A month or so ago, I heard this story and it has just stuck with me–especially as I was preparing for this sermon.
There was a civil-rights protest in Georgia, and a group of teenage girls were arrested during the protest. Well–I say teenage, but some of them were as young as twelve, and the oldest was only fifteen. After they were arrested, they were held in jail for a night, and then transferred to a building that became known as the stockade. It was a building with concrete floors and shoddy plumbing. At least a dozen girls were held in a single room, one without beds or a working toilet, for 45 days. The guards threatened to kill them; once they even threw a rattle snake into the room. Their parents were never informed where they were, nor were the girls ever charged with a crime.
When they were finally released, almost entirely due to media pressure, they each received a bill for their use of the “facility.”*
This is a story about power and violence. It’s a story about those with power–here, the white police officers–using that power to do violence to those who are threatening that power–here, the teenage black girls. They were not threatening that power directly–right, there was no chance that a fourteen year old girl was going to take the police officer’s job, or even walk to the state capital and push through legislation–but still. The white officers were afraid, afraid that their system of racism and hatred was being dismantled and so they lashed out.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this story as I prepared for this week’s sermon, where we have a Scripture of another powerful, frightened man lashing out. It’s not an exact parallel, of course, but it is a reminder that this sort of violence is not just something from thousands of years ago; it also happens here, and it happens everywhere.
So. We have here a story of Herod, who was the governor of Israel for the Roman Empire. A bit of background: Herod worked his way up from basically nothing, until he’d impressed the Romans so much that they made him governor of his home area. Also, he betrayed a lot of people. But once he became governor, he married, had children. Later in life, he executed most of them for betraying him, so, you know. That’s the kind of person we’re dealing with here. That is, through his whole life, Herod was protective of his power–although to be honest, protective feels like too small of a word for someone who executed his own sons. Also, this is not the same Herod who features in Jesus’ passion; rather, that was one of the surviving sons of the Herod we just read about. “Our” Herod died in 4 BC, so probably not long after this incident.
I say ‘incident,’ like talking about it like that can take away from the horror of what happens: the wise men come to Jerusalem, looking for Jesus; Herod hears about this king they’re looking for, and feels threatened–who would dare to claim to be king? He ruled this land! Herod finds out where they’re going, and when they don’t return to confirm which baby he should kill he just has his soldiers go there and kill them all. Every single child under two years old. Problem solved, at least in Herod’s mind.
This is … I mean, horrific. It’s a level of self-centeredness that just… is hard to grasp. Herod is so afraid for his position–which isn’t even hereditary, by the way, it was granted to him by the Romans–that he has his soldiers kill infants–infants and one-year-olds and babies that were just learning to walk and toddlers who had just spoken their first full sentence, whose only mistake was being born in Bethlehem instead of one village over.
That is some powerful fear that Herod is feeling.
As I said, this isn’t unique to Herod. That’s why I told the story about the Leesburg Stockade Girls, but I can think of so many more examples: gunmen who kill people because of their deep-seated hatred of their fellow human beings, whether they be of a different race or religion or gender or sexual orientation or whatever else; politicians who use fear to motivate voters, even when they’re lying through their teeth about what there is to fear because it will get them elected or reelected; businesses that lie about their own damaging practices because, well, they need that extra billion in profit. And this isn’t just limited to big actions that might make the history books–we all do this. I mean–this is a silly example, but–good grief, I was so afraid to throw anything out when I moved last week that I moved a box that I never opened from my last move two years ago, I moved boxes full of years old papers–not important forms like tax receipts, just papers, like old essays and notes from high school English–, I moved shoes I haven’t worn in three years and dresses that don’t fit anymore–holding on to stuff just makes me feel so secure, even though it could all burn up tomorrow. That feels the same, if I’m honest: it’s still a grasping at power, a deep fear of letting go of what I can control (or at least think I can control). We all grasp at power and control in destructive ways.
And yet… I’ve been focusing on Herod, but this isn’t really a story about Herod. This is a story about Jesus, about God and how God is moving. Herod wasn’t entirely wrong, after all: Jesus is powerful. Jesus would change the world, would make the fear- and violence-ridden power of people like Herod obsolete. Because God doesn’t respect that kind of power; instead, God respects the power of feeding a child, or helping a homeless person, or praying, or worshiping, or writing a letter to your representative. God respects love, and justice, and worship.
Besides Herod, in this story we have Joseph, who not only remains loyal to his wife Mary even though she got, you know, mysteriously pregnant with what turned out to be the Son of God, but then upends his entire life to protect his son by moving to Egypt. Egypt! And we have the wise men, who traveled unimaginably far to meet Jesus, and who refuse to betray him to Herod. They see Jesus, they have read the Scriptures and understand who He is and what He will do and their response is to honor Jesus with gifts and worship.
We see here two responses to God, and to to the promises of Advent–one day Jesus will return, and there will be justice and peace and love overflowing for everyone. We can lash out in fear, destroying ourselves and those around us in our desperation to keep things the same and hold on to what we have. Or we can let go: let go of how we expected things to be, let go of our own feelings of safety, let go of the power we cling to. We can let go, and see what beautiful, unexpected things God has put in our path. We can worship God our creator and sustainer and redeemer.
May we always worship; may we always let go.
*I first heard this story on The StoryCorp podcast.