Haunted by the Star
December 17, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor
Last week, in this “Star” Christmas series, we saw the Magi were actually UNLIKELY candidates for God’s grace, but they responded and received it anyway. Today we look at King Herod, a LIKELY candidate for God’s grace, but who chose to be an anti-hero and rejected the kingdom of God with violence. (Matthew 2:1-20)
I. The story of Herod (Matthew 2:1-20)
A. Herod built a great kingdom for himself. Herod the Great was part gentile, born to a Jewish mother and half Jewish father in 73 BC. Initially as King of Israel, he fought off an invasion and then stayed on the throne through the rules of four different Roman Emperors. Herod excelled as a builder of four fortresses, the entire port of Caesarea, and ultimately the largest Jewish temple ever built in Jerusalem.
B. Herod went to great lengths to protect that kingdom from Jesus. (Matthew 2: 13-18) Herod was worried that this infant Messiah/King, promised in Old Testament Scripture, might take away his kingdom. Herod had always been insecure about the non-Jewish part of his lineage, knowing the Jews could never accept him fully. To protect his kingdom, Herod questioned the Magi secretly, pretended to want to worship the baby, and proceeded to murder all babies under age two in Bethlehem when he did not know which child to kill. In history, his violence continued as he later strangled his own wife and killed three of his sons.
C. Herod died. Despite all the grandeur and greatness of the kingdom he had built, despite his ruthless efforts protect his kingdom, Herod lost his kingdom at death. Then he passed on to the afterlife where he will answer for all the sinful things he did to hold on to his kingdom.
II. Lessons learned from the story of Herod in Matthew 2
A. Sometimes, the LIKELY don’t make it into God’s Kingdom. The Magi showed us that God accepts us and pours out His grace, even if we have troublesome sin in the past. However, Herod showed us that sometimes there are LIKELY candidates for grace who do not make it into the kingdom. Herod was mostly Jewish (ethnicity), knew prophetic Scripture (knowledge), and had done a great task (good works) for God in building the Temple. Yet in considering “What will you do about Jesus?” he rejected the Messiah and tried to kill him. He completely missed the good news of the Gospel.
B. Herod missed out on the something MORE that Jesus was offering. Jesus/Messiah was offering more, God’s grace, not something less. Even Herod (like us all) was made for God’s worldwide and eternal Kingdom, but he rejected it in spite of being a LIKELY candidate for God’s grace.
Have we handed over the throne of our lives to Jesus so that He can welcome us into His Kingdom, or do we reject our Savior and hang on to the control of our own kingdom?
- Is there something MORE that you are reaching for in Christianity?Is searching OK?
- What in your life are you trying to protect from Jesus? Are you willing to surrender it to Jesus? Where can you get help?
- Are you or have you been one of the LIKELY or UNLIKELY people to be a candidate for God’s grace? Explain.
- Can you relate with the Magi, Herod, the shepherds, or anyone else in this Christmas story?
- What is this gospel that King Jesus brings to earth? What did Herod miss? Did we?
- Where does the world tell us to find our security? How does it differ from Christ’s security?
- Just like the Christmas story, our lives are both lovely (baby) and ugly (Herod). As Christians, do we celebrate how the good & the ugly in us can be made perfect in Jesus?
The other night I had an unusual conversation with a man I hadn’t seen in a while. This was a causal acquaintance, someone I met a few years ago but hadn’t seen for some time and really didn’t know very well. The man’s wife had emailed me a few weeks ago just out of the blue asking if Kelley and I could meet with them to talk about our experience in Africa. She said they were thinking about visiting or even moving to Africa and wondered if we could give them input. That got my attention! Kelley and I were trying to figure out when we could meet with them when we ran into them at an event. As we talked to them, I came to understand what was going on. This man was very successful in his field. He is in the health care field. He had started a business from scratch and built it into a multi-site company. He worked very hard to build it up, and he has had success! He’s got a lot of money, a very large house and a big pool with a hot tub and waterfall and a really big boat. He’s a success! He’s put in a lot of hard, honest work to build kind of a little kingdom for himself. And he did it!
