Easter through the eyes of… Herod

Moray McKaySermons

HEROD

We’re thinking about the Easter events, during the season of Lent, and trying to see them from the point of view of some of the people who were involved. When we try to see it through the eyes of Herod we come across a stumbling block: which Herod are we talking about?!

There is a longstanding tradition amongst monarchs, particularly kings – although we also see it with popes – whereby they carry on the name of a predecessor. Perhaps they think it will give them a bit of kudos, a bit more authority? So we get Henry then Henry ll, lll, IV right up to Vlll. The same with Edward. In France, the Louis franchise got right up to 19! (Although the last one abdicated straight away, after only 20 mins – that was in July 1830).

And in the same way we find the kings of the Jewish nation under Roman occupation in New Testament times, calling themselves “Herod” one after another. The first one we come across is Herod the Great, who reigned for about 36 years and is the Herod we find at the beginning of Matthew and Luke’s gospels – the one the Wise Men went to and who was so determined not to be usurped by the newborn “king of the Jews” that he massacred all the little boys under the age of two around Bethlehem. He died within a couple of years of Jesus’ birth – allowing Joseph, Mary and Jesus to return from Egypt, where they had fled as political refugees. When he died, he bequeathed his kingdom to his three sons. The eldest, Archelaus (Herod the Ethnarch) got Judea & Samaria. He was a vicious tyrant, the worst of all the Herods, and is the reason that Joseph & Mary went back to Nazareth in Galilee, rather than settling nearer to Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, say. (Matt 2.22)

He was so repressive that the Jews pleaded with Rome to get rid of him – which they did. The Romans turned Judea & Samaria into a province governed by prefects appointed by Rome. Which is why, later, we find Pilate in charge.

Galilee was given to another son, Antipas, known as Herod the Tetrarch. The third part of the kingdom, way up in the north went to a third brother, Philip.

Luke gives us the picture in his gospel:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis… (Luke3.1)

It is Herod the Tetrarch that we are concerned with.

We know the story, I guess, of him arresting John the Baptist and being tricked by his wife Herodias into having him beheaded?

For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6.17-20)

Herod was obviously intrigued by John’s preaching – even if he found it unsettling – and when he started getting reports about Jesus he wanted to meet him, too.

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on. And he was perplexed because some were saying that John had been raised from the dead, others that Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets of long ago had come back to life. But Herod said, ‘I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?’ And he tried to see him. (Luke 9.7-9)

Herod gives the impression of being one of those people who kind of want to meet Jesus and hear what he has to say; but are also afraid that Jesus will upset their comfortable lives; ask them to change and turn them into something they don’t want to be; take away some of their control over their lives.

Are we a little bit like that sometimes? We want to meet with Jesus and hear what he has to say – but we’re a bit wary of being too radical in putting it into practice!

A bit further on in Luke, as Jesus was making his way towards Jerusalem in the days leading up to (what we call) Easter week, Herod sends a message to Jesus via some Pharisees – religious leaders and somewhat unlikely allies. It’s interesting to see how people from all political, cultural and even religious backgrounds are prepared to work together against the Good News Jesus brings. Everyone, it seems, feels threatened by Jesus.

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.’ He replied, ‘Go and tell that fox, “I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.” In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”’ (Luke 13.31-35)

The Jews saw foxes as not only sly but also worthless. That Jesus calls Herod a fox is startling and unusual. He is saying Herod is neither honest not majestic; worthy only of Jesus’ contempt. Despite Herod’s powerful position, it is God who will determine where Jesus’ ministry on earth unfold and where it will finish; no-one else.

Today, the objections we come across to what Jesus has to say are not so much based on geography or spheres of political influence. Those in authority still want to limit the impact of the Christian message, but they do so by trying to insist that we leave the public place and only speak & demonstrate Jesus’ message in private. And so those who have the words of life, find themselves – in effect – gagged in the workplace; faced with opposition when they want to congregate anywhere other than in an official church building or in their homes. Spiritual opposition mostly manifests itself through human actions.

Luke records Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem at this point, perhaps because of the context of speaking about Herod, one of whose palaces was in Jerusalem. Matthew tells us that, chronologically, the lament came during Easter week, after the triumphal, Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, while Jesus was sitting on a hill overlooking the city. Luke puts the two together, showing that, just as Herod is rejecting Jesus and his message, so the capital city, too, rejects him. Finally, God will give up on both Herod and the city. If a person, a city or a nation insists on rejecting God, the day will come when God, despite his love and compassion for them, will accept their decision and turn his back on them in turn.

