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The Second Sunday after Christmas
January 3, 2016
The Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
Sermon: "Herod the Prophet"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Herod the Prophet
We are at an “in-between” time of the year. Our liturgical calendar tells us that today is still Christmas. It is, in fact, the 10th day of the Twelve Days of Christmas. But our daily calendar is telling us that today is the third day of the New Year. It can be difficult, emotionally, to stay wrapped up in our feelings for Christmas, while we are also being pulled into the reverie of New Years. If we’re feeling a little confused as to how to feel, or if we’ve got no problem easily dropping one for the other, then, perhaps, we need some direction for our journey into this New Year ahead. So, I call your attention to the prophetic words found in our Gospel lesson this morning. For in the Second chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, we encounter the great Biblical prophet, King Herod, and what he has to say to us can make all the difference in how we journey into this New Year.
Now, you may well find it a bit strange to hear of King Herod as a Biblical prophet. Prophets, as we think of them, are normally men and women of faith; people God raises up to speak for him to their own generation. Their messages are nearly always of repentance from sin, and a plea to the people to turn again to the God of forbearers; to have their lives embody kindness and mercy, and to act justly with everyone, especially the poor.
But Herod? Well, you don’t have to know much about history to know this fellow we call Herod the Great, was one of the most murderous villains who ever lived! He had a paranoid personality. When anyone even faintly opposed him, he had them summarily executed; and that included his own wife and children. The Roman Emperor Augustus once said, “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son!”
Probably the most notorious thing Herod ever did involved the provision he made just before his death at the age of 70. Remember how the citizens of Jerusalem hated him? Herod gave orders that a list of the most prominent citizens of Jerusalem be made, and that they be arrested on false charges. He then ordered that the moment he died, everyone on that list was to die also. He was well aware that no one would mourn for his own death, so Herod determined that some tears would fall when he died!
What a lovely guy! In our passage this morning, when it says that Herod was troubled over the news of the birth of a king, and “all Jerusalem” was “troubled with him”, note that it says they were troubled “with”, not “for” him. They knew that if Herod was troubled, that was going to be trouble for them.
Yet, in spite of it all, Herod’s advice concerning the birth of Jesus Christ has come down through the ages with a prophetic ring of truth. Deeply troubled, Herod said to the Wisemen, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word that I too may come and pay him homage.” Herod’s motive was, of course, not homage, but homicide. And yet, his counsel regarding the Christ Child may be among the most prophetic words ever spoken. In fact, if you and I fail to heed them, we may miss the most important thing we can do in this New Year ahead.
For Herod’s first word to us is this: that this Christmas almost complete, and this New Year just begun, involve a journey we are all to make. “Go, and search diligently for the Child.” When we think about it, this time of year is full of journeys. It begins with Mary and Joseph making that long 70 mile trek from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. Having traveled it myself by bus over very bumpy roads, I can hardly imagine how Mary made it on the back of a donkey.
Then there’s the journey of the shepherds who, when they heard the angelic chorus, came on the run. Later came the journey of our Wisemen, following the star to the place where the child was living. After that comes the Holy Family’s escape from political persecution as they become refugees in a foreign country, before they, at last, are able to return home again.
Even in our own time, this is always a time for journeying. I remember a few years ago being told by a parishioner of how she got a visit from a jolly bearded fellow with a great big bag over his shoulder. She said, “My son came home from college with his laundry!”
But all of our journeys at this time of year are just a poor reflection of the journey that is at the heart of it all. For on one definite night, God slipped into human history in the least expected form to share in person the life we live, so that we might share in person the life he lives. Think of it; God the Almighty Creator surrendering his heavenly glory, entering a back alley stable, in a nearly forgotten corner of the world, that he might share our life, so that we in turn might share in his love and his life.
That’s what it means to take this journey: to discover the child who is God. And that is the miracle of it all, that God is Emanuel: God with us, and in us. Go and search diligently for this child, says Herod the prophet.
Here’s the other part of Herod’s prophecy: the miracle of this journey has to be personally experienced; it cannot be had by proxy. “When you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and worship him.” Here’s where Herod made his fatal error with his own words. He said to the Wisemen: “You go…You make the search…Then you can bring me word, and then I’ll come.” But that won’t do; for no one can ride on the coattails of another’s faith. No one can delegate the journey to another.
Herod is right in one respect, we are to return and tell the Good News of Jesus to everyone, that they too might journey, and discover, and finally worship. But, Herod failed. Herod had no intention of actually going himself, or of worshiping as he said. Herod saw no personal need of a savior, though he needed most desperately to be saved from himself. Ultimately he was left to live with the Hell of the person he had chosen to become.
He was wrong! We all must take the journey. In the end, the Christ who comes to us, calls us to make that personal journey in which we are invited to decide if we will invite him into our hearts as our Lord and Savior. The problem, the thing that stops so many from making that journey, is the same thing that stopped Herod. We cannot accept or appreciate the gift of a Savior, if we have never owned-up to our personal need for one; if we have never faced ourselves with the truth that we are the ones in need of that saving gift. A Savior is no gift at all, until we know in our hearts how deeply we need to be saved.
A department store in a small town, would, every Christmas, invite various children of the town to paint the store windows with Christmas scenes. One particular year, a young girl painted a lovely picture of the First Christmas, instead of the usual Santas. She had the animals, and Mary holding the Baby, and was just finishing when a car came up. Out tumbled a mother and four children, and they gazed at the Santas and snowmen. But one little boy stood motionless in front of the girl’s painting of the Holy Family. He was transfixed by the Christ Child in Mary’s arms. Suddenly he reached up on tip toes and touched the Baby’s tiny fingers. The paint was still wet.
Just then, the store’s owners came out to see how all the children’s work had gone. When they looked at the manger, there was a tiny smudge on the picture’s surface; on Jesus’ fingers, just where the boy had reached for them. The young girl, still nearby, rushed up and started to repair it. “No, don’t,” said one of the owners. “That little smudge is a reminder of what this is really all about; a time when we can touch the Savior.”
Herod missed the Savior because he sent someone else. What about you and me in this New Year? Don’t make the same mistake. Take the journey. Heed the words of Herod the Prophet, “Go, search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, tell everyone, that they may come and worship.” Merry Christmastide! And, may you have a blessed New Year!