Merry Christmas, Herod

Herod was a control freak, and Jesus’ arrival was very disturbing

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Snowman Christmas Cookie with too many Red Sprinkles

Who do you identify with most in the Christmas story? Not the one with the Red Ryder BB gun, but the one set in the 1st century. Do you identify with Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the angels or someone else?

The person I identify with most is King Herod (Matt. 2:1).

You, like I, may have more in common with Herod than you realize. There’s a reason Herod is not a staple in nativity scenes. He’s the villain, the bad guy, the antagonist, and unfortunately, I relate to him most.

Herod’s life is built on the foundation of preserve, protect and control. He was a control freak, which is why the arrival of Jesus was so disturbing for him.

When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed… (Matt. 2:3).

I’m convinced there’s a little bit of Herod in all of us. We all have a desire to preserve our power, protect our comfort and control our circumstances. The arrival of Jesus exposed the control freak inside of Herod, and Christmas has been exposing the control freak inside of people ever since.

Tuck your shirt in. Smile for the picture. Clean the house. Get the lights up. Wrap the presents. Get the tree. Set the table. We all do some controlling or feel controlled around the holidays. However, the arrival of Jesus has always and will always rival humanity’s need for control. This is a good thing and here’s why. Your capacity for joy goes up when your desire to control goes down. There’s an inverse relationship between joy and control. When one goes up, the other goes down.

Back to Herod.

Herod is known as a builder. He built a temple, port cities, aqueducts, palaces and fortresses. He is an extraordinarily talented person, but he is far too ambitious for his own good. He is so addicted to his own power and legacy it drives him crazy. He kills sons, wives and any other person to preserve and protect his position of power. He is the epitome of a control freak.

By the time we get to the biblical narrative, King Herod is about 70 years old and suffering from a very painful kidney disease. He knows he doesn’t have long to live when he gets the most disturbing news possible. Just five miles south there is a new king, and he’s learning to walk. The control freak comes out.

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” (Matt. 2:7-8).

Herod is desperate and frantic. Like all control freaks, his desire for control leads him to use people for his own gain and to skew the truth. While Herod resists this news, others are overjoyed by it.

When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 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 (Matt. 2:10-11).

In the Christmas story, we see two completely different reactions to Jesus’ arrival. There are those like Herod who resist miserably and others who worship joyfully. Resisters control, protect and preserve while worshippers submit, give and enjoy. They relinquish control. In the Christmas narrative we see that the people with the least control have the most joy, while the person who controls the most has no joy. This should teach us something: Give up controlling Christmas.

Herod dies soon after this. Before he does, he gives orders that all the influential people be rounded up to be killed right after he dies. His goal is to make sure that as many people as possible are grieving at the time of his death, even if they aren’t mourning his death.

All the influential people are indeed rounded up and imprisoned, but instead of killing them, his successor releases them at the moment Herod dies. So, instead of grief there is a giant celebration at the news of his death.

Herod had always been able to figure out a way to control outcomes, preserve his name and protect his power but now he is outsmarted by a baby and two parents. The baby that rivals the power of a miserable, control freak named Herod grows up and teaches us about joy by saying this:

“Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy (John 16:20-22).

There is a joy to experience that no circumstance can ever take away. This joy comes as a by-product of trusting Jesus. You and I can live with a delight that no circumstance can take from us because our joy is based on what Jesus did for us. Remember, the desire to control must go down in order for joy to go up.

My invitation to you this Christmas is to give up trying to control your Christmas and receive joy from the God who is in control at Christmas and all year long. To those with a little control freak in them, let me say, “A very merry Christmas, Herod.”

Eric Nelson
Eric Nelson is executive pastor of teaching and ministry at South Mountain Community Church, a multi-site church meeting at four locations throughout Utah—Draper, Lehi, South Jordan and St. George. The church also has a Spanish language congregation. After a 10-year career in student ministry in the Pacific Northwest, Nelson and his wife, Carrisa, moved to Utah to plant SMCC Lehi. The Nelsons have two children.

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