Advent: Kind Herod and the Wise Men
December 20, 2020
When you reflect on the key characteristics on our favorite stories, one of the things just about every story has is a bad guy. A villain. A antagonist. Where written into the story itself is some kind of battle between good and evil.
After all, think about our favorite stories … The Wizard of Oz had the Wicked Witch of the West. Star Wars had Darth Vader. Rocky had Ivan Drago. Home Alone had Marv and Harry, aka the Wet Bandits. Back to the Future had Biff Tannin. Batman had Joker. The Lion King had Scar. Harry Potter had Lord Voldemort, excuse me, I mean, he who must not be named.
Just about every great story out there has a bad guy lurking behind the scenes. And in many ways, the Christmas story is no different. That’s right, there’s a villain within the Christmas story and he’s a character we very likely have forgotten, for he almost never gets cast in our Christmas plays, nor is he displayed within our nativity sets. Yes, I’m talking about the one and only, the great tyrant King Herod himself. He’s the bad guy at the heart of the Christmas story.
If you’ve been with us the last few weeks, we’ve been doing a series on the Characters of Christmas, where throughout this Advent season we’ve been studying the Christmas story ever so slowly, with a key focus on some of the characters central to the story itself, from Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds, and now this morning, King Herod and the Wise Men, where this morning we’re going to look at a few different characters, in part because their stories are so intertwined but yet more importantly, each of the characters in our story today in their own unique way illustrate the various ways in which you and I can respond to Jesus. That is, each of these characters highlight different ways in which we relate to Jesus and what our relationship with him will look like. Do we reject him, despise him, do we ignore him or are indifferent towards him, or do we worship and adore him? What do we do with Jesus? That is, in many ways, what this passage is all about.
So, with that said, we’ve got a few characters to look at here and let’s start where we started a couple minutes ago, with King Herod.
Our passage begins by saying that … wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking King Herod, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? … we have come to worship him.“
Which at first glance might seem like a pretty innocent and genuine question being asked by these wise men, Here they are, having traveled all these miles to worship this newborn King and they’re trying to get more info on this baby Jesus’s precise location. But yet consider how King Herod would have heard this question, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
We’re told that King Herod heard their question, he was frightened. He was frightened. Other translations tell us that he was disturbed or troubled, which I think better captures the emotion he was feeling in that moment.
Now, why would King Herod be frightened, disturbed or troubled? Well, consider the moment and setting. Here are these wise men, they are likely in the King’s palace, asking Herod, the current King of Jews, the one who currently occupies the throne, where this baby boy is who has been born king of the Jews. And so when Herod hears this question, he takes it as a direct threat and challenge of his authority and identity, because here are these men, who whether they realize it or not, are saying, Herod, we’re here to worship the King, and you’re not it. You’re not the true King. For Herod, this is a shot to his ego, to his identity and he’s likely beginning to question if he truly is as powerful as he thought he was.
Guys, this would kind of be like if a neighbor came over to your house, knocked on the door asking if anyone was available to help move a heavy piece of furniture, and they look around to see if there’s anyone strong enough who could help, they glance over at you, they pause for a minute and then say, “No, no one? No strong guys here? Okay, well thanks anyway … meanwhile you were standing right there the whole time! Guys, you’d be thinking to yourself … wait, what then do they think of me? I thought I was the strong guy? Guys, if that were to happen to us, we’d perceive it as a shot against our very identity.
That is, in many ways, how King Herod heard the wise men’s question. He saw it as a threat and affront against his identity, his authority, his understanding of himself as King.
You see, King Herod sees this newborn baby, King Jesus as a threat, a threat he must eliminate. And so he sets in motion a plan to see that Jesus is put to death. And so he tells the wise men to go to Bethlehem, to find this baby Jesus, and then report back to him the exact location so that in his words, he can pay homage to him, when in reality he wants to kill him.
Herod’s response and actions are in one sense evil, and yet in another sense somewhat humorous. Herod sees Jesus, who at this very moment, is a baby as a threat to his own power and position. Author Frederick Buechner, says it so well, when he says that for King Herod, “For all his enormous power, [Herod] knew there was someone in diapers more powerful still.”
Someone in diapers more powerful still. Yes, exactly. Though his acts and intentions were undeniably wicked, Herod was right about one thing - he rightly sensed that Jesus was and is the true King, the true ruler, the true Lord of all.
And this truth is one of the things we are all confronted with when we come to Jesus. We are faced with the reality that He is King, that He is Lord, and that we are not. And in some ways, in some moments of our lives, Jesus can feel like a bit of a threat, where we think to ourselves, I want to be in charge, I want to be the one in power, I want to call the shots. I want to final say on how I spend my time and money and what I say yes to and no to. After all, a life of following Jesus will at times mean doing things we don’t want to do even though they are almost always for our ultimate good or those around us. To truly follow Jesus, we must relinquish our sense of control and authority and autonomy, and allow Jesus to be our Lord and King. And so one of the questions we need to repeatedly ask ourselves is, Jesus, in what area of my life do I need to give up power and control?
Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
So that’s King Herod and one way of responding to Jesus, where we see him as a threat. And yet, on the other side of the spectrum, on the complete opposite side of things, we have the wise men, who have come from afar to worship and adore this baby Jesus.
Now briefly here, a little background on these wise men:
These men were astrologers from Persia and Babylon, and for whatever reason they’ve been tracking and following this star on what was likely a 40 day journey, for some 800 miles, that was roughly the distance from their homeland to Jerusalem. And these wise men, likely dabbled in other stuff as well, such as magic, yes, magic, in fact as you likely have grown up hearing, these wise men are also known as magi – from which we get our English word “magic.”
