The Cradle That Rocked A King
Matthew 2:1-3, 13-16
I read to you these verses from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and we have come to worship Him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
“Now when the wise men had departed, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the Child to destroy Him.’ And Joseph rose and took the Child and His mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt have I called My Son.'”
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
It has always seemed to me that life is better measured by the breaths we do not take than by the breaths we do take, that life finds its deepest meaning in those moments when our breath is taken away. I’m referring, of course, to those moments in life which are so amazing, so surprising, so filled with wonder that we literally gasp in response. Those, I believe, are life’s most meaningful moments.
Christmas is a time like that. It’s a surprising time. It’s a fantastic time. A time when shepherds hear anthems sung by angels. A time when the Son of God Himself is put to bed in an animal’s feeding trough. A time when strange and mysterious wise men from the east come journeying across desert wastes, laden down with precious gifts. Christmas is a time full of amazing things, surprising things, wonderful things, things that cannot be but are.
Who, for example, would ever have thought that Christmas would show us a king upset by a baby? A powerful ruler of the people deeply troubled by a little child, soft, crying in a cradle. How surprising. Kings, if indeed they are troubled, are troubled by malcontents who are capable of breeding insurrection, or they are troubled by diminishing percentage points in the public opinion polls, or they are troubled by an alien army massing its troops along the national border. But a king troubled by a little baby? How surprising indeed. Yet the Gospel of Christmas contains the story of the cradle that rocked the king, rocked him right back on his heels. Here’s the story.
The king’s name was Herod. He was the ruler of Judea. By some strange twist of irony, he is called in history, Herod the Great. He was both, by law and in fact, the ruler of the people, and yet he was never very secure in that position. Herod was vulnerable, as I suppose all of us are, to anyone who can do a better job, but Herod was more vulnerable than most. Because you see, there was little or no good in the man at all. He was a sly, crafty, cunning, old fox who ruled on the basis of three powers: the power of fear, the power of cruelty, and the power of deceit. He was guilty of murder. He murdered people. Many people. Many, many, people including one of his wives and three of his own children. He was a man of both physical and moral violence, and they called him Herod the Great.
To give you an idea, the kind of man he was, shortly before his death, fearing that upon the occasion of his death, there will not be mourning in the land but rather rejoicing – and I think fearing rightly so – he ordered numbers of the Jewish people to be arrested and detained in prison. And then the express order was delivered that at the moment King Herod died, all of those people were to be put to death immediately, so that then the whole land would be filled with the sound of mourning. That’s the kind of man he was, and they called him Herod the Great.
He was hated. So hated, in fact, that rumors constantly were circulating about attempts to overthrow him. Those rumors never failed to unsettle him. And that’s why, when the most serious rumor of them all reached his ears, namely that the promised Messiah had been born – when he heard that, that was too much, and he sprang into action. He traced the source of those rumors, and he discovered that the rumors had originated with some visiting dignitaries from a foreign land. He inquired of them. They told him that, yes, they were the source of those rumors. They had been following a wandering star, and that that star was the symbol of the birth of a new King, a King whose reign would be worldwide. Well, that really shook Herod, shook him right down to his very core.
Ah, but he was still crafty and cunning. And so he said to them, “Listen. When you find this newborn King, please let me know, so that I too may come and pay homage to the new King.” Just a trick. Just another evil scheme from twisted and devious mind. But have you ever stopped to think about how utterly surprising it is at that point, that Herod who was, himself, so untrusting and so untrustworthy – that at that moment, Herod would trust total strangers to bring him back the word that he desperately had to have? You ever thought about that? I mean, why didn’t he simply join the wise men in the search? Well, I don’t know for sure. But I rather suspect it was because Herod had been searching for that Child, and had searched, and had searched, and couldn’t find Him, and knew that he’d done everything he knew to do. But then you know as well as I do that only true worshippers ever find Him. Or maybe there was some other reason. I don’t know for sure. But I do know this. King Herod the Great was scared to death of a baby he never even saw.
