The King of Fear or the King of Love?

Rev. Sarah Buteux
January 6, 2013
Epiphany Sunday, Year C
Matthew 2:1-18

Watch the video of this sermon here or on Youtube.

 

Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.

-Theodore Roethke

 

Well my friends, it is 2013. Another Christmas has come and gone and I’m trusting you all rang in the New Year with someone new and special, even if by new and special I’m really only referring to Ryan Seacrest. How did he do? Anybody watch? Do you miss Dick Clark? Yeah, we all do. Ryan’s got some pretty great hair to fill. We’ll see how he holds up.

 

Anyway, how about the tree? Have you all taken your trees down? Anybody still have one up? Decorations? Are you starting to put them away? Well, as you may have noticed, I still have some company up here, which is as it should be. Christmas may have been relegated to the clearance rack of every major department store in America, but here in the church, we’re not quite done with it yet.

 

We were doing Advent all through December. We just got to Christmas, and there’s still some unfinished business to attend to. We still have the Magi and their three gifts to get to the baby Jesus because, contrary to popular opinion - an opinion forged for generations by nativity scenes exactly like the one behind me - the wise men never actually made it to the manger.

 

Like the shepherds, they too saw the star over Bethlehem on Christmas night, but given that they were observing it from somewhere far to the East a full two thousand years before EZ Pass was invented, it took them quite some time to reach the baby.

 

You know those mash-ups they do on Glee when they take two songs by Adelle or Lady Gaga and sing them at the same time? Anyone? OK maybe you don’t, but trust me when I say that the crèche scene – with the shepherds and the wise men all jockeying for position- is kind of like a Glee style mash-up of the whole Christmas story… right down to the diverse cast of men sporting fabulous dresses.

 

Yeah. (I watched season 3 over the break. It was good. But you didn’t come here for Glee, you came here for some Bible, so back to the story.)

 

Well, by the time the Magi reach Jerusalem the star has gone out, so they essentially stop at the biggest house on the block to ask for directions. They walk right into Herod’s throne room as guileless as doves 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

 

At which point, not just Herod, but all of Jerusalem… totally freaked out. The Bible tells us that: “3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened,” –frightened of all things  - “and all Jerusalem with him…”

 

Now I think it’s pretty easy for us to understand why Herod would be upset. After all, he was the King of the Jews. And, as we all know, there can only be one King, so the news of some upstart being born somewhere who might one day challenge his rule was understandably a little disconcerting.

 

But “frightened” - a big king surrounded by his entire court and royal guards afraid of some little baby - well, let’s just say “frightened” is a telling choice of words.

 

What’s even more telling is the fact that all of Jerusalem was frightened right along with him. Now why would the appearance of three men from the East – just three men bearing gifts of all things - frighten all of Jerusalem?

 

Well, I think they were frightened because Herod was frightened. I don’t think they were scared of the magi the way he was, I think they were scared because Herod was scared, because you see Herod did some bloody awful things when he got scared… and if history is any indication, Herod got scared a lot.

 

Herod, for those of you who may be a little fuzzy on your first century history, was not just the “King of the Jews,” Herod was an upstart, illegitimate, half-Jewish puppet king of the Jews, who acquired his throne by forging an un-holy alliance with the Roman empire.

 

Herod readily violated the sacred laws of the Jewish faith in order to appease his Roman allies, his people hated him for it, and I have no doubt that he lived in constant fear of rebellion and assassination on the one hand and the dread of displeasing his Roman overlords on the other.

 

All that fear and suspicion bled over into his personal life as well. Herod married and divorced at least 9 times and had the one wife we know he actually loved executed the moment he suspected she might betray him.

 

He also regularly tortured his courtiers when he was feeling nervous. Herod killed three of his sons as well as his mother-in-law when he thought they were plotting against him.

 

He had his brother-in-law drowned when he thought the people were becoming a little too fond of the boy, redrew his will no less then six times, and, as his end drew near, was so desperate for people to acknowledge him that he imprisoned a crowd of leading citizens with orders to have them all executed on the day of his death in order that all Judea might mourn his passing. Pretty sick, huh?

 

You know the old saying:
 

Tametsi praeponus es ad spectrum persequutorum pertimescendum,

Although you are excessively prone to be fearful of imaginary persecutors,

non sequitur quod nemo te persequitur,

it doesn't follow that no one is out to get you.

 

Archeologists found that phrase engraved over Herod’s tomb. Yeah, read it on Wikipedia… No I didn’t. I’m just kidding. Totally kidding. That is not true. Do not repeat that. Do not tweet that.

