Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 1:1-23 The Dark Side of Christmas

Do you still have your Christmas tree and cards up? On the radio yesterday there were some people ringing in to say that they have their tree down already - they put it up in the middle of November, and are fed up of it by the time Christmas rolls round. We’re only halfway through the twelve days of Christmas, but already the Easter eggs are in the shops... If you still have your cards up, what kinds of pictures do you see?

My guess is that you’ll have received some with Santa on them; others with a snowy church scene (with choir boys in robes); some with robins or snowmen or reindeer; and perhaps some with a manger scene or angels. I’m fairly certain that you won’t have seen any depicting the second half of our reading today. It’s not a Christmas card image, and yet it’s a very real part of the whole Christmas story.

In the midst of all the joy and celebrations, we hear the cry of the darker side of Christmas - ‘a voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ Sadly, it’s become all too familiar, most recently in the school in Newtown, Connecticut. Children murdered, slaughtered by adults.

In the aftermath, the question arises - what drives someone to kill children? Why does Herod attack and kill the most vulnerable in his nation?

As Matthew 2 opens, we’re told of a most surprising turn of events. Unexpectedly, a group of magi arrive in Jerusalem. These are stargazers, astrologers, probably from Babylon - the same type of person as taught Daniel when he was in exile. They ask where the new baby king is, expecting to celebrate, only to receive a strange response: ‘When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.’

The magi have travelled for a long time, following the star. They expect to find a party, but instead it’s more like a wake. Herod is frightened. But why? Listen out for the repeated word: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?... When King Herod heard this...’ Herod is the king - appointed by Caesar, ruling as part of the Roman Empire, but there’s a new king in town - one who has been born king - one who is already king. As you might hear in an old Western movie: ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.’ ‘King’ Herod has a rival for the throne - the Messiah, the Christ.

If Jesus is King of the Jews, that means that Herod isn’t. But Herod clings to power, seeking to hold on to his throne. He might appear to be helpful and look as if he too is rejoicing, but the outward appearance hides a power-hungry and wicked heart.

You see, he consults the chief priests and scribes, and asks them where the Christ was to be born. Quick as a flash, they know the answer - the Christ is from Bethlehem (as Micah had foretold). He sends them on their way down the Bethlehem road (it’s only about five or six miles) asking them to search diligently for the child, and to bring him back word so that he too can go and worship.

We know the story so well. We think that everyone welcomed the Lord Jesus - after all, the shepherds left their flocks to go and see the baby; the wise men (who we see going to Jesus and presenting their gifts) travelled a long way. But not everyone was overjoyed. The religious leaders knew the right answers, but they didn’t go to worship the baby king with the wise men. The Bible was like a text book for trivia questions - they might win the annual Christmas game of Trivial Pursuit (Bible edition); but they ignore the Christ himself. As we seek to learn more of the Bible and sit under its teaching and even study it through the week are we filling our heads with knowledge, or having our hearts changed as we’re driven to worship?

Herod claims he wants to worship, but when the wise men don’t return to him (having been re-routed by a dream from God) his true colours are soon revealed. Herod’s aim is to destroy the Christ. His opposition to Jesus stops at nothing. He will have no rivals - for Herod to remain on the throne, he must kill Jesus.

In Luke 19, Jesus tells a parable about a man who becomes king, but some of his subjects rebel against him, saying ‘We do not want this man to rule over us.’ (Luke 19:14). This is exactly what Herod is saying here - and it’s our response too.

Jesus is the rightful king - of the Jews; of the universe; of your heart. But we cling to the throne; we refuse to obey the king. Each of us is a rebel, seeking to put Jesus to death in order to remain in control, saying no to the true king. Herod sought to do away with Jesus by making absolutely sure - he killed all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem. He’s saying: I am my own king - Jesus, you are not; you must die.

This is the very heart of our sin - wanting to be in charge ourselves and rejecting God’s rule in our life. In Herod’s case it presents itself in an extreme way by murdering innocent children to maintain his position. Yet we seek to do the same thing by other means. Other people suffer as we reject the king and do things our way.

The tears of sorrow are heard by the God of love, the God of all comfort. You see, while God provides for the protection of Jesus in this instance (through the angel warning Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the danger); it’s not yet the appointed time for Jesus to die. He will die - indeed, that’s the reason Jesus came into the world, but not as a baby.

Instead Jesus will die on the Roman cross at Calvary according to God’s timing, for rebels like you and me. When tragedies such as the school shooting happen, people may ask the question: where is God in all of this? As we look at the cross, we discover that God the Father suffered the death of his only Son - in order to rescue rebels.

Our passage presents us with a choice today: will we be like ‘King’ Herod, who clings to power, only out for himself and his position. who seeks to destroy the Lord Jesus as he rejects him? Or will we be like those wise men (whom we sometimes think of as ‘we three kings’), who came from afar; who searched diligently in response to the light they had received; who bowed to the true king; and worshipped him; and gave him precious gifts.

As Her Majesty the Queen said in her Christmas broadcast, the thing that we have to give to the king is our heart, to gladly surrender to him. The closing verses of Psalm 2 are addressed to kings and rulers of the earth; but they’re also appropriate to each of us as supposed kings and queens of our own hearts:

‘Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 30th December 2012.

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