The 1st Sunday of Christmas
Introduction: On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we celebrated the birth of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. As the angels sang to the shepherds: “Peace on earth, good will to all.” But as we know, this world was not and is not a peaceful place.
Today’s gospel could be titled “The Empire Strikes Back”. The peace represented by Jesus was and is a threat to those in power.
For my sermon, I am presenting a monologue in which King Herod the Great gives his side of the story. As you hear it, consider what kind of peace we wish to have in our lives and world…
Very well. You may sit in the presence of Herod the Great. I should have you all executed for such dishonor. Ordinarily I would, but then who would there be to hear my side of the story? Oh, I know you think you know all about me, what an entirely evil and warped individual I must be. But now, see for yourselves! Am I not just as normal and rational as any one of you?
I did much for the good of my people. I built theaters and provided games for their amusement. At least twice I greatly reduced their taxes. During the great famine, I provided for their needs out of my own personal resources. I took a place by the sea known as Strato's Tower, and made it into a most magnificent port, with palaces and causeways, and a great amphitheater. I renamed it "Caesarea" in honor of the emperor. I also built a temple to Caesar, and one to Apollos, too, I think. And in Jerusalem, I even rebuilt and beautified the temple for the Jews. So you see, I am not the absolute ogre that history has portrayed.
I do not deny that some of my actions may have seemed a bit harsh on occasion, but you must understand, difficult times call for drastic measures. I had seen how the political winds can change, how turmoil can arise and destroy kings and countries, emperors and empires. And if one child is born to turn the world upside-down, then the deaths of a thousand infants is not too great a price to pay to stop him and return to the world a promise of peace.
Peace. If only you knew how deeply I hunger for peace. All my life I've spent looking over my shoulder, watching for the dagger in the dark, the poison in the wine, the whispering behind my back, never knowing who would come at me next, always wondering which benign smile would pose the next threat to my throne.
I was born to be what I am, to be king of the Jews. My father was Antipater. Caesar himself appointed him administrator over Judea. It was an uneasy administration. Antigonus, the last of the Jewish kings, still considered himself ruler of Israel, and continued to challenge Rome's presence there. Phasaelus, my older brother, was made governor of the area around Jerusalem, while I was given Galilee. Four years later, my father was assassinated. I made up my mind then and there that I would not suffer a similar fate; I would protect my position at any cost. Six years after Father's death, Rome helped my put down an uprising in which both Phasaelus and another brother, Joseph, lost their lives. I was made king of all Judea.
The younger brother and sister I had left soon become no small annoyance. Salome was always loyal to me, but was a constant irritation to the rest of the family. My brother, Pheroras, I caught plotting my death, but he died before I could have him executed.
That, I have found, is the most efficient way to deal with threats. Swift and decisive action. Destroy the opponent; show no mercy. The first thing I did as king of Judea was to execute Antigonus and forty-five of his followers. That pretty much solved my Jewish problem.
Later, my three oldest sons were executed; the two born to Mariamne, the second of my ten wives, on charges of conspiracy, and then my oldest, for framing them while he himself was actually the one doing all the conspiring! I had Mariamne's brother killed as a potential rival. Then I had reason to suspect her eighty-year-old grandfather of planning my early death. Needless to say, his preceded mine.
These were but simple acts of self-defense I assure you, and yet, they did tend to drive Mariamne and me apart. Eventually, even she became a threat that had to be eliminated. I wish I could say these were the only ones, but unfortunately they were not. The price of peace can be high at times.
One day, as if these political and family problems weren't enough, three holy men from Persia appeared at the palace asking where they could find the king of the Jews. Impudent fools! Were they blind, or did I not look like a king? When I informed them that I was the one they were seeking, they conferred among themselves and then replied, "We seek one who was only recently born to be king of the Jews!" I was furious! How dare they march into my presence and ask me, the king of Judea, about my own supposed rival?! They were either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid! They should have lost their heads on the spot, but the wise know when to strike and when to wait. I listened to their story. They claimed to have been watching the heavens when an unusual star appeared, indicating the birth of one who was to become great in this region. They had, therefore, traveled these many miles to honor him.
