Anglican bishop Tom Wright tells of preaching at a big Christmas service where a well-known historian, also well-known for his skepticism about Christianity, was persuaded to attend. After the service, the historian approached Wright, “all smiles,” he says.
“I’ve finally worked out why people like Christmas,” he told Wright. "Really?" Wright wondered and asked the historian to explain. “A baby threatens no one," said the skeptic. "So the whole thing is a happy event which means nothing at all.”
Wright says, “I was dumbfounded. At the heart of the Christmas story…is a baby who poses such a threat to the most powerful man around that he kills a whole village [of other babies] in order to try to get rid of him…”
The king who wanted to get rid of Jesus was Herod the Great. He was the father of the Herod (the one also known as Herod Antipas) who saw to it that Jesus would be crucified some twenty-eight to thirty-three years later.
This Herod wasn’t a nice guy either. He was so intent on holding onto power during his lifetime that he had two of his sons murdered. He commanded that when he died, one member of every family in Jericho, where he ruled, would be killed. That way, he reasoned, everyone would be sad when he died. So, his decision to take the lives of the innocent baby boys in Bethlehem was consistent with his warped character.
But let’s be clear about something. Unlike Wright’s skeptical historian, Herod believed there was a God Who had promised to send a new king for the world. He even believed that the prophecies had come to pass in Bethlehem. But he didn’t like any of that! As novelist Frederick Buechner has written, “For all his enormous power, [Herod] knew there was somebody in diapers more powerful still.”
Herod’s view of Christmas then, wasn’t that different from that of many people. He was certain that all the events of the first Christmas that you and I believe in happened in precisely the way we say. He would even agree with us that all these Christmas happenings were from God. But that didn’t matter to Herod. He was the king and he didn’t even want anyone, not even God, to replace him!
So, in an attempt to thwart God’s power, Herod ordered the murder of every child in Bethlehem two years of age or younger. That this was horrible, any decent person will readily agree. It puts Herod in company of Stalin, Hitler, and other tyrants of history.
But on this fifth day of Christmas, as we prepare to move into a new year, let me ask you something. I need to ask it of myself all the time. It's this: Who is the king of your life? Who’s in charge?
You see, it’s one thing to believe that the baby born in Bethlehem two-thousand years ago was God-in-the-flesh, Who came to our world in order to die and rise for us. Many believe that as much as Herod the Great believed that. But the real question that confronts us is whether we’re willing to let Jesus be our King, the final authority over our lives. We may not slaughter the innocents; but are there ways in which you and I try to prevent Jesus from taking the throne of our lives? And are we willing to surrender to Jesus, giving our obedience to Him?
At 7:30 on a Christmas Eve morning a few years ago, I sat at my computer, writing. I’d been up for an hour. The day before had been spent digging my family out of the snowstorm and helping some neighbors do the same. I was intent that this day, I would get my sermon done. You see, that particular year, Christmas fell on a Saturday and I didn’t want the need for a Sunday sermon hanging over my head all Christmas day.
It was then that I heard the sound of a car obviously stuck in the snow. I looked out a window and saw that our neighbor had backed her car into a pile of ice created at the end of her driveway by the township snow plow.
For a few moments, as I watched my neighbor’s tires spinning in the ice ditch in which she was becoming increasingly buried, a little drama played out in my conscience. I had my agenda, after all. I’d done a lot of pushing of cars the day before. I was in my warm house, the king of Mark World. If I slithered away from my window, my neighbor would never know that I simply chose to ignore her situation.
But then, things that God has taught us all in Christ came to mind. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of My family, you did it to Me.” “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you...”
I also thought of Joseph in our Gospel lesson, who, in spite of the danger risked his own life so that Christ could fulfill His mission on earth. I thought of Christ Himself, God-enfleshed, Who left the comforts of heaven to enter our sometimes dangerous world in order to share our life and through His cross and resurrection, to win eternity with God for all who trust in Him.
So, Philip, our son, and I put on our coats and gloves and tried pushing our neighbor’s car out of the ice. We weren’t successful. In the end, she had to call her brother, who was able to use his truck and some chains to yank her car free. Nonetheless, I felt better about myself after failing than I would have had I just gone back to my computer and successfully created the Sunday message of an unrepentant hypocrite.
I didn’t go out to help my neighbor because I’m such a wonderful guy. As my hesitation to help proves, I’m a sinner saved from everlasting separation from God only because of what Jesus has done for me.
But as the experience of Joseph in today’s Gospel lesson shows us, the call to follow Christ never comes at a convenient time or under circumstances convenient for us. It always comes in the midst of living life, while we pursue our own agendas. Life with Jesus Christ is what happens when we lay aside our own plans.
Herod heard the call and decided not just to ignore it, but also to kill the very living Message of heaven. Because that’s what Jesus is: God’s Message that we can have our sins forgiven and our lives made eternally new when we follow Christ!
I’d like to tell you that I always follow when Christ calls me. That I always obey God. That I always step down from my throne of power and let Jesus rule my life. But I would be lying if I said any of those things. Often, I try to act like a king, taking the road of selfishness and self-absorption, hurting God and hurting others. But I take comfort from the words written by one of Jesus’ followers, the apostle John:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He Who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.On the cusp of a new year, let’s make it our aim to dethrone ourselves and let Jesus be our King. We may not always succeed. But if doing so is our intent, our lives will eternally be the better for it!