Matthew writes that when Herod learned about the Child, he was troubled, and all of Jerusalem was troubled with him. Ernest T. Campbell comments at this point that just as a tyrannical father can set a whole family on edge, so an agitated king can set a whole city to seething. Herod was troubled. He was rocked by the rumor of a newborn King. And when he then learned that he’d been tricked by the wise men, in a blinding rage, the Bible says, he ordered the death of all of the male children in Bethlehem and that surrounding region who were under two years of age. What he couldn’t do by craft and cunning, he tried to do by force, and he killed the children. And they dare to call him Herod the Great. But Jesus was beyond his reach, because Jesus is always beyond the reach of those who are physically or morally violent.
That’s the story. Now, what’s the message? This.
The people of this earth are in one camp or the other. Either they love Jesus or they hate Jesus. Either they are for Jesus, or they are against Jesus. There is no middle ground.
Now I know that someone here may want to stand up at this point and say, “Come on, Preacher. There are legions of people out there who don’t really care one way or another. They are indifferent. They are neutral on the issue.” Well, come on, my friends. Surely, you know that indifference or neutrality or not caring – I don’t care what you call it. Surely, you know that that’s just a subtle form of opposition. Because the fact is, if you are not for Jesus, then you are against Him.
Ideally, every knee should bow, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord of life and the Lord of this world. But that wasn’t true in Herod’s day, and it’s not true today. Why? Well, I think the answer may be found in some rather remarkable but unusual words which Paul addressed to the Corinthians. I want you to listen very carefully here. I want you to listen to what Paul says. Paul says, “God chose that which is foolish in the eyes of the world to shame that which is wise. God chose that which is weak in the eyes of the world to shame the strong. God chose things that cannot be in order to bring to nothing, the things that are.”
Did you listen? You know, at first glance, those are rather baffling words, aren’t they? And yet I submit that further reflection will clearly reveal to you that Paul is simply saying that all of our human power, all of our earthly power, all of that is temporary. It’s tentative. It’s not going to last. And as a result of that, in the end, it’s meaningless. It’s worthless. But the power of Jesus Christ, that is altogether different. For it is this Jesus who takes those people who don’t seem to be too prominent in the earthly scheme of things, and Jesus transforms them into nothing less than the sons and the daughters of Almighty God. This Jesus takes those people who don’t seem to get any respect in life, and He fills them with a genuine sense of self-respect. This Jesus takes those who don’t seem to have much of a chance in life, and He gives them a new life, a life for here and now, but a life that will last forever. This Jesus tells those who don’t seem to matter to others that they matter supremely to God. This Jesus tells those who, in the eyes of the world, seem worthless, that in the eyes of God, they are worth the death of His only begotten Son.
Paul is saying that this Jesus is the most powerful, the most uplifting, the most ennobling, the most redeeming, the most transforming force ever set loose in the world. That’s why the cradle rocked King Herod. That’s why he killed the babies. I mean, give him credit, at least, for being smart enough to see that what he was about and what Jesus was about could not peacefully coexist in the same world. One of them had to go.
And that’s why the people on Good Friday cried, “Give us Barabbas. We’d rather see him loose than Jesus.” And that’s why Pontius Pilate, with all of the power of Rome behind him, wouldn’t lift so much as a finger to save one he knew to be perfectly innocent. And that’s why the story of the cradled Child still rocks the engines of power in our world, whether their power comes from politics or from economics or just from an inflated ego. And that’s why, yes, that’s why in Nativity scenes set up in public places and children singing Christmas carols at school are regarded to be such a threat.
I know it sounds foolish to think that a story about a little baby and some shepherds and some angels and some wise men could be a threat to anyone. I know it sounds foolish that carols which have risen out of the crucible of human history and human culture and are so lovely and lifting and lilting in their beauty – I know it seems foolish that those things could be regarded as a threat, but they are. And my friends, I understand that because they are a threat.
Christmas is not sticky-sweet sentimentalism. Christmas is not the frivolous celebration of the winter solstice. Christmas is not a harmless myth like the tales of Mother Goose. Christmas is a choice, and I want you to understand that. I don’t want you to go singing and skipping your way through Christmas this year without understanding that Christmas means you must make a decision.
