I’m glad to have this opportunity to be here. I haven’t addressed a group like this for years. Centuries, really. Perhaps I should introduce myself: I’m Herod. Historians call me “Herod the Great” — as opposed to Herod the Lesser, I suppose. There were plenty of lesser Herods — my sons and grandsons. But I alone was the great Herod. There was a time when I would have liked that title. I worked hard to be a great king.
You probably wonder what I’m doing here. Feels a little odd to me, too; more uncomfortable than I thought it would be. They warned me of that. But I’ve been begging for an opportunity like this for years, so you’ll have to bear with me. I’m not about to leave before I’ve said some things to you.
Where I come from it’s part of our sentence that we get exactly what we wanted most in our earthly lives. I wanted fame, to be remembered, to be thought great. I got what I wanted, and now I’m condemned to having my nose rubbed in it forever. They can arrange things like this, you know. Somehow, every time a historian writes “Herod the Great” I feel as though he’s inscribing it on my chest; every time a minister reads from Matthew 2, I feel as though she’s shouting in my ears; every time some snot-nose kid in a second-rate Christmas pageant, wearing his dad’s old bathrobe and a cardboard crown, tries to look as mean as he can, I’m forced to watch the sorry scene. (Last year in a Baptist church in Memphis, some third grader pompously announced he was “Harold the Grape”! What’s that make me? An old raisin?) I’m forced to experience it all. And believe me, fame isn’t what I’d thought it would be. I got everything I wanted, mind you, but nothing of what I needed. That’s beside the point, though.
I’m here because they finally gave in, as they always do. As I said, they give you what you want. No doubt this too will somehow hurt. But it will be worth it if I can just once set the record straight, just once give my side of the story.
No, I’m not going to deny that I did some pretty unpleasant stuff. Being king is a rough business, especially in the situation I was in.
My father was appointed procurator of Judea by Julius Caesar in 47 B.C. (according to your calendar), and he in turn appointed me military prefect of Galilee. It was a chance to make a name for myself. I did my job with the sort of efficiency and dedication the Romans love, so I somehow survived the upheaval in Rome when Caesar was assassinated. I kissed up to Antony, the new emperor, and by 40 B.C. I was declared “King of the Jews” by the Roman senate.
The Jews didn’t think much of me because I was only partly Jewish. The Romans, on the other hand, were suspicious of me because I was partly Jewish. Tough position to be in, let me tell you. To survive, to have the power necessary to rule that unruly backwater of the Empire, I needed to consolidate my position. And it wasn’t easy. If I wasn’t loved, I had to be feared; if the people wouldn’t willingly offer me their allegiance, I had to take it by force. If I couldn’t maintain order the Romans would send their armies and, believe me, that would have been far worse for the Jews.
Life presents us with difficult choices. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? You have your kingdoms just as I did, your spheres of influence — families, communities, businesses. You have to manage somehow, you have to find a place for yourself and exert your will, unless you want everyone else to stomp all over you. And the armies of Rome are worse by far, aren’t they? So you do what you have to do. If you don’t look out for yourself no one else will. You protect yourself.
Don’t kid yourselves that you wouldn’t have done what I did. Oh, I know, the record isn’t pretty. It’s true that I had my wife Mariamne killed, but you need to realize that I married her for political, not romantic, reasons. She was part of the Hasmonaean family — my chief rivals. I was hoping to make allies out of enemies but it didn’t work. She was Hasmonaean through and through — as were her sons. They plotted against me, everyone agreed. So I had to remove the threat. I had other wives, other sons.
I know it looks bad. But we — all of us — use the power at our disposal, don’t we? You don’t think you would have done such a thing? Really? Have you ever felt threatened by someone? Ever felt the knife of jealousy thrust deep into your heart? Ever wanted to get rid of a person? Oh you wouldn’t think of murder, of course not, but have you ever used the means at your disposal? A tongue that twists the truth just a bit and deftly passes on gossip disguised as Christian concern? A cold shoulder that maneuvers someone out of your life and relationships? And your spouse — haven’t you ever wanted to be free? Perhaps you’ve already used the means at your disposal; your courts have made it all so neat and tidy for you. Don’t tell me I’m so bad. I’m more like you than you’ll probably like to admit. Well, we’re only human. At least, you are and I was. No one’s perfect.
