New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells about a Christmas service where he was preaching, when he was approached by a well-known historian, famous for his skepticism towards Christianity. “I've finally worked out why people like Christmas,” he declared. “A baby threatens no one. So the whole thing is a happy event which means nothing at all!”
Anyone who bothers to read the Gospels, however, knows that before the Prince of Peace ever walked or talked, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head. Jesus’ birth was anything but a postcard image. He was a threat. The tiny town of Bethlehem was not just the inauspicious place where God’s son quietly entered the world, but the turf on which Herod’s soldiers would slaughter babies and toddlers just to ensure that his throne remained secure.
The scandal of Christmas is not the virgin birth but that God’s redemptive work defies the Herods of this world – not just kings and presidents, but anyone who clings to power and privilege at the expense of love.
Herod feared that someone else would take his throne. A lot of people are like him. People like you and me, who refuse to allow anything or anyone to interfere with our domain, our ambition, our sphere of influence, our prerogative to run the show. Our kingdoms may not be as big or as impressive as Herod’s, but each of us protects what is ours and seeks to secure for ourselves what we want.
If we’re honest, there is a Herod in each of us: We fear the “God with us,” for we know that to truly acknowledge him will be the end of our egos and our quests for personal advantage. This hit home to me very personally one Christmas break during college. My father, a medical doctor, leveraged a pharmacist friend of his to give me a job over the holidays. I was hired as a cashier, but was allotted only 16 hours a week.
I was confident I’d get more hours. The other cashiers were obvious losers – college dropouts or middle-aged ladies with no real potential. After my first day I was faster than they were and easily kept the customers in my line moving. Whenever there was a lull I’d tidy the aisles and shelves, while my co-workers just gossiped with one another.
At the end of the week the manager called me into his office. He asked me how it was going. I said great, and asked him for more hours. “To do that I’d have to adjust the schedules of the others,” he said.
“I don’t mind,” I said, “I’m willing to work any shift.”
“I’m not sure I can do that,” he responded. “You’re temporary, they’re not. I have single moms who have to make ends meet.”
“But I’m faster, more productive,” I retorted.
“Yes. And you’re also short $253.00.”
“Your cash register didn’t balance out correctly,” he curtly explained. “Maybe you can shed some light on why.”
I was speechless. I just looked at him and stammered.
He went on to explain to me how he had noticed that in my haste I wasn’t operating the cash register properly, a typical problem for a college kid and probably why there was a shortfall. He then gave me my new schedule and told me not to bother asking him again for more hours.
“By the way,” he blurted out. “It’s Christmas.”
Indeed! My ego had collided with the Christ of Christmas. The Herod in me, that part of myself which sought to conquer and dominate, that vied for position, prominence, and personal profit at the expense of others was smashed to smithereens against the one who lay meekly in a manger.
Historians tell us that as the events around Christ’s birth took place, Herod was dying a painful death. Within three years of Jesus' birth, Herod was dead. What is absurd is that Herod desperately tried to hold on to a kingdom that wasn't his to keep.
This is what we must all realize. “The government shall be upon his shoulders,” the prophet Isaiah writes. Our kingdoms must come to an end. Christ – the eternal Word by which all things were made – made himself our servant. Unless we are ready to move in the same downward direction, unless Christ becomes the lowly Lord of our life and we expend ourselves serving the “least of these” we encounter, we will end up like Herod.
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many,” Simeon announced to Mary. The Herod inside us can yet bow down to the Lord of love.