Sweet little Jesus Boy —
They made you be born in a manger.
Sweet little Holy Child —
Didn’t know who you was.
Didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord;
To take our sins away.
Our eyes was blind, we couldn’t see,
We didn’t know who you was.
-Robert MacGimsey, Sweet Little Jesus Boy (1934)
One of my favorite Christmas Eve memories from childhood is sitting in the dim light of the sanctuary at my grandparent’s Methodist church in Richmond, VA. Every year the same heavy set man with the deep baritone voice would sit on a stool in the middle of the chancel area with his guitar and sing an acoustic solo of Robert MacGimsey’s 1934 Christmas tune, Sweet Little Jesus Boy.
Reading the gospel lesson for this first Sunday after Christmas this year, I’m not sure that I agree anymore. Herod, it seems, knew exactly who Jesus was…and he was afraid. Jesus, born King of the Jews, threatens this puppet king installed by Rome to maintain order in Judea.
On Christmas morning, the preacher with whom I worshipped declared that we were not gathered for a birthday party, but for the start of a revolution. Jesus’ birth marks the inauguration of a ruler whose end is the shalom of all creation. Citizens of this kingdom kneeling around his manger-throne on the day of his birth are those who are committed to justice, peace, love, and unbounded forgiveness. Citizens of this kingdom refuse to rely upon violence to achieve their ends. The birth of such a king should make the rulers of the fragile Pax Romana tremble.
Herod knows his vulnerability but he’s crafty. After all, this is the same Herod who was widely known for his paranoia (he killed his own son) and quick to use violence to protect his power. He was Augustus’ favorite client king because he was so violent and hence so effective at keeping the trains running on time. When folks like Herod feel threatened, there are no limits to what they will do to protect themselves or their power. Sweet little Jesus boy born in the poverty of a stable. Sweet little Jesus boy greeted only by the shepherds on the night of his birth. Sweet little Jesus boy born into a world where children die in order to protect the power of tyrants like Herod. We might not have known who you were, little Jesus boy, but Herod certainly did.
This Advent and Christmas season, as we wrap up a year that, as late night TV comedian, Trevor Noah, observed, “…started with Zika and went downhill from there”, I found I had much less tolerance than in past years for cute bathrobe clad shepherds, pipe-cleaner haloed angels, and parents snapping pictures for Facebook. The choirs in my town hit every note of Handel’s Messiah perfectly, but I wonder if anyone who walked away humming the staccato notes of “and the government shall be upon his shoulders…” considered how political a statement this is? Do we know who this Sweet little Jesus boy is?
The domestication of Christmas is hardly the fault of Wall Street and Main Street. We in the church gave it up long ago when we began to celebrate Christmas as a birthday party for the One who would one day save each of our disembodied, believing souls rather than as the season which marks the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
I work alongside hundreds of (Southern Mainline Protestant) clergy who say that they struggle to talk about politics in their congregations. I feel their pain. I’m still figuring this stuff out myself. There is nothing easy or safe about the proclamation of the gospel in these days. Maybe our mistake lay in believing that it ever was. A preacher who stands in the pulpit to preach the gospel this first Sunday after Christmas can’t help but preach politics if it is the gospel that is being preached.
There is a new king in town and the powers that be tremble in fear. If we listen closely, we will hear the cries of Rachel weeping for her children who are no more. They are no more in Aleppo where tyrants like Asad, Putin, and ISIS fight to maintain power regardless of the human cost. They are no more in the African-American communities of America where mothers are afraid to let their children out the door and a busted tail-light can be a capital offense, all to protect the power and privilege of white folks like me. They are no more in cities and towns across Central America where gang violence, drug cartels, and devastating poverty push thousands North to a border wall built by politicians who claim the right to determine who merits safety and security.
There are Herods in this world who, to cover the fragility of their power, promise a “peace” achieved by greatly expanding existing arsenals of nuclear weapons.There are even some brazen enough to crown and anoint their leaders with Messianic titles, thereby underwriting their authority and encouraging our obedience. In such a world, to proclaim that Christ is born is to make a political statement against the powers and principalities that claim power over us and who would try to rule us with fear and violence.
These are hard words for a preacher to hear, but there is good news for those of us who seek to align our lives with this King. Though powers rage against this child, they do not win the day. Try as he may, Herod cannot kill this king. Jesus and his family flee to Egypt for a time under the protection of God’s grace, until God calls them home to Nazareth. Pilate and the religious leaders will try again later this spring, but they too will fail.
In the midst of the struggle, we can hold fast to the promise that God is with us. We celebrate this season the one who is Immanuel, the one whose faithfulness has not changed since the days when Isaiah proclaimed: “It was no messenger or angel, but his presence that saved them” (63:9). We remember the words of the Letter to the Hebrews that the suffering we experience is “fitting,” but because Jesus himself was tested “by what he suffered, he is able to help those are are being tested” (2:18).
May this first Sunday after Christmas be an opportunity for our congregations to enter into conversation together about the politics of the gospel we claim. For those who would accuse us of playing politics in church, we can gladly accept the blame. Remind them, of course, that the politics of our God refuse to be mapped onto the simplistically binary conservative-progressive continuum given to us by the media. To confront one pole of that cramped binary is not to endorse the other. In these conversations we hope to rise above the partisan divisions of our world and claim a politics that transcends them all. We remind people that their first citizenship is not to America, but to the Kingdom inaugurated in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.
To have this conversation might mean pointing to the Herods of this world, but it also might look like a conversation about the Herod in us. Do we know who this sweet little Jesus boy really is? Are we ready to let him come and save us from all of the ways we rely upon injustice and violence done in our name to preserve our comfort and status in this world? Are we willing to see the ways in which innocent lives are lost so that we can maintain the lifestyles we hold dear? These are not easy conversations, but they are possible because the Lord before whom we confess is the same Lord who has shown great favor to us “according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Is. 63:7).
Image: Bust, reputedly of Herod the Great, excavated in Jerusalem.