13 Dec A Fork in the Road
Christmas is, by some distance, the most significant holiday in the world (at least in the West).
It’s startling just how all-encompassing it is—school, economics, business, entertainment, travel, families, and church all revolve around it and submit to it. And yet, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is only briefly covered by two of the Gospel writers and goes unmentioned by the rest of the New Testament authors. In Mark, Jesus appears out of nowhere, as it were, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has arrived and getting down to eternal business. In the Gospel of John, his origins are listed as before the world existed, and what he said during his brief life is the primary sign that he’s not your everyday male Jew.
Matthew, on the other hand, takes more time to consider Jesus’ birth, and one of the ways he does it is to reflect upon humanity’s response to it, especially the response of Gentiles.
It’s an odd way to introduce the Son of God to the world. Gentiles from the East embark on a desperately long journey to find the King of the Jews who has been born. How do they know about him in the first place? Well, some sort of celestial revelation. Magi were likely astrologers, but they were also known for dabbling in the dark arts and even interpreting dreams. We’re not exactly sure about all of their culture. At the very least, these men were interested in the stars.
Here were Gentiles who, presumably, had little or no access to the Hebrew scriptures—only a star and legends. And with that in hand, they take a very long journey to find this baby in order to give him expensive gifts. Months on the road in order to see a baby—a quest for a divine encounter, a revelation. I wonder if they really knew what they were after. We certainly do.
When they arrive at the place where Jesus is, they are overjoyed. The tone is one of wild enthusiasm; exceedingly great happiness and joy that they have found this child.
Does any of this strike you as odd? Here were astrologers/magicians who travel ages to see a Jewish king, and when they get there, their joy is uncontainable. And yet his own people, Israel, will virtually ignore his arrival, and even ultimately kill him. The most unlikely people—Gentiles, sinners—on the most unlikely of journeys, in order to worship a Jewish baby. And they couldn’t possibly have known that he is the Son of God, only that he is special. All the while, his own people quietly ignore him.
Matthew also introduces us to another character in this story—Herod. Herod is one of history’s great villains. He is paranoid beyond what we could imagine today. This is a guy who suspects his sons’ jealousy of his throne so he kills three of them. He even executes his wife. He murders most of his friends, and it was said in Herod’s day that it was better to be his sow than his son.
When the Magi tell Herod about their quest, Matthew says that, “ …he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” When Herod is nervous, everybody gets nervous. Herod’s response puts an accent on one of the key points Matthew is trying to make. This isn’t a quaint story of an ancient baby shower. It’s a declaration, right from the start, that the king who lives in the palace and sits on the throne and has all the money and all the power is nothing compared to this lowly, stable-born peasant. Jesus is the real King. Joy is found in the most unlikely of places, isn’t it?
So, on the one side, we have the Magi who are distant, unlikely worshippers on a passionate quest to find the King. When they find him, he brings unspeakable joy. On the other side, we have Herod, much closer to home, for whom the arrival of Jesus means great fear. Joy for some, fear for others.
Why is it that this baby—this man—is a source of eternal joy for some and pure anger and fear for others?
The apostle Paul talks about this opposition in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 (NIV):
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
How could it be that as we spread the news of Christ to the world, it is joyful for some and fear and death to others? Well, the difference is simply where you’re standing.
To governments, school boards, and university faculties, Jesus is a threat—a cause for great fear. Why? Well, he claims to be the one in charge, the King. He claims to be the source of truth, not the research professor. He claims to be life itself. No other power structure can give that.
But to the one who takes the long journey toward Jesus; to the one who follows the strange, mysterious signals God gives that point toward his Son, there is wild, exceedingly great joy. The story of the Magi doesn’t seem logical to us. The joy wasn’t one of riches, or luxury, or convenience. It was unlikely and unexpected. Even now it doesn’t seem sensible that modern people could be 2,000 years removed from a baby in a manger and claim that that baby is the source of eternal joy. Yet, this is precisely the claim of the Christian faith, and the evidence of millions around the world and through the ages is undeniable.
I suppose one question, perhaps the question, for us is, with whom do you most closely identify, the Magi or Herod? If Christmas were simply a manger, a virgin, straw, a village, and the Son of God in flesh, would that be enough to stir wild, overflowing joy in your heart? By contrast, if Christmas is simply God come to look you in the eye as King, is that just a bit too uncomfortable, like Herod? Christmas is far from sentimental; it’s a fork in the road. Which one will you take?
— Jason Curtis, Campus Pastor
Grace Church Downtown