Christianity 201

December 28, 2017

Herod’s Messed Up Christmas

by Clarke Dixon

The Christmas Story as told by Matthew does not end like it does in the more sentimental telling of it we are used to. It ends in tragedy.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Matthew 2:16

Technically speaking, the magi were likely not present with Jesus along with the shepherds as commonly portrayed in manger scenes. They arrived later. In fact the Church calendar encourages us to reflect on the arrival of the magi at the end of Christmas, on January 6th, with a celebration called Epiphany. Nevertheless, in the popular and sentimental celebrations of Christmas the magi are there at the manger scene and everyone is happy but Herod. However, in the Biblical account Christmas ends up going horribly wrong. What are we to make of Herod’s messy Christmas?

First, the unhappy ending of the Christmas story is a reminder from the get-go that we need a rescue.  While we tend to think Herod was a particularly evil person, the fact is that any one of us could have ended up being a Herod. People we think of as evil are usually ordinary people who have been swept up in evil. It could have been us. Hitler may have been particularly evil, but many regular folk committed evil deeds because they were too easily swept up with his evil. Charles Manson may have been particularly evil, but those who committed murder for him would likely have had very different lives had they become involved with a better crowd. That could have been us and not them being swept up in evil. Humanity has a sin problem. Even the most “naturally nice” of us have the potential for great evil. Therefore the sad ending of the Christmas story found at the beginning of the New Testament is a reminder of something we learned from the Old Testament, namely that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The massacre at Bethlehem reminds us that we need a rescue.

Second, the unhappy ending of the Christmas story is not the end of the story. Matthew goes on to tell us about the teaching of Jesus, pointing us toward a righteousness that is far better than that of the rule-focused Pharisees. There is a God-given and Spirit-driven righteousness ahead. Matthew goes on to tell us about the miracles of Jesus, reversing the effects of sin and curse we know about from Genesis chapter three. Matthew goes on to tell us about the death of Jesus. We learn early on that Mary “will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) The death of Jesus deals with sin in a way neither we, nor anything nor anyone else, ever could. God Himself brought His grace and justice together in rescuing us from the end result of sin. Matthew goes on to tell us about the resurrection of Jesus. Where Herod failed, the religious and political leaders finally seemed to succeed when Jesus was put to death at the cross. Only that didn’t last very long. Death could not hold him and the story goes on! Matthew goes on to tell us about the great commission of Jesus:

18 All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Matthew 28:18-20

Here is a new beginning, a revolution! The implication is that the Herods of the world, if they become obedient disciples of Jesus, could not commit the kind of atrocities that we find in the Christmas story. Instead of being people who are swept up in evil, we are to become people swept up in goodness and godliness, a people swept up in God Himself.

Matthew goes on to tell us, in the final words of his book, some final words of Jesus before his ascension: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) There is an age to come after this age. In other words the ending of the Christmas story is not the end of the story. Far from it! The Christmas story is the beginning of a new beginning which will lead to a new beginning. The story goes on and it ends well! While Christmas has a sad ending, the story of Jesus ends well. In Christ your story can have a happy ending too!

 All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV

Read more at clarkedixon.wordpress.com

December 23, 2017

Joy in the Christmas Narrative

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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All week long our friends Stephen & Brooksyne Weber at Daily Encouragement (dailyencouragement.net) have been looking at the theme of joy in the Advent narrative. Here are highlights from the series with a link to each day’s full article.

Day One – Mary & Elizabeth

…In a loud voice she [Elizabeth] exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you [Mary] among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill His promises to her!’” (Luke 1:39-45).

…John was just six months along but made his presence felt by his mother when leaping in her womb. He had also heard Mary’s greeting and apparently had some Spirit-given knowledge of the significance of that greeting. The experience resulted in Elizabeth being filled with the Holy Spirit.

The Scripture highlights her excitement with the phrase, “In a loud voice she exclaimed.”

What follows is a powerful Scriptural assertion of the sanctity of life. Christ had been supernaturally conceived only a short time before this. He was at most only weeks old.

