Tag Archives: Herod the Great

God of the Foreign

God of the Foreign (CaD Matt 2) Wayfarer

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 when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Matthew 2:1 (NIV)

It seems a bit out of place to be sitting here in mid-January reading a text that is normally read exclusively in the month of December for Christmas. Along my journey, however, I’ve learned that it is good for me to read things outside of the “normal” contexts. Doing so allows me to see things with fresh eyes and new perspectives. Jesus spoke of those who had eyes but didn’t really see. My desire in this chapter-a-day journey is always that the eyes of my heart will be fully open to see what God wishes to reveal to me in the quiet. I have found that this sometimes requires me to shift focus, as they say in filmmaking.

Shifting focus away from the entrenched visuals and contexts of a commercialized Christmas this morning, I pulled back to examine “These Three Kings” from where I sit amidst the harsh realities of a deep Iowa winter (current temp feels like -3 degrees F). A few things I noted in my observations:

Nowhere in the text does it say there were only three visitors. It only says that there were three gifts. Also, nowhere in the text does it say they were kings. It does make clear that they represented a group that paid attention to astronomy and practiced a form of astrology.

I then considered that Matthew’s audience was primarily Hebrews, and he was writing to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah they’d been waiting for. Hebrews were keenly aware of two great events in the history of their people. The first was their deliverance out of slavery in Egypt. The second was their captivity and seventy-year exile in Babylon (which was in Persia, directly east of Israel).

When the “Who’s Who” of Hebrew nobility were taken into exile, the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to them. He told them:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

It would seem, therefore, that at least some of them (e.g. Daniel, Mordecai, and Esther) obeyed. They lived and interacted with the community and culture. They shared their stories with their captors. They even shared prophetic words about stars and the coming messiah who would be “king of the Jews.” They shared prophetic words and conversations which existed outside of the text of the Great Story but were recorded and remembered among the heathen hosts of the exile.

In the quiet this morning, I am struck by the fact that Matthew chooses to record that those who were looking for the Messiah, those who came to seek Him, were not Hebrew priests and scholars but those considered foreigners, aliens, and enemies. Matthew makes clear that the infant Jesus was intimately connected to the exiles of Babylon through these mysterious visitors. He was connected to the exile in Egypt by fleeing Herod the Great’s infamous slaughter of the innocents.

What does this mean for me? Here’s what I’m pondering in the quiet:

  • God, the Creator, is constantly at work in places I don’t expect, and in people I would never recognize.
  • Jesus’ arrival began the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham back in Genesis: all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
  • I find it telling that the Hebrew scholars consulted by Herod showed no interest in pursuing the object of the Magi’s inquiry, but the despised “foreigners” went out of their way to seek Him.

I come full circle this morning, contrasting the icons of a commercialized Christmas and the text of the Great Story. Amid the bling and blather of tinsel and tales, I find there is one wearied Christmas phrase that rings true for me:

The wise still seek Him.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Of Riches and Rubble

Of Riches and Rubble (CaD Mk 13) Wayfarer

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Mark 13:1-2 (NIV)

I still remember my first trip to Chicago. I had never been to a major city. My hometown of Des Moines was my only frame of reference, and even at a young age I knew Des Moines like the back of my hand. A person could get from one end of the Des Moines to the other in about 20 minutes. It just wasn’t that big. Chicago was a revelation. I and my friends went to the observation deck of the John Hancock building, and I stared out at city as far as my eye could see. It was impressive.

For Jesus’ followers, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and to the Temple, was a similar experience. As far as we know, the Twelve were from small rural villages in the Galilee, and the Temple complex in Jerusalem was the equivalent of the John Hancock building, the Sears Tower, or the Empire State Building.

Casual readers may not realize that the temple in Jesus’ day was not the same Temple that Solomon built. That temple was razed to the ground by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. A generation later, it was rebuilt by Hebrews who returned from exile. Then, Herod the Great came to power around 37 B.C.