All that to say, they’re pagan astrologers on a treasure hunt of sorts, and so that song we sang earlier “We Three Kings” is kind of a misnomer, since they’re not kings. Apparently “We three magi” just doesn’t sing as well.
Anyway, we’re getting off track … the wise men get some inside info from the chief priests and scribes, and learn that Jesus, as the prophets testified years before, would be born in Bethlehem, a short six mile walk from Jerusalem. And so they went,
And it says, 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy … when they saw the child with Mary his mother; they knelt down and paid him homage. Opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In short, these wise men give us a beautiful portrait of what it looks like to follow Jesus.
They sought after him and pursued him at great cost. They fell down and worshipped him as the newborn King. And they gave of what they had, showering him with gifts. They sought, they worshipped, and they gave.
As for the gifts the wise men gave, particularly, frankincense and myrrh, frankincense was a resin used for ceremonial purposes and myrrh was a sap used in incense and perfume. Which is nice and all, but if you’re Mary, she’s got to be thinking, yeah thanks, but how about some diapers? Like, she’s got to be thinking, “I’d even settle for some Clorox wipes at this point.”
But yet, here’s the thing, what those wise men gave were some of the best cultural goods of their day, these were lavish and expensive gifts, the kinds of gifts fit for a King.
And so here we have, in yet another unexpected twist within the Christmas story, a group of pagan astrologers of all people, who show us all what it looks like to truly approach Jesus, as they seek, they worship and they give of themselves and from the very best of what they had.
Now, as for what this looks like for you and me, to seek after, to worship, to give our best to Jesus, in the weeks and months ahead, well, gosh, that can take all sorts of different shapes and forms. Maybe it’s prioritizing Sunday worship like you’re doing right now, even on the days when it’s tough to get everyone out the door and here on time or when it’s tough to get a quiet and focused moment or two at home so that you are able to listen in. Maybe it’s in your giving practices whether it be of your finances or resources, whether it be to the church, a local non-profit, a neighbor or friend in need. Maybe it’s in focused times of bible study and prayer, whether it be in a group or by yourself. Worshipping and drawing near to Jesus like the wise men can look like a bunch of different things.
For example, here’s where I’m trying to live into this, and with mild success. And it has to do with my morning quiet times. For a while there I had slipped into this bad habit and rhythm of staying up late – parents, you know the appeal, the precious quiet of the evening hours, kids are in bed, the chance to catch up on sports, news, shows, whatever. And that staying up late makes it hard to get up before Noah in the morning and have that uninterrupted quiet time with the Lord through bible reading and prayer. But yet there are days when I’m disciplined, I say no to the late night, beat Noah up in the morning, and have that glorious time in the morning, to pray, to read, coffee in hand, the slow sunrise and colors of the morning light. It’s wonderful. It reminds me of something one of my seminary professors once said, that “The quality of your morning quiet time will, in many ways, be determined by the time you go to bed the night before.” Wow, I know that’s true for me.
Friends, what might this look like for you to take a page from the wise men, pursuing, worshipping and giving our best to Jesus? That’s the gift they give us through this story.
Alright, we’ve looked at King Herod, we’ve learned from the Wise Men, and yet there’s one other group of people we ought to acknowledge. And they’re easy to overlook, often missed, almost camouflaged into the story itself – it’s the chief priests and scribes, the religious leaders of the day.
And in a strange way, they might be the people that we sometimes relate to most.
In Herod and the Wise Men, we have these two extremes, two contrasts, a hatred of Jesus on one side, enamored of Jesus.
And yet, the religious leaders, sit in the middle of sorts. Through their small role within the story and limited information we learn about them, they almost seem indifferent about Jesus more than anything.
Because here’s what we know. King Herod is asked by the wise men where this child is who’s been born King of the Jews. And Herod doesn’t know the answer, but yet the religious leaders do. Through their encyclopedic like knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures, they likely quickly and easily tell Herod, it’s Bethlehem of course, and quote the lesser known prophet Micah as their proof, saying “6 ‘And you, Bethlehem … from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
And here’s the crazy thing, though they know where Jesus will be born, they apparently have no interest in finding Jesus themselves. Which is just baffling. Here you have these wise men, who have traveled 800 miles to Jerusalem, the equivalent of walking from Denver to Dillon, and yet these religious leaders have absolutely no interest in walking the 6 miles or so from here to Barrett’s Truck Stop, or in other words, Bethlehem.
That is, though they intellectually know everything about this baby Jesus, they’re absolutely indifferent to knowing him personally. Which, in many ways, paints them in stark contrast to the wise men. A group of men who almost certainly are not well versed in the scriptures, nor do they have a long history of worshipping the God of Israel. Truth is, they probably don’t even fully know the significance of who they’re worshipping when they finally find baby Jesus. But yet they’ve sought and worshipped him anyway, which in the end is what matters most.
I’ll finish this, Pastor Daniel Darling summarizes these three characters and their relationship with Jesus with some helpful alliteration –
There’s Herod, who is angry towards Jesus.
There are the religious leaders, who are apathetic towards Jesus.
And then there’s the wise men, who adore Him.
Friends, how about you? As we celebrate our Savior’s birth, as we wrap up a long year, and anticipate a new year, how about you? What do you do with Jesus?
May we take a page this Christmas from these unexpected wise men. Amen.