God's greatest gift: 3. Herod – the unwanted gift (Matthew 2:1-8)
You’ve probably experienced the scenario of the unwanted Christmas present. The sinking feeling and feigned gratitude as the paper falls away to reveal another pair of socks, bottle of smelly stuff or saggy hand-knitted jumper. Or the hollowness in someone’s eyes as they mumble that your gift really will be useful.
Unwanted gifts often reflect on the giver – a lack of understanding (‘I’m sure he’ll like this – I would’) or simply desperation (‘I’ve got to give her something!’). Occasionally, though, they reflect something wrong in the recipient – lack of self-awareness (‘If only they knew it, this is just what they really need’) or ingratitude born from resentment (‘I don’t want anything from him!’) So it was with King Herod.
Herod’s image as the pantomime villain of the nativity play is largely supported by the historical sources. This king of Judea, a client of the Romans, was ruthless, opportunistic and megalomaniacal, his one redeeming feature being his grandiose building projects. It is, however, Matthew’s account that reveals the full measure of the man. Fearful that many in Jerusalem, spurred on by the exotic magi, would believe the baby born in Bethlehem to be the rightful king in David’s line, Herod schemes slaughter under the pretext of worship. He is the ultimate ungrateful Christmas gift recipient – his lips saying “Thanks” while his heart plots murder.
What can this evil king teach us? Might we be ‘little Herods’, signing cards and singing carols that proclaim gratitude for God’s gift of Jesus, yet refusing to abandon the throne of our lives to make way for Him? To worship a new-born may seem humbling enough, but the real challenge of Christmas is the realisation that, as we worship Him, this baby grows in stature to demand our absolute loyalty, depose all rivals and direct our destiny.