Sermon: Herod the Great

Sunday 1 January 2017
Epiphany of the Lord

herodEvery year at this time, the festival of Epiphany, we hear the story of the three kings or three wise men. And every year in the sermon, we hear a little different twist on the story. Maybe we hear something about the significance of their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Maybe we hear that they weren’t really kings at all, they were Iranian astrologers. Maybe we hear that there probably weren’t three of them, they just happened to bring three gifts. Maybe we hear something about how they defied King Herod and returned by another road.

But this Sunday, we’re going to focus on something completely different. We’re going to focus not on the magi, the heroes of the story, but on King Herod, the villain. And after all, the bad guys are usually much more interesting than the good guys anyway. In particular, we’re going to focus on just one line of Matthew’s account. After the magi come to Herod and ask him where they can find the newborn King of the Jews, Matthew tells us, “Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Why was Herod frightened by the news the magi brought, and even more important, why would all of Jerusalem be frightened along with him?

Herod was born at a time when the whole area of Palestine was still an independent Jewish Kingdom, ruled by the Hasmoneans, who were heirs of the famous Maccabees from the Hanukkah story. Herod’s father was one of the officials in the royal court and worked for the king. But the Jewish kingdom during Herod’s childhood was very unstable. Judea was in a near-constant state of civil war as various members of the royal family fought over which of them was rightfully king.

At about the same time, the Roman Republic was expanding its borders, and Pompey the Great swept in to clean up the mess, formally establishing Roman rule in 63 BCE. The Romans kept a Jewish king on the throne, but they were never far away, in case more violence were to break out. Herod’s father gained influence in the royal court, and was able to get Herod appointed as governor of Galilee when he was only 25 years old.

During the next decade, the political situation got crazy. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, everything started to slip into chaos. Rome slipped into civil war, then went to war with the Parthians.  Herod’s father was murdered. Members of the Judean royal family were at it again, trying to fight their way onto the throne in Jerusalem.

In the midst of all the upheaval, Herod convinced Mark Anthony that he would be an ideal choice to be king. In 40 BCE, the Roman Senate declared Herod to be the King of the Jews. Within three years, Herod had managed to take back Judea for Rome.  He ruled in Jerusalem for the next thirty years. He kept a tight rein on the Jewish people and wiped out any potential rebels and rivals to the throne. But he also led Judea into a time of great prosperity, rebuilding the Temple and turning Jerusalem into one of the great cities of the Roman Empire. Herod had to walk a fine line, keeping both his Jewish subjects and his Roman overseers happy at the same time. But by all accounts, he excelled at his task and kept Jerusalem at peace.

So toward the end of his reign, when a group of Iranian astrologers showed up at his door saying that they were looking for the newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been marked by the rising of a star, Herod knew he had a problem. There was some baby out there who was a potential rival for his throne. It’s not just that Herod was jealous. It’s not just that he wanted to keep the title “King of the Jews” for himself. No, there were much larger issues at stake. Having someone else out there claiming to be the King of the Jews was not just a problem for Herod, it was a problem for the whole Jewish people.

You see, if Herod’s power were to slip, if someone else challenged him as King of the Jews, then Judea would certainly slip into civil war. Herod could remember what that had been like, and so could the people of Jerusalem. No one wanted to go through another round of upheaval and bloodshed.

But now the problem was even bigger. Because as soon as it looked like Herod might be losing control, the Romans would march down from their base in Damascus and take direct control of Judea. And if that happened, things could get really bloody. The Romans would not hesitate to punish the whole Jewish people for any act of rebellion against the Empire. There would certainly be mass crucifixions. And the Romans, once they were in Jerusalem, would probably violate the Temple, God’s dwelling place on earth. No one wanted that to happen. Herod had to keep control or they would end up with an even harsher Roman governor. Best to wrap this problem up quickly, find this so-called newborn king and get rid of him before anything dangerous happened.

That’s why Herod is frightened and all Jerusalem with him. They don’t need anyone proclaiming themselves king or Messiah. Jews might have some concept of a spiritual Messiah, but as soon as the Romans hear the word Messiah, they’ll think of a king, a threat to Roman authority, and they will come in and tear everything apart. The people of Jerusalem are afraid that some pretender will bring the Roman legions down on their necks.

And that’s precisely what ended up happening. When Jesus was proclaimed Messiah, the Romans were able to solve the problem quickly by executing him under the charge, “King of the Jews.” But when other Messiahs arose in CE 66, 115, and 132, it led to all-out war with the Romans, huge casualties, the destruction of the Temple, the expulsion of every Jew from Jerusalem, the complete transformation of the holy city into a pagan stronghold, legal persecution of Jews across the Empire, and the beginning of anti-Semitism in Western culture, that echoes still today. Herod and the people of Jerusalem were right to be afraid, not so much of what Jesus might do, but of what the Romans would do if they were to find out about this newborn King of the Jews.

But somehow, even though all of Herod’s worst fears were eventually realized, God was still able to bring something good out of chaos. No one knew it at the time, but that little boy the magi sought would grow up to be the savior of the world, the one whom two billion people today claim as their lord.

In our world today, there are still things that scare and trouble us. There are still things that frighten our President and all America with him. Actually, part of our fear these days is that we have both an outgoing and an incoming President, and they seem to be frightened by very different things. Foreign meddling in our elections. The threat of radical, Islamic terrorism. The increasing power of China and Russia in world affairs. New threats to civil liberties and worries about equality and inclusion. Growing national debt and consumer debt. A seemingly intractable conflict in Syria that involves so many different factions, it’s nearly impossible to figure out who is fighting with whom and for what; but no matter which faction is winning, the people always seem to be losing. 400,000 dead, 4.8 million refugees, and 6.6 million displaced Syria. There are reasons to be afraid. There are real threats in our world.

But in the midst of our fears, I wonder where God is working right now, unbeknownst to us, bringing about something good out of chaos. When our history is written, where will future generations see the hand of God at work to bring grace and peace where we, caught in the midst of it, can see only threat, trouble, and tragedy? And when God’s work becomes clear, will we have been a part of it? Will we have been working along with God, even in the face of danger, even in the face of anxiety, to bring about a greater good? Or will we have been with those who feared the worst and only made things more terrible? I pray that we will find ourselves working against the common wisdom, in the places where God’s most exciting work is being done; searching for light in darkness, searching for hope in uncertainty, searching for the movement of God’s Spirit in our world.

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