The Faces and Places of Christmas: Jerusalem And The Jealous King
December 24, 2000 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Matthew 2:13-23
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. It has always seemed to me that life finds its deepest meaning in those moments when our breath is taken away. I am referring to those times in life which are so amazing, so inspiring, so surprising, so uplifting, so wondrous, so wonderful that we literally gasp in response. Yes, I think those are the most meaningful times in life—those times when our breath is taken away.
Christmas is such a time. I think that’s why I love it so. It is a fantastic, breath-taking time when shepherds out on hillsides hear anthems sung by angels, when mysterious dignitaries from foreign lands come journeying across desert wastes laden with precious gifts and when the Son of God Himself is put to bed in an animal’s feed trough. Ah yes, Christmas is a time of amazing things, surprising things, wonderful things—things which cannot be but are.
Here is one such story.
Who ever would have thought, for example, that Christmas would show us a king sent into a blinding rage by a tiny, helpless newborn baby—one of the world’s most powerful rulers plunged into paranoiac fear by a child’s soft crying in a cradle? Why usually kings are troubled by malcontents who are capable of breeding insurrection or by slipping percentages in the public opinion polls, or by an alien army amassing its troops along the national border. But a king troubled by a baby just days old? How surprising! Yet here it is in the account of the first Christmas—the story of an innocent baby born in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem, who became a source of torment for a powerful, yet jealous king ensconced amidst the splendors of a palace in the city of Jerusalem.
The king’s name was King Herod. By some strange twist of irony, he is labeled in history as “Herod the Great”—but let me tell you, he was anything but great. He was the ruler of Judea. He was king both by law and in fact, and yet he was not at all secure in that position. He was vulnerable, as all of us are, I suppose, to anyone who could do a better job, but perhaps Herod was more vulnerable than most, for there was little good in the man. He was a cold, cruel, cunning, ruthless, amoral old fox, who ruled on the basis of fear, deceit and violence. He was guilty of murdering many people, including at least one of his wives and three of his sons. To give you one quick insight into the slimeball nature of his character, I would remind you that King Herod, in order to be certain that there would be mourning in the land on the occasion of his death, ordered seized and detained in prison a large group of prominent Jewish leaders, with the command that at the moment he died, they were to be executed, thus plunging the land into mourning. That should give you an idea of what kind of man he was—and to think they called him “Herod the Great”.
Need I tell you that he was hated, so hated in fact that rumors were constantly circulating about attempts to overthrow him. Whenever these rumors reached his ears, they never failed to trouble him. That’s why when the most serious rumor of them all was being circulated—the rumor that the promised Messiah, the King of all kings had been born, King Herod sprang into action. He tracked down the source of the rumor, in this case, some Wise Men from the east. According to them, a wandering star which they had been following signaled the birth of the new world ruler. Herod was badly shaken by the news, but he was still sly and crafty. So he said to these Wise Men that when they found the newborn King, they were to let Herod know so that he too could pay his homage. Of course, it was just a trick—just another twisted scheme from a devious, deceitful mind. Amazing, isn’t it that Herod, who was himself so untrusting and so untrustworthy, suddenly would place his trust in total strangers to bring him the information he had to have. Well, that’s an indication of how desperate he really was. But, of course, when his trick backfired and he couldn’t find the child, in a jealous, irrational rage, he ordered the death of every young male child in and around Bethlehem. While innocent children then died, Herod’s bloody rampage did not accomplish its goal. Jesus was beyond his reach.
That’s the story, but what’s the message?
I think the story reminds us that the people of this world are in one camp or another. Either they love Jesus or they hate Him. Either they are for Him or they are against Him. I know that some may say that there are legions of people who are neutral on the issue—they are indifferent. But friends, neutrality and indifference are just subtle forms of opposition. Ideally, the Bible tells us every knee should bow and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord of life and the Lord of the world. But that wasn’t true in the days of King Herod and it isn’t true even today.
Boil the message of Christmas down to its essence and it declares that all of our human power, whether regal or personal is temporary—and in the end it is meaningless and worthless. But the power of Jesus Christ is something quite different. For it is the glory of our Lord that He takes the lives of those who don’t seem too prominent in the earthly scheme of things and He transforms them into nothing less than the sons and daughters of Almighty God. He gives to those who get no respect a sense of self-respect. He gives to those who have no life the gift of eternal life. He tells those who feel that they don’t really matter to others that they matter supremely to God. He tells those who in the eyes of the world are worthless that in the eyes of God they are worth the life of God’s own Son. Jesus Christ, manger-born is nothing less than the most powerful, the most uplifting, the most enabling, the most ennobling force ever turned loose in the world.
That’s why King Herod was so troubled. That’s why King Herod had the babies killed. Give him credit at least for being smart enough to realize that what he was about and what Jesus was about could not peacefully co-exist in the same world. One had to go. That’s also why the people on Good Friday cried: “Give us Barabbas. We would rather have him loose than Jesus.” That’s why Pontius Pilate never lifted a carefully-washed finger to save Him. That’s why the truth of Jesus Christ troubles the agents of power in our own day, whether their power comes from politics or economics or just an inflated ego. That’s why the message of the church so discomforts those who put their trust in their own resources rather than the resources of God. And that’s why Nativity scenes in public places and children singing Christmas carols in school are such a threat to some people in our time.
Mark this down: Christmas is more than sticky, sweet sentimentalism, more than a frivolous birthday celebration, more than a harmless myth to be tolerated, like “The Tales of Mother Goose.” Christmas is a choice. I want you to understand that. I don’t want you to go skipping and singing your way through Christmas this year without understanding that Christmas demands a decision—and that decision is the most important decision you will ever make in your life. Either you are for Jesus—or you are against Him. Herod made his decision. He knew that he and Jesus could not exist together. One of them had to go. So Herod tried to stop Jesus, but he couldn’t do it. And I tell you that is why I am not terribly concerned about the concentrated effort in our country today to transform Christmas into just one more secular holiday. You can’t stop Jesus. Ban all the Nativity scenes and Christmas carols and references to Jesus you wish, it won’t stop Him. It didn’t work in the time of King Herod- it won’t work now.
On this Christmas Eve, let me remind you of what Christmas is all about. Christmas declares that we are of infinite value to God. He has made us in His image. We are the objects of His seeking, saving love. He has taken our human flesh and become like one of us in Jesus. And this Jesus was born and lived and grew only to die in order that you and I might live. To think that God loves us like that! You know, when you confront that in your life…well…
It kind of takes your breath away!