The Tale of Two Herods

The Sunday Sermon – February 21, 2016 “Second Sunday of Lent”

Luke 13:31-35 (and a selection from the book of Matthew)

The Tale of Two Herods,  Jenna Heery – Director of Youth Ministries

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2 and Luke 11

Matthew Chapter 2 in italics and Luke Chapter 11 in bold

Herod secretly called for the wise men and… 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.”

The scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile toward Jesus and to cross-examine him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.

 Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men left for their own country by another road. After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

Jesus said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!

“Wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

The Tale of Two Herods

“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!  J.K. ROWLING, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Author J.K. Rowling uses these words to describe the fictional and infamous Lord Voldemort in her Harry Potter series. For those who haven’t read it, Voldemort is the villain of the series. He is the tyrannical leader of the Death Eaters, a group of wizards dedicated to ridding the Wizarding World of Muggles (non-magical people like us) so that they can establish a dominant pure-blood race. Almost no wizard dares to speak his name because he is so feared, instead referring to him as “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

The New Testament has its own “You-Know-Who.” Like a shadow, this threat hangs over Jesus’ life from the moment of his birth, stalking him through his ministry, leading him to the cross. This dynasty of “You-Know-Who” villains goes by one infamous and foreboding name – Herod.

There were actually two Herods in Jesus’ lifetime. The first, who reigned at the time of his birth, was called Herod the Great. The second, who reigned at the time of Jesus’ ministry and death, was his son – Herod Junior.

This week marks the second week of Lent. For forty days and forty nights, with each passing moment we take yet another step closer to the cross. And as we do, I think it is important for us to examine this biblical villain closer. For if we truly understand Herod – both his fear and the terror that he inspired – I believe we will better understand ourselves and our mission this Lenten season.

Politically, the Herods were considered “king of the Jews.” However, unlike other previous kings of Israel, the Herods were appointed by the Roman emperor. This caused tension with the Jewish people, who lived under Roman oppression. Because of this, the Herods lived in constant fear – fear of uprising, fear of revolt, fear of losing their power. This paranoia transformed them into ruthless and tyrannical madmen.

It is said that Herod the Great had a bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers. He used secret police to monitor the people and to squash any sign of revolution. In his paranoia, Herod the Great had a dark and cruel streak. Fearing that his own family had turned against him, he executed one of his wives, two of his sons, his in-laws, and countless detractors.

Herod Junior was no better. He inherited his father’s legacy of power and paranoia. It was Herod Junior who had John the Baptist beheaded and his head brought to him on a platter. The Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that Herod killed John because he feared that “the great influence John had over the people” might “raise a rebellion.”

With this backdrop, here comes Jesus, born under this shadow as the real and prophesied “king of the Jews.” There is no greater threat to Herod’s power than this.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.” We can see this in Herod. They reigned in fear and sought to keep their power through inspiring terror. And we can see this in Jesus. I am certain that under this shadow Jesus must have also felt terribly afraid.

As we heard again this morning, when Herod learned rumors about the birth of a rival king, he killed of all the baby boys in Bethlehem to snuff out this threat. Then, Jesus – a baby, utterly vulnerable and defenseless – fled for his life.

Fight or flight – science tells us that this is the basic human reaction to fear. And in this moment, God told Jesus to flee. Sometimes that is our best option. Sometimes God whispers in our ear, “Run!”

Like the child who is being bullied, like the woman who leaves her abuser, like the cancer patient who declares that they have had enough. You may hear God whisper in your ear, “It is OK to run. It is OK to be done.” This requires its own kind of courage.

Too often, though, as Christians we feel that this is our only option. We misunderstand what Jesus meant when he taught us to “turn the other cheek,” and we allow ourselves to be used like doormats. We welcome toxic people into our lives to use us and abuse us because we think that is Christ’s love, that is forgiveness. We mistakenly believe that pacifism is purely passive.

Yet, God dispels these false assumptions, shouting in our passage today, “Stand up!” The Pharisees have come to tell Jesus that Herod Junior is plotting to kill him. The threat is real. Herod the Great had already tried to kill him as a baby. Herod Junior has just executed and beheaded his own beloved cousin, John. And Jesus knows that this threat will lead him to Jerusalem, to the cross, to his own death. He must have been oh so afraid.

Yet, rather than bow down, rather than give up, rather than flee, Jesus stands up. And with resolute courage, Jesus gives a full and bold confession to the very people that were hoping to catch him saying anything that might convict him. With utter conviction, challenging all that has frightened him in his past, he proclaims, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”

The tyrants of the world must hear Jesus’ words and tremble, because these are the words of a man who is free from the bondage of fear. As the philosopher Aristotle once said, “He who has overcome his fears will truly be free.”

This morning, what tyrants oppress you? What fears enslave you? We live in a “broken and fearful world” (PCUSA Book of Confessions – “The Brief Statement of Faith”) ruled by tyrants.  Each day we are bombarded by the fear-mongering of politicians, by 24-hour news cycles dominated by images of sensationalism and suffering, by forces of power and by institutions that rely on our fear to keep their tyranny in place.

Each day we may also face the tyranny of a toxic relationship based in fear rather than love. Or the tyranny of terrifying diagnoses that threaten not only to consume our health but also to destroy every other aspect of our lives. Or the tyranny of worry, filled anxious thoughts that consume our joy. Fears that stalk us like shadows, the “You-Know-Who”s of our lives.

Jesus tells you this morning, “Stand up. Do not be afraid. Go and tell that fox that you are free!”

Or be honest, are you perhaps more like Herod – so utterly afraid of losing control that you seek to rule your life and the lives of others through fear rather than love? Hurt people hurt others. Yet, Jesus reassures you too, “Do not be afraid. For I am here, like a hen holding her chicks under her wings. I am here. You are not alone.”

I would like to end our Tale of Two Herods with another story – the story of a man who too could have allowed his fear to consume him but who instead stood up against the forces of the greatest tyranny the world has ever known.

Andre Trocme was just a teenager during World War I, raised in the hilly countryside in France. One day during the war, he met a German soldier on a staircase. The soldier stopped and asked kindly, ”Are you hungry?” and offered him a piece of bread.

“No,” he answered instantly, “but even if I were hungry, I would not take bread from you because you are an enemy. You wear that uniform, and tomorrow you will perhaps kill my brother, who is a French soldier fighting against you, trying to get you Germans out of our country.” Fear and venomous hatred filled his words.

“I am not what you think,” the soldier answered. “I am a Christian. I shall not kill your brother. I shall kill no Frenchman. God has revealed to us that a Christian must not kill, ever. Christ taught us to love our enemies. That is His good news, that we should help, not hurt each other.”

This experience transformed Trocme. This moment of kindness from an enemy moved him from fear and hatred and forever inspired him with the strength of compassion and love.

Trocme went on to become a minister, preaching for radical nonviolent resistance, even during the terrors of the Holocaust and World War II. But his pacifism was not passive. No, instead he boldly stood up in the face of unimaginable fear, and he charged his church with the task of protecting Jewish refugees at all costs.

Though his courage and inspiration, during the four years of the German occupation of France, hundreds of ordinary people risked certain death to rescue and house Jewish children. And through their actions, the people of Le Chambon saved the lives of nearly five thousand Jews. It is said that, during the war, the village of Le Chambon was the safest place in Europe.

This morning and throughout this Lenten season, I urge you to examine the tyrants of your own life, those fears that you do not dare name. And with Christ by your side, stand up, rise against them, and strike back!  Amen.