It’s ironic that I should be remembered in history for that brief conversation with astrologers from Persia. Who would have thought anything momentous or historic was happening? I had been engaged in some great affairs of state. Yes, I had power, and I used it to great advantage. For the good of the people. To this day there are ruins of cities I built still hugging the Mediterranean. And the beloved Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem — I built it. But am I remembered for any of these things? No, and for good reason.
My aide — a squirrelly little guy who always smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a month and had a bald spot in his beard, a thoroughly unpleasant creature, but loyal, oh so loyal — came into my office late one morning to announce the arrival of bigshots from the east. It had been one of those days. The chief contractor on one of my building projects had inconsiderately dropped dead; I had heard that a group of crazy fundamentalists had locked themselves in a synagogue in Jericho and vowed to fast until the Messiah came; and one of my wives told me the latest court rumor about another of my wives. I could have used a Messiah myself at that point, but rarely do we know what we really need. So I had just reached for a bottle of Scotch when my aide announced with a shower of spit falling on my latest papers from Rome that foreign visitors had just arrived bearing greetings. I started to tell him where he could put their greetings, when they walked into the room.
After the usual diplomatic niceties, they got to the point: “Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” You know the story. You’ve heard it told many times. The Jews had hoped for a Messiah — a deliverer from their troubles — for centuries. I couldn’t believe He was actually making His appearance, but I knew that desperate longings combined with religious fanaticism could easily produce a Messiah. And these astrologers from the east. “King of the Jews”? What to make of that? I didn’t know. But I had to get to the bottom of it. When my theologians told me tradition said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, we gave the astrologers directions, and told them to let us know what they found there.
When they slipped across the border without a debriefing I got worried. What if they did see some newborn royalty and had pledged their allegiance? I will admit the truth: I was threatened by this baby. If He was the Messiah, my days were numbered. My reign was based on force, but if one came who had the power to sway the people’s affections, I would soon be forced from my throne. I didn’t know for sure, mind you, that anything significant had happened in Bethlehem, but I couldn’t take any chances. I had to destroy Him. I had to use my power when it would still work for me. I had to protect myself.
I know. It looks like a heinous crime. “The slaughter of innocents” the church has called it. Yes, I suppose. But it was no worse than kings in other countries did all the time. Politics wasn’t for weak stomachs in those days. I only did what I had to do. “Harold the Grape” — a pretty sour wine he would have made, to be sure. But I was threatened and fear makes you do strange things.
Doesn’t it? I’m asking you. Do you ever feel threatened? You should. That’s why I wanted to speak with you this morning. I wanted to warn you. You see, in the realm I come from we are sentenced to see the truth, though it’s too late to love the truth. I see the truth about the baby who escaped my murderous plots. He was a king — a king in a way that I could never be, King of the Universe, the eternal Lord.
And I was right about one thing: He is threatening. Make no mistake about it. You, too, are threatened by Him. You have your realms of power in which you try to exert your own lordship, but you and Jesus can’t both be Lord. You make such a sentimental mush about Christmas. Choirs and gift-giving and Sunday School pageants (Harold the Grape reigns every year in the cute splendor of childhood innocence). But Christmas has a dangerous message: a new king has been born. And you must do one of two things with Him: worship Him as Lord or quit the charade and force Him out of your life.
I had my chance; I made my choice. Now I’m sentenced to the truth for all eternity. So also will you find yourself linked forever with the truth. Will it be a truth you have loved or a truth you have lost in self-centeredness? Will it be a truth that has saved you or a truth that has condemned you? I guess that’s all I have to say. Thank you for your attention.

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