The journey of the Magi in search of the newborn Messiah of Israel is one of the memorable elements of the Christmas story. It has been the focus of both pageant and preaching, and rightly so. It remains a powerful call for wise people of all cultures to seek diligently the Lord of heaven and earth, to worship Him, and to present Him precious gifts.
Yet the same narrative, found in the second chapter of Matthew, has another story. It is not the moving history of three wise men who came to kneel at the side of the holy child. Rather it is the gruesome tale of one wicked man who brought death and grief to the village of Bethlehem.
Herod, king of the Jews, sought to kill all the newborn boys in the village of Bethlehem in an effort to remove a perceived threat to his throne. Although it brought untold suffering to scores of innocent people, it failed to frustrate God’s master plan of salvation. Herod’s wickedness succeeded only in leaving for us a dramatic demonstration of the radical nature of evil, the ubiquitous presence of suffering and the eventual triumph of God’s will.
Evil in the World
The devotion of the wise men is balanced in the popular story by the deceit of Herod. Herod the Great ruled as king of Judea from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. Even the secular historians chronicle his reign as one of uncontrolled wickedness. The Bible confirms this by telling us of his jealousy at hearing the news of the birth of Jesus, of his deception in dealing with the Magi, and of his rage when outwitted by them.
Such meanness is not uncommon among men, but when it resides in people of great power it breeds extraordinary evil. The Scriptures record that when Herod was troubled, all Jerusalem was troubled with him. They knew him too well!
There are two main characters in this story, Joseph and Herod. Joseph is kind, obedient, respectful, caring, willing to sacrifice his interests to the will and word of God. He represents for all of us the goodness and godliness that is possible through the power of God.
Joseph is the model of the one whose mind has been moved by the majesty of God, whose conscience has been cleansed by the word of God, whose habits are full of the love of God. Here is the human person, “born not of blood, nor of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of the will of God.” He demonstrates what God can do in the life that is humble, repentant, full of faith and obedience.
Then there is Herod! Herod is the perfect example of meanness and selfishness. He is a man out of control. All of the baser instincts of the human soul came to public fruition in this godless man.
He bought the right to rule over the Jews. He murdered his mother and sons to remove heirs to the throne. He ordered that upon his death his soldiers should proceed with a mass murder to insure that there would be grief in the land during his own funeral. Here is a man of wickedness doomed for eternal damnation.
Herod has many brothers! We live in a world full of Herods. In places of power, they murder millions in Siberia and allow children to starve in Ethiopia; create death squads in Central America, and sponsor hijackers in the Middle East. Around the world; and around the corner! Citizens become spies in Washington, mothers sell babies to buy crack. I have not the time nor do the papers have space to adequately chronicle the radical wickedness of the human spirit.
Herod demonstrates the radical nature of sin. He is evidence of the seeds of sin in full bloom. And what a repulsive sight! But before we get carried away with horrible Herod, let us remember that the roots of such sinful ways run deep into our own souls.
There is a little Herod in all of us. No, there is a lot of Herod! The selfish, sinful streak is deep and wide in your spirit and mine. We camouflage it with culture and cleverness. But even this cover-up affirms the Bible’s true word: The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.
You want to celebrate Christmas? Start with a frank confession of your own sin. Humble yourself before God. Contemplate the need that brought Christ into the world. Remember Herod and repent. If sin were not so desperate, there would have been no nativity in Bethlehem. And if there is no repentance in your life, you know nothing of the true spirit of the season.
The wages of sin is death, the Bible tells us, and certainly more than one family paid for the cruel tyranny of Herod the Great. In this other story of the wise men, Herod is outwitted. In a rage he orders his underlings to murder all baby boys in the region. Certainly, he thought, such a mass execution would extend also to the boy born to be king.
The playful chatter of small children is transformed into the sobs of grief-stricken parents. Matthew quotes an apt description from another time of tragedy: “A voice is heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted because they were no more.”
The wailings and loud lamentations in the region of Bethlehem remind us of the suffering of the world. Even as we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, we are conscious of the grief and hurts of the world. In one ear we hear the angels singing in glorious praise; in the other ear we hear the people weeping in bitter agony. This is the perennial condition of the world in which we live: exceeding joy and loud lamentation.
In the midst of suffering, Jesus Christ was born. Immanuel. God is with us, in our suffering, in our grief, in our tragedy. “The people who have walked in darkness, upon them a light has shined.” The Lord of glory has entered the world of gore.
From the very beginning our Lord was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. He knew the sorrows of people. He went about doing good. He rebuked evil in priests and potentates. He cast out demons and bound the spirit of Beelzebub. He healed the sick and comforted the grieving.
And Jesus wept. When faced with the death of a dear friend, when surveying the rebellious city of Zion, when kneeling in Gethsemane to battle spiritual wickedness in high place, He wept. Jesus knew the troubles of this world.
Jesus came to the world full of sin and suffering. He could have been born in Bhopal, or Mexico, or Siberia, or Harlem. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, the weak, the dying, the suffering of all ages, all races, all places.
We can celebrate Christmas by opening our ears to the wailings and loud lamentations around us. Do not let the rejoicing of church choirs and Christmas bells drown the sobs of people who are lonely, sick and suffering. Christmas is a time to renew our calling to follow Christ into the real world. Christmas is a time to obey Christ: clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned and listen to the lonely.
If the good news of Jesus is good news indeed, it must lift us from the complacency of the middle class with our pursuit of profit, pleasure, promotions and possessions. It must take us out of our comfortable homes and churches to serve the world. A few baskets of food at Christmas will not do. This is a challenge to our very lifestyle.
The Triumph of God
This, the other story of the wise men, is full of sin and sorrow. But, praise God, it also gives us reason to rejoice. The wise men from the East proved wiser than that fox from Jerusalem! The best laid plans of wicked men are not sufficient to frustrate the purpose of Almighty God.
It was, in one respect, not an even-handed contest. A king, with thousands of armed soldiers and countless spies, against a young couple, a small child and several foreigners. How like God to select just such a time to turn the tables!
God sent His messengers, angels, to warn Joseph, and Jesus escaped the demonic clutches of Herod. The will of God triumphed over the schemes of man.
This near tragedy at His nativity has a striking parallel thirty-three years later. Another Herod plotted to rid himself of this same menace. Only this time there were no visions, no last minute escapes, and Herod, finally, got the man! But on the third day, before the rising of the sun, God raised Him from the dead! God triumphed again!! The foxes and fiends of this world cannot frustrate the purpose of God.
This Christmas, celebrate the triumph of God. The world is full of evil; the world is full of suffering. But the world is also full of the glorious victory of the almighty and everlasting God. The Christmas story is only the prelude to the power of God. He was born! He was raised from the dead! He is coming again!
So bring on the music, the laughing, the festive spirit. “For unto us is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Let us seek Him, worship Him, and present Him precious gifts, to the glory of God.