Death row or mountain top.

God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart. 

OK, listen… This blog is about something huge and immeasurable. It’s about the selfish and corruptible heart of man. What a downer. But it poses the question “Since we break the heart of God, since we are so lost and broken, how can he love us so much?” and the theologians and churchy bods among us chorus (altogether now) “He loves because God is love.”

Yeah, yeah, I know. Shush now. I’ve known it for a few years, but sometimes the enormity of his love and grace, and the depth of my need, hits me afresh. It knocks me sideways. If I had more sense I wouldn’t even try to put it into words, but the only way I can find out what I’m thinking is by writing it.

So, make allowances as we go along. Be kind, eh?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Herods. I’ve been thinking about them on and off for the last few months, wanting to write a Christmas play for radio (not quite ready for it yet, maybe 2023). The Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded and then presided over the trial of Jesus fascinated me and I had always assumed that this Herod was the man who ordered the slaughter of the innocents, 30 years before. Not so. A friend put me right and set me on a train of study that’s become ever more fascinating. There were at least three Herods, three men from one family, and studying them has been like studying the slow motion film of a motorway pile-up… deadly fascinating.

The first King Herod, Herod the Great, was put in place as a faux ‘king’ of Judea by the Romans, and he was a proper bad ‘un. He’s recorded as ruthless and eccentric, egomaniacal and murderous. But, you know, he strikes me as insane, not just eccentric. He flailed around with mindless savagery – he was the Idi Amin of his day, Ceausescu and Stalin, all rolled into one. He killed everyone who opposed him, and in his paranoia he killed his wife, mother-in-law, two stepsons and one son. The Roman Emperor Augustus is quoted as saying “It would be safer to be Herod’s pig than his son”

This is the man who wanted to kill Jesus, and Joseph feared him so much that he took his wife and her child into Egypt, a 40 mile journey on foot to a pagan land. We read about the holy family ‘fleeing’ from Bethlehem but do we really sense their fear, their desperate need to keep the helpless child safe? Herod was so paranoid that he ordered the killing of all the male infants in Bethlehem (historians reckon around 12 to 15) simply because three wandering strangers had unnerved him, made him feel insecure. How many others lives did he snuff out, on a whim?

Like many apparently powerful men, Herod wanted to leave a legacy, to remind the world what a great guy he was and so he rebuilt Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (we’d do well to remember that when we get all excited about church buildings). This pious act was never about glorifying God, and so even that great undertaking wasn’t enough. He wanted to leave something equally grand that bore his name …. a lavish palace he called the Herodium. It’s a measure of his madness that, having built this opulent palace complete with Roman style baths, elegant colonnades, a 300-seat Roman theatre, with a royal box for him and his family, he decided that when he died it would all be buried, turned into a grandiose and ludicrous tomb (now being unearthed and restored by archaeologists).

And then, when Jesus was about 3 years old, Herod the Great died.

So, that’s Herod number one. Maybe deciding that this family wasn’t capable of ruling over three provinces, the Romans took Galilee away from their control, leaving them only Judea and Samaria. So, how did Herod the Great’s successor and son, Herod Archelaus, cope with his reduced but still powerful leadership role? Here’s a hint:

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt  and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee,  and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. Matthew 2:19-23

Joseph did well to avoid Judea – Archelaus celebrated coming to power by slaughtering over 3,000 of his own people and rapidly proved too brutal for even the Romans to stomach and, after just a few years, he was removed from office.

And now, and now, we come to Jesus and Herod Antipas. I think it’s almost beyond us, here in the West in 2020, to understand what life was like in that occupied, brutal land. Fear was everywhere, death, murder, barbarity, slavery. We portray Jesus on the cross with one condemned man either side of him but the roads were lined with crosses and the dying. Crucifixions were an everyday occurrence.

This third Herod, Antipas, was no less paranoid than his father and brother, anyone who attracted a following was a threat and so John the Baptist, a contentious figure who not only criticised Herod’s morals but also spoke about a Messiah to come, was imprisoned and interrogated, and then beheaded. It seems that afterwards, drowning in guilt – or maybe just superstitious fear – Herod was plagued by the thought that John had come back to life as Jesus.

Then Jesus was brought before him, maybe two years after John’s execution;

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 23:8-12

I’m intrigued that only Luke mentions Herod at the death of Jesus. Was he so riddled with guilt that everything he did was behind closed doors, covered up… did he fear Jesus so much that after getting rid of this political problem he hid in his lavish staterooms, quaking, sending others out to discover what was going on, what Pilate had said, what was being done to this innocent man? Did he slither away into the shadows, hoping to become no more than a minor character in the dark drama? He had already killed John to appease his wife and daughter at a drunken orgy, and now we have the awful footnote ‘that day Herod and Pilate became friends’. What a slime ball. Uriah Heep.

