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Advent 1 - Herod

By Jim Taylor

John 6:13-15

Matthew 2:1-16

I’m going to be taking the full series of advent services. I want the Advent and Christmas season to be a unified whole, not a series of services led by different people, with different ideas of what’s important.

Too many sermons about the Christmas story focus on where the Wise Men came from. Or whether shepherds would really be out in the fields, in the dead of winter. Or if the Star over Bethlehem was a rare astronomic conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn.

I simply don’t care. We have a Christmas story. We have had a Christmas story for thousands of years. I want to look at that story AS a story.

Every story has a “Cast of Characters.” Through these Sundays of Advent, I’m going to look at those characters. How they fit into the story, and what they have to say to us today.

And I need to say, right that the beginning, that this is MY understanding of the story.

So let’s start with the villain. Every story has a villain. In our Christmas story, the villain is the King.

The church calendar calls this Sunday Christ the King Sunday. Or, for those who find the world “king” too male-centric, the Reign of Christ Sunday. And so we sing songs glorifying kings. Possibly the most thrilling line in the Hallelujah Chorus is when the massed choir thunders, “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords…”

Or we sing hymns that celebrate pomp and power, like this one:

Hymn: O WORSHIP THE KING (VU 235 verses 1-3 only) Remain seated

The fact is, though, that Jesus himself rejected that role. Over and over.

John 6:13-15: When everyone had eaten, the disciples gathered up the fragments of the five barley loaves, and they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign of what Jesus had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who has come into the world.”

But when Jesus realized that they wanted to take him by force to make him their king, he withdrew to the mountains by himself.

He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Not on a warhorse. Or in a golden chariot. And when Pilate asked him directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus just shrugged and said, “Not in this world.”

And so, to respect Jesus’ rejection of a royal role, I won’t look at Christ as “King”. I’ll look at King Herod instead.

King Herod is crucial to the Christmas story. Because without Herod, the Christmas story turns into a nice little story about an adorable little baby being born in a comfortable little cave surrounded by cuddly little animals. And that couldn’t be more wrong.

Herod brings the real world into the story.

He was known as Herod the Great. Mostly because he rebuilt the great Temple in Jerusalem. It may have looked something like this. [SHARON: SLIDE OF TEMPLE AS RECREATED IN JERUSALEM MODEL] The only part that remains is the Western Wall.

To do it, he taxed the Hebrews mercilessly.

Herod was not a nice man. Although he was a Jewish king, both his parents were Arabs. His favourite wife, Mariamne, wasn’t Jewish either. It was a political marriage, as most royal marriages were. Herod had eight other wives, and had children by six of them. The histories state that Herod truly loved Mariamne, but in the end he murdered her, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother. He also disinherited and killed his firstborn, his son by his first wife, who would have been his logical successor.

Despite that, Herod is crucial to the plot of the Christmas story.

You’ll recall that when the wise men, often called the Magi, came to Israel, following a star, they went first to Herod. That is, they went to the authorities first. People still do. That’s why people protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. Or write letters to the Premier. Or picket Imperial Oil’s management offices.

We don’t turn first to the homeless living in tents in a park. Or to Joe the Plumber.

The Magi expected the authority figures to know where to find this baby.

Matthew 2:1-8 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ 7 Then Herod called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

Note that Herod was frightened. The Magi wanted to know about a new King. A king who would replace Herod. And there was absolutely nothing that Herod wanted to hear less than that there was a rival in the wings waiting to replace him.

Long ago, Lord Acton offered his insight: “Power corrupts.” Because Power will do anything to cling to its own power. That’s the truth about King Herod, and the truth about power today..

This guy, for example. [PICTURE OF TRUMP] We know exactly how he reacted when he was told that someone else would replace him in the Oval Office.

Or this guy. [PICTURE OF PUTIN]. Imagine his reaction if a visiting delegation told him that a child born in a remote village in Siberia would someday kick him out of the Kremlin. He’d have the KGB at that village within days.

Which is exactly what Herod did later in the Christmas story. Having been told that a new king had been born in Bethlehem, he sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill every boy under the age of two. To get rid of everyone who might threaten his throne.

Mathhew 2:16 When Herod learned that he had been tricked by the magi, 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 magi.

Remember, the wise men were not there for Jesus’ birth. They travelled a long way to get there. From what they told Herod about the star first appearing, he figured that Jesus might have been born up to two years before. So he killed every boy who could possibly have been the new king.

If you go to the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, your guide may show you an underground niche filled with the bones of young children. And he will assure you that this is proof that Herod actually did kill every boy under the age of two in the entire village.

The point is not whether Herod actually did it. The Christmas story tells us that this is how Power operates. It will do anything to avoid relinquishing its power.

As Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts.” Power clings to its position at the top of the heap. It uses its power to protect its own position. It never yields power voluntarily.

Herod is still with us.

The research scientists at Exxon-Mobil warned that burning fossil fuels would produce greenhouse gases, 40 years ago. They gagged their own scientists.

Our “Indian residential schools” have been called a “national disgrace.” Did the Churches shut down residential schools when they learned about cruelty, malnutrition, beatings, and deaths? Did the Roman Catholic Church prosecute its priests for abusing children in their parishes? They did not. They covered up. The churches protected their own reputation.

Think about your own experience. Where have you run into brick walls? Where have you felt crushed by uncaring bureaucracies? Maybe it’s individuals who exercises their power. Maybe it’s institutions.

You’ve been living part of the Christmas story. You’ve run into King Herod.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that power always crumbles. Eventually. But the process may be incredibly costly. Thousands, millions, of people may be victims. Ask the people of Gaza. The refugees from Syria or Ukraine.

Remember, when you get discouraged. Jesus changed the world; Herod didn’t.

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