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The King of the Jews

with Rev. Alex Lang

November 28, 2021

This Sunday we begin our Advent series The Road to Bethlehem where we are talking about the history surrounding Jesus’ birth. What were the major events of the time? What was happening religiously, politically, socially, economically? The goal of this series is to paint a full and complete picture of the world into which Jesus was born.

The Scripture

Matthew 2:1-12

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] 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.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Luke 1:5-7

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

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As a young boy growing up in the Presbyterian Church, I was aware that Christmas was about two things—presents and Santa. Jesus really didn’t figure into my understanding of Christmas until much later in my childhood. It wasn’t until I was about 9 or 10 years old that I realized Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. And if I’m being perfectly honest with you, that information did not change much about my approach to Christmas. It was still predominately about presents and Santa.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that the balance started to shift and Christmas became predominately associated with Jesus’ birth in my mind. In college, I started to read the stories directly from the Bible. There are only two narrative accounts of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament, found in Matthew and Luke. These stories are the source material for our Christmas pageants and represent most of what we know about Jesus’ origins.

What I have found during my time as a pastor is that, as much as Christians know the biblical story of Jesus’ birth, they know almost nothing about the history surrounding his birth. What was the world like when Jesus was born? What were the major events of the time? What was happening religiously, politically, socially, economically? The goal of this series is to paint a full and complete picture of the world into which Jesus was born.

Finish reading

Each Sunday during Advent, we will take a different element of that world and dive deep into what was happening. Each sermon is going to get us closer and closer to the event of Jesus’ birth. Hence, the name of this sermon series is called The Road to Bethlehem. The best way to picture how this sermon series will work is to think of it geographically. We’re going to start wide with the Roman Empire and slowly work our way closer and closer to the town and people of Bethlehem.

Today, we are going to begin this series by setting the stage of the world into which Jesus was born by talking about the Roman Empire. The truth is you cannot understand the story of Jesus’ birth unless you understand how the Roman Empire came to be. The two are integrally connected to each other. And if you’re going to understand how the Roman Empire began, we need to talk about one of the most famous generals of all time, Julius Caesar.

Caesar became famous because his army had expanded the territory of Rome substantially in the northern regions of what today we know as Europe. In 50 B.C., the Roman Senate told Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Since Caesar’s army was loyal to him, he decided he would use his army to overthrow the Roman government, which he felt was corrupt and not serving the needs of the people.

From the moment he took power, Julius Caesar was much beloved by the Roman people. He instituted a number of social and governmental reforms. He created a universal calendar, which we still use to this day. He gave citizenship to many residents of the far regions of the Roman Republic. He initiated land reform, giving parcels of land to his army veterans and started fusing all of the Roman territories into a single unit.

Eventually, Caesar was proclaimed “dictator for life”, which the people loved, but the wealthy elite despised. Because Caesar didn’t kowtow to their demands or seek their input or really even care about their priorities, they began to conspire against him. On the 15th of March (otherwise known as the Ides of March) in 44BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated by group of 60 aristocrats who stabbed him to death on the steps of the Roman senate.

Caesar’s death ignited a civil war between two competing factions in Rome: Mark Antony, Caesar’s close friend who had attempted to thwart Caesar’s assassination and Caesar’s grandnephew, Gaius Octavian, to whom Caesar had left everything in his will. Octavian, who was now one of the wealthiest men in Rome thanks to inheriting Caesar’s wealth, had plenty of resources to form an army. Mark Antony shacked up with Cleopatra of Egypt, Caesar’s former lover, hoping that the military strength of the Egyptian army could defeat Octavian.

After a series of five civil wars that lasted nearly 17 years, Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, becoming the first emperor of the Roman Empire in 27 BC. Octavian was given the title Augustus, which means ‘venerable’ or ‘majestic’ in Latin. Augustus was a very politically savvy leader who understood that the Roman people had been engaged in conflict for multiple decades. Augustus wanted his rule to be defined not by violence, but by peace.

Unfortunately, there were major obstacles preventing this from happening. Many of the territories under Roman occupation did not want to be under Roman occupation. So Augustus had two options: he could either crush the rebellious territories with his armies and force them into submission or he could provide their former rulers with the opportunity to save face with their own people. This initiative became known as Pax Romana or Roman Peace.

The way it worked was very simple. Any territory under Roman control could send an envoy of their leaders to Rome. These leaders were given time to speak directly to the emperor under the condition that they presented an olive branch beforehand. The olive branch, of course, represented a sign of peace and it indicated their submission to the imperial authority. In return, the emperor listened to their concerns and ensured the leaders that a representative from Rome would be attentive to and lobby for their interests. This is how Augustus created what was one of the most peaceful eras in Roman history.

One of the areas that the Roman government oversaw was known as Judea. The reason they controlled Judea is because it was a major economic thoroughfare. The trade routes into and out of Africa went directly through Judea. The man who Rome had put in charge of Judea was known as Herod the Great. The reason why Rome had installed Herod as the king of Judea is because Herod’s father had been good friends with Julius Caesar.

So I want to spend a little bit of time telling you about this man, Herod the Great, because he figures  prominently into Jesus’ birth narrative. Herod is an complex figure because he was good leader, but at the same time, he was incredibly brutal. To give you an example of just how brutal he could be, Herod came to power in 37 B.C when he captured Jerusalem with his army. He not only had his competition executed, but he also massacred 46 of the 71 priests that comprised the Sanhedrin.

