This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Epiphany of Our Lord. The gospel text was Matthew 2:1-12.
Oh, King Herod. Your days were numbered, and you knew it. The magi arrived from the east, and what they told you scared you. They brought word of a birth, a child, an infant. And this infant terrified you.
Why? These foreigners could have been fools, or scam artists. Why did you trust them so? They asked you, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Why was that so frightening to you? Was it because you expected one of your children to rule after you, and none of them were newborn? Was it because you somehow believed you’d rule forever? Or was it because of the way they said it: “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?” You knew very well that you were not born to that throne. You knew very well that you stole it.
You were appointed the king of Judea by the Roman Empire, because of your family’s connections to the empire, and because the emperor thought he could control you. You weren’t even from Judea. You were a puppet of Rome. But you had long strings, and you were able to do pretty much whatever you wanted in Judea, so long as you paid Rome what they demanded. And so you did. You refurbished and expanded the Temple in Jerusalem. It was magnificent. But at what cost? The cost of crushing tax burdens on your people. You impoverished your people, you murdered your critics, you executed members of your own family. You were brutal, selfish, paranoid, and cruel. And you knew that your days were numbered.
Oh, Herod. You always knew you were a fake, didn’t you? A carpetbagger, a pretender, a fraud? And when these magi from a foreign land came to ask you, “Where is the child?” you heard it as this question: “Where is the REAL king?” And you got scared. Your number was up. Your time was short. Your days were numbered.
So you tried to kill that child. You failed. You caused unbearable suffering, killing all the boys under age two around Jerusalem. But the child survived, his family taking him to Egypt for safety. And after your death, he came out of exile in Egypt just like so many of his ancestors. So you never actually saw him. So what were you afraid of? Well, perhaps it wasn’t quite you who was scared, Herod, but rather the evil, selfish impulses that dwelled within you. And that’s whom I’m talking to today, not the historical Herod, but the evil, the brutality, the selfishness that controlled you.
For those things lived on long after your death. Your son Herod Antipas became ruler of the northern part of your kingdom, and he continued your legacy of cruelty. But someone stood up to him. John the Baptist arose in the wilderness, and spoke against him. This led to John’s arrest and death, but Oh Herod, John stood his ground the whole time.
The southern part of your kingdom came under direct Roman rule, but your cruelty lived on there as well. Jesus stood up to the high priests in their evil and jealousy, and to the governor Pontius Pilate in his selfishness and cruelty. He walked straight to his own death at the hands of these leaders. Oh Herod, he stood tall.
Rome eventually fell, like all empires do, but cruelty and selfishness and evil lived on. Oh Herod, it lived on. Yet throughout every century, people stood up.
- The church itself became corrupt in the sixteenth century, and Martin Luther stood up to its cruelty and selfishness, and had to be hidden away for years.
- Mahatma Gandhi stood up to the British Empire in their cruelty toward the people of India, and was assassinated.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood up to the American people in our cruelty toward African-Americans, and he was assassinated.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War II, who stood up to the Nazis by participating in a plot to kill Hitler. The plot failed, and Bonhoeffer was killed.
All these people, and hundreds, thousands more stood up to cruelty and injustice. Stood up to selfishness and brutality. Oh, Herod, they stood up to you. And each one of them changed the world forever.
I’m reminded of a superhero movie called the Avengers. It’s the story of how a group of superheroes came together to fight enemies from another world. One of the villains was a magical demigod named Loki. It was Loki’s desire to take over the earth, and enslave its people. Oh, Herod, you’d like Loki. He was also a pretender to a throne. Anyway, In one scene, Loki descends upon a crowd of people in a public square in Stuttgart, Germany. He commands them to kneel, and they all do. He smirks at the obedient crowd, and tells them, “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”
But one older man stands up, and looks at Loki. In a German accent, he says, “Not to men like you.”
Loki responds, “There are no men like me.”
The older man says, “There are always men like you.”
I think he was speaking to you, Herod. In fiction, as in real life, people stand up against you. Against what you stood for, cruelty and dominion, poison and murder. They stand up. We call this day Epiphany, which means revealing. Usually we talk about the Epiphany of this day as the first revealing of Jesus to Gentiles, Jesus being shown to the magi from the East. But there was another Epiphany here, another revealing, another unveiling. The Epiphany you had, Herod. The Epiphany that your days are numbered. The days of cruelty and hatred are numbered.
You knew that. And you trembled. We know that too. And we tremble. Because we know that we can stand tall. That we can rise up, against all the power-mad leaders in the world. Against all the evil instincts in ourselves. We know that evil has no power over us, no matter how it looks. We can stand up against them, and trust in the real king, the true king, the one king of all the world. The one Lord, the one Savior, the one who received gold and frankincense and myrrh. We can stand up, trusting in his majesty, trusting in his power, trusting in his love. We tremble because we know that this little child who received those gifts would change the world forever. A change that is still happening, even today. A change we are part of every time we stand tall. Oh, Herod. Your days are numbered. Christ is Lord forever! And we will stand tall.
Featured image: “Head of Herod,” Giuseppe Arcimboldo