is about to visit upon the children of Bethlehem. And that is precisely what happens.
Herod orders that all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two are to be massacred. The Holy Family pack their things in the dead of the night, make their way across the desert, and flee to Egypt. This is a scene that is both chilling and all too familiar to our modern ears. This is a scene that has replayed itself on every continent in every century. That children would be sacrificed and displaced for the personal ambition of a petty tyrant.
Which brings us right back to that other god of old, Moloch. See, I think that part of what is going on here is that King Herod, though a Jew, is showing himself to be more of a follower of Moloch. Though Herod worships the God of Israel with his lips, by his actions Herod is proving that he is more than willing to sacrifice children. Because Herod, easily threatened by the true King of the Jews, is more than willing to eliminate whatever is in his path, even children, for his own dreams; for his own lust for power and desire to preserve it. Herod is no worshiper of the God of Israel, he is a follower of that despicable god Moloch. Think of it, these children in Bethlehem that Herod is so callously ready to eliminate are his own people. Sure, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus escape. Praise God that not all children are subjected to such cruelty.
But more than anything, this passage is a warning. It is a warning to those in power - to be careful how you use your power. If you are willing to sacrifice anything - your morals, your religion, even your children - then what you want is not worth it. The ends do not justify those means. And I’m not just talking about political power; this could be anybody who is willing to trample down children for their own sakes; football coaches, teachers, and yes, even clergy. You will be found on the wrong side, possibly even fighting against the God of Israel, the protecter and defender of children. You will be found counted among the worshipers of those other gods and their gory demands.
This God, the God we worship, is not like those other gods. The God of Israel, the Lord God Almighty, King Jesus, does not use people to satisfy his own petty little desires. No, this God, the God we know and worship, the only true God, is the one who makes a sacrifice for us. This is a complete flipping of the script of the ancient world. We do not have to appease the gods, we do not have to worry about upsetting some other god by worshiping another one, we do not have to give our children away as offerings - no, God offers God’s self to us. Both by coming down to earth at Christmas and by his crucifixion on Good Friday.
This, I sense, is what Herod and the petty tyrants of this world do not understand. That true power comes not from sacrificing somebody else for your ambitions, but by sacrificing yourself. It is very easy to rationalize why that other person doesn’t matter as much as you do. Why their lives are expendable and why your life is precious. And while that may look like power, it is just cruelty. We know from the gospel, from the life of Jesus Christ, that true power comes from offering ourselves, our souls and bodies. As Joseph does when he packs his family with haste and hurries off to Egypt at night. As Mary does by bearing this child. As Jesus does, by offering himself upon the cross. That is true power, and that is why two thousand years later we still talk about Mary and Joseph. It’s why we still worship Jesus. It’s why the church honors the innocent children of Bethlehem and scorns Herod.
So consider yourself, your own little dreams and desires. What will it cost to achieve them? Will your family and children be sacrificed to the tyranny of your work? Will their dreams and desires be sacrificed for your own greed? And consider other children, not just any children in your family. Consider those who, like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, are fleeing from violence. What are you willing to sacrifice for them? At the end of the day, will you worship Moloch or the God of Israel? Will you be with the consumer of children or with their protector?
Finally, I want to say one thing and I want to say it clearly. It is often said that preachers ought to stick to religion in their sermons; that political debates ought not to make their way into the pulpit. It is often said that priests, like me, ought to talk more about the Bible. And so I have. The chilling story of King Herod and the children of Bethlehem, the harrowing escape of the Holy Family to Egypt are right there in the Gospel according Matthew. Just two chapters in.
And that’s what makes this so terribly inconvenient and uncomfortable. But it’s also what makes the Bible so alive and so true. That a story from two thousand years ago still has meaning for us today - even in a different time and a different place. Beyond that, I have no profound insight or words of wisdom other than what another professor always told us: “read it for yourselves.” Read the Bible. Everyday. Engage with it, struggle with it, enjoy it. The Bible will encourage you, comfort you, and challenge you. As it does for me, everyday.
Through the Bible the Holy Spirit will challenge you and ask you all sorts of inconvenient and uncomfortable questions - about power, about desire, about yourselves, and about what you worship. As the story today asks uncomfortable questions about the gods we worship and the sacrifices they demand from us. Flee from those gods of this world who will take everything from you and leave you with nothing. Turn from those other gods who would demand even your own flesh and blood. Do not be like those petty tyrants, the Herods of the world, who use their measly power to inflict pain on others for their own gain. Turn back to the one, true God. Rejoice, give thanks, and praise that God requires no sacrifice from you. God gives you a free offering, in becoming like one of us in the manger of Bethlehem. Jesus offers his own blood as a sacrifice for us upon the cross. Through that sacrifice, God defends the defenseless, strengthens the weak, and loves the unlovable. Even you.