Our lands are in grave danger of being rejected by God. Yes, the number of believers may be on the increase, but if the leaders and the authorities reject Jesus, God will lift his blessing and protection and turn his back. We need to pray for our leaders both local and national.

Paul warns, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor 6.2)

We love to procrastinate, to put off till tomorrow what we really ought to do today. Sometimes, we miss the boat. We say we’ll do the gardening tomorrow; tomorrow comes but it rains and we’ve missed the opportunity. John the Baptist preached to Herod, but Herod wouldn’t respond at that time to his message. He puts it off till it is too late and John is dead. Jerusalem, too, heard Jesus’ message but they rejected Jesus, his message and God who sent him.

Don’t put off responding to God’s message to you.

Finally, of course, Herod does get to meet Jesus. But by then it is too late. Jesus doesn’t come to see him at Herod’s own request – he is sent there by Pilate in an attempt to push the responsibility onto Herod for what the religious leaders want Pilate to do to Jesus.

In Luke 23 we find Pilate examining Jesus, trying to find out why the Jews want him dead, looking for evidence for their charge and trying to dispense justice.

The Jews say that Jesus has been claiming to be the Messiah (they explain to Pilate that this means he claims to be a king – and therefore a threat to the balance of power).

So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied. (Luke 23.3)

Pilate says he finds no basis for the charges of subversion and they reply that Jesus has been stirring up trouble in Galilee.

Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies. (Luke 23.6-12)

You can see how Herod has begun to change. He no longer wants to hear what Jesus has to say – despite the questions he asks. Jesus never refused to answer when someone genuinely wanted to hear the answer. But all Herod wants is for Jesus to perform like a circus monkey. “Do a miracle for me!”

Jesus refuses to answer. Herod is the only person recorded to whom Jesus refuses to address a single word. Not getting what he wants, Herod begins to mock – can you imagine: he has the Son of God before him, and all he can do is mock?!

Actually, it’s not hard to imagine. What Christian hasn’t had someone mock Jesus right in front of them? The Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, dwells within us; we talk to others of our Lord, his love for them and what he has done – and they mock. Like Herod, their eyes have become blind to the truth, their hearts have been hardened. Sometimes no response on our part is appropriate. We must just listen and keep praying for them – because they don’t want to hear anything we have to say. Their minds are already made up and hardened.

We don’t know why Pilate & Herod had been enemies, but Pilate’s gesture towards him (offering him the jurisdiction over Jesus) and Herod subsequently declining to take action and sending him back is very similar to what we saw earlier – the Pharisees making alliance with Herod against Jesus. Jesus enemies unite together to condemn him to the cross. The charge: from the point of view of the Jews it was that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah; the Lord’s anointed one; the Son of God (and that they did not accept this). From the point of view of Pilate, and of Herod, too, it was because he claimed to be a king – they could use that as an excuse: Jesus was usurping political authority, they could say.

Why do people reject Jesus today? Is it because he claims to be the only Son of God, the only way to Him? It’s weird to object to that because, if it’s true, then they should fall down before him; and if it’s not, then it doesn’t matter – except that no other explanation for who he is holds up to scrutiny.

Or is it because they think he might upset their own powerbase, their own authority, their own self-determination?

Herod had many opportunities to respond to God’s message to him: John the Baptist was his in-house preacher! But he hardened his heart. Like Pilate, he had the opportunity genuinely to find out what the truth was about Jesus when he came before him in Jerusalem after his arrest. By that time, though, Herod’s slide into opposition to Jesus was almost complete. He made it complete there and then. From that point on Herod was on the wrong side of Easter – already guilty of John the Baptist’s death and now complicit in Jesus’ death.

Shortly after these events, the foreign king Aretus IV, the father of Herod’s first wife, who he had divorced to marry Herodias (which had sparked the problems with John the Baptist) attacked Herod’s armies, who were heavily defeated. Herod’s nephew, Agrippa, then denounced Herod for plotting against Rome and he was sent into exile – replaced by Agrippa – Herod Agrippa. It’s like a soap opera!

Jesus himself warns the disciples about the pervasive influence of procrastination:  ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ (Mark 8.15)

Yeast spreads invisibly throughout dough, and affects every part of it, irreversibly. The yeast of the Pharisees was their “theatre”, their hypocrisy – having an outward form of religion, but not living the powerful reality of it.

Herod’s yeast was procrastination: hearing the Word again and again and forever putting off responding to it.

The death and resurrection of Jesus are powerful realities that we need to respond to. Let’s not be like Herod! Let’s open our hearts and minds again and again to God’s message to us. And let’s pray for courage so as not to be afraid of today’s Herods, but to speak out the message with boldness.

 

Moray McKay