You're A Mean One, Mr. Herod
Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 2:13–2:18
Holy Innocents, Martyrs Day (HID-14C)
A Sermon delivered at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia
By the Rev. Dr. B. F. Nass, Pastor Emeritus
Dear members and welcome guests of St. John’s and of our new-born Christ Child, Jesus:
With the echoes of the angelic chorus gradually fading over the hills of Bethlehem, the shepherds returning to their sheep after spreading the story of what they have heard and seen, and the trauma of birth slowly subsiding in the new mother, we begin to move in our worship life away from the manger scene and in our personal lives away from the trees, the lights, the gifts, the wrappings, and the traditions that make Christmas meaningful to you and your family.
Unfortunately, those fading scenes quickly resolve into the reality of our everyday lives and our changing world. That is very sobering, if not jolting. We quickly switch from songs of “peace on earth” to screams of “kill the cops” and mounting racial tensions; we morph from the stillness of the manger to the rancor of rogue nations attacking our cyber system and way of life; we flip from fawning over the cuteness of a newborn baby in Bethlehem to the grotesque ugliness of over 140 innocent school children slaughtered by Islamic fervor in Pakistan.
Today, we find that reality of ugliness and tension is nothing new as it invades even our quiet reflection of the Christmas scene and message. In terse tones today’s Gospel reading recounts the savage slaughter of innocent infants, intended to snuff out a life perceived to threaten the throne of a paranoid king, dubbed by historians as “Herod, the Great.” Like the Grinch in Dr. Seuss’s poem, he almost stole Christmas and, borrowing that theme song, let’s look again at that event under the theme, “You’re a mean one, Mr. Herod.
This event took place after the Wise Men from the east came searching for a new-born king, assuming he was born in the Capitol city of Jerusalem in the palace of a sick and aging King who was Herod. You might hear that account next Sunday. Herod consults his religious advisors who come up with a passage from the Prophet Micah and then secretly sends them off to Bethlehem with the proviso that they return and tell him exactly who this potential king is and where he might find and squash this threat to his throne, couched in the lie so he could worship him. But, if you recall that story, the Wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they took a detour and went home a different way.
That’s where today’s lesson picks up the story. Herod is anxiously pacing and waiting to learn where to find this threatening baby and growing more impatient and angrier by the moment. As time passed, he concludes correctly that, in fact, he has been duped by those Wise Men. Since he is unable to zero in on one specific baby boy to kill, he issues orders for his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two. Then, to make certain he got the right one, he extends that order to include all those in the surrounding countryside as well. Scholars speculate as to the number of babies that may have included – with a low estimate of 20 to a high of 100. But numbers at this point become irrelevant compared to the enormity and callousness of this act of total treachery and inhuman barbarism. So we are prompted to ask, just who was this mean one, Mr. Herod, anyway? What could have caused him to act so viciously, so shamelessly, so barbarically?
Just hitting the historical highlights, Herod grew up as a prince in Idumea, a country just south of Israel. His Arab father, Antipater, married a Jewess. Thus, Herod, being a half-breed, was never accepted by his Jewish subjects. On the plus side, he was brilliant, a skilled and brave soldier, a born leader as well as a magnificent engineer, years above any of his peers.
Regarding his character, we are told: “He was a man of commanding ability and indomitable will, but conscienceless and merciless. Though of keep intellect, he had a tyrant’s suspicious nature, which made him prey to the machinations of others. With an ordinate admiration of Greek culture, he was at heart a barbarian.” (Knott, History of the Hebrews, p.367)
Once appointed puppet King over Palestine by the Roman government, Herod consolidated his power and did many wonderful things to included: rebuilding the shabby temple in Jerusalem and transforming it into one of the wonders of the ancient world; building cities like Caesarea and the feat of building its manmade harbor on the coast of the Mediterranean which gave his country an economic boost that makes the planned keystone pipe line look puny.
A drastic change occurred psychologically, however, when, in 29 B.C., he had the favorite of his ten wives, Mariamne, executed She just happened to be a personal friend of Cleopatra, the ruler in Egypt, who at the time was having an affair with Marc Anthony who was running the Roman Empire. (Whoever said history was boring?). This causes Rome to cast a suspicious eye on Herod, putting his throne in jeopardy which he felt he must protect at all cost.
To heighten his power paranoia, with the favored wife now out of the way, all his other wives got into a harem contest of pushing their son to become the favored heir to Herod’s throne. With all the intrigue that involved, Herod’s paranoia zoomed off the charts, and he gradually began to kill off his own sons one by one until, at the time of his death, only three viable sons remained alive. So feared and despised was he, that, prior to his death, he had 200 of the most influential national leaders locked up in the sports arena in Jericho with orders to kill them when he died. And why? So there would be tears shed in the land at his demise.
With those snippets as background, the gospel story today is as believable as it is tragic. The bad news was that many mothers in Bethlehem were left weeping for their children and could not be comforted because they were no more. The good news is that divine intervention foiled mean Herod’s plan. Joseph and family successfully escaped and fled to Egypt -- where specifically, we are not told but probably Alexandria where there was a large Jewish population.
Herod died in 4 B.C. and was entombed at one of his escape palaces, ironically located only three miles from Bethlehem. His kingdom was then divided between his three sons: Philip, in the north, Herod Antipas, in the central area of Galilee, and Archelaus, in the south over Judea and Samaria. Our text tells us that, when Joseph returned from Egypt and found Archelaus was ruling in Judea, he had a justifiably negative premonition about Archelaus that caused him to move instead back to Galilee, to Mary’s home town of Nazareth. A short time later in 6 A.D. Archelaus was deposed and replaced with a Roman procurator. Pontius Pilate later filled that role which sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, ruled by Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and his trial and crucifixion in Judea under Pontius Pilate.
Mr. Herod was a mean one alright! But God’s plan for mankind did not allow his gift at Christmas to be stolen by that Grinch. The Christ of Christmas, Easter, and Ascended Glory is there for you and me even today. As we enter a new year of God’s grace, may we see in this story, not simply a tragedy – which it certainly was -- but also the hand of a loving God who guides both the course of history and the course of our lives and is able to rise above the meanness and squalor and terror that mark the reality of sin in this world. By God’s grace in Jesus Christ we will not let the angelic chorus of peace on earth fade away. Let us instead join the shepherds as they excitedly tell everyone what they have seen and heard. Let us, in faith, confront those “meannies” in our world, whatever or whoever they might be with the knowledge and assurance that we are loved by God, that we are forgiven by God, and that we are destined for deliverance when the last old year becomes the new world of Christmas’s promise.