St. Paul’s 1-6-2019 – Epiphany
Sermon inspired by Lonn Taylor’s love of history.
We’re going to play a little word association game this morning, to begin with. A little creepy, but still fun. The category: great villains of history. I’m going to say the first name, then you’ll give me the last name. Ready? Alright. We’re going to start off easy and then get a little more obscure. And please keep in mind, some of these villains are purely fictional:
Cruella de Vil
The Wicked Witch of the West
Vlad the Impaler (aka, Count…Dracula)
Ivan the Terrible
There has been no shortage of villains throughout human history, whether one focuses on life, literature, or cinema, and these malicious men and women loom large in our consciousness not just because of who they were or what they did –which was usually seriously appaling -, but because of what they teach us about ourselves.
Some of them cause us to stop and wonder how we would respond if we were ever to encounter someone like that? How would we resist – for instance, fight back, or thwart their evil plans for world domination? Others cause us to stop and reflect upon ourselves, take a closer look and acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that the potential for evil writ large in their life exists within us as well.
There are some villains whom we grudgingly respect and some we respectfully abhor, but it’s the ones who go after the babies that we really, truly revile, which is why, some two thousand years later there is no love lost for the name of King Herod.
Even in our Biblically illiterate culture, most people know that name and recognize it as anything but good. At least, I have yet to meet a little boy on the playground whose parents have named himHerodsimply because they thought it sounded cool.
We actually know quite a bit about King Herod and what we know amounts to a fascinating portrait of a brilliant but tortured soul. Born in 73 B.C., Herod grew up in Judea in the midst of a civil war. His father, who chose the winning side during the conflict, served as the chief advisor to the King but was poisoned to death by the rival faction when Herod was about 30 years old. When that faction suddenly came into power again three years later, Herod fled to Rome and made a deal with no less than Marc Anthony and a young patrician by the name of Octavian. They crowned him the King of Judeaand sent him home to re-conquer his kingdom with their blessing.
It took him three years of hard fighting, but eventually Herod fought his way back to the throne. From that point on, he was successful, but sadly never truly comfortable. Herod became increasingly powerful, but unfortunately he never felt safe. Indeed, he was extremely paranoid throughout his reign. But hey, as the old saying goes,just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. The truth is, although he enjoyed the blessing of Rome, Herod –who I should also mention was only half Jewish – was always regarded with suspicion, if not outright disgust, by his own people. There were plenty of people out to get him, both real and imagined, which is interesting because the truth is, Herod, for all his evil ways, was actually a pretty good king.
It may surprise you to know that he was celebrated far and wide for his generosity of all things. He took care of his own citizens and even people abroad in times of crisis and famine, so much so that he was once elected president of the Olympic games in recognition of his charity. He was a remarkably deft politician who presided over a long stretch of peace and prosperity for his people, in large part because he knew how to play those even more powerful then himself.
As I mentioned before, Herod enjoyed close ties to Marc Anthony, which was all well and good until Octavian turned on his former ally, defeated him, and crowned himself emperor. Everyone thought Marc Anthony’s fall would spell the end for Herod, but instead of giving up and calling for an asp of his own, Herod made a bold gambit for Octavian’s favor. He went straight to the new emperor’s court, removed his crown before the throne, made a great speech about how loyal he had been to Anthony –which shocked everyone present- and then pledged to show the same degree of loyalty to his new master if Octavian would spare his life. Octavian was so impressed, he not only pardoned Herod but sent him back to Judea to continue his reign.
Herod was also an absolute genius when it came to urban planning and development. He engineered and created a deep water harbor off the coast of Judea where there wasn’t one before. Think about that for a moment. He permanently altered an underwater landscape to accommodate the great ships of Rome and in doing so turned his little piece of land into a major port city for the Roman empire. He built a hippodrome by the sea for chariot races and a theater big enough to hold 3500 patrons that you can still visit today. He supervised the construction of gorgeous palaces full of graceful colonnades and long reflecting pools, castles that were as luminous and airy as they were impregnable. But perhaps most importantly of all, Herod rebuilt the Jewish temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the western wall of which still exists and is to this day considered the holiest site in Judaism.
Herod’s accomplishments were incredible, but in spite of them all his subjects still loathed him because his every success came at the expense not only of his own spiritual integrity, but that of his people. Herod may have been crowned king of the Jews, but on the day Marc Anthony and Octavian declared him a ruler, Herod himself joined them in making sacrifices to the pagan god’s of Rome at the altar of Jove. He may have built the temple as a gift for his people, but upon the gates of that temple perched a golden eagle, not just an idol but a symbol of the Roman empire. And perhaps worst of all, upon the altar of that temple the emperor decreed that sacrifices were to be made twice daily on behalf of himself and his people. Herod readily violated the sacred laws of his faith to appease his Roman allies. He was willing to compromise at every turn in favor of his Roman patrons, and his people hated him for it.