Herod made his decision. He realized that he and Jesus couldn’t stay in the same world together. One of them had to go. And so he tried to stop Jesus, and he couldn’t do it. And I tell you frankly, that’s why I am not terribly concerned about the concerted efforts to transform Christmas into just another secular holiday. I’m not terribly concerned about the efforts to remove Nativity scenes from public view and to stop the singing of the Christmas carols and to eliminate public references to Jesus. I’m not terribly concerned about that. Because understand me, please, that even if someone were to abolish Nativity scenes from the face of this earth, and even if all of the Christmas carols were stopped, and even if the name of Jesus were never mentioned in polite and public society, it would not stop Jesus. You can’t stop Jesus. It didn’t work in Herod’s day, and it won’t work now.
That’s the message. You can’t stop Jesus. Nothing can. That’s the message. But how do I make it personal? Let me try this.
I don’t know if you caught it or not, but the title of this sermon, “The Cradle That Rocked the King,” actually has a double meaning. The cradle rocked King Herod because the cradle rocked King Jesus.
Herod was frightened of a baby rocking in a cradle, because the baby rocking in the cradle was none other than the Son of Almighty God. There are people who say that is the height of foolish fancy, to believe that. And I understand that because it really is. It’s foolishness. I mean, after all, an inn in first-century Palestine was not a very pretentious place. Just a few small rooms built around a courtyard. There was a stable nearby for the animals, usually carved out of the side of a hill. There was no food served there. Only fodder for the animals. They always had a fire burning out in the courtyard where you could cook any food that you happen to bring along with you. We had no evidence that Mary and Joseph had any food at all, and they certainly had no place to sleep. And so they simply bedded down in the straw with the animals. Hardly what you would call the birthplace of a king. And swaddling clothes. Do you know what they were? They were a large square of rough cloth with a long diagonal band going off from one corner, and the little baby was placed on the middle of that square. And then the corners were neatly folded up around, and then that diagonal band was wrapped around and around and around and around and around in order to secure the cloth. Hardly what you would call royal robes.
And yet we dare to call this child King. That’s foolishness. That’s ignorance. That’s stupid.
You, know, I think here of a fellow 1,800 years ago. His name was Celsus. He was a bitter enemy of the Christian faith, and he attacked the faith, writing some words that I want to share with you. Listen to what he says. He says, “If you would be Christian, then be ignorant. If you would be a Christian, then be stupid. If you would be a Christian, then be one not worthy of the attention of your betters.” That’s what he said. And you see, he was trying to shame Christians out of the faith. And the funny thing is, the man was dead right, and he never knew it. If you would be a Christian, then be ignorant. Be like Mary, like Joseph, like simple, uneducated shepherds, like brilliant but oh-so-humble wise men.
Because you see, God chose what is foolish in the eyes of the world to confound the wise. God chose what seems to be weak in the eyes of the world, a helpless little baby, in order to overcome the strong. God chose things that cannot be in order to bring to nothing, the things that are. The miracle of Christmas is that those people who know their own weaknesses, their own shortcomings, their own limitations, their own helplessness, their own powerlessness – those people are the ones who ultimately will be the strong and the wise. Those people who know that they simply can’t get through life alone, and thus throw themselves into the arms of their Savior. Those are the people who, in the end, will be triumphant and victorious.
For Christmas tells us it’s so foolish. Christmas tells us that God, Almighty God, came to this earth in the form of a tiny little baby who spent His first hours in an animal’s feeding trough, and who grew up in a little out-of-the-way place called Nazareth as a carpenter’s apprentice, and who lived His adult life with no place to lay His head, without the benefit of money or political power, and who died a shameful criminal’s death, so that you and I might live. And when you wrap your heart and your mind and your life around that, it kind of takes your breath away.
From whence does your help come in life? From the cradle that rocked a king? I hope so. Oh, I hope so.
Let us pray. Almighty and most gracious God, it’s foolishness to think of God being born in a manger. It’s weakness to think of God coming to earth as a tiny, helpless baby. It just cannot be. And yet, God, you take that which is foolish to shame the wise, that which is weak to shame the strong. You take things which cannot be in order to bring to nothing the things that are, that each one of us may live now, in this life, and forever in the life that is to come. Amen.