Amidst all the pretty lights and cheerful music and tasty food, sometimes we forget just how dark the Christmas story really is. Jesus isn’t born into a winter wonderland; He is born into a war zone. While the story is full of light and joy—a star leading Magi to the manger and angels bursting into song for shepherds—these things are exceptions to the rule of darkness. Jesus, the light of the world, enters the stage against a backdrop of shadow and gloom. The Man of gentleness and humility of heart, is born into a system of power that is cruel and proud.
In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, a figure looms large upon his throne, embodying the spirit of the age. Herod is King of the Jews and he uses power for his own gain, to protect himself and his interests. When he feels threatened by the possibility of a new king being born, he slaughters the children of Bethlehem—any boy under the age of two, who just might be a potential rival to his power someday far in the future. It is as shocking as it is sickening. A king killing babies! The concept is so jarring it seems unbelievable, until we recognize that the evil which wields this same abuse of power still walks among us.
It is very important to notice how those who have power treat those who have less power. This is true in government, church, and family. Too often, when faced with the question of how to treat those within our sphere of influence, we turn to oppression, suppression, and even elimination of those we view as a threat to our power, control, or freedom.
It is scary, but not surprising that this is the path of power in our world. What is scarier, though, is that sometimes we form alliances with the very people and ways of thinking which perpetuate this destructive worldview.
For all his evils, Herod was viewed by many of the Jews as a champion of the people. While they may have disagreed with his choices personally, they enjoyed the benefits of what he was accomplishing for them – including rebuilding the Second Temple of Jerusalem and bringing new forms of entertainment through amphitheaters and his patronage of the Olympic Games. Herod even sold many of his own gold and silver furniture during a famine in order to buy food for his people (taking great care, of course, to let them know how grateful they should be to him for his generosity).
The result of all this is that the people—including those in spiritual leadership—were willing to overlook his other atrocities in order to form alliances that furthered their own goals. This is seen most clearly through the Jewish leadership’s cooperation with Herod’s successors, and their other Roman oppressors in their persecution and crucifixion of Jesus. In our world today, we too don’t have to look far to find countless examples of the same compromise taking place in every realm of leadership. How great is the darkness when those who claim the light must partner with darkness to achieve their goals!
Thank God there is another way, made possible when a light was born which the darkness could not conquer. In the midst of this story of Herod, a king in a world of kings, we hear a prophecy pointing to a different kind of ruler “who will shepherd My people Israel” (Gospel of Matthew 2:6).
A shepherd is a leader, but also a servant. A shepherd lives to care for the sheep, even to be willing to lay down his life for the sheep. What a stark contrast! A leader who protects the vulnerable before He protects himself, who uses His power for the gain of others, who uplifts and empowers those He shepherds.
In living this life of a shepherd born into a world of kings, Jesus cleared the path for us to follow in His footsteps. He invites us to form an alliance with the light. Jesus partners with us and offers a way to “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for you souls” (Gospel of Matthew 11:29).
The birth of Jesus was an invasion. Herod did indeed have a right to fear the arrival of Jesus, but not in the way he imagined. Jesus wasn’t looking to overthrow Herod’s kingship, but rather the reign of all powers of darkness in all times and in all places. Jesus came to enthrone a new way of gentleness and humility through love.
It is easy to point to leaders and systems who abuse their power; it is much more difficult to look inside ourselves and see how we misuse influence and opportunity in our own lives. Do we stand side-by-side with those who are frequently targets of distrust and derision? Do we create space for those whose voices have been silenced to be heard? Do we embody a community that makes it possible for others to thrive as much as we do? Whether online, or at church, or in town, or across the street, Jesus invites us to join him in being a shepherd—not a king—to all people.