Jesus came into the neighborhood

27 Dec


On December 28, I’ll be preaching for the first time on Holy Innocents Day—marking Herod’s slaughter of babies in his attempt to dispose of newborn Jesus. I found it to be a rich experience, so I’m sharing it.

Jesus came into the neighborhood

Christmas Day  in Bethlehem with  the manger scene is easy to sentimentalize and turn into a manger scene that we put up one a year. Today, marking the slaughter of the Holy Innocents reminds us that Jesus was born into the real world.  In that real world, Jesus was born into poverty, a nobody, into an ethnic minority in a vast oppressive Roman Empire. Our conventional telling of the Christmas story misses this almost completely. Jesus became a threat to this world he was born into, because he preached radical change in almost every way. Nobodies were as important as kings. Prostitutes, foreigners, ethnic enemies, Roman soldiers, not to mention common laborers like Peter and Andrew—all were his people. And conventional powers that he didn’t want him around. John’s Gospel says, the light came into the world, and the world did not accept him. Eugene Peterson paraphrases this with “he moved into the neighborhood, and neighborhood did,’t want him.”

This is the real world—poor people are not respected, ethnic minorities are discriminated against. Homeowners want to keep outsiders from living in their space.

Herod didn’t know all this, but he didn’t want  another king, even a king peace, challenging him. Pontus Pilate and the High Priests, beginning with Caiaphas, figured this out. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escaped Herod, but Caiaphas and Pilate succeeded in getting rid rid of the new man in the neighborhood.

Today we are reminded that the wrath aImed at Jesus struck innocent people—in this case, infants. Today we join Rachel in weeping for these innocent victims. We also remember that it is this real world that a Jesus came to save. The neighborhood didn’t want him, but Jesus came just for this, to save the neighborhood from itself. 

But that didn’t come easily. We can get a sense for why battle and warfare images are in our tradition. The Herod’s of this world do not give up easily. The neighborhood does not suddenly soften. Affordable housing is resisted today as much as it was in Bethlehem—no room in the inn, for homeless people, immigrants or the poor. Jesus’ work of salvation involves struggle and combat against evil. Jesus’ neighborhood is open for everyone, affordable housing for all, and it is ruled with love. That is the neighborhood we long for. In Jesus Christ, God brings it—we call it the New Jerusalem, the New Neighborhood.

Phil Hefner—12/28/2022

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