Howzat for the sinfulness of man? Three Herods. Three sinful men, and how.

Here’s that verse again, from Genesis, way back… long long before Christ was born

God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart. 

We have broken God’s heart! Way back in time, we broke his heart. In eternity. And we can see that truth in the New Testament in the life and vulnerability of Jesus. We see God’s broken heart in the famously short verse ‘Jesus wept’ and in many instances when Jesus is moved with compassion, when we see his distress for the family of Lazarus and when, as he’s dying, he asks John to look after his mother. Jesus was a man of tender compassion in a wicked and savage world. And Jesus is God.

Our God has a heart of love. I get it.

So, I’ve been thinking about the world Jesus grew up in, and those Herods, and I’ve been thinking about evil …. but come on… it’s 2020 and we’re very very different now, aren’t we? Life has become gentler since then, hasn’t it? We are all more liberal, kinder, altogether nicer.

I don’t think so. We still kill and maim, hoard and bully and lie. Half the world is starving. Millions have no clean water. There are still Herods out there, and some horrid little bits of Herod live on in each one of us. Here in the West we have perfected the pretence that the world has moved on, but who are we kidding? Mankind is just as bad now as it always was.

Cruelty is not ‘back then’ or ‘over there’ somewhere, it’s all around us. I watched a wonderful YouTube recording of Amazing Grace this morning, an uplifting video of people from 50 countries praising God, but the Christians singing in Iran and China were obscured, because there Christianity is still persecuted. In countries like Iran, China, Afghanistan and Iraq, Bangladesh and others, Christians are still killed for their faith. Brutally beheaded or stoned to death. It bears repeating ….. cruelty is not ‘over there’ somewhere, it’s all around us. East and West. In America there’s an unseemly hurry to execute 3 more people (two have already been killed this week) before a new President is sworn in. Five killings – a political expediency, a sort of legacy for the outgoing president, and a defiant insult to his successor. And it’s an echo of the past. We are still blood-thirsty and vengeful.

What a downer. What a downer. Looks like man is irredeemably bad.

No. No. Really, no. Watch this and feel the joy:

Mankind is not irredeemably bad. He has been redeemed. That’s the great good news of Christmas.

It’s not an easy concept but however grim the world may seem, however hopeless the nature of man, we can and must and will be joyful. Joyful. Why? Because mankind has not changed, but neither has God. He loves us with an unchanging love. This is more than a theological truth, it’s a mind-blowing concept but we need to grasp it. The love of God, from God, is something we can experience and know personally. It’s the one great blessing that lifts us above the mess and hurt of the world. It’s the root of all joy. God is love. God has always been love. Will always be love. There is no beginning and no end to the love of God because he is eternal. His love for us didn’t start, and it won’t end. It simply is. And his love has saved us.

Speaking purely for myself, I can’t love Herod and I’m not even going to try. But God loved Herod Antipas every bit as much as he loves me or you. Herod was loved totally and completely. Flip me! And here’s the fabulous fabulous truth that has me singing; whatever I’ve done, whatever you’ve done, who ever we are, whatever we struggle with, God’s love is here for us.

God’s love saves. He stands at the door and knocks. All we have to do is turn to him.

Whatever you’re struggling with just now, whatever mistakes you’ve made or things you’ve done, even if you’re right in the middle of all the mess and mire at this very minute, reading these words in turmoil, not knowing how to pull yourself out of it, you are loved. Loved with a fierce and unbreakable love. Even if you are a Herod, you are loved. If you’re on death row, or drunk, or angry, or lost, feeling loveless and alone, at the bottom of the ocean or on a mountain top… you are loved.

That’s the Christmas story – into a savage world came a gentle God, drawn by love. Our brave brave God who is there for you, wherever you are, whatever you have done. If you don’t know him, now is the time to turn to him. If do you know him, or have known him, and have slipped away from him, he’s still there. All you have to do is call on him.

Bottom of the ocean or mountain top. Emmanuel. God with us.

2 thoughts on “Death row or mountain top.

  1. This is witnessing. This IS true witnessing. You are my crazy amazing mother who used to put gold filtered cigarettes in my Christmas stocking, and sherry in my tuck box for boarding school…. yet God speaks through this blog with no trace of Lucy Gannon, Mum, Writer, Nanna. You have channelled His message and I am in tears. It is amazing. Amazing that He does this. Thankyou for this blog x


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