Like many egomaniacal tyrants, Herod had an edifice complex. He wasn’t Jewish, but he understood that his constituency was, and the temple in Jerusalem was the center of that constituency’s worldly power. Herod was shrewd. He knew it was in his political best interest not only to keep peace with the power brokers of the Jewish community, but he knew it would be even better if this potential threat to his power felt indebted to him. So, Herod decided to invest his vast riches to fix-up the five-hundred year old Temple.

Of course, egomaniacal tyrants with edifice complexes aren’t just going to do a little sprucing up. They have to spend their vast riches to build something that will bear their name (whether officially or unofficially) so the size of the project must be in relative proportion to the size to their egos. The original size of the Temple was relatively small compared to the impressive temples built by the Greeks and Romans. Herod made sure to not just rebuild the Temple itself, but he built an entire Temple complex around it. Sure enough, it’s still known today as “Herod’s Temple.”

That’s why, in today’s chapter, Jesus’ disciples are still exclaiming what a magnificent complex it is even after they’ve spent two entire days listening to Jesus teach in the Temple courts. They can’t get over the sheer size and architectural beauty of it.

And then, Jesus ruins the moment: “It will all be rubble 40 years from now.”

And, it was. The political tension between the Jewish people and their Roman occupiers will continue to grow. There will be wars and rumors of war. It will eventually boil over. The Romans will raze Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple in the year 70 A.D.

Enjoy the view while you can.

In the quiet this morning I couldn’t help but think of the spiritual lesson in this brief exchange. The rest of today’s chapter is Jesus’ prophetic foreshadowing of where the Great Story is headed in the climactic final chapters. It’s not idyllic.

Wars
Earthquakes
Famine
Deception
Tyranny
Families divided
Betrayal
Hatred
Exile
Darkness

I’m reminded as I contemplate it that every good story ends up there. The death eaters descend on Hogwarts. Gandalf and Aragorn stand surrounded and outnumbered at the Black Gate of Mordor. Aslan is bound and lying on the White Witch’s stone table. Jesus lies dead and buried in a borrowed tomb.

There’s always darkness before the dawn.

Without catastrophe there’s no eucatastrophe.

“Be careful what your heart treasures,” Jesus said. “Cars rust and end up at the dump. Today’s fashions will end up at the thrift store where nobody wants them. That expensive gadget will be obsolete in a year. Herod’s Temple will be nothing but rubble in a generation.”

“Invest in the only things that remain,” Holy Spirit whispers to me in the quiet. “Faith, hope, and love.”

I’m off into another day reminded to enjoy the view while I can.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

What We Find in Our Fears

Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

The king (Herod) was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison.
Matthew 14:5,9-10 (NIV)

A few weeks ago we journeyed through the account of Herod the Great killing all of the baby boys of Bethlehem under the age of two, fearing that the Messiah born there (as reported to him by the wise men from the east) would grow up to supplant him. Herod was more afraid of losing his worldly power than anything else.

One of the little confusions in the story of Jesus is the fact that the Herod who killed the babies (that would be Herod the Great) is not the same Herod as the one we read about in today’s chapter. Herod the Great died (doesn’t matter how hard you cling to power and riches, death gets everyone in the end) and his kingdom was split up and given to three of Herod’s sons [cue: theme from My Three Sons]. The Herod who killed John the Baptist in today’s chapter is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.

Now think about Herod Antipas for a moment. He is the son of a brutal and ruthless tyrant and watched his father desperately clinging to power. Think about the sibling rivalry among Herod’s sons for the throne and all that came with it. Think about the fear, machinations, and intrigue that may have been present between the three brothers. Think about their inherited lust for power and desire to cling to it.

Matthew gives us a couple of fascinating clues about the mind of Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas wanted to kill John. He had learned a lot about rubbing out your enemies to solidify your power from his father Herod the Great (“Leave the knife; Take the humus.”). The goal of Herod Antipas was holding onto what power he’d inherited, and John the Baptist was very popular with the people. Killing John might create a riot among the commoners, which the Romans would then have to deal with. The Romans didn’t like uprising and unrest in their Empire. Caesar Augustus in Rome might choose to replace Herod Antipas just as he replaced Herod Antipas’ brother, Herod Archelaus, years earlier.