He was also, on a personal level, a deeply troubled and unhappy man. When Herod returned home to conquer Judea, he divorced his first wife and took a princess from amongst the family he had deposed in the hopes of stabilizing relations with his enemies. Her name was Mariamne and by all accounts he loved her dearly. But he also had her executed the moment he suspected that she was about to betray him and was plagued by guilt over this decision ever after. Historians claim that he wandered the halls of his palace mad with grief and despair over what he had done.
He also regularly tortured his courtiers if he was feeling nervous, killed three of his sons as well as his mother-in-law when he thought there were plots afoot to dethrone him, had his brother-in-law drowned when he thought the people were becoming a little too fond of the boy, redrew his will no less then six times, and, as his end drew near, was so desperate for people to love him and mourn his passing that he imprisoned a crowd of leading Judean citizens with orders to have them all executed on the day of his death so that people would mourn his passing whether they cared for him or not.
So as you can see, Herod was a sick, sick man; a fascinating historical figure, but a sick man all the same. He was as brilliant as he was brutal, as creative as he was cruel; a truly gifted and yet horribly tortured soul. The sort of person who you could easily imagine ordering the slaughter of a bunch of little babies if he was feeling threatened. So here is an interesting bit of trivia for all you Biblical history buffs out there. The slaughter of the innocents we read about today, the one thing everyone knows about Herod, is the one part of his story that is also hardest to verify because there are no secondary sources to corroborate Matthew’s account. Indeed, Scholars debate whether it ever even happened at all and most have come to doubt Matthew’s account.
What they can all agree on, however, is the fact that Herod was fully capable of such a cruel and vile act, because Herod, for all his duplicity and paranoia understood a basic truth that we would do well to consider today, a truth Jesus himself would echo later in his ministry. Herod may have been nuts but he wasn’t crazy. He knew in his heart of hearts that there can only ever be one king.
So when the magi arrived and asked: Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We have seen his star and have come to worship him,Herod knew he was in trouble. Rather than rejoice in the news of the magi and share in their quest to greet the messiah his people have been waiting for, Herod finds out from them the exact time when the star had appeared the better to go ferret out his rival and have him killed.
You see Herod knew, as Jesus would later say, that you can only ever really serve one master. “…Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
When Jesus spoke of this, he was talking about our need to choose between God and money, but the truth is there are many masters out there we can bow down to: work, debt, fear, anger, ambition, addiction, an abusive relationship, an old regret, the pain of our past, or the doubts that cloud our future. There are all sorts of forces out there that we can bow down to, innumerable kings we can pay homage to and allow to rule our lives.
Herod was determined to be the only King of his people and he was willing to stop at nothing to keep his hold upon them strong. He did everything in his power to take out the competition even if it meant killing those he loved. But the God we are invited to serve, out of love for us, works in an entirely different way. He has done everything in his power to allow us to choose him freely even though it meant dying for those he loves.
God knows there are many other forces we can bow down to, and yet God trusts us enough to find our way to him of our own accord. Rather than compel us with threats he lights up our lives with affirmations, not unlike the star the magi followed, signs and wonders that beckon us forward toward a new way of life and a new way to love.
So as we begin a new year, consider who you will be paying homage to in the coming months. Who will you be waking up every morning to serve? Will you be bowing the knee to Master Card and Lady Visa? Will you be allowing your mortgage or your mother-in-law or your boss or your crappy divorce, your fear, your anger, or your pain to run the show and determine your every move? Or, like the wise men of Matthew, will you find the courage to follow the light even if it takes you to a place as small as Bethlehem? Will you find the humility to kneel down even if it be upon straw? Will you find the grace to give your life over to the only King who loves you more than life itself, the one they called Jesus?
So may it be.
Let us pray:
O Lord, you know our hearts even better than we do. You know the forces and the questions, the fears and the doubts that plague our lives and seem to compel us forward no matter what. Come Lord Jesus and free us from all those things that would separate us from you and the life you have planned for us. Come and be our God and our King, our Lord and our savior, that we might become yours and bow down to no other master. Come Lord Jesus and set us free to be the people you are calling us to be. Amen.
We gather wondering,
‘Where will we find the Babe born in Bethlehem?’
We will find the Babe in the laughter of children,
in the wisdom of grandparents.
We gather asking,
‘where will we find the Child of Christmas?’
We will find the Child where the needy are gifted with hope,
where the oppressed are set free.
We gather wanting to know,
‘where will we find the Christ who has come for us?’
We will find our Hope where fear is overwhelmed by grace,
where hatred is overwhelmed by love,
where all people are overwhelmed by joy. We will find the babe in our worship this day. AMEN
Offering From the prophet Isaiah, the wealth of the nations; from Paul the Apostle, the joyous news of mysterious grace; from the sages from the East, an homage of rich treasure: one after another, we hear grateful praise for the God who makes a home with humans. We respond, as well: bringing our own treasure; singing our own joy; offering our own wonder. Let us give, richly and boldly.
Benediction Epiphany is an unveiling,
an eye-opener a glorious self-exposé by God in Christ Jesus. Let us go our separate ways carrying the light of that revelation into every shady situation every dark corner.
May the God of all grace be the strength in your hands,
May the Christ of all light be the guide for your feet, and
May the Spirit of all truth be the integrity in our deeds.
And the blessing of God Almighty…..