A sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 given by the Rev. Teri Daily on January 3, 2020…
The term “democratic backsliding” refers to the erosion of key features within a democracy that prevent the concentration of too much power in the hands of an incumbent leader, thereby moving that country on the spectrum towards an authoritarian or dictatorial government. Typically this occurs by barring opposition leaders from running for office, restrictions on civil liberties (such as free press and the right to free assembly), an inequality in resources among candidates, or fewer limitations on executive power (leading to an abolishment in term limits or other checks on power). After decades in which the number of democracies has increased throughout the world, since 2017 more countries have seen declines in democracy than have seen a strengthening of their democracy. A few examples of countries that have experienced democratic backsliding include Turkey under President Erdogan, Nicaragua under President Ortega, and more recently Serbia under President Aleksandar Vucic.
In an article about democratic backsliding, Professor Jennifer Raymond Dresden asks the question: Why do political leaders who have already tilted the scale towards authoritarianism, who lead what is an electoral authoritarian regime, take even further anti-democratic steps? Is it simply a desire for more power? Her answer: No. Most leaders engage in democratic backsliding not from pure ambition, but out of fear – not from a position of strength, but out of relative weakness. Such moves often occur during economic crises or when an election result is closer than previous ones. Insecure leaders can be destructive for a society. Herod certainly was.
Prior to today’s gospel reading, King Herod – appointed by Rome to rule over Judea – asked the wise men to let him know where they found the Messiah, the newborn king of the Jews. While saying outwardly that he wanted to honor the child, Herod secretly wanted to kill him. The wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod; and so, after visiting the Holy Family, they go home another way. In today’s gospel a dream also comes to Joseph, warning him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.
Soon Herod realizes that not only is his power threatened by the birth of a Messiah, but he has also been tricked by the wise men. Angry, he orders all children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem to be killed. It is an order born of paranoia, fear, insecurity, and a misdirected sense of self-preservation. In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris describes Herod’s fear as “the epitome of what Jung calls the shadow”; the resulting tragedy demonstrates “where such fear can lead when it does not come to light but remains in the darkness.”
In the Church, we remember those children killed at Herod’s command on December 28th in our liturgical calendar – it is the feast of the Holy Innocents. The Church has always honored these slain infants as martyrs, and this feast has become a way to remember all innocent victims of violence, all who die at the hands of injustice, and all who are collateral damage to the insecure fear that that can overtake a psyche.
I can’t help but wonder how many times our own fear and insecurity hurts those around us – destroying relationships, causing us not to attempt something good because we might fail in the process, making us withdraw from others instead of reaching out in care and concern, causing us to reject rather than welcome, bringing a smallness to our lives where there might have been fullness.
Perhaps that’s why the command to not be afraid is said to be the most repeated command in the bible – it occurs 365 times. In the King James Version, we often find the simple words, “Fear not.” Embedded in these words is a sense of hope that God can conquer the insecurity and fear that overshadows the better angels of our nature.
It’s fitting that the feast of the Holy Innocents occurs during the twelve days of Christmas. The full observation of Christmas doesn’t let us stay in the warm, idealized glow of the baby in a manger. To become incarnate is to become vulnerable to suffering. Emmanuel – God with us, the holy in our midst. In all the pain that exists in the world, in all the pain that exists in us.
The knowledge that God is with us may well be the first step in acting not from a place of insecure fear, but from a place of faith. Faith is its own kind of fear, but it’s a fear that liberates us. It’s a kind of awe that used to be referred to as the fear of the Lord, a recognition of the holy in our midst.
Alyce McKenzie, a seminary professor, describes the connection between faith and the fear of the Lord this way:
The fear of the Lord is the Bible’s code word for a full-bodied faith that includes trembling before the mystery of a Transcendent God and trusting in the tenderness and faithfulness of an imminent God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of our being able to say, with Mary, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). It is the source of Joseph’s wordless obedience (Mt. 1:24) and Jesus’ words from the cross in Luke: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). The fear of the Lord opens us to the comfort and stamina God offers even in times of undeserved and profound suffering. The fear of the Lord is the impulse that shuts our self-righteous lips when we look upon the suffering or mistakes of others. It impels us, rather than to retreat in cold judgment, to reach out with comforting, capable hearts and hands.
In other words, the fear of the Lord takes the attention off our own insecurities and weaknesses and places our trust in the God who is always with us. The fear of the Lord makes scarcity shrink in the face of God’s abundance. The fear of Lord turns us from self-preservation to concern for others. It causes us not to stay in the warm sentimental glow of the manger but to remember the killings of Breonna Taylor and Andre Hill, those who flee their homes to seek safety like Joseph and Mary and Jesus, those who can’t be with family because of Covid-19, the hungry and homeless in our midst, and, yes, those infants killed at Herod’s command two thousand years ago.
This Christmas, as we gaze at the baby Jesus in the manger, may the darkness in the world, including Herod’s fear in all its current forms, be cast out by the light that is the fear of the Lord – trusting the holy in our midst, Emmanuel, God with us.
 Jennifer Raymond Dresden, “When authoritarian leaders start feeling insecure, nobody wins,” Democratic Audit UK, 10/21/2016, When authoritarian leaders start feeling insecure, nobody wins (lse.ac.uk).
 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 226.
 Norris, 144-145.
 Alyce McKenzie, “The Fear of Herod Versus the Faith of Mary: Reflections on Matthew 2:13-23,” Progressive Christian, December 22, 2013, The Fear of Herod Versus the Faith of Mary: Reflections on Matthew 2:13-23 (patheos.com).