He’s not necessarily unhappy. But as he talked to me, it was clear that he had a question. He was troubled about something. He’s in the middle of his life. He’s been reading a book about the second half of life, about the difference between success and significance. As he’s thought about that, he wants to know one thing: Is there more? Is there more to life than making lots of money and living comfortably? Is there more than this little kingdom I’m experiencing? If I move to Africa, will I find the “more”? Is this all there is or is there more?
Is there more? It’s a question we all probably ask from time to time. If we’re not particularly successful by worldly standards, I think we definitely tend to ask if there’s more. Only it’s more like Oliver Twist: “Please sir, I want some more.” As a Pastor, over the years, I’ve found that the question is asked most desperately, not by those who sort of lack success, but by those who have it. They’ve got the big house. They have the nice car. They’ve won the battles. They have the trophies. But they’re somehow left with the hollow question of whether there is more for them than the kingdoms we build into our lives. We all want to know if there’s more.
Today we are continuing in our preaching series called “the Star.” This is a series where we are looking at the Christmas story of Jesus and the Wise Men from four different perspectives. We started the series by looking at the story from the perspective of prophecy. Then we continued last week as John Maiden looked at the story from the perspective of the wise men or Magi. We saw that these Magi were actually unlikely candidates for God’s grace, but they responded to it and received it anyway. Today we are going to look at the story from someone else’s perspective, someone who is frequently ignored. This is the one character in our story that is probably not in your “Precious Moments” nativity set! Every nativity set has figurines of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. Most of them have three wise men. But I’ve never seen a nativity set with a Herod!
Herod, the King of Israel, is the one character that is often left out of the Christmas story, because he’s the bad guy! But here’s the thing: We have to look at the story from Herod’s perspective. He’s absolutely essential to this story of Jesus and the Wise Men, not just because of the role that he actually plays in the story, but because Herod shows us the other response that we might have to Christ.
The wise men show us one response to Jesus. But in the story of Herod, we see that another response is possible. Herod was offered “more” in the form of Jesus, and today we’ll see that he had a different response than the Wise Men. What we’ll do today is two things:
- We’ll just walk through the story of Herod. We’ll learn a little bit about who this guy was and why he responded to Jesus the way he did.
- We’ll see two things that I think Matthew wants us to learn from this story of Herod, and his kingdom and his response to the “more” that Jesus offers. We’ll talk about who Jesus came for and what Jesus really offers.
Here’s my prayer today: This is a very basic gospel message. There’s not a lot of how-to or advanced applications to your Christian life. In some ways, it doesn’t get any more basic than this. It’s my prayer today that our hearts will truly be stirred by our need to respond to Christ, by our need to share Christ and by the “more” that Jesus offers. I’m going to read the story for us one more time. Matthew tells us this:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
– Matthew 2:1-20
We are going to start this morning by telling the story of King Herod, so we understand who this anti-hero is and why he did what he did.
The story of Herod
The story of Herod in this passage really breaks into three parts. The first part is this:
1. Herod had built a great kingdom for himself.
Most of us don’t know a lot about Herod. Some of you have probably never heard the name before. He had built an amazing Kingdom for himself. Matthew starts this story out like he expects his readers to know who Herod is. He says this happened “during the days of King Herod.” You don’t say “in the days of ” unless someone is well-known! Matthew’s readers would have known who he was talking about.
Herod was incredible. He was called “Herod the Great.” By the way, there are five Herods in the New Testament. So if you’re wondering why Herod dies here and then reappears in John, the Baptist’s, ministry, and then reappears in Jesus’ ministry and trial, and in the book of Acts, the reason is that there are five Herods! But this guy is the Herod that all of them are named for. He was Herod the Great. He’s OG! Did I do that right? They tell me that means Original Gangster!
He was Great. He was born in 73 BC to a Jewish mother and a father that was only half Jewish. He somehow managed to become King of Israel. He started his reign as King by fighting off an invasion. He managed to stay on the throne through the rule of four different Roman Emperors, which was almost no one managed to do! He was a builder. One Jewish website I looked at said that he was the greatest builder in all of Jewish History. He built four fortresses, including one that was on top of an artificial mountain! He built the port of Ceasarea, which was the second largest port in the Roman Empire. But more than anything, Herod was the builder of the Jerusalem Temple. In Old Testament architecture, the absolute high point, the zenith, was the temple that King Solomon David’s son built in Jerusalem. It was Eifel tower of Hebrew architecture, as good as it got. For centuries the Jews had mourned the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and said it could never truly be replaced.
