Matthew writes: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”
Strong-arm leaders are deeply insecure and when they feel threatened they lash out themselves. Pharaoh gave the same order in the beginning of the Book of Exodus that all the Hebrew boy babies were to be thrown into the Nile, because they were becoming too populous and threatening to Pharaoh.
Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, 30 years later would behead John the Baptist to hide his fragile manhood from his angry wife. Because tyrants are only grounded in their own vainglory, they must use violence—verbal, emotional, or physical—to maintain their status. If they can’t coopt the people, then they must punish the people.
Jesus should have died in Bethlehem but Joseph listens to the angel of the Lord in a dream and flees during the night with his family to Egypt. Herod has become just another petty Pharaoh because he chooses wealth and power over the covenant with the God of Abraham.
Later, Jesus, King of the Jews, is faithful to the covenant and accepts the violence of Pontius Pilate, to prove love is stronger than death, non-violence stronger than violence and that God is more powerful than Caesar.
Between birth and death Jesus would act out his trust in his Heavenly Father and model compassion and healing for the rest of us to emulate.
As Stanley Hauerwas comments on this passage, “Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants.”
But as he notes, tyrants have a problem, for “how do you deal with a movement, a kingdom, whose citizens refuse to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history.” Brazos Commentary on Matthew
You will not have failed to notice the irony of this story of the Magi from Persia being read today in this moment when our government assassinates a military leader of Iran, formerly known as Persia.
Commentators on both the right and the left are clear this man has much blood on his hands and was continuing on that path.
There are many dangers of this moment: the most obvious is that our retaliation for their murder of an American contractor will lead to their retaliation for killing their military leader, and each side will continue to retaliate until we end up in full-scale war.
If your favorite verse in the Bible is “an eye for an eye”, then the whole world will end up blind, as Gandhi said.
Pray this doesn’t happen!
Another danger I want us to notice today, however, is the danger of asking the wrong question.
“In a speech to Religious Broadcasters January 30, 1984 President Ronald Reagan said the following: ‘I’ve said that we must be cautious in claiming God is on our side. I think the real question we must answer is, are we on God’s side?’” Matt Lewis, Tweet
This is indeed the question we must ask, now and always!
Are we on God’s side?
And how would we figure out what is God’s side?
You could answer, “read the Bible”, but there are plenty of folks who read the Bible who arrive at different understandings of who God is.
Just as in 19th century both slave owners and their slaves read the Bible, but they find a radically different God in it. The plantation owners read the account of Moses as proof that God is on the side of Law and Order and requires everyone, especially slaves, to obey the Law.
The slaves read the account of Moses as proof that God is on the side of liberating the oppressed and requires everyone, especially those with means, to care more about the poor than their stock portfolio.
One Bible but two different interpretations based on the perspective of the one doing the reading and interpreting.
So, what do we do to figure out what it means to be on God’s side?
You all know the answer: To know God’s side we must be on Jesus’s side. If Jesus is for something, we are for it. If he is against something, we are against it.
That’s what it means to follow Jesus as Master. But if we’re not careful we’ll just fill Jesus with the content of our own opinions so Jesus ends up looking like ourselves, which turns our religion into idolatry, the worship of the self, a powerful addiction.
Therefore, Saint Ambrose of Milan wrote in the 5th century—and it’s on the wall in my office—at least for the next couple of weeks: “To be ignorant of Scripture, is to be ignorant of Jesus.”
We must, as the collect says, “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” Holy Scripture, if we are to begin to understand the nature of Jesus and through him, the nature of our liberating and healing God.
We must spend time studying Jesus as he is revealed in the Old and New Testaments in order to discern the Mind of Christ, the Mind of God. And we don’t just read the Bible alone, but also in our local church and then in conversation with the whole Universal Church, past and present.
This will prevent some of the craziness I’ve seen lately whereby some Evangelical Christians surrounding the President, think a war between Israel and Iran will be a wonderful thing, because then prophecy will be fulfilled and Jesus will pull up into Heaven—rapture–those who hold the correct beliefs about him, while death and destruction will cover the earth. This view did not exist anywhere in the church before the mid-19th century when it was invented by John Nelson Darby.
The Magi, who were followers of Zoroastrianism, show us that God uses believers of other religions to proclaim the good news of Christ.
800 years ago this past September, Saint Francis of Assisi crossed the battle line of the Fifth Crusade and met the Sultan of Egypt to preach the gospel of Christ, seeking to bring peace to a longstanding conflict. This could have cost Francis his life.
We have been doing similar work at All Saints when we worshiped last year at the mosque in Lowell and had their leader worship with us and address us in the parish hall. This past November 10th, we had a mother, father, and two daughters share their Muslim faith with us in the parish hall.
It is a small thing, to be sure, but I believe it is a powerful practice of resisting the spirit of the age that is always too eager to start another war in the name of God. It is a practice of seeking Christ and being on the side of the God who “so loved the world he gave his only Son…in order that the world might be saved.”