SJF • Christmas 2 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.+
Merry Christmas! Christmas season isn’t over yet, remember; it’s 12 days long. Today is the 10th day of Christmas and the second Sunday after Christmas. So we can still say “Merry Christmas” for another two days! But just to round things out, let me say, Happy New Year.
Merry and Happy...hmmm. Our gospel today, however, is a sobering reminder that all is not well in the world. It introduces one of the great villains of world history: King Herod the Great. (Don’t confuse him with the other Herod, his son Herod Antipas, who would later rule over Galilee, and cause trouble both for John the Baptist and for Jesus some thirty years later. I suppose one might well observe “like father, like son.”)
This earlier Herod is a prototype of evil in high places: a stereotype of tyranny and wickedness in the place where justice and good should sit. We only hear the first part of the story in our Gospel this morning — but you can tell that something is up even if you didn’t know the rest of the story: that after the Wise Men don’t come back to Herod, he too knows that something is up, something is going on to threaten his position, that there’s a rival king out there somewhere, and he orders the massacre of all of the little boys up to the age of two in the town of Bethlehem — and the Holy Family only escapes in a flight to Egypt because of Joseph’s dream.
Herod is so bad that he became proverbial. The historical Herod merged with the legendary to produce the perfect villain. In the religious plays that the merchant guilds of England performed in the Middle Ages — for the benefit of the common people, few of whom could read or understand the Latin bible — the part of Herod was always played by the biggest ham actor. The man who could shout and scream and roll his eyes the most would get the part to play horrible Herod. This style of overacting became the rule for Herod to such an extent that a few hundred years later Shakespeare could joke that a really bad actor “out-Herod’s Herod!”
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But what I would like to suggest to you today is that the really scary villains aren’t the ones that scream and roll their eyes, and run up and down the stage stamping their feet. The ones who scare me are the ones who go about their villainy calm, cool, and collected.
If you watch the History Channel at all, no doubt you’ve seen films of Adolf Hitler — certainly one of the worst if not the worst villains of the last century. If you’ve seen him speaking at one of his party rallies , you’ve seen how he gestured and emoted like the ham actor he was — in fact, one of the reasons he was able to come to power was that the moderates in the German government didn’t take him seriously, and couldn’t understand how anyone else could either; they considered him a blustering buffoon; more fools they! And by no means wishing to diminish or downplay the evil or the villainy of Hitler, I just want to say that I always find films of his Soviet counterpart, Josef Stalin, even more disturbing. “Uncle Joe” as he was sometimes called, was a man as ruthless and murderous as Hitler. But when you see him speaking to the crowds in Red Square, he barely breaks a sweat. Instead of the silly posturing of the Fascist salute, Stalin gently waves like the Queen Mum. But he could send tens of thousands to their deaths in prison camps with just such a dismissive wave — and he did, time and time again.
And I tend to think that Herod was a bit more like Stalin than he was like Hitler. He’s a smooth villain, is Herod. He knows how to make nice, and be polite, how to cozy up to the wise men, and get them to act as his agents — until they too are warned in a dream not to buy what this smooth villain is selling.
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And isn’t this a warning to us? Avoiding evil and malicious people would be very easy if you could always tell who they were by obvious clues — if all the villains really wore black hats, or had pencil mustaches and favored cheap suits and loud neckties. The fact is, con men and crooks are successful precisely because they look just like the rest of us, or maybe even better than us — the con man has to get you to trust him, after all.
While not wanting to put him in the class of Hitler, Stalin, or Herod, Bernie Madoff would not have been able to make off with all that money if people hadn’t trusted him. Villains in high places, whether the merely financial evil of an embezzler or swindler, or the literally murderous evil of the manufacturer who spikes infant formula with poisonous chemicals to make it look more nutritious, they often get away with it precisely because they seem so courteous, solicitous, and upstanding. You know the old expression of “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” — well evil in high places often clothes itself very comfortably in the robes of state and privilege and propriety. And they fit like a glove.
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So what are we to do? Perhaps the dreams of Joseph and the Wise Men, warning them not to trust Herod were in part a result of some sixth sense that tells you something is wrong even when it seems all right on the surface. There’s a story of a woman who managed to escape the Bernie Madoff disaster because one day she passed him on the street and noticed his shoes weren’t shined — and she pulled out all her money from his care, and escaped the disaster. Perhaps that is how the Holy Spirit works some times — as Paul mentioned in Ephesians, opening the eyes of our hearts — to see those little things that the eyes of our head might not catch. So it is important to keep both sets of eyes wide open. More importantly, much more importantly, because we will still miss things, and still be fooled — no one escapes that all the time, as Lincoln observed: that you can fool most of the people some of the time — we can have trust, more importantly, that while there may well be evil in high places, as Saint Paul reminds us in our reading from Ephesians, we also have a friend in high places! The battle with the forces of evil is not ours alone, and that is good news! As Martin Luther said in his great hymn, “Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing; Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing!” We do not need to tremble in fear at the “Prince of darkness grim” or any of his third-rate imitators seated in high places of power and prestige.
For there is a word of power above all earthly powers, a living Word and wisdom in whom we are empowered to live, and who lives in us, and that is a big part of what Christmas means. He has endowed us with a glorious inheritance and has given us a spirit of wisdom and revelation, when we open the eyes of our hearts as we have come to know him, by his becoming one of us. This is Saint Paul’s message of hope and encouragement to the people of Ephesus, and it is a message of hope and encouragement to us as well.
We do need to keep our eyes open and to be, as Jesus himself warned us, as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves —
— there are crooks and villains aplenty in this world of ours; corruption loves its comfortable seat in the halls of power and some seated there are smooth and clever, able to deceive even the elect.
But only for a time — their doom is sure. Justice may be deferred but it will not be denied, and the villains in high places and on their lofty thrones — or in their posh boardrooms or their corner offices — will find their stolen power slipping away, slipping through their greedy fingers. The Holy Family will escape. Christ will spend that safe sojourn in Egypt, return to Galilee, and grow to manhood. And even when that other Herod, Herod Junior, joined with the priests and scribes and Pharisees, with the power of the Romans at their disposal, think they have finally succeeded, and defeated Jesus, and nailed him to the cross, they will be proved wrong. Mourning will be turned to joy, and Christ will rise again, never to die again.
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And so, good people, take courage. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Have confidence that though evil and wickedness may seem for a time to run the show, the curtain will soon come down on their last performance. Christmas is the preview of that promise, and it reminds us that God has come among us to give us power to discern and avoid evil, and ultimately in and with his strength, to defeat it. This is the hope to which God has called us, that we may know what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. So let us rejoice and be glad, and believe that Christmas promise, in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.+