Are you looking forward to Christmas?

An advent reflection

Are you looking forward to Christmas? That was the question put to a number of Kiwis in a Readers’ Digest survey. The responses were interesting:

“I feel good about the coming festivities” 55%
“I feel excited”  38%
“Christmas makes me feel spiritual”  17%
“I am unbothered by Christmas”  31%
“I feel apprehensive”    10%
“Christmas makes me feel lonely”      3%

The coming of Christmas each year produces very different reactions. It was no different that first Christmas. Matthew’s account shows that it provoked two strikingly different reactions.


The worship of the magi

On the one hand there were those who welcomed and worshiped the newborn king: the wise men or the magi (Matthew 2:1-15). We get the words “magic” from this term. These were magicians, astrologers, practitioners of the occult. These were engaged in practices that were forbidden among the Jews. They probably came from what is now Iraq, traveling hundreds of kilometers across inhospitable desert to find and worship this newborn king of the Jews. Why? Well, it was commonly believed among the gentile world that the birth of great leaders was heralded by the appearance of a star or some such heavenly phenomenon. And these magi might have seen such a star. Or at least they think they did. There’s been a great deal of debate over what these magi actually saw. One suggestion is that it was a supernova, an exploding star. Others have suggested it was Halley’s Comet, which was seen and recorded in 11 BC. The most likely suggestion, though, is that it was actually a conjunction of two planets. Three times in the year 7 BC – around the time Jesus was born – Jupiter and Saturn came into line with each other in the constellation of Pisces.

Now this is interesting. Pisces was believed by astrologers to mark the end of the sun’s old course and the beginning of the new. Jupiter was the royal planet. And Saturn had long been a symbol of Israel. So, the conjunction of these planets, giving the impression of a new star, would have meant to any competent astrologer that a new age was beginning in which the world would be ruled by a king from Israel. In fact, the Roman historian Tacitus actually says that, “There was a powerful persuasion that at this very time the east was to grow powerful and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire universal empire” (Histories, 5.13). So it’s not at all surprising that these magi – these pagan astrologers from Persia – would undertake the long and dangerous journey to Judea in search of this new-born baby.

What is surprising is that God would choose to reveal the birth of his Son in this way to these men. What is surprising is that pagan magicians, practitioners of the occult, would be some of the first to worship Jesus. But then maybe that’s half of the message Matthew is trying to convey. God often works in surprising ways. God is often speaking to people about Jesus in ways we’d never expect. There are countless stories to substantiate this. I think of Don Richardson, the cross-cultural missionary who wrote a well-known book called Peace Child. Years later he wrote a less well-known book entitled Eternity in Their Hearts. In it he tells about the Karen people in Burma. They had a legend that one day a teacher of truth would arrive with a black object under his arm. When the first missionary arrived with a black Bible, the Karen listened with intense interest – and hundreds of thousands became followers of Jesus as a result. It seems that generations before the arrival of the first Christian missionaries, God was speaking to them, drawing them to Jesus.

China has one of the oldest languages in the world, and yet there appear to be hints of the Bible – God’s word – sown into the written script. For example, researchers have looked at the word “create.” It’s made up of characters that mean dust, mouth and movement or life. The researchers thought immediately of Genesis: “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed (with his mouth) into his nostrils the breath of life.” The Chinese characters for the word “boat” are made up from a number of other characters meaning vessel, person and eight.  Noah’s ark, the first great boat or vessel, had how many people? Eight. I don’t speak Chinese. But I understand there are Chinese people who are stunned by all this. It seems like God was preparing them through their ancient written language to receive in due time his fuller revelation in the Bible.

One more example. Every year Muslims spend the month of Ramadan fasting and praying. I’ve been told it’s not uncommon during that time for Muslims to have dreams in which Jesus appears to them and says, “I am the only way to Allah.” I wonder if those magi from the east were representatives of all those to whom God is already speaking. I wonder if Matthew in this story is encouraging us to not only expect God to keep his promises and to be working steadily and continuously in our lives, but also to expect that God is at work in the lives of those around us. To expect that God is and has been speaking in surprising ways to those who we’d think are far from Jesus. To expect that maybe even one of your friends, one of your family, could end up kneeling before Jesus in worship this Christmas, this coming year – just like the magi.

