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TEXT: Matthew 2:1-18
SUBJECT: Sympathy for the Devil
If you think the Bible is a warm and wholesome story book, you ought to read it. When you do, you'll find it's more like a trashy movie, full of sex and violence and crimes of every sort, from rape and incest to murder and genocide.
On the list of its most appalling stories, the one we just read from Matthew's Gospel has got to be at or near the top. It starts off well, but soon takes a sinister turn. Wise men have come from the Far East to pay tribute to the newborn King of Israel. Where is He? They don't know themselves, so they turn to Herod the Great for help. He doesn't know either, so he refers the question to the scholars. Poring over the Scripture, they soon find what they're looking for, Micah 5:2--
But you, Bethlehem in the
land of Judah,
are not least among the
rulers of Judah;
for out of you shall come a
who will shepherd my
The King has been born in Bethlehem, fifteen miles south of Jerusalem, and if the wise men hurry, they can worship the Lord this very night. But, before he sends them off on their happy errand, Herod asks a favor--
When you have found Him, bring back word to me that I may come and worship Him also.
We know what Herod was thinking, but they didn't, and why would they? If God or the gods or nature thought enough of the new King's birth to signal it in the heavens, the Jews must be the happiest people in the world!
But the wise men were wrong. Herod was troubled at the King's birth, and he wasn't alone. Matthew adds--
And all Jerusalem with him.
This doesn't mean every person in the city was upset by the news, of course, because most hadn't heard it yet, and perhaps some who had, were rejoicing in private. But only in private! It was the power brokers of Israel who were troubled that night: Herod and his family, the priesthood, and the professional theologians. These were the people who really 'mattered' in Jerusalem, and they tossed and turned all night at the news.
Some people are thinkers and some people are doers. Thinkers think, and when something bad happens, all they do is worry about it. I understand these people, because I'm one of them! But King Herod was a man of action. He didn't wring his hands over the birth of Jesus, He came up with a plan, in fact, two plans.
Plan A was the easier one. The wise men were to go to Bethlehem, find the Infant King, and come back to Herod with His name and address. Had they done that, Herod would have sent an assassin to the home, and killed Jesus, and probably His parents, too, lest they produce another Royal Heir.
Thankfully, the Magi didn't do this. God warned them in a dream to not go back to Herod, but return home as quickly and quietly as possible. They obeyed God, and slipped away from the bloodthirsty king.
When Plan A failed, Herod went to Plan B. It was a lot messier than the other plan, but drastic events require drastic measures. He sent a battalion of soldiers into Bethlehem with orders to kill every baby boy two years of age and under. The men did their evil with work with despatch, and that day every young mother in Bethlehem was crying her eyes out--
A voice was heard in
Lamentation, weeping, and
Rachel weeping for her
Refusing to be comforted
Because they were no
The quote comes from Jeremiah 31, and refers to the mothers in Judah, seeing their sons and daughters butchered by the Babylonians or carried off into Exile, never to be seen again. Herod's slaughter, therefore, was like a Second Captivity on a smaller scale, one of the worst disasters in the long and painful history of Israel.
Because God warned Joseph to leave town immediately and fly to Egypt, Jesus was spared an early death. But the others weren't. How many died that day no one knows, but Bethlehem was a pretty good sized town, women married young, and families wanted as many children as possible, so the number must have been sizable. And even if the victims didn't number in the scores or hundreds, one murdered baby is an outrage!
What kind of man would come out with a plan this evil, and then carry it out without apology or remorse? We can only say, 'a man like Herod'. What kind of man was Herod the Great? He was a thoroughly bad man--and not just the day he issued the criminal orders!
He murdered his father-in-law, several of his wives, and two of his own sons. Referring to his ruthless ways, his boyhood friend, Caesar Augustus, quipped--
I would rather be Herod's pig than his son!
He was a bloodthirsty man, a Saddam Hussein of the First Century. But also like the Iraqi dictator, Herod was no fool. He may have enjoyed killing people, but he didn't kill for the fun of it. There was a method to his madness; he murdered for a reason. What was it?
