Herod: The Not So Great
By The Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
I don’t remember where I gleaned this story, but it was in some of my readings this week in sermon prep. But Brenda Roberts of Stone Mountain, Georgia is a Sunday school teacher. She was reading the story of Jesus’ birth to her day-care children one morning. As usual, she stopped to see if they were paying attention and understood. “What do we call the three wise men?” she asked.
“The three maggots,” replied a bright 5-year-old.
“What gifts did the Magi bring baby Jesus?” the teacher corrected.
That the same 5-year-old popped up and said. “Gold, frankensteins and smurfs!”
Christmas and the Scriptures usually don’t contain any frankensteins or smurfs. But as we look at the passage for this morning, you might very well associate Frankenstein’s monster with King Herod. (1)
Let’s look at the passage. We pick up where we left off in Matthew last week. Matthew 2:13-22
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18″A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20″Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.
Now you know why I’ve associated Herod with Frankenstein’s monster. Actually, if you’ve seen the movies, the monster probably had more heart and soul than Herod.
Do you know what I found surprising? Do you know what the name Herod means? It means “Hero or Son of a Heroic.” How ironic is that? There was absolutely nothing heroic about anything I could find in Herod’s history as a leader or as a human being. History calls him Herod the Great. A more appropriate name would probably be Herod the Paranoid.
He did solidify the three factions in Israel at the time, but only through brute force and fear. And he taxed the fool out of the Israelites trying to out Rome the Romans by building palaces in every part of Israel, though he did assuage his own people by renovating and adding on to the Temple. It’s really Herod’s Temple that we remember the most, not Solomon’s.
So, who is this guy Herod? In every drama we have to have an antagonist. And I guess the underlying antagonist in the drama of the story Christ is sin. But sin’s leading role was played by Herod. Herod is the quintessential villian. He is Simon Lagree, Philthy McNasty, Snidley Whiplash, Captain Bly, Lex Luthor, Darth Vader, the Grinch and Lord Voldemort all rolled into one.
Herod is the Scrooge of the original Christmas story but a Scrooge whose heart never melts, a Scrooge whose heart is never touched and remains hard as stone and cold as ice. He may be the one John Calvin was thinking of when he came up with the theology of the Total Depravity of Humanity. In all of Christian history, there may not have been anyone as vile and evil as Herod.
So what is Herod doing in the Christmas story? How did this despicable character get tied to the wonder and glory of heaven touching earth through the birth of salvation wrapped in swaddling clothes? Well, Herod tried to snuff it out. Herod tried to do away with this new born king. His paranoia caused him to try to murder the hope of the world. So what can we learn from this guy.
I. HEROD REMINDS US WHY JESUS CAME:
A few years ago, newspaper columnist Mike Royko shared the other side of the Christmas Story in one of his columns. He told about a stranger who put $1,600 in gold coins in a Salvation Army kettle. The person placed the gift there quietly and anonymously. This is exactly the kind of story the print media is looking for to demonstrate the spirit of caring that Christmas brings about. Unfortunately there was a follow up story. The local Salvation Army office began getting phone calls about the gold coins. The coins were stolen. The thief had dropped them in the kettle to get rid of them.
So then, Royko told another story about a man driving home from work on Christmas Eve who saw a young boy fall through the ice in a nearby lake. The man stopped his car, jumped out, tore off his jacket and crawled out onto the ice. He managed somehow to save the drowning boy. Happy ending, wouldn’t you say? Unfortunately the man discovered that while he was risking his life saving the boy, somebody in the crowd of onlookers stole his jacket and the envelope containing his Christmas bonus. (2)
Unfortunately, we live in a sinful world. And even at Christmas, with the promise of peace and hope on our lips in our hearts, that sinfulness is still present. That sinfulness was personified in the first Christmas story by Herod. “Go and search diligently for the child,” Herod said to the wise men. “And when you have found him, come and bring me word, that I may worship him, too.”
What a crock. Good thing God warned the wise men in a dream and they returned home by another route. When Herod realized the wise men had disregarded his instructions, he flew into a fit of rage and had his soldiers slay all of the boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the area around Bethlehem. That’s really what Herod The Not So Great is remembered for.
So, in that one act, Herod reminds us why Jesus came.
II. HEROD ALSO REMINDS US THAT SIN BLINDS US:
A. In one of his books Marcus Bach tells about a sixteen-year-old boy from Bishop, Texas, named Mark Whitaker. With a homemade telescope that cost him only seven dollars and fifty cents to build, Mark discovered a new comet. That’s something that few astronomers with their thousands of times more expensive telescopes ever accomplish.
It was about 2:00 a.m. on his third night of sky watching that Mark spotted something he had never seen before in the heavens. The next night he traced the object again, and on the third night he phoned the Harvard Observatory. Confirmation soon followed. And they named the comet Whitaker-Thomas, adding to Mark’s name the name of the professional astronomer who helped in the confirmation.
Commenting on this extraordinary accomplishment Marcus Bach says, “There is a law. It says that if you engage in a sky watch you may see something. It does not say that you will see something, but that you might. . . .” (3)
B. The Wise Men looked up and saw something, a star that lead them to the infant Jesus. A star which lead them to a Savior and King. Herod looked up and through the filter of his paranoia, greed, sin and self-centeredness, Herod saw nothing. He was blinded by his sin and could not see the salvation offered by God, for even him.
III. HEROD REMINDS US THAT WE NEED JESUS:
A. There is no better example of the tragic abuse of power and the reality of sin than King Herod. And juxtaposed against Herod’s corruption, greed and villainy is this tiny helpless baby. A baby born into a carpenter’s family to an unwed mother. And yet this child grows to become the King of Kings, the one who overcomes both sin and death. The Savior who gives us hope, offers us eternal life and bought the forgiveness of our sins through the cross.
The story of the birth of this baby who Herod rejected reminds us that we need Jesus.
B. The late Mike Yaconelli, used to tell the story about a deacon in his church who wasn’t deaking. He just didn’t do what he was supposed to do as a deacon.
One day Mike, who was the pastor at the time, said to the deacon, “I have a group of young people who go to the old folks home and put on a worship service once a month. Would you drive them to the old folks home and at least do that?” The deacon agreed.
The first Sunday the deacon was at the old folks home, he was in the back with his arms folded as the kids were doing their thing up front. All of a sudden, someone was tugging at his arm. He looked down, and there was this old man in a wheelchair. He took hold of the old man’s hand and the old man held his hand all during the service. The next month that was repeated. The man in the wheelchair came and held the hand of the deacon.
The next month, the next month, and the next month.
Then one Sunday the old man wasn’t there. The deacon inquired and he was told, “Oh, he’s down the hall, right hand side, third door. He’s dying. He’s unconscious, but if you want to go down and pray over him that’s all right.”
So, this deacon went and there were tubes and wires hanging out all over the place. The deacon took the man’s hand and prayed that God would receive the man, that God would bring this man from this life into the next and give him eternal blessings.
As soon as he finished the prayer, the old man squeezed the deacon’s hand and the deacon knew that he’d been heard. He was so moved by this that tears began to run down his cheeks.
He stumbled out of the room and as he did so he bumped into a woman. She said, “He’s been waiting for you. He said that he didn’t want to die until he had the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.”
The deacon was amazed at this. He said, “What do you mean?”
The woman said, “Well, my father would say that once a month Jesus came to this place. ‘He would take my hand and he would hold my hand for a whole hour. I don’t want to die until I have the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.'” (4)
You see, we need Jesus. We need what Jesus did for us and does for us each and every day.
We need the Hope only He can bring.
We need the Forgiveness that only He can offer.
We need the Unconditional Love that only He can share.
We need the Eternal Life that only He can give.
We need the Redemption that only He can promise.
We need Jesus.
We need Jesus because in Jesus God was giving Himself to us.
There was a pastor who was greeted by one of the members of the church after the service one Sunday. The pastor looked down and said, “Wow, that’s a great tie.” This man smiled, thanked him and immediately, right there in the handshaking line, took off the tie and gave to the preacher. Everybody seemed a little shocked by such a blatant, spontaneous public act of generosity.
Later the associate pastor jokingly asked, “Why didn’t you compliment him on his new car?”
But to this day that preacher wears that tie with an added appreciation for generosity. (5)
What Herod, The Not So Great, missed that first Christmas was God’s blatant public act of generosity in the birth of Jesus. Herod couldn’t look up. He couldn’t get past himself. And he missed it.
Harry R. Boer in The Reformed Journal says, “The Point of Christmas is that the simplest soul [is told] that God understands them. It tells [us] that God identifies with [our] problems, sorrows, hopes, frustrations and joys. God knows them not because God made [us], not because God is all-knowing, but because God became a simple soul. God became a human being.” (6) God became one of us.
And that was the greatest act of generosity ever shown. One which nothing and no one, not even Herod the Paranoid, could stop.
Make sure you look up and see the star this year. Make sure you make that trip to Bethlehem and peer into that stable. Don’t be like Herod and miss the greatest gift ever given.
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
1. Source Unknown
2. Thanks to Mark Trotter for this illustration.
3. Marcus Bach, THE WORLD OF SERENDIPITY, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1970)
5. Homiletics, (Communications Resources, Inc., Canton, OH) Dec 2006, p. 46, adapted.
6. The Reformed Journal, December 1975, 2.
— Copyright 2006 Billy D. Strayhorn. Used by permission.