I haven’t had time to enter into the fray here, so I thought I’d drop by leave a Christmas message here. I know our audience isn’t always motivated unless there’s something to fight about, but this is what I’m writing and working on these days.
Do you ever wonder during all the hullaballoo of the Christmas season if anyone understands what the season is all about? We celebrate frenetically but seem to have little clue about the season’s true meaning. This phenomenon is not new. There is little evidence that those who experienced the events of the first Christmas fully understood what was going on around them. The residents of Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph sought refuge, could have had a front-row seat to the birth of the Messiah but were clueless. The intelligentsia of Israel were ignorant and blind. Six miles away a climactic event was happening, and they were unaware.
Then, there is the perennial question. “Mary, did you know?” Of course, she knew much. probably more than anyone else. Her son was the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God, but there was much she did not understand. The shepherds? They rejoiced at the angel’s announcement and saw the baby, but then what? Did they continue to seek the baby or was that glorious night just an exciting blip on the screen before they returned to their dull lives? We will only know in heaven. The Magi? They journeyed and paid homage to the young boy, bowing low and giving gifts to the one born king of the Jews, but did they understand the nature of his kingdom? Isn’t it likely they thought they were honoring a political ruler instead of God incarnate? Another mystery.
Did anyone, other than Mary, have a real understanding of who Jesus was and the “real meaning of Christmas?” I will offer a suggestion today; one you may not like. There was one person who understood Christmas almost as well as Mary and demonstrated it by his evil actions as she did by her loyal service to God. Hear me out before you pick up stones to stone me.
Let’s start, though, with some background and analysis of the Birth Narratives.
Chronology of Jesus’ Birth Narratives
The Gospels record three accounts of the birth of Jesus. Mark picks up Jesus’s story when he is an adult, but Matthew, Luke, and John present unique perspectives – utterly unique. John speaks of our Christmas God, giving a heavenly perspective as the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Luke presents a Christmas Savior, describing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to save the world. Here, we examine Matthew’s presentation of the Christmas King, where Jesus is the Messiah, anointed by God to take David’s throne and rule the world. Each Gospel writer picks the stories that demonstrate the theme he is telling.
Luke 1 begins with Gabriel appearing to Zechariah to announce the birth of John, then to Mary, telling her that she will bear a son. Mary visits Elizabeth, giving the powerful “Magnificat,” declaring her faith in God. Luke 1 ends with the story of John the Baptist’s birth. Matthew 1:18-25 repeats some details from Luke 1, but from Joseph’s side. He is upset because his betrothed is with child, though she claims to be a virgin. He is going to divorce her quietly until the angel appears with the full story. This may have happened while Mary was at Elizabeth’s. Joseph takes Mary as his wife but they remain chaste until Jesus is born. Luke 2:1-7 fleshes out the story, describing the trip to Bethlehem and Jesus’ birth. Then, Luke 2:8-20 tells of the angels appearing to the shepherds on the hillside to announce the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and the shepherds’ visit to the newborn Jesus. Luke 2 also records Jesus’ visit to the Temple on the eighth day and the meetings with Simeon and Anna. After several months, Magi appear, according to Matthew 2:1-12, disturbing the peace of Jerusalem, eventually finding the little boy Jesus, now a toddler in a house in Bethlehem, and paying homage to him. Herod orders the boys of Bethlehem killed, but God warns Joseph and they flee to Egypt. Sometime later, they return to Nazareth where they live until Jesus is around thirty and begins his public ministry. Luke does give us the story of Jesus’ trip to the Temple at age 12 but from the Birth Narratives until Jesus’ ministry commences, his life is shrouded in mystery.
Clues from Matthew
The stories from Matthew’s gospel – Joseph and the angel, the virgin birth, Herod, the atrocity, the flight to Egypt – are familiar to all of us. Details of the Magi remain mysterious but we know the broad brushstrokes. Today we look for clues in Matthew’s Gospel that will tell us the theme of his Birth Narrative. There are two key truths. The first is not subtle, revealing who Jesus is.
Jesus the Messiah
Look at the genealogy that begins his Gospel. “This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham.” Jesus the Messiah.
Look on to Matthew 1:16-18. The theme is undeniable there.
“Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah. All those listed above include fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah. This is how Jesus the Messiah was born.”
Seeing a pattern? Jesus is the Messiah, the one promised in the ages, the descendant of David, anointed by God to be the king of God’s people. So many concepts are wrapped up in that term, but chief among them is that Jesus would be the heir of David’s line, anointed as king of God’s people. As Samuel anointed David, God anointed Jesus. Matthew’s genealogy is careful to track Jesus as a descendent of all the kings of Israel.
Jesus is the Messiah, the long-awaited hope of Israel, anointed by God to be king.
Jesus the King
Matthew’s second theme builds on the first, with more subtle clues. Look at Matthew 2:1. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod.” There was already a king on the throne when Jesus was born, a usurper, not one in David’s line, one with no divine right to rule, but he was there. The throne was occupied. Luke 1:5 has a similar statement. Matthew’s genealogy tracks Jesus’ line through David and all the kings of Israel and Judah – Jesus was an heir of the kings. When the angel spoke to Joseph, in Matthew 1:18-25, he addressed him as a “Son of David,” emphasizing the royal line, then he upped the ante. Not only was he in David’s line, but he was the Son of God, the King of kings – Immanuel, God with us. His birth was a miracle that would bring God to earth in a human body.