A few verses later we learn that Herod Antipas got played by his lover, who also happened to be his sister-in-law, his other brother Philip’s wife. Remember what I said about fraternal competition? Herod Antipas has stolen Philip’s wife who tempts Herod with her own daughter, his niece. Seriously, this is like a soap opera. Now, Herod Antipas is stuck with a house full of guests and his niece has publicly challenged H.A. to bring her the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod is afraid of the riot, but he’s even more fearful of looking weak in front of the rich and powerful players in the room. He’s stuck. Herod must choose between competing fears and their threat to his pride, prestige, and power.

This morning I’m thinking about Herod Antipas. He feared losing power. He feared losing face. What he obviously did not fear (and seemingly gave no thought to) was God or anything to do with the things of the Spirit. He was oblivious to the Great Story in which he and his father were playing, and would continue to play, a significant part.

Our fears tell us a lot about ourselves, our priorities, and our faith (or lack thereof). What are my fears? What do they say about me? Do my fears reveal a soul clinging to that which I can never really have, have enough of, or keep in the eternal perspective? Am more like Herod, or more like John and Jesus?

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
-Jesus

 

Contrasting Rulers

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.
Matthew 2:16

In recent weeks the world watched on video tape as two females approached the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un in a Malaysian airport and, wiping a nerve agent on his face, assassinated him. This is the dark side of worldly power, and it has been this way since people began ruling over one another. Once you ascend to power you have to figure out a way to stay there, which means eliminating those who might try to take your place.

What a powerful contrast Matthew provides us in today’s chapter. Herod had qualities not unlike the North Korean dictator. A regional monarch put into power by the Roman Senate, Herod “the Great” murdered his own wife, three sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, his uncle and many others whom he suspected might try to rob him of his position and power.

Contrast this with the infant Jesus, who…

had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Philippians 2:5-8 (MSG)

This morning I’m thinking about my place in this world. It’s easy, even in relatively small ways, to succumb to the desire to gain,  keep, and cling the things this world has to offer. As a follower of Jesus, the example I’m given is to embrace an eternal mystery of kenosis: in order to have anything of eternal value, I must let go of everything and empty myself.

Herod’s slaughter of the boys of Bethlehem, commonly referred to as “the massacre of the innocents,” stands as a horrific testament to the lengths one minor regional ruler will go to maintain his addiction to power, and it stands in stark contrast to the baby who emptied Himself of omnipotence to show us a better way.

I’m continuing to seek after the way of empty.

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 2

Star of Bethlehem, Magi - wise men or wise kin...
Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.” Matthew 2:1 (MSG)

It’s interesting to read this passage in light of our recent journey through Jeremiah’s story. Five hundred years before the events in today’s chapter, the people of Israel had been taken into exile. Where? To Babylon and Assyria, in the east. Those taken into exile were the best and the brightest of Israel‘s young men who, in some cases, rose to positions of leadership and influence.

Now, hundreds of years later, a celestial phenomena sends these foreign scholars and astronamers searching for its meaning. How did they know this event in the heavens signaled the birth of “the king of the Jews?” Since there is no record of the prophetic sign in the scripture, it’s most likely that a prophetic word was given through one of the Israelites in exile hundreds of years before. Perhaps it was Daniel or one of his friends. We may never know who it was, but we know that these many years later God weaves the tragic events of the exile into the timeless story of Jesus’ birth. The scholars from the east become a beautiful word picture. Among the very first to recognize the messiah and worship him were non-Jewish gentiles. Even at his birth, Jesus was gathering the nations.

Today, I’m encouraged reading the story of the Magi. It’s a great reminder that God is in control. He weaves the threads of past events into our present circumstances to accomplish his purpose. Like the Magi, my journey is simply a thread in a much larger tapestry.

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