Christmastime is here. It’s a time for joy and generosity and hope and celebration. But Christmas is not without its threats. Over the next four weeks we will consider four villains of Christmas. The name of the first villain is King Herod. King Herod exemplifies power. The yearning for power in our own hearts threatens our experience of Christmas.
Herod was the villain at the first Christmas. He was a politician’s politician. He was oily and underhanded, vicious and cold-hearted. Born in 73 BC, Herod rose to power quickly (in his mid-twenties) by maneuvering his way through the Roman political machine and given the title “King of Judea” by the Roman Senate.[i] Upon rising to power, Herod decimated anyone who might be his rival, including three of his sons and his first wife, Mariamne.
Herod’s paranoia served him well and allowed him to rule for 37 years—far longer than most. His political savvy extended well past his paranoia. A half-Jew himself, Herod was a master of alliances, eventually taking ten wives, each gaining him a strategic political advantage. And he knew the power of tangible change. Herod took on massive building projects throughout Judea including the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, the Second Temple, the fortress at Masada, and Herodium. Many of these can still be seen in Israel today. In fact, most beautiful ancient buildings that remain are Herod’s handiwork. To fund these projects, Herod levied massive taxes on the people that created animus between him and the people (and also helps us understand just how hated the tax collectors we meet in the Bible were).
One day in the final years of Herod’s life, a group of Magi from the East requested an audience with Herod. These learned men were dabblers in the worlds of science and theology and were familiar with the scriptures of the Jews. They believed that an astronomical alignment meant that a child had been born who was the prophesied king. This Messiah would bring about the restoration of Israel and the reinstatement of the throne of David. “Go and search diligently for the child,” the serpent-like tongue of Herod urged, “and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”[ii]
Herod knew a political rival when he saw one and quickly determined that this child wouldn’t live to see his second birthday. He first waited for the Magi to return as they had promised, but when the months passed with no word from these men from the East, Herod was furious. He sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to snuff out every boy’s life under two in the town and surrounding villages.
Of course the purposes of God would not be thwarted by a human king. Led by an angel, Mary and Joseph would take Jesus to Egypt to escape the threat. But the spirit of Herod still threatens Christmas. He is still alive and well. How is that? The tendrils of power still reach out from our heart and try to choke out the power-inverting reality of Christmas.
We, like Herod, sit on thrones granted to us by God. We receive them not as gifts to hold lightly to, but as our birthright. I am owed the platform God has given me. I am owed my position as pastor, you are owed your position as teacher, you are owed your position as mom, you are owed your position as manager. The sickness of clutching onto power, by its very nature, rejects Christ.
Eve’s stretch for the forbidden fruit was a stretch for the power of “knowing good and evil.” The tendrils of Eve’s heart stretched out and up, unsatisfied with her throne as Queen of Eden and desiring the throne of God himself. My heart, in its own ways, still stretches toward what is rightfully God’s, not mine.
In contrast, Paul explains Jesus’ incarnation on the first Christmas as the greatest display of the release of power in history: “Jesus… though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”[iii]
I can’t even begin to get my head around that. In 2013, when I stepped down from pastoral ministry to care for my marriage and family, I struggled deeply with that loss. I’ve walked many men who are looking for a job through seasons of discouragement and depression because of their loss of identity. In my years as a Detention Officer I saw officers struggle with handling a loss of power when they left the jail. And yet, Jesus gave up his place at the right hand of God the Father! In becoming flesh he gave up his sovereignty, his omniscience, his omnipotence! And, to think, it was hard for me to transition from Associate Pastor to Director! Herod is in my heart. He’s in yours.
And to release us from the consequences of our foolish clutching for power, the only Powerful One released his power that we might experience the power of his salvation and form our hearts into hearts that reflect the Humble One, God-in-flesh, Emmanuel.
[ii] Matthew 2:8
[iii] Philippians 2:7