Yet Elizabeth said to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Notice that she identifies Mary as “the mother of my Lord”. Even at this early stage in prenatal development Mary is a mother! …

Day Two – John the Baptist

“He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:14).

…[T]he verse actually isn’t referring to Jesus but to John! (Check the context in Luke 1:5-25). Zechariah and Elizabeth had not had their own children. The Bible informs us that, “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old” (Luke 1:6,7).

But God had other plans for them and, like Abraham and Sarah, they became parents long after Elizabeth’s barren child bearing age had passed. Today’s text was an angelic assurance to Zechariah from Gabriel.

“He will be a joy and delight to you.” After John’s birth, recorded in Luke 1:57-66, the focus of the gospel turns to Jesus and we have no record of John’s infancy or childhood. Surely Elizabeth had some help from a younger relative or house maiden during John’s terrible two’s stage. However Zechariah had received a promise that John would be a joy and delight and we are sure he was!

“And many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” Indeed at the time of John’s birth he created quite a stir. Luke 1:65,66 tells us “All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.”

The final childhood reference to John states, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80).

Day Three – The Announcement

“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord'” (Luke 2:8-10).

Joy is the deep-down sense of well-being that abides in the heart of the person who knows all is well between himself and the Lord. That can and should be our experience.

The very heart of the gospel is the message the angel proclaimed to the shepherds as expressed in Luke 2:10, “I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people”. Just consider the aspect of “great joy” these lowly shepherds received in the message of the Gospel. It was certainly a night unlike typical night watches where shepherds move about in the dark, gathering stragglers and keeping watch for predators and other dangers.

This event had none of the normal trappings we associate with joy today. It wasn’t available to just the Hollywood elite, the intellectual, the wealthy, or the big name politicians. The joy the angel spoke of wasn’t related to flashy consumer goods; there was no big sweepstakes giveaway, no great buy at the mall.

Instead the angel spoke of joy that originates from an entirely different source. This great joy is the result of the birth of Jesus who came to save all people who ask forgiveness for their sins. The angel’s message went on to proclaim, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.”

The joy we have in Christ is:
1. A great joy.
2. A lasting joy.
3. A pure and holy joy.

Day Four – Those Filled With Re-Joy-Cing*

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2). “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).

Careful consideration of Scripture actually reveals that the wise men who followed the star arrived some time after Christ’s birth. They had first seen the star while in the east and had traveled to Jerusalem to inquire regarding the exact place of Christ’s birth. In the verse following today’s text we read that the Magi came “into the house” (Matthew 2:11).

Just who these wise men (or Magi) were remains a mystery. Possibly they were among those from the Jewish line who stayed in the East (present day Iran) following the Exile or perhaps they were proselytes who were very familiar with the Messianic promise.  After receiving the information that Christ was to be born in Bethlehem they went there with a specific purpose – to worship the Christ Child.

For some reason, after initially seeing the star in the east, it was no longer seen for a period until after they had been to Jerusalem and were on their way to Bethlehem. (Compare 2:2 with 2:9,10.)

These men were earnest seekers. The journey from the east to Jerusalem was likely long and hard, but they were persistent. It was the reappearance of the star on the way to Bethlehem that prompted the response described in the KJV when they “rejoiced with exceeding great joy”. The apparent redundancy in the English is an attempt to convey the richness of emotion that Matthew uses four Greek words to express. The Amplified says, “thrilled with ecstatic joy.”

Why were they filled with such great joy? After all, at this point they had not yet seen Jesus (read the text carefully). Clearly, it was the reappearance of the star that prompted their joy. It reassured them that this was the real thing and also gave them the ability to continue their journey to find the Christ child.

I believe we have here an example of how God reveals Himself to the earnest seeker. They had seen the star while in the East and then went to Jerusalem by faith. The reappearance of the star on their way to Bethlehem gave them an assurance that their seeking was not in vain!

At times the light of God’s guidance is remarkably clear like the star seen by the wise men while in the east. At other times God’s leading is less clear, such as when the guiding star was no longer visible. But like these wise men, as earnest seekers, we walk by faith and obedience to God’s Word.


*my title, not Stephen & Brooksyne’s!  I encourage you to click that particular link and read this one in full.