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Herod the Great

The liberating Savior will free you to live as you were created to live—fully alive.

Topic: Which king will you choose?
Text: Matthew 2:1–8


If we look at facts and figures, "Herod the Great" had a pretty good administration. He had been the king of Judea for 40 years before Christ was born. He had kept the order, and he had developed an extensive building program throughout the country—including some incredible improvements to the temple that put him in good standing with the religious leaders. Of course, to pay for all this building, Herod taxed the people severely. But in the times when they almost starved to death, he gave them some food. Herod had a knack for stealing from the people and then making them grateful for any morsel he would return.

Rome was also grateful to Herod, because he kept the peace and paid tribute to Rome. That was pretty much Herod's job: to help Judea live with the fact that she was under the control of an occupying army. It wasn't the way they wanted it to be, but Herod was there to help them cope.

Things were secure under Herod. That's one of the reasons he was called "Herod the Great." The problem was that Herod didn't feel all that secure personally. He was so paranoid of losing power that he murdered everyone who even had the opportunity to betray him, including his own mother, Merame, his wife, Alexandria, and three of his four sons. Now you know why Herod murdered all the small children of Bethlehem when the wise men showed up in town, asking, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?"

Everybody loved what Herod the Great could do, but everyone hated what he cost. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that when Herod knew he was dying, he arrested the elite citizens of Jerusalem and ordered that they be executed at the moment of his death—just so someone in Jerusalem would be weeping when he died. The people both loved and hated Herod the Great.

We love what Herod does; we hate what he costs.

In every life there is a Herod that has gained some power over you. You are seduced into calling it "great" because it does things for you. It helps you feel secure. It helps you cope. It's been around for a long time. Herod is the name of whatever it is that offers you something you crave at a cost you cannot afford. You love what it does; you hate what it costs. But as taxing as it is, you just keep paying.

For some of us, Herod is our workaholic addiction to success. There's certainly nothing wrong with success—unless you are obsessed with getting it at any cost. That's what we call "addiction." Maybe it started out more innocently than that. Maybe it started out with the resolve to work hard, to make your loved ones proud of you, to make a contribution to the company or to the community or to the church. But along the way, you lost track of the long hours, of your son's basketball games that you missed, of the missed dinners with friends, of the number of evenings interrupted by the beeper, or the number of working vacations.

Meanwhile, the promotions and the accolades piled up—no one can build a career quite like Herod—and for a while that felt good to you. But one day, somebody who needs you and has been missing you is going to look at you through tears and ask: "Don't you see what this is costing? Don't you see what this costs?"

For others of you, Herod is the name of an old hurt to which you have become addicted. You didn't deserve the hurt. Maybe it happened a long time ago. You've tried to forget about it, but the hurt just keeps hurting. You can distract yourself from it for a while, but it's always waiting for you, especially when you're tired. In order to gain a little freedom from the pain, you've tried to forgive the person who hurt you, but you haven't succeeded, because the hurt's been around so long that you don't even know who you are anymore without it. Every time you try to get rid of it, it isn't long before you invite it back into your heart.

We hate to hurt. Nobody likes it. But oddly, we can become so familiar with it, so secure with it, that we've just learned to make it a part of life. When that happens—when you've grown comfortable with your hurt—Herod is running and ruining your life. The hurt will make it impossible for you to trust people. It will make you cynical about all authority figures. It will sabotage more of your relationships than you want to admit. When you find yourself alone, you will curse the hurt all over again. Then you'll say to yourself: Don't you see what this is costing?

Herod can be the alcohol that abuses you. It can be the spouse that abuses you. It can be the job that abuses you day after day. But you can't let it go.

Herod can also be the voice that tells you to not worry so much about the poor. Herod will tell you you've got enough problems of your own: you're not appreciated at work, and you may not even get a Christmas bonus this year. We live in a culture that's become so infatuated with victimization that we can now look in the face of overwhelming poverty and still dare to say, "Yeah, but what about me?" But the cost of ignoring the poor is not only what it does to those impoverished in our city. We also need to count the cost of what ignoring the poor does to our own souls! If there are those around the church who are in great trouble and are alone in their crisis—in their depression, in their jail cells, in their impoverished situations—and the church does nothing about it, then we are the ones who become impoverished. To grow accustomed to humans in dire need is to become something less than human. When that happens, it is the Holy Spirit of God who asks, "Don't you see what this is costing?"

But Herod is so paranoid that he'll do anything he can to keep you from seeing the cost to your very soul—until it is too late.

One day a long time ago, some wise men entered Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the one who has been born the king of the Jews?" It is striking that the text tells us that not only was Herod frightened by their question, but all of Jerusalem was frightened. The city did not rise up with joy at the announcement that a liberator-king had just been born. People have always preferred the misery they know to the mystery they do not. It doesn't make sense, but it is our human nature. Just because you know you are addicted to how things are doesn't mean you want to be delivered. This is exactly what the arrival of Christ as king is all about.

Jesus is our liberating Savior.

Jesus did not come just to give you a holiday from Herod. Jesus came to establish a whole new kingdom. That means he came to liberate you from Herod. No one is clearer about that than Herod himself. He knows that to have Christ born in your life means freedom from him—Herod. So Herod will do all he can in the days ahead to extinguish this hope from your heart. He knows that Jesus will free you to enjoy the blessings you have in your life but are too addicted to appreciate. He knows that Jesus will free you to forgive so you're no longer driven by hurt. He knows that Jesus will free you to allow your own heart to be filled with pathos—even to break over the pathos of the world and the many things that break God's heart. The liberating Savior will free you to live as you were created to live—fully alive.


With Christ the King, God is opening up his arms to you. All you have to do to find the freedom he offers is to embrace the birth of hope. You will see that the hope will grow, just as the child grew and became a man—a man, Jesus, who lived our life, who felt our hurts and our hungers, and who witnessed our lousy addictions. He offered us another way: a whole new kingdom so threatening to those who had grown accustomed to Herod that they killed this Jesus. But he rose from the dead and ascended on high, because this is a kingdom of God's establishment, and you cannot kill this hope. It will come. The gates of hell cannot prevail against it. It will come. Don't you see that Jesus Christ is the liberating God who's come to be with you, and on the cross he was dying to set you free? Don't you see what this cost?

Craig Barnes is pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, professor of pastoral ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and author of The Pastor as Minor Poet (Eerdmans).

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Sermon Outline:


Everybody loved what Herod the Great could do, but everyone hated what he cost.

I. We love what Herod does; we hate what he costs.

II. Jesus is our liberating Savior.


Don't you see that Jesus Christ is the liberating God who's come to be with you, and on the cross he was dying to set you free? Don't you see what this cost?