He had his sons strangled because they threatened his power (or, at least, he thought they did). Herod was not a Jew. He was half Edomite (a people despised by the Jews) and half Arab. This means, he could rule Judea as an agent of the Roman Empire (which he did), but the Jews would never accept him as their king--no less the Messiah, a title he fancied for himself.
Herod may have been fond of children; he might have been a doting grandpa! But if a little boy cuts into his power, the little boy must die.
This was the issue between the fake king, Herod and the true King, Jesus. It was all about power. Who's in charge? Who has the final say? Is it Herod or Jesus?
Though Jesus was born to a poor family and made His first bed a manger, He was King even then. The Wise Men, who were men of authority themselves, fell down before Him in worship and left royal presents behind. Luke says they weren't alone. Shepherds also greeted His birth as Royal, and so did the godly priest Zacharias, and all the Hosts of Heaven. The angels who sang His praises that night were not a choir, they were an army who came to Bethlehem to salute their Commander-in-Chief.
It wasn't until He ascended into Heaven a few weeks after the Resurrection that Jesus was crowned King of kings, but He was never less than that. The Wise Men were right to inquire--
Where is He born King of the Jews?
(Though they might have added, 'And everyone else').
You can't have two kings at the same time. One has to give way to the other. They can share responsibility and authority, but only one can have the final say. That's what Herod couldn't live with. Giving anyone else the last word.
Not even the Son of God.
This brings us to...us.
If you were in Herod's place, would you have done what he did? Well, I know your answer: Of course you wouldn't. Like me, you've got your share of faults and defects and blind spots, but you're no murderer, no less a baby-killer!
But before writing Herod off as the worst man in history, put yourself in his place. What if Jesus wanted to take your place? What if He wanted to push you off the throne and start giving the orders Himself? And what if His orders are rather detailed and personal?
What if He said things like, 'You don't have the right to do whatever you want to with your body. In fact, it's not your body at all: it's Mine! I tell you who to sleep with I might tell you to sleep with no one at all for the rest of your life! I tell you how much to drink, how much to eat, how hard to work and how to spend your free time.
'Your money's mine too. So is your home; if I tell you to be hospitable, that's what you've got to be, even if you're tired and your guests don't use the coasters you set out for them.
'Your mind and emotions are also mine. You can't think about the pretty waitress the way you like to. You're not free to believe whatever you want to. And, as for that Freedom of Speech thing? Forget it.' You've also got to go to church, pray, and read the Bible, though you'd rather go to the beach, sleep in, or read the Sunday paper.
'Your feelings also belong to Me. When I tell you to forgive people who've done you wrong and love your enemies, you've got to do it, whether you feel like it or not. And don't think resentment or self-pity or bitterness or grudges are okay either.
In a word, what if He said, 'You belong to Me'?
Say what you will about Herod, he understood the issues better than many Christians do. He understood that Jesus is Lord! Not in name, but in deed! He wants to rule every aspect of your life, and He won't take 'no' for an answer.
Now we understand Herod; now we've got sympathy for the devil.
We have to choose. Will we confess that Jesus really is the King, and live by His Word? Or will we--maybe reluctantly, but finally--agree with Herod and order His death?
You have to choose one of the other. There is no middle ground, there is no neutrality, no private places where Jesus is not allowed in to rule.
To submit to Christ is hard, in part because we have to do it a million times every day. But what choice have we got? Who is better qualified to rule us? Have we done such a wonderful job ourselves that we can prefer our rule to His? Do we prefer the Lordship of 'the experts' or pop culture? What our friends think? Are they doing any better than we are? Or should we submit to the devil, as Adam and Eve did, when they brought death into the world?
The Bible and reason and history tell us there is no sure guide to life in this world and the next but the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Light than lightens every man who comes into the world, John's Gospel says. And, for all your faults, He will accept you as His disciple, and patiently lead you through the darkness of the world into the light of Eternal Life.
Two thousand years ago, Herod made his choice, and now he's got to live with it--or to put a finer point on it, he's got to die with it.
Now it's your turn. God give us the wisdom to choose wisely. For Christ's sake. Amen.
Praise the Lord!
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