When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Matthew 2:3
One of the long, drawn-out religio-cultural battles is over Christmas. In fact, it’s called The War on Christmas. Conservative commentators claim the festival is facing an existential threat, evidenced by city councils’ failure to erect nativity scenes on the front lawns of Democrat-controlled town halls. Worse still is the new secular greeting which substitutes ‘Merry Christmas’ for what was originally intended as a more Jewish-friendly ‘Happy Holidays’.
Honestly, I think there is a far more dangerous war going on against Christmas and it is not being done by atheists. It is being waged by Christians. Call it sentimentalism. We have so tamed the story of God becoming a man that we have emasculated the radical narrative of the birth of God among us.
We are prone to a shrug of the shoulders with an “awe isn’t he cute” while we sip our hot cocoa and nibble on our popcorn cake. But often we fail to allow this story to be what it is; and what Herod knew it was—daring and dangerous. And as a result, it doesn’t wind up to be comforting in any deep way for us.
While some are desperate to put Christ back into Christmas, I want to put Herod back into Christmas. Herod notices what you and I often slide right by. That this little dimpled-handed baby is the world’s king.
Why is it that upon hearing of Jesus’ birth Herod tries to sniff out Jesus’ location so that he can snuff out Jesus’ infant life? Why does he go on to brutally butcher Bethlehem’s babies?
Because Herod sees one of those babies as a rival to his throne. And he is absolutely right. See, this story of Jesus’ birth is a story of two colliding kings and kingdoms.
And it is even underscored in the way that Matthew writes this story. In all of this chapter, every time Matthew refers to Herod it is always “King” Herod until the Magi visit Jesus and pay Him homage. And then every time after that King Herod is no longer “King” Herod, but just Herod.
Jesus comes to the world humbly, but not modestly. We must do business with Jesus as king, as ruler of galaxies and governments and your life and mine or we will miss him and not do business with him at all.
There is a low-grade resistance in my life to allowing and acknowledging Jesus as King of my own life. I have a tendency to want to compartmentalize Jesus’ claims over me. I sometimes say to myself, “I will embrace Jesus’ requirements of holiness in my life and yours, but I will ignore His explicit call to abandon my compulsion towards anxiety and worry in my life. I will be obedient to the sexual ethic that Jesus teaches about, but I will quietly ignore His teachings about ‘loving my enemies.'”
But the truth is if Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, I don’t get to make Him my assistant in managing my life on my terms.
A Different Kind of King
I struggle with authority. Just ask my wife. Putting on a seat belt seems like a violation of some constitutional right.
And to be fair many of us have been abused by much of the authority that we have encountered in our lives. Many parents, coaches, teachers, pastors, policemen, and others in authority have completely and horribly abused others with their position. So, it is understandable that some of us struggle with trusting authority.
But when we look at the person of Jesus, we see that He is an authority that is completely different from any kind of authority figure we have ever encountered. He turns our notions about power and authority and even God Himself completely on their heads.
Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is the world’s King. Things might look difficult, but He is in charge. And how does he do that? By sending a Brad Pitt figure riding on a white steed of victory into the most prestigious city on earth?
He comes to us by stooping down into vulnerability. By submitting to all of the world’s darkness, violence, and pain. Jesus is a king who wins by losing. He is a King who rules by serving and suffering.
After summing up the blood-soaked scene in Bethlehem, Matthew tells us this…
17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”
God shows us that he is the kind of King that invites us to be real with our sorrows and we can approach him with the world’s pain, tears, and desperate pleas for help. A lament is a form of praying to God that runs all the way through the scriptures. Especially in the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets.
For some time now I have been praying the words of the Psalms as a part of my daily prayers. If you read them long enough you will come across words like, “God, why did you walk off and leave me? God, I am furious with you. God, don’t you care about me? God, I wish you would just kill this person.”
When you first read those lines and start to pray them back to God you wonder if you are allowed to say those words. They seem to be so guttural, brutal, and harsh. But apparently, we are allowed and even encouraged to do so.
When we come to God, even in brutal honesty, we are lamenting to a God who tells us all through the Scriptures that He is deeply invested in this world and cares about what goes on down here—and wants to hear from us. If I were to pray honestly to God I would need to pray these kinds of prayers long before I pray anything else.
If you continue to read in Jeremiah 31, where Matthew lifts this line for his story, you would read about this person, Rachel, and discover that she is extremely distraught about those whom she loves. She is so pained that she can’t be comforted. But that doesn’t stop God or even slow him down.
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future,
says the Lord… Jeremiah 31:16-17a (NRVS)
This wonderful promise tucked away in that dusty Old Testament book and this story of Jesus at work to rescue the world, on the run from an awful tyrant, and in the midst of the horrible tragedy in Bethlehem—shows us that we can be assured that God is near us and at work in us and in the world.
Eleven days before Christmas in 2012 Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered about the same amount of children that we know historically that Herod killed in Bethlehem.
In the days that followed, as people reeled with shock and grief, they also struggled with how to feel during the festive season of Christmas. It was during those days that a columnist for the New York Times named Ross Douthat, who is a Christian, wrote an article and I want to share a portion with you now…
The New Testament…seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.
In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.
That is the kind of Christmas spirit that we need in Paris, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino, and in your private life. Realistic hope about a God who comes close to our violence, injustice, vulnerability, and mortality. This is the good news that followers of Jesus can hold on to in our violent times.
We worship a God who knows what it is like to be from a little town where there was a senseless tragedy and horrific loss of life. I hang onto that reality about God when I struggle to see hope in my world. God knows what it is liked to be displaced, poor, and a nobody.
Jesus is a King, but a different kind of King.