The wrath of the king

But on that first Christmas not everyone fell on their knees in worship. Verse 3 says that “when King Herod heard [about a baby born to be king of the Jews] he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” To understand why Herod was so upset about this news, we need to understand something of the political context to this story. Herod the Great was appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 BC. In many ways his reign was enormously successful. He transformed Judea. He built temples, stadia, palaces, cities. But all this development cost a lot of money. So Herod taxed his people, heavily. Some historians estimate that at the time of Jesus’ birth the Jews were living under an 80-90% tax rate. They could hardly feed their families. They were losing their land to debt. Not surprisingly, they hated Herod, and longed for a Messiah who would overthrow Herod. That explains why Herod and his court is so disturbed by news that this baby has been born. If word of a Messiah got out, there could be an uprising. So what does Herod do? What happens?

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
   “A voice is heard in Ramah,
      weeping and great mourning,
   Rachel weeping for her children
      and refusing to be comforted,
   because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

Now we have no independent record of this particular atrocity, and some people have wondered whether it really happened. Was Jesus’ life really endangered here? Was Herod really bestial enough to have ordered a massacre like this? The short answer is “Yes.” Herod could be a monster. When he won control of Judea, for example, he slaughtered every remaining member of the Hasmonean dynasty that had ruled before him. When he had a dispute with the Jewish religious establishment, he executed more than half the Sanhedrin. When he became suspicious of his own family, he had his wife killed, along with his mother-in-law, and three of his sons. And when Herod was about to die, he gave orders that all the leading citizens of Jerusalem were to be assembled in the hippodrome and killed as soon as his own death was announced – just to make sure that people would mourn his passing. Herod was ruthless, and he ruthlessly eliminated every potential rival to this throne. Except for this one. Except for this baby. The text says (vv. 19-23):

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: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

So Matthew stresses that nothing in this story happened by accident. Just like Pharaoh before him, Herod tried to kill God’s special instrument to save his people. But God was in control, protecting this little baby, accomplishing his purposes for Israel and the world. God is sovereign. In all things – even bad things – he works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.

I think of Dr Everett Koop, a highly respected surgeon at the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. He pioneered a number of ways to save and repair premature and damaged babies. In 1980 Ronald Reagan nominated him as the Surgeon General of the United States. But Koop and his wife arrived in Washington like tourists who accidentally stumble into a war zone. The political establishment and the Washington media launched a savage attack on Koop’s Christian faith, his competence, even his sanity. One afternoon, when he arrived home, he saw his wife, Betty, standing in the living room reading the latest brutal article in the Washington Post, with tears falling down her cheeks. “I don’t need this,” Koop fumed, “I’ve never been treated like this and it’s wrong to put my family though it.”

Betty, however, gently reminded him that if God is all powerful and all loving, then he must somehow have a purpose even in the midst of this conflict, and he would bring good out of this. So, for the next nine months, while the conflict raged and Koop was unable to commence his official duties, he graciously stood his ground, refraining from lashing back, earning the respect of many. And he used that time to look at the nations’ health problems and wonder what he would do about them when he was finally let loose. During those nine months he developed a detailed agenda, something that no Surgeon General had ever had before. In the end, that period of acute conflict and frustration made possible every single thing he was able to accomplish in office.

Conclusion

God is sovereign. That’s Matthew’s message here. It would have been enormously encouraging to Matthew’s first readers. They were starting to feel the pressure of persecution and resistance, and Matthew is saying, “Whatever opposition or difficulties you face, God can bring good out of it.” I find that enormously encouraging, because sometimes it seems to me that the church in New Zealand stands no show against the forces of consumerism and secularism in our society today. Sometimes the church feels so small and frail, like that little baby born in Bethlehem. Sometimes, as the year comes to an end, I find myself worrying about what lies ahead. You may be worried, too. But the truth is, just as God had his sovereign hand on Jesus and on his people that first Christmas, he has his hand on us. And so the appropriate response as we come to Christmas is with the magi, on our knees in worship.

Father in heaven, thank you for giving us Jesus. Thank you for this story that reminds us that you are at work in the lives of people who seem far from you. You have been speaking to them. Draw them closer to Jesus.

And we thank you for the reminder that you are the real king. Not Herod. You are in control of this world. You have your hand on this church, and on each one of our lives. And so as we come to the end of this year, and face another one – with all its uncertainties – we choose again to trust you as king of our lives, king of this world.

 

Written by John Tucker