On Not Returning to Herod

“On Not Returning to Herod”

Sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

January 6, 2013

Matthew 2:1-12

Our passage for today is one you likely heard on Christmas Eve.  You certainly heard it on Christmas Eve if you were here at Immanuel. We read it again today because it’s more properly situated on this day of Epiphany, because this is the day when we celebrate that the wise men from the East came to adore Jesus, that he was a light to all nations and not just to his own particular people.

Some households, as they display their nativity sets in Advent, fill them gradually.  They don’t fill them all at once.  The wise men aren’t even there on Christmas Eve.  In some households, you can see the wise men make their journey across the living room all through the twelve days of Christmas until finally, at Epiphany, they arrive at the stable.

Now, what’s interesting is that the gospel of Matthew says that the wise men came to a house and not to a stable, so they weren’t coming to the manger scene.  They were probably coming to see Jesus when he was a toddler and not an infant.  But at any rate, let’s not unsettle that myth too much!  As you hear this text from Matthew’s gospel, pay particular attention to Herod’s reaction and Jerusalem’s reaction to the visit of the wise men – and to what the wise men do after they visit the house where Jesus is.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘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.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all of the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

One of the great things about staying in a hotel, as Judith and I and our girls did on our visit to family the week between Christmas and New Year’s, is the opportunity you have to put a “Do Not Disturb” sign outside of your room. This is an indication that you want to be left alone to sleep, study, watch TV or what have you, so that the housekeepers and others know not to enter your room or to even knock on the door.

The “Do Not Disturb” sign does not always work. And sometimes it’s left hanging by accident (you really don’t mind being disturbed, but you haven’t bothered to take the sign off your door). But a “Do Not Disturb” sign functions as a window into the desires of the occupants of the room. They don’t want to be bothered.

do-not-disturb-door-hanger[1]

I think we can all relate to feeling that way at certain points in our days or our lives. My older daughter is home from college, and she has a little routine when she wakes up.  She makes herself a cup of hot tea, eats a bagel, has some yogurt and fruit and quietly reads the paper edition of The Washington Post.  (Who does that anymore?)  When I came in after early morning exercise on a Monday a few weeks ago – pumped up, talkative, full of energy – I’m pretty sure Rebecca wished she had her own “Do Not Disturb” sign.

There are occasions when a sign like that would be handy, right? And there are occasions when we need to be disturbed, whether we want to be or not, whether we like it or not. It is how we react to the disturbance that tells a tale.

When the wise men from the East, probably somewhere in Persia (that’s modern day Iran), showed up in Jerusalem, asking where the child who was born King of the Jews was born, the New Revised Standard Version of Matthew’s Gospel says that Herod was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him. But the word in Greek – tarasso – is actually something more like disturbed or agitated.  Tarasso… It’s the same word you’ll find in John 14, where Jesus tells his disciples in the upper room on the night before his crucifixion, “Let not your hearts be troubled, (let them not be tarassoed), believe in God, believe also in me.”[1]  And the same word you’ll find in the description of the disciples reaction to seeing Jesus walk on water, “They all saw him, and they were tarassoed (they were troubled). And immediately he talked with them, saying, “Be of good cheer. It is I, do not be afraid.” [2]  The disciples were tarasso-ed. Troubled. Agitated. Disturbed. And yes, frightened, too. Being disturbed and being frightened often go hand-in-hand.

I think Herod the Great might have hung a giant “Do Not Disturb” sign on the gates of Jerusalem if he could have. And so would all of Jerusalem because the last thing someone who is trying desperately to hold on to power wants to hear is that there is a potential challenger to his or her power around. And at least sometimes the last thing people who have settled into a routine, even if that routine is unpleasant and destructive, want to hear is that the same old same old might be disrupted.

Psychologists see this all the time. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right?  There are people who keep returning to their abusers, keep resuming their addictions, keep going back to behaviors that are eating them alive. But better the devil you know, right?  It could always be worse, right?  Who knows?

What Herod and all of Jerusalem with him couldn’t fully appreciate when the wise men showed up, was that the child who was born King of the Jews would demonstrate a new way of wielding power and thinking about what power should be used for. He would turn the world upside down, drive the religious authorities’ nuts by setting aside purity codes for the sake of compassion, and perplex those who thought that if he was a king he had to rule by using force to get his way. He would refuse to meet aggression with aggression.

Then here are these wise men, these foreigners, from Iran for God’s sake, showing up – looking to pay this new king homage.  Which is what they did: they brought him gold – a sign of love; frankincense – a sign of religious devotion; and myrrh, a burial spice prefiguring his death and his willingness to live in a way that would make his early death likely, if not foregone conclusion, because the last thing people or things that are trying to hold on to power want to do is to have that power challenged.

The wise men brought him specific gifts – and Michele and the kids talked about those gifts briefly during the Moment for Young Disciples. But it’s what the wise men did next that intrigues me. The text says that being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went home by another way. They didn’t report back to Herod, who, in his agitation, would have found out from them exactly where the child was, tried to destroy him, and probably them as well. By going home another way they protected the possibility of new life and a new approach to living.

So here we stand at the gateway of a New Year, all of us. We’ve been through the Advent and the Christmas Season, we’ve rung in the New Year with family and friends, perhaps we’ve made resolutions, some of which you may have already blown.