What do I care about stars? I did, however, care about my throne. So preferring to be safe rather than sorry, I sent them out and summoned our own local holy men, the chief priests and the scribes of the Jews, to ask what they knew of all this. To my surprise, they knew quite a bit. They quoted some ancient prophecy about a ruler being born in Bethlehem who would one day govern Israel. Bethlehem! A sad little dump not five miles away has a supposed king born in it and I hear nothing about it! Nevertheless, I remained calm. Pretending to be merely curious and thanking them for their trouble, I dismissed the chief priests and secretly recalled my three Persian visitors.
We talked for a while; I asked them about their skills and their stargazing. I listened to their speculations about this new king with interest. Judging from when they had first seen the star, and how long they had been traveling, they figured the child was little more than a year old. Hearing this, I told them what I had learned from the chief priests, that according to scripture, one such "king" was to originate in nearby Bethlehem.
You should have seen their faces! They got all excited and nearly fell all over each other excusing themselves to leave right away. Taking advantage of the situation, and in a manner so as not to arouse suspicion, I encouraged them to go and search diligently for the child, asking that they send word when they found him so that I might join them in honoring him. I smiled at my own cleverness as they left.
But days passed, then weeks, as I waited to hear. Finally, when a month had gone by and still no word, I sent spies to Bethlehem, only to discover that the Persians had left long ago. I had been betrayed! I swore that would not be the end of it. All of Bethlehem would pay dearly for this deception! I would deal with them as I had dealt with every other traitorous dog who plotted against my throne! No one challenges Herod the Great and lives; not the Jewish aristocracy in Jerusalem, not the members of my own royal family, and certainly not a pip-squeak two-year-old in a two-bit town like Bethlehem!
I summoned the captain of the guard and ordered him to prepare his troops. They were to march into Bethlehem and kill every male child two years old or younger, and if he overlooked even one such child, I would have his head! They did their job well, I can assure you.
It was all quite unfortunate, but as I'm sure you understand now, all quite necessary. There cannot be two kings; people cannot remain faithful to more than one authority. Oh, they may try for a while, limping along, serving both very badly at best, but finally, they will end up honoring one and betraying the other. I learned well from my father's mistakes; I will not be betrayed.
So the Jews were upset. I know these people; they'll get over it. All they really care about is a full belly and permission to carry on their superstitious rituals. Besides, the "king" described in their scriptures would threaten all that, challenge their cozy little lifestyles. I simply saved them the embarrassment of discovering that the king they had waited so long for was not at all what they really wanted! So you see, I was really for their own good as well as mine!
Still, suppose the child did somehow manage to escape! Suppose he hid beneath a floor, or left with the Persians! Suppose he returns one day to gather a following! Granted, I'm an old man, and sick, and by the time he's old enough to do anything I'll be long gone, but...God help my successor! Religious wars can be so bloody. I guess there's no reason to worry, though. My captain assures me it has all been taken care of. Peace has been preserved.
It's a very precious thing, peace. Some of you I'm sure, like me, recognize that, and, like me, are willing to protect it at any cost. You are the smart ones. Yes, and you are the ones who will succeed in life, who will rise over the heads of your opponents and crush them like ants on the pavement. That's what it takes to survive in these uncertain times; take everything you can get and protect it from those who are jealous, strike first and watch your back, and don't trust anyone. It really is the only sure way. Look at me. If I had done otherwise, I would be a corpse by now, rotting in the grave. Instead, this latest threat to my throne has been removed, and I stand here today, still very much alive, an example to you all of what the exercise of power can accomplish. Behold, my friends! Behold Herod the Great!
Pastor George Karres
418 W. Main St.
Sidney, MT 59270