Today we're starting our Advent Conspiracy series. And there are four tenets to this series:
Spend Less- buy less stuff for people.
Give More- give more of what matters. Yourself. Give relationally, like Jesus did.
Love All- to love like God loves and serve other people.
Worship Fully- to enter the story. To be filled with joy at Christmas time, rather than stress or dread.
Watch this video, and then we'll get started:
So today, I just want to go through the Christmas story briefly looking at the Herod and the wise men, and how they each Jesus responded to the arrival of the King of Israel. And I want to examine these two stories through the lens of Matthew 25:40:
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
So this baby- the hope of all the world- is born in a manger (a feeding trough). The world doesn't have room for him, and we're going to see three reactions to Jesus from major political powers:
Herod is going to react with hatred.
Rome is going to react with indifference.
The wise men are going to react with worship.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote: ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’ ” Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!”
Tell the Story
Jesus has been born and here come the three wise men, actually there was probably more than three. Who were these wise men? They were most likely pagan philosopher, astrologist, astronomer types who are from the priestly or ruling class of their eastern culture. They've come into Jerusalem, looking for the one who has been born King of the Jews.
Now, Herod, was the current king set up by Rome to oversee Palestine. He hears this and is deeply troubled, along with the rest of the ruling class in Jerusalem. It’s good to note that the term "all Jerusalem" would have meant the religious leadership as well.
So Herod assembles Hebrew scholars to verify what’s happening and they find the prophecy in which a ruler is to come out of Bethlehem and they let him know.
Herod calls these wise men in secret and says "hey go search for this child as best you can and, as soon as you find him, be sure to send word of his exact location so that I can worship him."
Yeah, Herod, we totally believe you, especially given your reputation and past history.... If it sounds fishy it’s because it is.
First Herod is deeply troubled along with all those who are in power in Jerusalem and the next moment he is basically saying "hey be sure to tell me where this new king is so I can worship him." Which is a lie. Later we'll see that he actually wants to destroy the child and goes to extreme measures to make sure it happens.
Basically, he is not a good guy. And we actually know quite a bit about him historically.
A quick sketch of Herod.
You could sum it up with words like impressive, effective, successful. His kingdom was one of size and wealth. He worked in relationship with Rome while he ruled Palestine. He kept the peace, and built like a mad man. In a lot of ways it mirrored the size and power of Rome on a little smaller scale. But he was not outdone. He had seven palaces all larger than those of Caesar as he ruled Palestine for 34 years. His crowning achievement was that he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. Part of the brilliance of his power, was that he gave the religious crowds what they wanted. Specifically, a newly rebuilt temple. And the Temple he built was magnificent. Ornate. Impressive. It gave much honor to the Jews.
But! He became a paranoid tyrant who ends up killing three of his sons on suspicion of treason, putting to death his favorite wife (of his ten wives!), killing one of his mothers-in-law, drowning a high priest, and killing several uncles and a couple of cousins. They also talk about Herod’s plot to kill a stadium of Jewish leaders, so that people would mourn when he died.
A famous quote from Caesar himself was “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son”
He had everything and it wasn’t enough, he had everything and had nothing, which is still a theme that plays today. His life was defined by anxiety and fear.
Funny how those things go together; having everything and yet because of fear and anxiety you actually have nothing, you could be the wealthiest most powerful man in the world and still be dominated by anxiety to the point where it chokes out life all around you.
And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?
Now compare that to Mary and Joseph, who quite literally have nothing.
They have their baby in a barn. And yet they truly have it all. They have the one through whom all things were made. They are bringing the life of God into the world and not many are paying attention. No fame, no buildings, no power and yet it is the most important moment in history thus far.
Here is the deep irony of our current cultural moment during Christmas.
This onslaught of buying more and more comes on thick on the very day when we celebrate this impoverished birth of our God.
The story has been hijacked. "Oh you have a religious celebration? Where? we want to come worship too," and corporations use the holiday to make as much money as one possibly can.
If you been around before, you've heard the statistic that bears repeating every year.
450 billion dollars is spent on Christmas in America each year.
Clean water for the world would take somewhere close to 10 billion a year. Less than 3% of our Christmas spending! For something that literally is killing someone every 90 seconds. To put that in perspective, since we started church this morning, statistics say that 20 children have died because they don't have clean water.
Something is wrong.
They don't want to worship.
Having it all, more and more doesn't mean having life. It’s why we believe that Christmas is actually a time to SPEND LESS.
Its hauntingly familiar. A paranoid leader saying "hey let me know where the baby is so I can worship him too." He'll use any kind of rhetoric, even the language of worship to get what he wants. Right after this the paranoid leader will create a policy based on his fear and anxiety that will result in the death of a village of babies.
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 full of other babies just in hopes of destroying the child.
Christmas starts to sound more dangerous.
Now, back to the wise men.
After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.
OK Lets Get this straight
The religious establishment is in cahoots with a paranoid leader. Those who find Jesus are the truth seeking pagan philosophers, and the rough neck shepherds on the edge of society. If you want to find God in the story don't go to the temple built by the king for the religious establishment, you have to go to the barn to find him.
And that's just like God, right? God goes to Noah and people mock him. God went to Moses. Obadiah. Jeremiah, whose ministry was so successful that he never changed anyone's mind. And David, the smallest of his brothers. A tiny, ruddy, cute little kid. He's like a forerunner to Scrappy Doo. God often appears to those whom we would least expect.
All is never as it seems.
As the religious crowds follow the power and fame of Herod, six miles away in a barn the king is found by those paying attention. See, the thing is that we can come to church our entire lives and still not know God. Going to church doesn't save. It's the relationship that we have with God that causes us to want to gather with other believers to worship. And that's what the Christmas story is all about- God coming near to us to save us, to make us a people, a nation. To call us his own. When we say "Jesus died to save me," it's not quite right. Jesus came to save US.Jesus loves his church. He came to establish his church, his kingdom. To rule and to reign here and now in his church. But you don't get to be a part of it without knowing God first. Remember Jeremiah 31?
“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the LORD.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the LORD. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.”
Application. Spend less (connecting to Advent Conspiracy)
If you don't feel like the "right kind of Christian" you’re in good company. The right kind of Christian in the story, is on the wrong side of history. The religious establishment sided with Herod and his empire and missed Jesus.
The story of Christmas invites us to seek the truth, to be discerning when religion and power begin to mingle. To not be satisfied with mere religious goods and services, but to look in the out of the way places to see what God is doing.
This year we invite you ignore the signs and symbols of the empire.
We invite you to not give into the advertisers and corporation that really don't want to worship but will use the language of Christmas to lure us into spending more.
We invite you to spend less on thoughtless gifts, to give more meaningful gifts, gifts of our time and presence.
We believe that as we do this, as we celebrate Christmas we can be a part of God still changing the world.
May you recognize that having it all is not having it all.
And so may your truth seeking lead you to Jesus, and may you be captured in wonder around this different kind of king who is grace and truth. May you take great joy, that the center of the world is a God who comes as a baby to bring peace on earth.
So how will you celebrate Christmas this year? Will you by things as usual? Or will you give personally, sacrificially, lovingly, like the wise men did? Like Jesus did?