Yes, I heard about the latest supposed Messiah. I heard of the alliance with Persian warlords. They said they were scholars, but I knew what they really were. Spies, not Magi, spies. I did what I always do with the likes of them. I wined and dined them. I flattered them. I even said I was on their side, that I wanted to worship the baby just like them. But they didn’t live up to their end of the bargain. They never came back to report on the baby. The insolence. I will not be mocked. So I showed them. I had all the babies killed under the age of two. That ought to stop their revolutionary ideas. And the truth is that Persia did not invade. See, I was right. It was the price to pay. Now if we can just keep the others away.
They’ll want what I have. They’ll want our labor. They’ll see what we can build. I’ve got to be on my guard. I have the people to protect. The people and my good name. That’s why they call me Herod the Great.
No one messes with Herod the great. Not Persians, not Romans, not Jews, not even so-called Messiah’s. Don’t you see, I am the savior of Israel. It’s me. Herod the Great.
The three kings, the Magi, as they are called, followed a star and came to worship Christ Jesus. They gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh. And for a moment, the whole world stood in awe of the wonder of the birth of the Christ child who would make us free. But even as the wise men were kneeling in worship of newborn life and of newborn hope, King Herod was preparing to make sure history remembered him, not some poor homeless child.
Listen to what Matthew says about their encounter with Herod. The Magi ask him, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Herod should know. After all for all intents and purposes, he was king of the Jews, although he hadn’t been born king. The king had to be descended from David. Herod was not and we know from the begats of Matthew, chapter 1 that Jesus supposedly was descended from David. The audacity of foreigners saying to the King, “Where’s your successor, we’ve got gifts for him.” That’s not what you do in the capital city. You give gifts to the king in charge if you know what’s good for you.
But the Magi had an epiphany. They saw who was really in charge. And they would not be satisfied with the tired old rules of Herod’s brutality. There’s a new king in town and even the international community saw Herod for what he was. The old ways of might makes right were no longer going to fly.
Their gifts, their traveling tariffs took on new meaning. Gold came to represent Jesus’ royalty. Frankincense came to represent his divinity. Myrrh signified his humanity.
Hear this: the first people to believe and worship Jesus, according to Matthew, were wise people from a different country. Foreigners. Outsiders. People of a different race, class and religion.
When his plan to determine the baby Jesus’ exact whereabouts was foiled by the wise men’s returning home without betraying Jesus to the government, Herod instituted plan B. He sent out his troops into the little town of Bethlehem and they murdered every single child under the age of two in hopes of killing the one whom he though might take his power away. Joseph, being warned in a dream fled with his family to Egypt until Herod died.
The slaughter of the innocents is one of the most disturbing stories in the Bible. No one who reads this passage can truthfully say that religion and politics do not mix. From the very beginning of Jesus’ life, he was an enemy of the state. King Herod actually foreshadows the feelings of the Jewish leaders and Pilate about Jesus. They feared he was going to take over and therefore must be stopped.
State-sponsored terrorism still happens today. The result is the slaughter of the innocents.
When someone is beaten in a hate crime, it is a slaughter of the innocents.
When an airplane hits a building nine and a half years ago not only are innocents slaughtered, but so is our innocence. We now have a deeper consciousness of everything around us. But this doesn’t make us stop the slaughter, does it?
When smart bombs are not smart enough to distinguish between soldiers and children in Afghanistan or Iraq, the innocents are slaughtered.
When we detain people because of their race or their accent, the innocents are slaughtered.
When this richest country in the world closes its borders to immigrants fleeing the countries where we are waging war, the innocents are slaughtered.
Where the gap between the rich and the poor grows exponentially and there is no longer a safety net for the poorest of the poor, the innocents are slaughtered.
And the list goes on.
What occurs to me about Herod was that he was never satisfied. It’s one thing to oppose a Messiah, but it’s really over the top to kill all of the children. While we all know that Herod was a megalomaniac, there is something about him that is oddly appealing. I’m not talking about his murderous paranoia. I’m talking about the fact that he was never satisfied. What if he had channeled that energy into something really worthwhile? He was an architectural genius. He knew how to get his way. But his complicity with evil was his ultimate undoing. Of course there were Messiahs out there who sought to topple his brutal rule. He was so paranoid that he even killed two of his own sons because they threatened him. He died in disgrace and left a legacy of nice buildings and not much else.
Jesus, the anti-Herod who was hailed as the real king of kings and Lord of Lords, wielded a different kind of power. And like Herod, he was never satisfied either. He never gave up his struggle to save the world, his struggle to save our very souls. Thank God he was never satisfied.
Martin Luther King was another who was not satisfied. I love his December 18, 1963 sermon at Michigan State University in which he calls on us to be never satisfied:
“(There is) a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word "maladjusted." This word is the ringing cry to modern child psychology. Certainly, we all want to avoid the maladjusted life. In order to have real adjustment within our personalities, we all want the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurosis, schizophrenic personalities.
But I say to you, my friends…there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted…I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence …
In other words, I'm about convinced now that there is need for a new organization in our world. The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment--men and women who will be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos. Who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln who had the vision to see that this nation would not survive half-slave and half-free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery would scratch across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, "We know these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator certain unalienable rights" that among these are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could say to the men and women of his day, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you." Through such maladjustment, I believe that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. My faith is that somehow this problem will be solved.”
Herod was never satisfied. It lead him in a direction of ethnic cleansing and child slaughter. It left a wake of death and destruction.
To what will we be never satisfied? How high is our bar? What are our non-negotiables? To what will we be maladjusted?
The encounter with Herod and Jesus left the Magi plenty maladjusted.
Maybe we need to be maladjusted to the ways of Herod.
On New Year’s, many of us make resolutions to do something different in the coming year. Maybe on New Year’s you can be impatient enough that like Herod you will be never satisfied. Maybe you can break through the doldrums of the same old same-old. Breakthrough and don’t become adjusted, satisfied with the way the world or your life is. Instead thirst for something better, more liberating, more just, more peaceable. Be like Jesus. What a great gift to give not only to the baby in the manger, but to the world that we encounter today and in the days to come. The world is made better when people are restless until justice rolls down like water and righteousness flows like an everflowing stream.
May your new Year’s resolutions bring you and the world more peace, more understanding, more guts, more audacity, more connection to the One who makes all things new—the real king, the one really worth celebrating.
May we, in the coming year, share our gifts as the Magi did--in defiance of all that is wrong with the world and in hope for all that is right. And through it all, may we embrace the light of the world this day which we need so much. And may we never be satisfied with a world and a people bent on destruction.
In this New Year, let us follow a new and brighter light. May we embody what the hymnwriter said:
“Break forth of beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning.
Ye shepherds shrink not with a fright, but hear the angel’ warning.
This child now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be
The power of Satan breaking, our peace eternal making.”