This is the text of a sermon for the commemoration of Holy Innocents, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are Matthew 2:13-18, 1 John 1:5-2:2, and Jeremiah 31:15-20.
(Note: this sermon is very much intended to be a unit with my Christmas morning sermon, which is the previous post on this blog. For the full point I made over these two sermons, I recommend reading both posts).
“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” It really should have been the Herod family motto; in the whole of the New Testament there isn’t a positive mention of any of them.
What we heard this morning, though, gives us a particularly vicious glimpse into their world. Herod the Great (father of the Herod who later was involved in the deaths of John the Baptist and Jesus) has heard from the Magi that there is a child born as “king of the Jews.” Unable to be sure which child it is, but knowing in which town he lived, he has all the boy children of the right age killed.
We don’t know how many children that was. Contemporary historians, looking at the population of Bethlehem at the time, have suggested it was maybe a dozen; whereas medieval enthusiasm suggested thousands. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter; the horror of this action can’t be reduced to a numbers game.
The real question for me is, why did Herod do it? This isn’t an isolated incident, by the way; history records that Herod killed two of his own sons to prevent them becoming a threat to him. (Prompting the Roman Emperor of the time to comment that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son, since Jews don’t eat pigs).
But why this approach? It’s not as if Herod didn’t have options. Confronted with a similar message, another ruler might have decided to govern so well and benevolently that the people would never support another claimant to the throne. Or he might have decided to identify the child, or a pool of possible children, and offer to train them for an important post – to be a future general or civic administrator or Sanhedrin member – and thus bring the child under his patronage. He might even have simply decided to exile all of the relevant families.
But instead of doing something creative and interesting, or even boring but relatively harmless, Herod reached first for the most brutal solution. What is that about?
Matthew sort of avoids the question by making it all about Jesus fulfilling Old Testament typology; just like the original sons of Jacob, Jesus goes into Egypt; and the weeping of the mothers of Bethlehem answers the weeping of Jewish mothers in exile in Jeremiah’s time. But while that might be a fruitful way of exploring connections, it can’t – for me, at least – be enough of a satisfying answer to the question of why.
On Christmas morning, I reflected in my sermon that accepting the baby Jesus was an exercise in hope and trust. Here in this part of the story, we see where the lack of that hope and trust ends when taken to an extreme; fruitless, destructive paranoia.
Herod wasn’t a particularly devout Jew, but what would it have been like, I wonder, for him to read that passage from Jeremiah that we heard this morning? Would he have found anything with which he could identify, at all? Not the weeping mothers, surely; but what about “Ephraim” pleading to be allowed to come back to God? What about seeing himself as the recipient of God’s promise of hope and a future, or as the dear son in whom God delights, for whom God is deeply moved?
What does it take to be completely closed to any of that? Perhaps Herod was simply an atheist, culturally a Jew but without any sense of God. Even if he were, I don’t think that explains his actions. Most atheists don’t reach first for the most brutal answer to their issues. Herod’s pattern of response goes far beyond passive indifference to the idea of God, and well into active resistance to moral as well as spiritual light. Unable to be reached by the faith of his people, the boundaries of the law or the pleadings of the prophets, he stands as a fine example of what Martin Luther described as a “man curved in on himself;” a sucking vortex of anxiety and neediness, a horrible warning of what sin looks like, given free rein.
So if Herod is the warning, what do we make of that for ourselves?
Just because none of us is out to kill babies, doesn’t mean we know nothing of this internal resistance. All of us have dark corners within ourselves; there are plenty of private little hells behind the walls of this city. And if we deny it, as John wrote in our other reading for this morning, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Herod points us to what John tells us is the only remedy; to be self-aware, to be honest, with ourselves and with God, about where those dark corners are and what lurks in them. To be prepared to commit ourselves – over and over again, if need be – to open our closed selves to the light, and to allow that light to cleanse, heal and change us.
It’s a gradual process; the work of a lifetime. It’s sometimes painful, humiliating, or fearful to be willing to accept discipline; even from a loving father who delights in us. But the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.
There’s one more point I want to make this morning. This phenomenon of being curved in on ourselves, so closed to God’s light and hope that we give darkness free rein – or at least cut it a lot of slack – is not just something that happens to individuals. It happens to groups of people too; even to congregations and parishes. Such groups can obsess endlessly about petty things, and be blind to the wider horizons to which hope might call us. And if you’re tempted to think that that doesn’t happen at all in this parish, I have a question for you, my brothers and sisters; why is it, do you think, that the single biggest conflict in the church this year has been over the question of how we should serve morning tea?
It would seem that we have a choice about which we would rather be in the Christian life; a good example, or a horrible warning. The apostle tells us that God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all. All we need do is be open to Him.