“Over these next few weeks, as we celebrate the birth of our Savior, as we retell the story of weary travelers, a star, shepherds, Magi, I hope that we also focus ourselves on the message that this child brought to this Earth some 2,000 years ago – a message that says we have to be our brother’s keepers, our sister’s keepers; that we have to reach out to each other, to forgive each other. To let the light of our good deeds shine for all. To care for the sick, and the hungry and the downtrodden. And of course, to love one another, even our enemies, and treat one another the way we would want to be treated ourselves. It’s a message that grounds not just my family’s Christian faith but that of Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, non-believers –Americans of all backgrounds.”
Well, if we take an honest look at the Biblical texts dealing with Christmas, we will find that they have precious little to do with sentimentality, or the embracing of a common morality, or the cultivation of a “let’s all get along” attitude. In the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we read of the visit of the Magi, astrologers from “the east,” probably from Babylon where a quasi-scientific star-gazing discipline was cultivated. They let it be known that they were in search of “the newborn king of the Jews,” whose star they had observed at its rising. When this news was spread about, was it met with delight, enthusiasm, excitement, and sentimental feelings? Hardly. Listen to what Matthew tells us: “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
We must remember that the child is described as a king, which means someone who comes to rule; more precisely, he is characterized as king of the Jews, and this was the very title that Herod claimed. Therefore, Herod, quite correctly, saw him as a threat to his prerogatives and position. But why would the entire capital be in an uproar? We must recall what the Bible consistently says about cities, that is, the way we human beings typically organize ourselves politically, socially, and culturally. Cain, the murderer of Abel, is the founder of cities; Babel, full of arrogance and imperialistic designs, is seen as a typical city; and Jesus himself implied that the devil controls all the cities of the world.
The trembling of all of Jerusalem at the birth of the baby king is a function of the demand that that king will eventually make, the change that his rule will affect. Just to drive this point home, Matthew tells us that Herod, having been duped by the Magi, furiously lashed out, ordering the murder of every boy in Bethlehem under two years of age. Not exactly the reaction of someone who is just delighted that the Christmas season has arrived!
All four of the Gospels play out as a struggle, culminating in the deadly business of the cross, between the worldly powers and the power of Christ. For Jesus is not simply a kindly prophet with a gentle message of forgiveness; he is God coming in person to assume command. He is the Lord. And the entire New Testament couldn’t be clearer that his Lordship means that all those who follow a contrary rule – meaning, pretty much every one of us – are under judgment.