King Herod spent part of the decades before Jesus was born supervising a construction project. Unlike us, he wasn’t putting a slate roof on or getting structural repairs made to an existing property – no, he was building a magnificent fortress retreat south of Jerusalem. Herod’s administration was known for huge building campaigns, actually, but this one beat them all. For starters, he installed a man-made mountain; he then followed it with a 7-story palace, a complete Roman bath, a massive penthouse guest suite, an outdoor theatre, and a swimming pool large enough for small-craft sailing.
Herod named the complex after himself – Herodium – and gave instructions that he was to be buried there. Which he eventually was, after a thirty-day funeral procession with a solid gold bier. Archeologists have been excavating the site, and they found King Herod’s sarcophagus in 2007. It’s pink.
Now I said this lavish palace complex was south of Jerusalem, and south of Jerusalem, you may know, is also where Bethlehem is. When I go study in the Holy Land this summer on sabbatical, I hope I get to see it. Herodium was built only about 3 miles from the little town of Bethlehem. If Herod were sitting on his balcony, he could look down on the city of David, and remember how fortunate he was to be wealthy and powerful and not have to live in a hut in a tacky little village like ordinary people.
Herod and his heirs (because there’s a whole house of Herods) are written about at length in Jewish history of the time, so we have lots of information on them. But in the Bible most of what we’re told about this Herod, Herod the Great, turns up in the section of Matthew we read today on the feast of the Epiphany. Since Epiphany is a Sunday this year, we actually got to hear the reading where the Magi arrive, and we are taking the occasion to celebrate this major feast with some special music and the proclamation of the moveable feasts. Epiphany will next fall on a Sunday in 2030, so savor it!
At the beginning of the Gospel for today, then, the Magi come onstage and let Herod know that a new king of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem, and that they’re on the way to honor this replacement king with gifts. At which point, even though we didn’t read that far this morning, Herod swings into action to protect his throne and his power and his big outdoor swimming pool, telling the Magi to please let him know where he can find this new king.
Nobody is fooled by this, and when Herod figures out he’s not going to get the information, he orders a state-sponsored massacre of all infants under two, figuring that will dispose of his rival. But Jesus and his family flee the country instead, going down into to Egypt as refugees. A different nation, out of Herod’s jurisdiction, with a different culture and different ways of doing things -- and not just that, an ancestral enemy of Israel, in fact the place where the people were famously enslaved and out of which God even more famously delivered them.
Herod is so erratic, though, that even when the threat level has dropped and Jesus' family is able to go back to their native country, they still don’t feel safe returning to Judea, the area around the royal city of Jerusalem. Instead they travel all the way up north, where nobody will notice them, to the out of the way area of Galilee. Galilee is one of the places that when you say at a cocktail party you’re from there, people find an excuse to go talk to somebody else. And that’s where Mary and Joseph and Jesus settle back down.
Now it would be interesting to know for sure exactly how old Jesus was during all those experiences, but at any rate, the Jesus we’re talking about today is not still the adorable infant from the Christmas cards. The Magi, even though we romantically put them in the manger over there, probably arrived some months after Jesus’ birth. Matthew makes clear that the Holy Family had had time to move into a house in the interval, and as I just mentioned, Herod uses a round figure of two years since the birth. At any rate, Jesus is not a babe during this whole process of receiving the Magi and fleeing the country and then trekking way up north to the sticks; he’s turning into a toddler.
He’s old enough to be impacted by the fact that his family is fleeing political violence as refugees, that they’re living in a strange culture, that there is conflict and instability in the background. Jesus is not having a normal childhood. He is one of those people who will have to say the rest of his life, “Well, when I was a kid we moved around a lot,” and then later “No, actually I’m from Galilee.” And here’s the deal: along with being one of those people, he’s God.
Matthew is the writer who records the name of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us. He puts that name right up in chapter one, hoping that as we hear the story of this instability and obscurity we will remember that it is God-with-us we are talking about. That it’s God who lives in obscurity, God who joins a refugee family, God who is threatened by violence -- and that this will help us at least get one thing straight: God’s not like Herod. Herod’s life proclaimed that the way to make an impact was to be superior, to strike terror in the hearts of your people. Herod exercised control through violence and excess, through displays of crushing power. He looked down from the balcony of Herodium on the poor saps who have no choice but to live in little towns like Bethlehem.
Whereas Jesus models something very different. Jesus makes his impact by being Emmanuel, God with us. Yes, born in a manger, yes, that’s the Christmas card part, that’s touching and picturesque. But he actually stays down here, and that’s not picturesque at all.
God with us experiences, chapter 2 before he’s old enough to dress himself, the instability that wrecks so many young lives. God with us enters, chapter 2, right into the cultural displacement that can leave immigrants feeling like they aren’t at home anywhere. And if those couple experiences aren’t jarring enough, he keeps going for 26 more chapters; and it gets pretty ugly towards the end. Emmanuel, God with us, goes on to grow with us and talk to us and weep for us and suffer with us and get this, DIE -- for us -- while the Herods of our world look down from the balcony and think that’s all a bit beneath the dignity of a King.
And I guess the question for you and me on this Epiphany Sunday is, what’s our vantage point? Do we see ourselves as right down on the same level with everyone else, along with God with us, just like all the other poor saps whom Emmanuel has come to stand with and save? Do we approve of God choosing to be with us like that, and are we content to be with him? Or would we prefer to try and watch from the balcony?