A sermon, based on Matthew 2.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day, January 5, 2020.
Herod said to the wise men, “Go, search diligently for the child and when you have found him, bring me word so that I also may go and pay him homage.”
Herod, informed that magi from the East had come seeking the one born king of the Jews, “was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” When the king worries, everyone worries. For Herod was king of the Jews. Word of a successor, a supplanter, thus, signaling the end of Herod’s reign or so he felt, feared wasn’t good news. And no one relinquishes power and authority easily or gladly.
So, when Mary had her baby, Herod had a meltdown.
History hasn’t been kind to Herod. Placed on the throne by the reviled Roman Empire, Herod was despised as an enemy collaborator, a traitor to the cause of Jewish independence. Worse, he was a murderer. “Tricked by the wise men” who did not bring word of the birthplace of Jesus, Herod, enraged, in full meltdown mode, ordered the slaughter of all the children of Bethlehem aged two or younger in a vain attempt, literally, to kill the competition.(1)
Herod. First century Palestine’s irredeemably bad man.
But a second glance reveals a more nuanced portrait. Herod’s entente with Rome was the act of an astute politician. His creation of the cities of Caesarea, named for his patron, the Roman emperor, and Herodium, named for himself, and the construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem(2) indicate that he was a bold and imaginative builder.
So, Herod was a mixed bag of bad and good or, at least, not so bad.
Yet underneath this skin-deep observation, I behold the greater mystery of God who, as the source of all things, allows, at the least, if not creates contradictions…
A people longing to be free, yet governed by Herod, a puppet of their oppressor…
Herod, his authority, great, his accomplishments, grand, yet whose throne was shaken by the birth of a baby…
A baby, not a mighty military leader, who was the fulfillment of a long-foretold messianic prophecy of divine salvation.
And, in Herod, who was as human as we, I behold a reflection of the mystery of our inherent contradictions. I especially have in mind the contradictions between our intentions and actions. Between the good, we pray, we always would do and the less than good we sometimes do. And between the less than good we might do and the good we do.
And we, living, breathing, walking, talking contradictions, always must wrestle with an ever-present triumvirate of realities. Circumstance. The outward environment and situations in which we find ourselves. Chance. The opportunities presented to us within our circumstances to perceive what is true for ourselves. Choice. The decisions we make about our perceptions based on our inward thoughts and feelings, preferences and prejudices. These three constant aspects of our lives always are complex and sometimes conflicted. And none of us ever always is able to keep them in right relation (whatever “right” means for each of us).
In confessing afresh this truth of our human existence, the cause of many a meltdown, let us hear again the Christmas message, today, through the words of our Collect, of what God in Jesus has done. God “who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of our human nature…that we may share his divine life.”(3)
In other words, as complex and, at times, as conflicted as we may be, God has redeemed us to be incarnations – in the “flesh” of our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions, our words and deeds – of God’s Love.
(1) See Matthew 2.16-18.
(2) Of Herod’s Second Temple construction, the Western or Wailing Wall, a sacred site of both Judaism and Islam, still stands.
(3) The full text of the Collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day: O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
King Herod meets with magi, James Tissot (1836-1902)
King Herod orders the Massacre of the Innocents, Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337)