Let me show you something. See the temple on the left? That’s Solomon’s Temple. See the temple on the right? That’s Herod’s temple, big enough to hold 24 football fields. It was the world’s largest functioning religious site. It took 10,000 workers ten years just to build the retaining wall around the temple enclosure. The building itself was made of marble and gold, and the floor was of blue marble, so that it looked like a moving sea when you entered.
So at the time of our story, Herod was about 70. He had built the fortresses and built Caesarea. He hadn’t finished the Temple, but they had been at it for about 20 years. He was King of Israel and all the surrounding areas. Herod had built a great Kingdom for himself. That’s the first part of Herod’s story. Now the second part is this:
2. Herod went to great lengths to protect that kingdom from Jesus.
We see this in our story. Herod is greatly disturbed when he hears about this infant King whose birth has been declared in the heavens. He’s worried that he could lose the throne after all this building. Jesus could take it all away. Because of the non-Jewish part of his lineage and because of some things he had done, Herod had always been insecure about his Kingship. The Jews never quite accepted him, even though he built the temple.
When he sees these Magi and hears about this child, he knows it’s a big deal. He knows this has to be the Messiah. He knows the Messiah’s reign is prophesied all over the Old Testament. He knows his reign is going to be powerful. He fears that Jesus is going to take his Kingdom away.
So he goes to great lengths to protect it. He asks about Scripture until he finds out where the Messiah is to be born. He questions the wise men secretly. He acts like he earnestly wants to worship like the Magi. Even the Magi avoid Herod on their return route, so he doesn’t know which child to kill. He just sends his soldiers to Bethlehem and kills them all! Every baby under two in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas is murdered. That’s probably not hundreds of children. Bethlehem wasn’t that big, but dozens of babies would have been murdered just to keep one man in power. What a tragedy!
If you think that sounds impossibly cruel, let me just say you don’t know Herod. He strangled his own wife, Miramne, because he didn’t think she was loyal enough. He had two of own sons executed for treason. He drowned his other son. Because he didn’t think the Jews really loved him, he arranged for hundreds of popular Jewish leaders to be executed on the day of his death just to make sure people would mourn that day. That is the guy that Jesus was up against, a guy who not only built a great Kingdom for himself but would also go to any lengths to protect that Kingdom from Jesus. That was Herod. But that’s not the end of Herod’s story. There’s one more part, and it’s this:
3. Herod died.
Despite all the grandeur and greatness of the Kingdom he had built, despite all his efforts to claw his way into power, despite the ruthlessness of the things he did to protect his Kingdom, despite his knowledge of where the baby was and his deception of the Magi and his murder of dozens of children to protect his throne, Herod died.
Matthew tells us that there came a time (and it was just a few months later) when an angel said to Joseph “The one who is trying to take the child’s life is dead.” Herod died. He lost his kingdom. The Jewish leaders were not executed. They were released. Jesus survived. Herod went into the afterlife, where despite his building of the Temple he will answer for all the sinful things he did to hold onto his kingdom.
So that’s the story of Herod. He built a great Kingdom. He went to great lengths to protect it from Jesus and, in the end, he died. There are a lot of things that we could talk about by way of application here. There are a lot of things we could say about the things we do to protect our own Kingdoms from Jesus and maybe even the judgment we are going to face. There are two main things that Matthew really wants us to learn from the story of Herod.
Lessons from this story of Herod
1. Sometimes, the likely don’t make it into God’s kingdom
I know that may sound like a harsh thing to say and I know that may not be the first thing you see when you look at this passage. But I have to say it this morning, because I think that is very much the point that Matthew is making with the story. Herod and the Wise Men are both legitimate parts of this story. They represent two responses to Jesus. They are complementary. They are like two sides of the same coin.