 

But, that being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Herod was the first to coin the phrase because Herod’s whole life was dominated by fear, the fear that everyone around him was out to get him, and that fear led him to do crazy awful things.

So you can see why the Magi’s visit might have left all the citizens of Jerusalem a little on edge.  Given the strangers’ reason for coming there was no telling what Herod might do, and if Matthew’s account is to be believed, what he did was at once unspeakably awful and unfortunately for all of us now dreadfully familiar.

 

When the Magi left and then failed to return with news of the baby king, Herod commanded the slaughter of the innocents. He commanded that all the babies in Bethlehem, two years old or younger, be put to the sword.

 

It’s an act so painfully evil that it takes your breath away and I don’t know about you, but I always thought of it as a lot of kids… a lot of kids… so many that you just kind of had to tune it out. You just can’t let your mind go there, you know? But, I learned this past week that Bethlehem was such a small place that the number of children killed was probably somewhere in the range of twenty.

 

Twenty.

 

So much smaller than I’d originally thought, and yet somehow hearing that number makes it so much more real.

 

It also makes me realize that as much as we might want to look away from this part of the story –especially now -and distance ourselves from the evil king at its center, that we can’t.

 

For the sake of those children, indeed for the sake of all children, we really need to consider Herod, if only for a few moments, and try to understand what was going on with him the better to make sure that whatever it was has no power over us. 

 

Because, you see, when you really do stop and look at Herod, you come to realize that what twisted him into the sort of man who could do the things he did was not just the fact that he ruled by fear and found fear effective as a way to shore up his power.

 

You come to realize that Herod slowly but surely became a man ruled byhis fear, and that it was the power that fear held over him that compelled him to do the heinous, awful, unspeakable things that he did. 

 

I don’t want to become like that and I don’t think I ever will, not really, not completely, but if I’m honest I can to some extent see how he did. I can acknowledge how easy it would be to let fear rather than love drive my decisions, prop up my justifications, dictate how I live my life. And maybe you can too.

 

Those of you who were here the Sunday before Christmas heard Katherine Sasser share a beautiful meditation on love wherein she talked about the idea that all of our actions in life come down to love or fear, and I’ve been thinking about that a lot, because…well…because I am afraid.

 

I’m so afraid of losing my children, as is every parent in this room, and I don’t want to let that fear win.

 

But what makes this so complicated is the fact that I’m so afraid precisely because I love them as much as I do. I said to Katherine that very week that putting George on the bus the Monday after Newtowne …I felt like I was playing Russian roulette with my child. It was awful, and yet I let him go anyway. 

 

Did I let love win in that moment? I don’t know. The truth is that I can’t quite separate the love from the fear inside myself anymore.

 

In fact, the more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve started to wonder if maybe we aren’t all a bit of a mash-up - kind of like the crèche - a mash-up of love and fear, and our task is to trust in God enough that we consistently let the love win out, knowing even as we do that the fear never really goes away. 

 

I know the Bible says that perfect love casts out all fear and maybe I’m just not there yet, but in my experience love, by its very nature, makes us vulnerable, and that, for me at least, is scary. I don’t know how you can love without fear; the fear of loss, the fear of pain.

 

But, I do know this: I know that you can fear in such a way that you wall yourself off from all love, wall yourself off from everything and anyone who might hurt you, wall yourself up until you are all you have left and nothing and no one matters anymore.

 

Perfect fear can cast out all love; of that I am sure. In fact, I think that’s where Herod ended up, and my dear friends, that is no place for any of God’s children to be.

 

I guess my message for you this morning is that there is no way to make life safe, but you have to live it anyhow; no way to make love safe either, but you need to keep loving no matter what. Because, you see, if you choose fear, fear is all you’ll ever know.

 

But if you choose the path of love, even if your worst fears are realized, love will still remain. There is no safe; just love and fear or fear and fear.

 

Herod or Jesus.

 

The King of Fear or the King of Love.

 

Wise men found the first and left him for the other.

 

May God grant us the courage to follow in their footsteps be it to Bethlehem or beyond.

 

Let us pray: O Lord, you know our hearts even better than we do. You know the forces and the questions, the fears and the doubts that plague our lives and exert such a strong hold over us. Come Lord Jesus and free us from all those things that would separate us from you and the life you would have us live. Come and be our God and our King, our Lord and our savior, that we might become yours and follow in your way. Come set us free to be the people you are calling us to be.  Amen.