When King Herod heard [about the star], 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. (Matt. 2:3-4)
The people have spoken. The choice has been made. Half the country is jubilant and the other half is in shock. The anticipation of so many that their voices would be heard has been met with great rejoicing on the one hand and utter despair on the other. The transition to a new governing power is underway—as are the protests. The hope for the first woman president is delayed, even as one powerful protest against political intransigence and ineffectiveness has been inaugurated, for good or ill. Now, we are all on alert again. Half of us anticipate America becoming great again. Half of us anticipate that the shadow side of whatever might keep us from being great has ascended. Anticipation is a powerful force because her roommate is anxiety. Hope and fear are two sides of the same coin. Even on a relatively superficial level, anticipating our favorite musician’s concert, or the next Big Thing from Apple, or a weekend away at the beach is always attended by the anxiety of possible disappointment—the musician cancels the concert, the next Big Thing turns out to be cosmetic touches to the last Big Thing, or the beach gets closed by an offshore Tsunami. More critically, our hope for a good report from our medical exam is never far removed from the fear of what that exam may uncover that would devastate us.
Those living in Jerusalem or Bethlehem 2000 years ago knew the close proximity of hope and despair. Herod may have awakened the morning of the magi’s arrival anticipating that he had finally solved “the Jewish problem” and secured the Pax Romana in Palestine once and for all. Yet our text reveals the unsettling fear that lay underneath his oppressive hold on the populace. In almost comic fashion, Matthew portrays Herod’s reign threatened to the core by the seemingly absurd question the magi posed to him: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Further, the whole city of Jerusalem had resigned itself to its occupied status. Now all anticipation of living quietly under the “benevolence” of the occupying forces was under the threat of Herod’s wrath. Matthew’s portrayal of these events is not simply historical reporting. Matthew here develops a theology of human history that speaks to the human condition in profound ways. Human history plays out this “Herodic” scenario over and over again—of human longing and loss, hope and despair, expectancy and anxiety. It is being played out today in the civil war of Syria, in the refugee crises in Europe, in the Brexit vote in Britain, and in the anxieties attending the American election of Donald Trump.
In the midst of such a world, where the dashing of human hopes for peace and justice and true security seems to be woven into the fabric of our existence, the Church of Jesus Christ heralds the Gospel of a very different outcome. Ironically, Matthew places this Gospel in the mouths of the chief priests and scribes who colluded with Herod to rule Palestine and who did all they could to rid the land of Jesus of Nazareth.
“And they said, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of
Judah, rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel’’ (Matt. 2:6)
Even the enemies of God proclaim the Good News of the Shepherd of Advent!