Hespeler, 31 December, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 2:1-18, Isaiah 2:11-17, Isaiah 60:1-6
e are used to hearing the Christmas story from certain viewpoints. We see it through Mary’s eyes or Joseph’s or maybe the shepherds. These are all valid ways to hear the story of the birth of the Messiah, of course, but sometimes it is not a bad idea to give a little bit of space to hear a dissenting voice. Not everyone was entirely happy with what happened that first Christmas. Why should the perspective of those people not be heard?
      For example, what if I were to tell you that archeologists working in the Holy Land recently made a stunning discovery at the ancient site of the Herodium, a massive complex built by Herod the Great about five kilometres outside of Bethlehem as a luxurious palace and also, it is believed, to be his burial place. And let’s just say that somewhere in the depths of the ruins of the Herodium these archeologists found a huge cache of documents recorde d on small cuneiform tablets. They are very short documents, most of them less than 140 characters long, but they are important because they record the very inmost thoughts of a powerful king.
      Now, is that true? Has it actually happened? Well, no. But just imagine if it did. Wouldn’t that be something! It would be like we were able to look directly into the head of one of the most hated and despised kings who ever ruled over the people of Judea. I mean it would almost be as if King Herod the Great had been able to use Twitter to share his take on the meaning of the entire Christmas story.
      So let us review the (admittedly imaginary) tweets of a king from over two millennia ago. What might we discover? They might give us a great deal of insight into the character of the man. Take this tweet for example:

      Now there is a great indication of what is going on in Herod’s psyche. There were many things that did make Herod great, of course. He was a powerful Roman client king, he accomplished a great deal throughout his reign, but there seems to be a deep underlying insecurity in the man. He seems to be constantly trying to convince everybody about just how great he is. One of the ways in which we see this is in his building projects. Here is a series of tweets in which he simply lists his building projects.

      But it is not just the volume of projects. Everything that he built seems to have been calculated to impress. If you tour his ancient buildings, the first thing that you will notice is the massive size of the individual stones. They kind of make you wonder what Herod was trying to say with such a construction method, as he almost seems to acknowledge in this tweet:

      But, whatever the massive blocks meant, there is no question that everything he built was intended to impress and overawe. Here is what he tweets about his biggest project, the temple in Jerusalem.

       He couldn’t put his name up on that building in big gold letters, but he did the next best thing with another project:

      So there really is no question that Herod’s ego was huge, but it seemed to hide an underlying insecurity. He was not, in too many people’s eyes, the real King of the Jews. This was partly because he wasn’t even Jewish. He was an Idumean. This alone meant that he would never be accepted by the people that he ruled and how that must have irritated him! I’m sure he even would have gladly denied his foreign origins as we see in this tweet:
      One of the things that Herod tried to do to shore up that claim to the throne was to marry into the previous Jewish kingly dynasty. His second wife was named Mariamne and she belonged to the Hasmonean family that had ruled Judea before the Romans came along. She was a beautiful princess, well beloved by all the people and Herod probably hoped that some of her popularity would rub off on him. Here he tweets about her to the kingdom:

      But the marriage with Mariamne didn’t work out very well. He ended up in a situation where people saw his wife and the children he had with her as having a better claim to the throne than he did. Herod’s jealousy and anger flew into high gear and eventually he had both his sons and later his wife put to death for plotting against him. As you can imagine, this hardly endeared him to the people so the whole second marriage plan really backfired. But, of course, it is not as if he didn’t try to explain it all away:

      The other thing that made him less than a real Jewish king was the fact that he was a Roman client and his position depended entirely on the Roman Emperor Augustus. He was at the beck and call of the Romans. They would often call him to appear before them and he could never refuse and he would never know if he would be able to come back. Makes you wonder, did he try to hide the Romans who propped him up with tweets like this?

      That brings us, of course, to the whole question of the role of Herod in Matthew’s nativity story. The specific actions of Herod that Matthew reports – him receiving the Magi at his palace, his consultation about the birth of the messiah, his slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem – these events are only recorded in the gospel and are found nowhere else in the historical record. On that basis, Herod probably would have been only too happy to declare that Matthew’s account was fake news.

      But is that true? Is the gospel account a Christian “fake news” attempt to slander Herod – an attempt to boost their own messiah by bringing down the greatness of another king?
      Well, although there is no evidence for these events outside of the Bible, I would not necessarily call them fake news. At the very least, what Matthew describes in his Gospel certainly fits with what we know of Herod’s character. He is certainly the kind of man whose ego was so fragile that he would have been frightened – though he also wouldn’t have wanted to admit it:

      Matthew also says that “all Jerusalem” was afraid along with the king in his reaction to the wise men. That also seems to make sense based on what we know of him. He seems to have been exactly the kind of guy to fly off the handle when upset and the people around him would have known that. They would have been afraid of his reaction, as much as Herod might deny it:

      Whatever Matthew was doing when he wrote his gospel story of the birth of Jesus, he was not just doing a fake news takedown of Herod the Great. The story itself can’t be verified apart from what we read in this one gospel, and how you read the gospel is up to you. But the point of the story was never about King Herod himself and what pathological narcissism and horrible crimes he was admittedly very capable of. Herod, in the gospel story, was never just one man. He was a type. Matthew chose to tell his story in a way that clearly echoes the story of the birth of Moses in the Book of Exodus. Herod in the gospel behaves exactly like Pharaoh does in the story of Moses. The Pharaoh, like Herod, was afraid of a deliverer who might arise among his Jewish slaves and, like Herod, ordered the wholesale slaughter of all Jewish boys under a certain age.
      By echoing the story of Pharaoh in the story of the birth of Jesus, Matthew was saying something very important. He was saying that Herod and Pharaoh are not exceptions. They are the model of what has happened again and again down through history. I’m not just talking about leaders who would actually commit atrocities like the slaughter of innocent children, though, Lord knows, there have certainly been far too many of those throughout human history. I am talking about people who ascend to positions of power and authority but who have a deep flaw in them in that they have an underlying insecurity. They know, somewhere deep down inside, that they have no right to wield the power that they do and that makes them afraid. The evil and foolish things that they do stem from that fear.
      What does it mean that Matthew included a compelling portrait of exactly that kind of leader in his story of the birth of Christ? It stands, for one thing, as a warning that such leaders will come and we need to expect them and do what we can to limit their impact. But the other thing that stands out in Matthew’s Christmas story is this: Herod’s plans fail. There is a new king born in the story and he is a king who is not just better than Herod. He is a king who challenges the very foundations of Herod’s flawed kingdom. It is an assurance for us from God that we are not alone to face the evil that comes into this world, that God has another way, another kind of kingdom and another kind of leadership and that it will triumph in the end.
      I don’t know about you, but some of the political events in our country and in other countries in 2017 have left me discouraged, disillusioned and disengaged. Some of the leaders in whom I placed some hope have disappointed me. Some, from whom I feared the worst, have delivered in spades. Matthew’s Christmas story is there to give you and me hope that God is at work, even in disturbing leaders and events. God will not abandon us or leave us without a way through.
      The underlying message of Matthew’s Christmas story is found in one word that appears in the opening passage: Emmanuel which means God is with us. It means that God hasn’t abandoned us to the whims and the fears of the Herods of this world. It means Herod’s reign, though seemingly endless, has already been destroyed at the roots.

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