Sermon based on Matt 2:1-16, Luke 1:46-53 and Is 9:2–6, by CSBV director Helen Paynter.

Herod was frightened.

Herod was king of Palestine – a land which extended into the territories of what we today call Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. He held his throne by permission of the Emperor Augustus. In other words, he had behind him the might of the Roman empire and its many armies.

Herod was ruthless in consolidating his power – he had divorced one wife, murdered another with all of her family, and executed his eldest son, all in order to protect his throne.

He was also fabulously wealthy, with a string of great vanity projects to his name.

But Herod was frightened.

Why? Some men have come to his palace looking for a king – and they don’t mean him.

Where have you come from? he asks them. What made you set out? A star, you say?

So he consults his advisers. Yes, sire, a star was foretold they tell him. Balaam spoke of it in the book of Numbers.

Now Herod is really frightened.

When did the star arise? So, how old will this king be? And he turns back to his advisers. What else is foretold about this king?

The wise men tell him that – from the dating of the star – the king is a toddler at most. The advisers tell him the king will be born in Bethlehem, an insignificant town five miles beyond the Jerusalem metropolis.

But Herod is not reassured by either of these statements. He continues to be frightened. His fear and paranoia only grow.

The wise men leave him to resume their search, but Herod continues to stew about their words. We have come to pay him homage. To pay homage to that toddler, living in obscurity outside the capital.

And so he responds in the only way he knows how. His actions are of a piece with all that he has done before. He identifies a threat – or imagines one – and his response is to smash it. To bring down the fist of murderous power upon it.

This is no clean surgical strike, no precision attack. Instead, he hurls upon that little town a blitzkrieg of death. Every babe in arms, every toddler just learning to stutter dada – torn from their mothers’ arms and murdered in cold blood.

Because Herod was frightened.

He was frightened of a rival king, and that is how you deal with rival kings. Everyone knows that.

But Herod was about 69 years old at the time. And he could do the maths. There is no way that this infant could be a threat to his own kingship. He would be long gone before that child could challenge him for the throne. No, Herod had in mind his succession – his dynasty. After him would come his sons, Archelaus, Philip and Antipas. He was looking to set up an enduring kingdom. And this is how you set up lasting kingdoms, isn’t it? With power and wealth and pre-emptive murder. Everyone knows that.

Herod was frightened, and he responded the only way he knew. It is the way of the world.

Photo by guille pozzi on Unsplash

A year or so before these events, a teenaged girl living in an even more obscure part of the country had received a message. It wasn’t exactly the stuff that dreams are made of – fabulous wealth, a handsome prince, and living happily ever after.

It was a message of wonder and burden. You have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.

The Greeks knew this sort of story. Their gods were always fathering children. Especially Zeus. Zeus was sly, rapacious, violent. Women were tricked and overpowered. It is the only way that the myth-makers could imagine. It is the way of the world.

But it is not the way it happened for Mary. She was not tricked, she was not overpowered, she was not violated. Because, having delivered his message, the angel waited. Mary asked a question, and he answered it. She needed an explanation; he provided it. And he waited.

Finally, she spoke. Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word. In other words – yes.

Then the angel left. Then, and only then. Why? He had been waiting for her consent.

This is not the way of Zeus. This is not the way of Herod. It is not the way of the world. But it is the way of God.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

It is silent. It is small. It is weak. It is an angel waiting for a teenager’s consent, it is a cell in her womb, it is a baby in a cattle trough.

But, it is irreversible, it is unstoppable, it is throne-emptying, it is kingdom-ending, it is world-shattering.

Herod was right to be afraid.

A few months after that visitation from the angel, Mary sang a song. It wasn’t your typical cradle song, about sweet dreams and candy floss. If Herod had heard it he’d have been quaking in his boots.

Using the past tense to indicate certainty, Mary sang these prophetic words

God has scattered the proud

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly.

Here’s the paradox of Christmas in a nutshell.

A teenaged girl, an unmarried mother-to-be, sings about revolution. But this will not be a bloody revolution. Not Herod’s sort of power-grab. This is a revolution characterised by angels who wait for consent. It is a revolution which will begin with a baby in a borrowed manger in an obscure town. But it is a revolution which will establish an enduring kingdom. Not the way the world does it, but the much, much better way that God does it.

Where the mighty will be toppled. Where the proud will be humbled. Where the dictator will be brought down. Where all the evils that oppress humanity will be brought to an end.

It’s beginning right here under Herod’s nose. He’s right to be afraid. He has no idea how scared he should be.

Long before, the prophet Isaiah had glimpsed it.

We’re familiar with some of Isaiah 9. We often hear it at Christmas-time.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

But we miss out some important verses, and we miss one of the prophet’s greatest moments. Listen.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors

and all the garments rolled in blood

shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Because a child has been born for us,

a son given to us


This is not the way of Herod, and all the tyrants who came before or after him. It is not the way of Zeus, and all the false gods that we construct in our own imagination.

The warrior’s boots and the victor’s blood-stained battle-kit will be destroyed. Not because another warrior has come. Not because a bigger army showed up. Because a child has been born.

He will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly.

He will establish the kingdom of God – a kingdom of justice and peace, of healing and mercy – and it will never end.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

Be afraid, Herod. Be very afraid.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
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