As John Maiden pointed out in the sermon last week, the wise men really represent unlikely candidates for God’s grace. We think of these guys as “wise men,” as people who were innately good and people we should imitate. My mom used to have a Christmas ornament that said “Wise men still seek him.” We think of them as innately good, but that’s not Matthew’s point.
They were Magi. They were sorcerers, Pagan Astrologers from a country that had abused Israel and that God had pronounced judgment on. They were Gentiles. They were outside of God’s covenant, his people. When God called them, they were doing exactly what God had told people not to do: They were practicing astrology, looking at the stars to determine their future.
God calls them anyway, despite their country of origin, despite their background, despite their behavior. Matthew tells us that because he wants to give us the encouragement of knowing that God calls the least likely candidates to his Kingdom. Matthew very much wants us to know that it’s OK to be an unlikely candidate for God’s grace. You don’t have to be perfect to come to Jesus.
Did you hear that this morning? It’s OK to have sin in your past that really troubles you. You can come to Jesus anyway. It’s OK to be from a messed up family. It’s OK to not be someone who knows your Bible backwards and forwards. It’s OK not to have your life pretty and clean. You can still come to Jesus and receive God’s grace. Matthew tells us the story of the wise men to tell us that God not only calls unlikely candidates to himself, he specializes in it! He still does that for you and me. There is great grace for the unlikely! So Matthew wants to encourage us with the example of the wise men. God calls unlikely candidates to his grace.
Herod is every bit as much a part of this story as the Wise men are. The story of Herod makes the converse point. There are times when the likely candidates don’t make it into God’s Kingdom. Matthew also wants to make that point. We think of the wise men as likely candidates for God’s grace when, in reality, they were unlikely candidates.
We do the opposite thing with Herod. Because we know he’s the bad guy, we think of him as an unlikely candidate for God’s grace. But he wasn’t! In many ways, Herod was actually a likely candidate for God’s grace. Think about it he had all the advantages!
- Herod was a Jew by religion. He was three fourth Jewish in his ethnicity. Judaism was the religion that he claimed for himself. Herod had the correct religious pedigree.
- Herod knew Scripture. Did you notice that? Herod knew Scripture well enough that as soon as the Magi said “We are looking for one born King of the Jews,” he immediately knew it was the Messiah. He knew that Scripture prophesied the birthplace of the Messiah. In fact, Herod believed Scripture on some level. If you read the story, the teachers of the Law know Jesus will be born in Bethlehem. The Chief Priests know he will be born in Bethlehem. But Herod is the only one in Israel who actually does something about it! He had knowledge.
- Herod had done some things for God. He had designed and begun to build the Temple. Do you have any idea what a huge undertaking that was? People always revered Solomon for the grandeur of the temple he built. And now Herod was building a temple twice that size! That wasn’t a small undertaking! Herod had good works that he could point to.
My point is just this: Herod was actually a likely candidate for God’s grace. In fact if you didn’t know the whole story, if you were reading this for the first time, Herod would seem like a good guy until near the end. It’s not until after the wise men have visited and the angel warns them that we realize Herod is up to no good. Herod was a likely candidate for God’s grace.
Maybe you’re here today and you are a likely candidate for God’s grace. Maybe, like Herod, you have a spiritual pedigree. Maybe you come from a very godly family. Maybe you were raised in Church. Maybe, like Herod, you have some knowledge of the Bible. Maybe you know a few phrases or even know it forwards and backwards. Maybe you have knowledge. Maybe, like Herod, you have some really good works. Maybe you’ve done some amazing things, because it was the right thing to do. Maybe you help those who can’t help themselves. Maybe you’ve given generously to God’s work. Maybe you have your name on a pew at a church somewhere or maybe on a building. Maybe because of that, you feel like a likely candidate for God’s kingdom. Maybe everyone would look at you and say “If anyone is getting into heaven, it’s going to him or it’s going to be her. She’s a likely candidate.”
If that’s you, can I gently, lovingly say to you that the story of Herod is here to teach us that that’s not enough. You can have all that as good as it is and still miss God’s Kingdom. Because the question that Herod faces is the question we all face. It’s not “What is your pedigree?,” not “How much Bible do you know?,” not “How many good works have you done?” There’s only one question in this story. Herod faces it, and the wise men face it, and the chief priests face it. If we keep reading the gospel, the disciples face this question and the Pharisees and the crowds and Pontius Pilate. The question is this: What will you do with Jesus?
