‘Where is the one who has been born “King of the Jews”’, asked the Magi when they reached Jerusalem. Herod, who had been honoured with the title ‘King of the Jews’ by Augustus Caesar was deeply troubled. The extraordinary lavish palace he had constructed in Jerusalem was his second home. Caesarea, now his capital city on the Mediterranean coast with the new artificial port he had established, had transformed the economics of the country. He had built many other palaces too: in Jericho for his winter residence, in Masada and Machuerus, two fortress palaces by the Dead Sea, and the Herodian, just south of Bethlehem, where he not only built a mountaintop palace and fortress, but even raised the height of the mountain it was built on by at least a third!
Back in 37 BC Herod had convinced Caesar that he was the man for the royal job by successfully eliminating the Median invasion, and dealing with opposition from the Hasmoneans, who had been in power over the previous 100 years. Caesar’s approval of him steadily grew, and his rule was extended to include Samaria and Idumea, parts of the Decapolis and the northern territories of Trachonitis and Iturea. Herod had indeed become ‘King of the Jews’. And yet all was not well with his physical and mental health. As he had grown older he had become increasingly troubled by real or imaginary threats to his power, believing that his own family were plotting against him. He even brutally executed three of his own sons, Aristobulus, Alexander and Antipater II, as well as his favourite wife Marianne because he believed they were plotting against him.
Our Magi then, in their visit to Jerusalem, were arousing a passion in Herod that was already an obsession he developed in his later years. Indeed Caesar is quoted as saying, ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son’! No wonder we see him scheming on how to eliminate this further threat to his power. Essentially, Herod had become a victim to his own power-crazy aspirations. He had been shaped into becoming a tyrant by his hunger for power.
Jesus’ mother understood clearly that God’s plan in Jesus would lead to a very different ordering of things. ‘He will bring down the mighty from their thrones’ would be an essential feature of the ‘kingdom of God’—and so when these powerful and influential guys arrive in Bethlehem they kneel in homage to one who had been born in poverty, and would soon be a refugee in Egypt. They bring prophetic gifts that point to Jesus exhibiting a uniquely alternative model of kingship, eventually mirrored in Jesus’ encounter with Pontius Pilate— also in Jerusalem. In response to Pilate’s question Jesus replies ‘My kingdom is not of this world, if my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders, but my kingdom is from another place.’ Lord Acton’s observation: ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is richly demonstrated in Herod as we see how a person’s sense of morality decreases as their power increases. There is evidence of this in so many places today.
And so our desire in 2022 for God’s church to be Jesus Shaped remains a vital passion for us. Jesus’ arrival on earth is exactly the same shape as we see exhibited in his life, in his teaching, and in his departure. He is the holy one and the lowly one who makes all things new in those who seek to follow him. And he offers ‘the exalted’ a means of finding that same lowliness that can enable them to remain untarnished by the seduction of power and status.