(Message shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 26, 2004)
This past week, people in Tbilisi, a city in the nation of Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, had a tearful celebration. They commemorated the 125th. anniversary of the birth of Josef Stalin. Oddly, a large number of people in the old USSR remember Stalin fondly, which may explain why many in contemporary Russia like the dictatorial actions of their current president, Vladimir Putin.
Along with Adolf Hitler, Stalin was among the most murderous despots in world history. He killed millions of people in violent purges designed to maintain his complete authority. Josef Stalin was intent on being king of his world and would brook no opposition, real or imagined.
That’s not a new phenomenon. One of the people about whom our Bible lesson tells us is King Herod. This king, Herod the Great, 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.
But this Herod wasn’t a nice guy either. When he learns that the long-promised Savior of the world, the ultimate king of the Jews, has been born somewhere in Bethlehem at some point within the two years before the wise men showed up in his territory, Herod is excited...but not happily so.
Now, let’s be clear about something. 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 it. 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 was not that different from that of the average Christian's. He was certain that all the events of the first Christmas that you and I know believe to have happened did happen in just the way we say. He would even agree with us that all these Christmas happenings were from God. But he was the king and he didn’t even want to let God replace him!
So, in a futile 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 with Stalin, Hitler, and other tyrants of history.
But on this day after 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. A huge percentage of Americans believe that as an intellectual proposition.
But the real question that confronts us is whether we’re willing to let Jesus be our King, the final authority over our lives.
Are we willing to surrender to Jesus and give our obedience to Him?
Herod was unwilling to do that. We may not be despotic rulers, but we still like being the kings of our own worlds. At least, that’s true for me and I suspect it may be true for you, too.
At 7:30 Christmas Eve morning, I sat at my computer, writing. I’d been up for an hour, the day before had been spent, as I’m sure was true for many of you, digging my family out of the snowstorm and helping some neighbors do the same. I was intent that this day, I would get this message done. I didn’t want it hanging over my head on Christmas day.
It was then that I heard a car obviously stuck in the snow. I looked out one of our front windows 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.
Now, I’ve got to tell you something, folks. I hate winter. I hate cold weather. As distasteful as I find some of our muggy Cincinnati summer days, I’d take those any day over a day of cold weather. I like to look at snow. But I don’t like being in it.
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 moral 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 safely ensconced in my warm house, the king of Mark World. My neighbor would never know if 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...” “What’s good for the goose...” Oh, forget that one.
So, our son and I put on our coats and gloves and tried pushing our neighbor’s car out of the ice. (I should point out that he was much quicker to respond the neighbor's situation than I had been!)
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 created the Sunday message of an unrepentant hypocrite.
I didn’t go out to help my neighbor or rouse our son from sleep because I’m such a wonderful guy. I’m not a wonderful guy. I’m a sinner saved from damnation to hell and everlasting separation from God only because of what Jesus has done for me.
I went outside to push that car because I’m grateful for what Jesus has done for me. As a result, if He asked me to take a nose dive off of Mount Everest, I hope that I would simply say, “When do you want me to do it, Lord?” (I hope I would react that way, anyhow. And, by the way, I also hope that if Jesus ever issued such an order to me and I had expressed the willingness to obey, that He would then smile and tell me, "Psych!")
The point is that 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.
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. Most of the time, 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: