Christmas in the land of Herod the Great

Here’s a quick quiz for anyone familiar with the first Christmas story found in the Bible’s New Testament. These words, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage,” were spoken by (a) Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, in relation to John the Baptist, (b) A sheep-rancher outside Bethlehem, in relation to his shepherds, (c) An eastern King in relation to his magi, (d) King Herod, in relation to the magi. If you were wise enough to say (d), you were correct. We find these words attributed to Herod in Matthew 2:8.

Many Christians are not all that familiar with King Herod, who ruled over Judea when Jesus was born. He was an interesting character. His wealthy father had raised him as a Jew and young Herod turned that to his own advantage in becoming appointed as Governor over the Jewish Roman province of Judea based in Jerusalem. Young Herod was a master manipulator and deal maker who won favor with the Roman Caesar by forming alliance with Octavian, the nephew of Julius Caesar. Herod was a man of superior self-esteem who preferred to be called Herod the Great in Judea but managed to also secure from the Roman Senate the title King Herod the Great rather than the customary Governor Herod in relation to his provincial territory.

King Herod the Great was also a master builder, whose personal brand became associated with elaborate architecture and civil engineering. His building projects in and around Jerusalem’s 2nd Temple were remarkable. What we even today refer to as the “western wall” that survived the Temple’s destruction in 70 A.D. was a tribute to Herod’s brand. Herod loved huge things that bore his own name, although he was quite accustomed to naming some projects for other people to court their favor, such as a coastal Judean port of Caesarea he built in honor of, let me guess, Caesar.

While King Herod the Great loved to build huge things he could associate with his own giant ego, he found it necessary to tax the Jews of Judea rather severely in order to pay for it all. This earned him the great scorn of his Jewish subjects, who were quick to point out that their King worked for the Roman establishment and was only pretending to be a Jew. To please Caesar in particular, Herod ruled by use of force with a sometimes very secretive army of centurion soldiers who used all varieties of violence against their Jewish subjects.

In short, we can say one thing especially true about King Herod the Great, whose only attributed quote in all the Bible was, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” Herod was a lover of things and a user of people. Matthew’s Gospel makes clear that the magi refused to be used by Herod, even as Joseph and Mary refused to stay in Judea, moving instead with the baby Jesus to Egypt for safety’s sake, until news came of Herod’s death.

If we fast-forward from Matthew 2 Judea to our own America of 2016, we find something of interest to now ponder as our Christmas season unfolds.

How should we this Christmas prepare for our own world to soon be headed by a new leader famous for his large ego, his master building abilities, and his master manipulation of people in both high and low places (low by pretending to be a Christian much as Herod pretended to be a Jew and a loyal Judean)? Our world today will soon be led by a man who also loves things and uses people. We, too, are about to know a leader who will stop at nothing in order to rule supreme over us, urging us to diligently say “Merry Christmas,” that he, too, may also go and pay homage to this baby Jesus.   How should we prepare?

We, too, are about to be used by one who loves things and uses people.

Unless.

Unless we, too, are as wise as the magi and go to visit “Christ, the newborn King,” but refuse to be used by any other man who would be our King.

So what would that mean for us today?

I believe it would mean understanding that God comes to us precisely in times such as these to offer us an alternative King and Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom, instead of loving things and using people, we will love people and use things. We will turn the mighty King Herod into our villain and the baby Jesus “Christ, the newborn King,” into our hero. Which is exactly what Matthew 2 does for us in our understanding of his Christmas story.

Can there be a better time for God to come to us than now? Can we have a better Christmas than one where we are free to choose between a humble newborn King and a proud newly elected President? Can we have better news today than Christ’s new light amidst our sinful darkness that loves things but uses people? In this new light from this new King we learn to do the opposite, thus reconciling us as sinners with the God who only loves people but uses things.

“Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’” (Charles Wesley, 1739)

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