I think one way to look at resolutions, at least the ones I’ve made in the past and the ones I’ve made for this year, is that they are each in their own way decisions to go home by another way, not to return to something that is a Herod for you. They are intentions not to go back to whatever it is in you or the larger world that is threatened by the possibility of new life.

Not to go back to whatever it is that would seek to destroy the promise of living a deeper, more loving, more God and Christ-centered life.

Not to go back to whatever it is that does not want to be disturbed by the Christ child and his message of love embodied.

So if you haven’t made a resolution yet, and even if you have, let me suggest a few possible ones to ponder and perhaps adopt.

Go home another way by resolving to set aside resentment. Resentment literally means to feel something again, to re-sentiment it, as it were – and we apply it specifically to feeling anger again. Refuse to go back to the old hurt that you keep hanging onto like a dog with a bone.

Refuse to go back to the anger you keep revisiting again and again and again. Let it go.  Going back to that Herod doesn’t fix anything.  It only threatens the possibility of new life in you.

Go home another way by resolving not to respond hastily or angrily to comments made on social media or in email by people who have views that are different than yours. I should have made that resolution last year! Resolve not to respond angrily or hastily, even if what they say gets on your last nerve, pushes your biggest button, or makes you reach for the blood pressure meds.  It is bruised ego that guides those angry responses every time. While we were on our trip, I saw an interview of a man who wrote a book on Lincoln and he said they found a whole trove of Lincoln’s letters, letters that he wrote and never sent.[3]

Go home another way by making a commitment to take care of your body.  We only get one.  Not feeding it enough or with the right food, abusing it with alcohol or drugs, not resting it:  these are all ways of damaging the gift God has given you. They are all ways of going back to Herod. The power of addiction is strong.  The more you return to it, the less you protect the new life in you.

Go home another way by resolving to be kind.  David Brooks had a great op-ed in the New York Times this past week about suffering fools gladly[4], and how the saying that someone “didn’t “suffer fools gladly” is basically our way of giving them a pass on being a jerk. Brooks says you don’t have to be a jerk. The best teachers, he says, even though they are bright and know their field inside and out, know how to suffer fools gladly.

The Jesuit priest James Martin wrote in the latest issue of National Catholic Review:

Be a little kinder.  I think that 90% of the spiritual life is being a kind person.   No need to have any advanced degrees in theology or moral reasoning, and no need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s religious traditions, to get this: Be gentler and more compassionate towards other people.  In other words, say “Thank you” and “Please.”  Ask people how they are.   Listen more carefully when they speak to you.  Don’t say snotty things about them behind their backs.  Basically, give them the benefit of the doubt.  I know that sometimes you feel like acting like a jerk – you feel justified because of the way you’re being treated – but you don’t have to.  Most of the time you have a choice: I can be a jerk or I can be kind.  Be kind.   You’ll find that you’ll be happier with yourself at the end of the day.  And, as an added benefit, everyone around you will be happier.[5]

Don’t return to the Herod of being a jerk.

Here’s a final one. Go home another way by not returning to the Herod that would enable abuse or mistreatment of others. Go back another way by not cooperating with whatever would put those who are vulnerable at risk. Speak out about it.  Perhaps you read about the horrific rape case in India. So horrific that I don’t want to talk about it, other than to say that it has mobilized that nation’s women to speak out on behalf of justice and protection for those who are threatened.

I follow this on-line comic strip called Coffee with Jesus. And there’s this wonderful strip that came out this week. Lisa, one of the recurring characters, is talking to Jesus, who is sitting, as always, with a cup of coffee in hand. I just once want to see him actually take a sip of that coffee!  Anyway, Lisa says to Jesus, “I look at the world and see field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow and flashing sea.  They all speak to me of your deep love, Jesus.” “I know, right?” replies Jesus.  Lisa goes on, “But then I look at the real world and see the sorrow and the strife, and I’m like, ‘Where is God in all of this?’” Jesus pauses, then responds, “I am deep in the sorrow, Lisa.  The strife is daily with me.  And every day I’m thinking, ‘Why isn’t Lisa here with me?”[6]

As we sing the next hymn, I’m inviting the Jones family and the Evans family to pass out stars to everyone in the congregation.  As you receive your star, I want you to hold on to it.  I want you to think about it.  Then I want you to write one word on that star, one word that will guide you through the coming year.  It might reflect a resolution you made or are about to make.  Write that one word on your star and keep it with you all year long.  Put it on your bathroom mirror or by your computer, or somewhere else that you’ll see it every day.  Keep it in front of you so that you don’t forget.  Follow that star and it will take you home by another way.

Star for the year

This is what I put on my star…

In Jesus’ name.

 Amen.


[1] John 14:1-2

[2] Mark 6:50

[3] David Von Drehle, who wrote the recent book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year (New York: Henry Holt, 2012), was interviewed on C.N.N.

[4] David Brooks, “Suffering Fools Gladly”, New York Times, January 3rd, 2012.  Read  it online here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/opinion/brooks-suffering-fools-gladly.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0

[5] Father James S. Martin, S.J. “Five Easy Things for a Happier Year,” America: The National Catholic Review, December 31st, 2012.  Here’s the link:  http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/five-easy-things-happier-year

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3 Responses to On Not Returning to Herod

  1. Pingback: On Not Returning to Herod | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Cathy says:

    Wonderful, Aaron!!! Thank you for letting God’s Spirit speak through you to us! Such a blessing.

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