Tales of the unexpected
Preaching through a series on ‘tales of the unexpected’ in the run up to Christmas, and last night it was the turn of Herod and those around him. I decided on a narrative approach, and reproduce it here in case you find it helpful.
The sound of the messenger boy’s footsteps outside the door made the scholars jump. In fact, if truth were told, everything, everywhere made people in the city jump just now. Ever since a rumour had started of strangers asking about a new king in town ‘his majesty’ in the palace had been on edge. Every bang might be the fall of an axe on another unfortunate neck. Every squeaking door might be the sound of another man or woman whose face didn’t fit ‘disappearing’ at the hands of the secret police. People had been hiding, here in the palace – even in plain view. No-one caught anyone else’s eye. People scurried down stone corridors with their eyes firmly fixed on the floor. No opinions were voiced, no advice offered. The king’s temper was a pile of brittle bracken, dried to perfection by the latest gossip, and no-one wanted to be the spark to set it alight.
BANG, BANG, BANG
A summons – this could not be good. Men like them – keepers of the ancient tradition and readers of the ancient scrolls were only window dressing here. Herod only kept them about the place, like peacocks on a country estate – for show. They were part of the Jewish décor, local colour to make him fit in – as if he ever could.
And now they stood before him – trying not to show that they trembled. The king’s voice was remarkably calm, horribly calm in fact – like the dainty hiss of a sibilant serpent before delivering its venom. “Where” he asked…”where is your Christ to be born”?
They looked at each other – terrified to answer lest the question were a trick. Could it really be that simple? With all the tension emanating round the palace and all the rumours weaving through the streets like smoke from some noxious bonfire – could that really be all he needed to know? Why, that was easy. With one voice they chorused “In Bethlehem, of course”. And then deferred to the eldest one with the greyest hairs as he quoted the prophet’s words:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephratha are by no means least among the rulers of Judah”
A dark cloud passed across the king’s face as he dismissed them with a clap of his sweaty, meaty hands. As they retreated down the corridor with the messenger boy trailing behind them, one said to the other “doesn’t everyone know that?” “If you know it – why don’t you do something about it?” trilled the boy – and then ran away down a corridor before they could cuff his ear.
In the throne room, all alone, the light of the flickering torches on the walls played and danced across the king’s scowling face. Unseen by anyone he balled and unfurled his fist time and time again. He turned his hand over – as if to read his fortune…or his bloody history upon it. The blood of his wife, her brother, his own mother and two of his sons was already indelibly stained there. It had been the work of a moment to order their deaths – the godlike word of the king. But the stain had lingered far far longer. His throne was borrowed, from the Romans and the solid walls of his palace round about created only the illusion of power. He was vulnerable and he knew it. A king…on his doorstep? Ancient mumbo-jumbo from the prophecies confirming the awful truth? Magi – mystic men with their incantations and their star charts asking awkward questions on the streets of his city? His fist balled once again, involuntarily. This had to be stopped.
“BOY”! he yelled – and the messenger boy skittered into the room as if racing over hot coals. “Fetch those stargazers here within the hour or you’ll find yourself burning in Gehenna by nightfall”. With that, the terrified boy ran from his presence before another curse rained down.
Sure enough, within the hour the three swished, rather than walked into the throne room behind the white-faced and terrified boy. Their flowing robes and gorgeous colours seemed somehow out of place in this angular room with its drab stonework.. The king stepped down from his throne like a deity stooping to earth and greeted each effusively in turn as if keen to impress. The warmth was short lived though…as he turned his back on them and settled in his throne again.
He had been briefed by someone in these dingy corridors and feigned some degree of comprehension as he asked about star tracks, heavenly movements and the planets. There was anger, too, when they tried to keep some of their mystique from him and he erupted with a string of questions:
But WHEN did it come?
And how long before you find this King?
The three began to shuffle awkwardly. This was clearly not the king for whom they searched. There was nothing regal about him. In fact, he reeked of spite mingled with the smell of fear. When at last he stopped his rant and told them to go and find the child king they were glad, so glad to leave.
Outside the throne room the messenger boy lingered as they wrapped their robes tighter for the onward journey. He gazed at their creased and exotic faces, couldn’t help but sniff at the rich scent coming from the parcels they carried. And smiled from ear to ear when one tousled his hair and pressed a golden coin into his hand as they left.
I went on to point out that the boy was pure invention – but that his open acceptance of what God was up to, as opposed to the inaction of some and the fears of others – is an attitude worth emulating.