The point of this story is that God has his Son into this world. At great cost to himself, the Father sent that which was most precious to him, His only Son, to take on our limitations to live among us and show us what God really made us to be. At great cost to himself, the Son obeyed the Father and was born as a helpless baby in humble circumstances. And in the end, He gave his life, so that we could be part of his eternal Kingdom. He’s the rightful King. Now Matthew asks us what we are going to do with him.
See what God was really doing in the world was Christ. It wasn’t about building the temple. In a few years, Jesus would teach that the temple was going to become obsolete. It wasn’t about Herod’s pedigree. That was also about to become obsolete. It wasn’t about his knowledge. What God was doing was Jesus. And the determining factor for Herod is what he did with Jesus. When it comes to God’s Kingdom that’s the determining factor for each of us: What will we do with Jesus? Sometimes the likely don’t made it into God’s Kingdom. There’s a second thing I think Matthew wants us to learn:
2. Herod missed out on the “more” that Jesus was offering
Whenever I read this story, I don’t just feel shock or anger about the evil that Herod did. To be honest, I also pity him. This story, at least from Herod’s perspective, is really a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for one reason: Because Herod missed out on the “more” that Jesus was offering.
When we read this story, it’s clear that all Herod could see was what Jesus might take away. All he could see was that as the predicted Messiah King of Israel Jesus might take his title, might take his throne, might take his ability to control the Kingdom that Herod had built for himself. All Herod could see was what Jesus might take away.
What Herod didn’t see, what he couldn’t see because of his fear and narcissism and lack of trust, was that Jesus wasn’t offering him less. He was offering more. If Herod would have thought about the prophecy that he acted on the one that predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, he would have known that. If he had read that prophecy, he would have seen that the Messiah was offering him part in a Bigger Kingdom. The prophecy says that Messiah’s rule will extend to the ends of the earth. He would have seen that the Messiah was offering him part in a Greater Kingdom, not just greater because it’s bigger, but greater because it is for all eternity. The prophecy says the Messiah is everlasting and Jesus’ Kingdom isn’t just about the 70-odd years that we have on earth. It’s for all eternity. Herod would have known that if he had thought about the prophecy.
If Herod had handed over his throne and yielded his Kingship to Jesus, he would have seen that the Messiah’s Kingdom is the kingdom he was made for. None of us is made to be an end to ourselves. We were made to worship and serve something greater than we are. That’s when we are truly fulfilled. Herod would have found all that, if he had just handed over the throne to Jesus. He would have seen that Jesus wasn’t offering him less. He was offering more.
I say that this morning, because sometimes we can be like Herod. Sometimes we look at Jesus and all we see is what he might take away. We see the commands of the Bible, maybe some of the “thou shalt not’s.” We see the demands that we think he’s going to make, and we think he’s offering us less, and we cling to our little throne.
There will be demands. There will be changes that Jesus makes in our lives. After all, he is a King. But sometimes we see these demands, and we don’t understand that Jesus isn’t offering us less. He’s offering us more:
- More in our marriages
- More in our relationships
- More in our careers
- More in our resources
I promise you today that if you let Jesus into your life, into your marriage, into your relationships, into your career into your life, you won’t find he’s offering less. You’ll find he’s offering more.
That’s what I would say to my friend who is thinking of moving to Africa. I think I would say this: You’ve built your Kingdom. He’s done it honestly and nobly. He’s a good guy, and he’s done that well. But I would say “Now you have a choice: You can either do more of the same, protect the stuff you’ve earned and expand to get more stuff of the same kind. You can build your Kingdom. Or you can surrender it to Jesus’ Kingdom.”
You can step off the throne, and put your resources at his disposal, and invest yourself in a bigger Kingdom, a greater Kingdom, an eternal Kingdom, the Kingdom you were made for. You can see what Jesus will do with your life. Because he’s not offering less, he’s offering more. Much more.