In chapters five and six in Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, the theme of terror is taken up. Luther, however, inverts the usual rendering of the story in which Herod the king terrorises his subjects to root out the king of the Jews. Instead, we are taken on a journey to think about how “this Gospel is a terror to the great, learned, holy and powerful.”
Herod may terrorise the Jews, but only because he has first been terrorised by the gospel. In other words, the gospel is terrifying because it threatens the legitimacy of the status quo that underwrites the legitimacy of one’s life.
Luther bothers to ponder how the magi ended up in Jerusalem if the star they were following was supposed to take them to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Luther speculates that they simply assumed that the place to which the star was leading them was Jerusalem, the seat of power, and the place of the worship of God: “Where else would common sense expect to find a king?” Human wisdom had come unstuck, again. With his vintage vernacular, Luther inhabits the mindset of the magi: “Confound it! We have come all this way for nothing.”
The silence that meets the magi on their arrival reveals a much more alarming situation than the possibility that they had wasted energy, time, and money travelling to Jerusalem. Having entered the city gates, there are no fireworks, ringing bells, and trumpeting rams’ horns. They do not find a nation celebrating the birth of their king: “If a puppy were born there would be some little stir, and here a king is supposed to be born and everything is so still.” Luther takes up the magi’s perspective once again: “Can it be that we foreigners should be the first to have news of him in the royal city?” Indeed, the magi lament, “What a miserable king we are seeking.”
Moreover, when the news is told to the Jews that their king has been born, “They do not believe themselves that to them a king is born.” Nor do they respond by asking, “shall we come and find him?” Luther is right: “How desolate for the birth of a king.”
The lack of celebration, however, especially after the news is told that a new king has been born should not be read as disinterest, far from it. Herod the king shows a keen interested in tracking down the new-born. Of course, his motivation is not to give this king the worship due him. And all Jerusalem is also not concerned with bowing the knee: “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” The king and the people were disturbed because the new baby disturbed them all. That is, the arrival of this baby brought the status quo into question: the king’s rule and peace, and the stability of the people’s peace. "Thus we see how the little baby Jesus, while still in a manger, filled the world with fear." The new-born terrorised the king and the people.
Their fears were legitimate. Herod’s reign was under question, and his distrust of the people and anger at being outwitted by the magi resulted in an edict that lead to the killing of the baby boys aged two years and under in and around the town of Bethlehem. "Thus Herod and his men took the sword, and became frightful murderers even though they put out such a persuasive defence that everyone thought they were keeping the peace." Whereas the foreigners worshipped the new born king, those for and to whom he came not only abandoned him, but also sought to kill him: a theme that would follow Jesus until it was his time.
At a time when we are caught up with the validity of the status quo—our peace and our rule—the news of the arrival of the king is to be heard afresh. As news for them, for sure, but also news for ourselves.
For unto us a child is born. So let us put down the fight for our desires—our rule, our peace—and let us kneel before the king and worship him. Shamefully, the marketers and advertisers beat many of us to Christmas this year… too consumed with the status quo and the peace that has historically come with it. The world always needs hear about Christmas, but this year more than most, so do we. We were busy when Christmas came around and so we were late to the shed.
Oh, the joy to be terrorised by Jesus…
Better late, than never.