Just in case you’re wondering, “What is the Sanhedrin?” It’s the governing body in Jerusalem that would eventually be responsible for sending Jesus to die on the cross. But Herod didn’t simply arrest these priests and have them executed in prison. Often the soldiers would break down the doors of their homes and kill the priests in front of their families. And just to be clear, there was no recourse; they couldn’t call the police or take Herod to court; there was nothing they could do.

Why did Herod do this? Very simply, Herod wanted everyone with power to be loyal to him and those 46 priests, who had power, were not loyal to him. After capturing Jerusalem and ridding himself of any competition, Herod was declared the King of the Jews and would reign over Judea for the next 33 years on behalf of the Rome.

Now, I want to tell you a few interesting tidbits about Herod. The first thing you should know is that, even though Herod was referred to as the King of the Jews, Herod was not born Jewish. Once he took over Judea, he converted to Judaism, but frankly, he didn’t know very much about Judaism. He loosely followed some of the kosher laws, but disregarded most everything else. As you might imagine, this put Herod at odds with the Jews who took their religion very seriously.

The truth is Herod did not particularly like religious Jews. Religious Jews were very concerned with maintaining the purity of the culture. For instance, religious Jews would not allow their children to marry anyone who was not Jewish (indeed, this is still true to this day). This means religious Jews had a very insular culture and were very wary of outsiders.

Herod, on the other hand, wanted Judea to become more cosmopolitan. Herod liked Greek culture. He liked the Greco/Roman theater, he liked Greco/Roman art, he liked Greco/Roman cities. He wanted to update Judea with Greco/Roman culture. So Herod started a massive building campaign all throughout the land. His first building project was the expansion of the Jerusalem Temple. This was a huge project and very expensive. In fact, part of the expansion still exists to this day in Jerusalem, known as the wailing wall.

Of course, the religious Jews loved this project, which, politically, was quite a shrewd move. In order to pay for this, Herod had to raise taxes substantially, but the complaints were muted because he employed thousands of laborers and was giving the Jews a first-rate temple for their God. As the Temple project got underway, Herod started other building campaigns that he really cared about, like amphitheaters, ports for boats, lavish cities for the wealthy and fortresses in which he could hide in case of insurrection.

This brings me to the last tidbit about Herod—he was incredibly paranoid about losing power. He executed numerous members of his own family including his wife and son. He had a security detail of nearly 2000 guards, some of whom oversaw his personal protection, but many of whom were spies. Their job was to discern if anyone was fomenting revolt or plotting an assassination attempt on his life. As a result, Herod would arrest and jail anyone suspected of forming a rebellion.

This paranoia is present in the scripture that we read this morning from the gospel of Matthew. Both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born during the rule of King Herod. What Matthew tells us is that, when Herod learns of Jesus’ birth from the magi, he wants to know the location of where Jesus is born so that he can “go and pay him homage.” The inference from the story is that Herod sees Jesus as a threat to his throne and wants to know his location so that he can send his soldiers to eliminate him.

Historically, we can’t know whether or not Herod ever knew of Jesus’ birth. In all likelihood, even if he was aware of Jesus’ birth, he would not have sent his soldiers to kill a newborn. Herod was towards the end of his life when Jesus was born and would have used his resources to extinguish more pressing threats than a baby who, at best, wouldn’t come to power for many decades. Herod was paranoid, but not crazy.

Interestingly, Herod’s title, King of the Jews, would be the title applied to Jesus by Pontius Pilate: “Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” [Jesus] answered, “You say so.” The reason that Pilate asks him this question is because Jesus calls himself the messiah, which is a word in Hebrew that refers to a king. The point of this parallelism is that you are supposed to compare Herod with Jesus. Two kings of the Jews, but each king has a very different management style.

Herod was a king who ruled by force and violence. He would do anything to hold onto power. He imposed his will on you and expected you to submit. But Jesus is a very different kind of king. Jesus was gentle, kind and meek. Jesus only imposed his will on you if it’s something that you desired and wanted for yourself. This is why Jesus responds to Pilate by saying, “You say so.” You get a say in whether or not Jesus is your king, whereas with Herod, there is no choice.

This little idea, this notion that you have to choose for Jesus to be your king is the genius of Jesus’ messiahship. Because when you choose it for yourself, then it means so much more than when a king imposes his will on his subjects. When the king says, “You will do what I say because I say so,” people almost always end up resenting it and the kingdom will inevitably fall apart. But if everyone is choosing to be part of the kingdom and everyone is choosing to submit to Jesus’ will, then that kingdom will never fall.

Therefore, I want to end this sermon with a question: Who do you call king in your life? Who rules over your heart and mind? Who informs your identity and how you live your life? Is it your political leaders? Is it your political party? Are they the ones you listen to on the radio and television? Is it cultural figures, actors, musicians, comedians, writers, thinkers? Or is it Jesus? Whenever you approach a problem, do you ask yourself, “What would Jesus have me do in this situation?” Are Jesus’ teachings always under the surface of all your decisions?

I’ll give you a little insight into how to consider your answer to that question: As a pastor, who thinks about Jesus all the time, I struggle to put Jesus at the forefront of my decisions. The truth is, we tend to choose Herod over Jesus as our king and that’s because Herod’s ways of dealing with the world is more natural for us. Jesus’ way takes work and effort. Jesus’ way makes you vulnerable. But, if we want to call ourselves Christians, it’s imperative that we choose love, so we can be the light, that changes the world. Amen.