There was fire and fury in the court of Herod.
Of course, there was always fire and fury
around Herod the Great.
He was a paranoid man, weak, insecure,
and always had to have his ego stroked.
There was always infighting in his court,
with people frequently getting stabbed in the back.
And it didn’t matter who you were.
Whether you were a close advisor,
a family member, or a respected leader,
if Herod saw you as a threat then you were
out of a job at best,
dead at worst.
Herod was a vain and arrogant man
who claimed to be “king of the Jews,”
even though he was little more than a puppet;
a rich and privileged member of the elite
who had colluded with the enemy.
His court was a constant chaos
that masqueraded as political order.
So when a delegation of wise men,
courtiers from far away lands,
were spotted on the horizon,
Herod was torn.
Were they coming to pay him homage?
Did they bring greetings from their masters?
Was this the beginning of a new trade agreement?
Might this be the fulfillment of the prophecies
that the nations would come to the light of Israel?
Did they recognize in Herod’s benevolent rule
a wise judgement, a dominion to be reckoned with?
After all, didn’t Herod “the great” always say
that he would make Judea great again?
And wasn’t his ‘stable genius’ gaining him
Might these be envoys from Sheba and Seba,
coming to bring him gifts?
Might this be the first wave of kings
coming to fall down before him,
paying their tribute?
Was the wealth of nations now about
to flow into Jerusalem,
where of course, it rightly belonged?
Well … yes, but mostly, no.
If all the prophecies were coming true,
then they certainly weren’t about Herod.
These odd personages from the East,
these strange envoys from far away places,
have been following a star,
and they are seeking a child who is born
king of the Jews.
Yes, they have come to pay homage,
but not to king Herod,
but to another king,
a threat to Herod’s throne.
How could this be?
There was only one king of the Jews,
and hadn’t his star been rising
So there was fire and fury in the court of Herod.
This was a threat to national security,
this was an affront to his divine rule,
this was an insult to his administration and to his person.
And when the palace is in an uproar,
when there is fire and fury around Herod,
everyone else in town knows about it.
So the whole city, all of Jerusalem,
Not because they loved Herod,
but because they feared him;
they knew how unpredictable he was,
and how much fire power he had at hand.
They knew that if his vulnerable ego was bruised,
all hell could break loose.
So the fire and the fury of the court
bred fire and fury in the streets.
And the palace intrigue deepens.
The king who thinks he is so great
calls in his lawyers,
together with his advisory council of faith leaders,
to see what is to be done about
this threat to his rule.
“What the hell is going on here?”
“Who are these losers, and where did
they get this fake news story,
these lies about a king other than me?”
“Well,” replied the seminary professors,
“there is this other prophecy about a king
who will rule like a shepherd, coming out of
the little town of Bethlehem.”
“Bethlehem!,” Herod replies, “who said
anything about Bethlehem?”
“Well, that would have been the prophet Micah,
“Micah? Never heard of him.”
“He was the one who said,
‘He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord your God require of you,
but to do justice, to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.’”
“Like I said,” Herod replied, “I’ve never heard of him.”
For a brief second the light began to come on
for some of the religious leaders in the room.
Herod wasn’t just petty, mean, and violent,
he was also willfully ignorant of the ethical heart
of their faith and their traditions.
But he wasn’t stupid.
If he was stupid he would have
sent this delegation from the East packing.
A stupid and vain man would have said,
“If you don’t come with gifts for me,
then you can just go back from where you came from
and tell your leaders that they can’t take advantage of
the good will of my court and people any longer!”
But no. Herod might have been vain, but he wasn’t stupid.
You see, this time Herod’s vanity was matched by his cunning.
He summoned the delegation,
welcomed them to the court,
and feigned pious interest in their story.
“Tell me more, most honoured guests.
Tell me more about the star you’ve been following.
I too have longed for the birth of this child.
Go, go with my blessing and find the child.
Go and pay your homage.
Go and take your gifts.
And then return.
Come back to my court and tell me
where the child is,
so that I can also go to him and pay homage.”
What could go wrong?
These foreign lackeys wouldn’t dare cross Herod.
They wouldn’t dare disobey his instructions.
And no one else in this land of fire and fury
would dare to leak what was really Herod’s intention.
Except, that is, an angel.
Herod didn’t take into account the angel.
He likely thought that talk of angels was all made up,
it was nothing more than fake news.
But angels are not in the employ of the royal court.
They are not afraid of Herod, his secret service agents,
or his death squads.
Rather, angels are always showing up to subvert the empire,
to undermine oppressors,
to give news of radical hope,
to announce a birth that will turn everything on its head.
You see, angels take their marching orders from a higher authority.
God gives them their message, not Herod’s press secretary.
They are subject to a kingdom that rules over all kingdoms.
They bring good news of a king who comes as a shepherd
not as a tyrant.
These emissaries, these wise men, envoys of the nations, came in peace.
They came longing for a new born king.
They followed a star, a heavenly portent that the world was about to turn.
And when they found the child they were filled with joy.
Herod’s court might be filled with fire and fury,
and all Jerusalem might be filled with fear,
but these foreigners were filled with joy.
So an angel came to them in a dream.
A dream that Herod could not have imagined.
And warned them of Herod’s deceit, his cruelty,
and his plan to turn joy into sorrow.
So they snuck out of Judea
undetected by the Homeland Security forces,
and went home to tell of this new born king,
found not in a palace, but an animal shed,
not in a royal crib, but in a feed trough.
I wish, my friends that that was the end of the story.
But you know what happened.
Herod’s paranoia turned to rage,
betrayal turned to vengeance,
fear turned to fury,
and the story is pierced with the wailing of the mothers.
My friends, that first epiphany came with fire and fury.
And I have this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach,
this nauseating sense of disease,
that Epiphany 2018 will be no different.