The message of Christmas is one of peace, joy and hope. It is a message much needed in our ravaged and torn world. It speaks of peace with God through a child born to bring us forgiveness, it speaks of joy through the release within us of a new, godly and wholesome life, and it speaks of hope in the knowledge and experience of God’s strength and support throughout this life and on into eternity. There is nothing automatic about this message, however; it demands a response. It calls us very simply and bluntly to come to Jesus and follow Him with heart and mind.
The Christmas story is largely a mix of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and Matthew’s account. Both leave us in no doubt that the birth was miraculous in nature and of the Holy Spirit and that Jesus was Son of God. While Luke has a deeply touching side to the story, focussing much on Mary’s part in the birth, Matthew, however, by contrast presents us with a rather darker aspect of the event. Matthew mostly directs our attention to the Magi from the East – kings coming to worship “The King”.
It is through the Magi we also meet Herod the king of the Jews, and it is Herod who casts the dark shadow on the narrative. Jealous for his power, brooking no possible rivals and cheated by the magi from finding Jesus, he orders a whole massacre of children in order to kill the one child who threatens his power. Matthew goes on to record the divine warning to Joseph to flee. As a result he takes Mary and the baby into Egypt as refugees and remains there until Herod dies. Even then it is safe only to return to the remoteness of Nazareth since Herod’s son is not to be trusted.
This is a very different story from the picturesque idyll of the star shining on the manger. But why focus on the dark side of the story? Why not settle for the more comforting side of Christmas? After all, historically Matthew’s events happened sometime after Christmas. Very simply one reason is that the traditional presentation of the birth of Jesus, rightly or wrongly, has always included the “three kings” at the stable tableau. Christmas is not Christmas without the “three kings”! A much more serious reason is that, whether chronologically later or not, it represents a very important aspect of the full birth story. This darker side to the story gets more and more relevant to the world in which we are living, and we need to take note of it. Matthew himself clearly did not feel that what he wrote spoilt the story; on the contrary he felt it very important to record it. The fact is that the birth of Jesus was bitterly contested, and still is!
Herod, of course, typifies the ruthless, autocratic power-seeking ruler who, having established his kingdom is prepared to hold on to it no matter how many people have to suffer or die to secure it, children included. This is by no means an unknown scenario in our modern world. We have seen this process unfolding in not a few nations in the early years of this millennium. Syria is perhaps the most blatant example where the early hopes of the present ruler and his wife of reform have shattered on the rock of an intransigent deeper family grip on power. It has cost thousands of lives, produced thousands of refugees and destroyed many cities. Further east Myanmar (Burma) is another example which stands out. And Africa seems to have more than its fair share of despots. The “Herods” are still numerous in this world, unfortunately.
The story of the biblical Herod has, however, a specific dimension. His wrath was directed at Jesus. It was of no consequence to Herod that this Jesus might be the Messiah promised to the Jews. Herod was not racially a true Jew and was very conscious of being an “outsider”. He was not of a religious bent, and would have had little concern for the moral commandments of the Jewish religion. He had built the Jews a magnificent Temple but that was simply in order simply to gain favour with them and protect his power. The prospect of a Jewish Messianic King was something very different; such a rival was politically extremely dangerous for Herod, and was something to be prevented at all cost, something to be literally stifled at birth.
Herod has not been the only despot who has sought to stifle Jesus (and His genuine Christian followers). It has been a feature of autocracy throughout history, and it remains so today in a marked fashion. The reason is not difficult to see. The lust for naked personal power has no place in the heart of Jesus or in his teaching. Whilst on earth He never sought such power for himself. Among the temptations Satan put to Him was the offer of “all the kingdoms of the earth”. Resisting it, Jesus “took the form of a servant”, for His objective was not self-centred greatness but the dire needs of humanity. Had He succumbed to the temptation He would have found Himself inevitably bound to follow Satan’s method of holding power, namely fear and force.
Jesus’ “kingdom”, however, has a totally different method of control: it is a Kingdom of Righteousness and Love. Its characteristics are humility, not pride; peace, not war; generous giving, not accumulation of riches; forgiveness, not revenge. It is small wonder that self-seeking despots have no time for Christians who seek to walk like Jesus. Their emphasis on the value of each human person makes them inevitably a part of the opposition. They were much under threat from both Stalin and Hitler whose malign social engineering cost innumerable lives. To them Christians were dangerous. It is very much the same with the despots of our own generation. We read a great deal about Christians imprisoned for their faith in a considerable number of countries where fear, force and brutality is the only cement holding despotic rulers in power. The lust for power will always be in contention with the Christ child and those who worship him. Such contention must be a continuing focus for prayer.
The Revelation of St. John is rarely associated with Christmas. It contains, however, an extraordinary apocalyptic vision of the birth of Jesus (Rev. 12). In this vision a woman “clothed with the sun” is seen about to give birth to a child. This child was to rule all nations (clearly a picture of Jesus). A Dragon awaits the birth to devour the child but the child is caught up to God and to His throne. The Dragon, enraged, made war, therefore, on those who followed the child and kept his commandments. This takes Matthew’s perspective to a deeper level, depicting the spiritual forces underlying the actions of Herod. The symbolism of the vision is lurid and seemingly grotesque, but the application is clear. The Christ was born to redeem the nations, indeed to redeem along with the nations the whole of creation, over which he would rule. Satan’s rule in this world was to be broken by Him. The attempt to devour Him failed. The child was swept up to heaven and will return to rule. What an extraordinary HOPE this is. It is the Christian hope of a new and redeemed world in which Christ rules in love and righteousness, and in which those who believe will live in the light of the presence of God. This is not a hope which might happen, but a hope that is sure and will happen. Herod failed, Christ won; the Jewish priests failed, Christ rose again; gross darkness covers the earth, but the Light of Christ will come in all its fullness. Thus even the darker side of the Christmas story is really pointing to a much greater light and hope. If our Christian hope is smaller than total redemption of the world as we know it then it is falling short of the glory to be revealed.