Enter the Magi. They saw a celestial sign in the stars that identified Jesus as no ordinary baby, fulfilling ancient prophecy. Daniel or one of his friends, or another Israelite prophet during the captivity gave the prophecy and these wise men saw it and understood. Was it some kind of constellation? Perhaps. A display of angelic glory in the sky? The fact that the Magi were led from Jerusalem to Bethlehem makes this likely. Only glory will reveal this for certain. Either way, they knew a king had been born, though they might not have known the true nature of his kingdom. They showed up in Bethlehem and set the town ablaze in gossip. These strange men were asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
This is Matthew’s theme, his point. Jesus was the anointed one, the Messiah, sent by God to rule this world as King of kings and Lord of lords. He would not take this world by political intrigue or military force, but by laying down his life for the sins of the world and rising from the dead to defeat death and hell and sin and Satan, but he was the anointed ruler of this world nonetheless – the King of Israel, the Lord of All.
If we fail to understand Christmas as the birth of the King of kings, we do not understand it at all. “The government will be upon his shoulders.” “He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.” Christmas is about God sending his King into this world.
Herod had a problem with the baby. He understood who the baby was. The words “newborn king” brought bile up from inside him. He’d plotted and murdered and manipulated and politicked to gain his throne, but he knew the throne of Israel wasn’t his. He was Idumean, not Israelite. He was powerful and a capable ruler, but the throne wasn’t his. He knew Jesus was a threat to his throne.
He gathered the scribes of Israel and found out where the Messiah was to be born and sent the Magi on their way with his best wishes, but his heart was plotting evil. His intent was to do what men in his position did – anything to preserve his throne. If he had to kill to keep himself on the throne, kill he would. Innocent children would not stand between him and his throne.
The Man who Understood Christmas
Here it is. Herod understood Jesus better than most people do, even a lot of so-called Christians. Many people, who call themselves Christians, act as though they can celebrate Christmas, and remain firmly seated on the throne of their own lives. They believe Jesus will somehow allow them to do as they please, live as they want, follow their hearts, and still be “good Christians.” Jesus is there to cheer them on as they seek their best lives, as they follow their dreams, as they do whatever they want. The concept of relinquishing the throne of their lives to Jesus is foreign. They wear crosses, claim Christ, and abuse God’s grace freely. Herod knew better. He knew that a king had been born and there’s only ONE throne. Herod was evil but he understood better than a lot of church-going respectable people, religious people. When the king is born all of our thrones are threatened.
At the heart, Christmas is a war. Herod had a throne, and he wasn’t planning to give it up. Along comes this baby who was “born the King,” born to take the throne on which Herod sat. He understood very clearly that the baby in Bethlehem was a threat to the life he was living. That baby declared war on life as he knew it. There cannot be two kings. Herod made a bad choice and deserves his infamy, but he understood who Jesus was.
Jesus wasn’t coming to earth, the first time, to sit on a political throne, but to build a spiritual kingdom, to save souls, defeat sin, and conquer death and hell. He will rule the world with truth and grace and “He will reign forever and ever and ever.” He declared war on the rebellion we began in the Garden when we joined the enemy’s uprising and came to restore his righteous rule by occupying the thrones of our hearts as Lord.
Only one person can sit on any throne!
Applying the Truth
The “real meaning of Christmas” is about a King coming as Lord of all. He didn’t come to pose for Christmas cards. He is not our motivational guru or our life coach, helping us reach our life goals, achieve our potential, or have our best life now. He is not our copilot to help us navigate through life’s rough patches. He came to declare war on our rebellious hearts and take the throne. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. Nothing less than that is acceptable.
Christmas is a spiritual war. Yes, Jesus came to tear down the throne of Satan – hallelujah, amen – but he also came to fight our rebellious hearts and demand we yield fully to him.
The best way to celebrate Christmas is to abdicate. Renounce your right to rule over your own life – body, soul, and spirit – and yield everything to Jesus Christ.
Both Mary and Herod understood Jesus. When Gabriel described how totally God was going to both honor Mary and disrupt her life, she responded, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Herod went the other way in response to the Lordship of Christ. When you truly understand who Jesus is and why he came, there are only two genuine responses – the Mary response or the Herod reaction. You can serve Jesus or fight him.
Jesus doesn’t affirm our choices or tell us to follow our truth. We amen that idea when certain big sins and perversions are at stake, but it is just as true for conservative, church-going folks. We cannot demand that God cheer on our preferences, passions, politics, or opinions. We abdicate the throne of our lives and kneel before the newborn king, now the Risen Lord of all.
Today, as you celebrate Christmas, you are either a Mary or a Herod. Either you have abdicated the throne and said “Lord, do in my life whatever you want,” as Mary did, or you are determined to live life your way and do your thing.
The King was born into a rebellious world as Lord. He came into the darkness and shined the light. He came into death and brought life. He came into despair and brought hope. He came into evil and brought righteousness.
The only proper response is to abdicate, bow your knee, and worship.