In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:1-3)
The 2016 election was stressful. According to the American Psychological Association, over half of Americans found the election to be a significant source of stress. I'm sure "election stress disorder" is a new concept to most of us. But the fear, anxiety, and distress of most Americans should not surprise us. It is normal to react this way when systems are threatened, power is confronted, the status quo is jeopardized, ideals are undermined, order is threatened, and vulnerabilities expose false securities. Americans were stressed because this election was not safe.
Christmas is not safe. It was not then. It is not now.
King Herod was "frightened." The Greek word literally suggests "agitation." It is translated as "frightened," "terrified," "stirred up"; it has broad connotations just like our term "anxiety." However it's translated, Herod suffered from a type of Advent Stress Disorder. He was distressed because he knew his claim to the throne of Judea was tenuous. He had weaseled his way into his position through violence and politics. He ruled as a servant to the Empire. Herod's birth certificate would not pass a Royal Jewish Heritage Committee. It is even claimed he destroyed genealogical records to hide the truth . . . conspiracy at its finest. Herod's status and power were threatened by the whisperings of the advent (arrival) of a different king, a
true King of the Jews, one with the right birth certificate. Herod was distressed, understandably so.
The text also says that "all Jerusalem" was distressed with Herod. I have always found this a striking statement. Jesus was the hope of a disaffected Jewish populace. They had been waiting for God to send a deliverer who would rescue them from the imposition of a foreign power and the experience of exile, even within their homeland. They awaited a divine revolution. Why, then, would they be distressed? The text does not say. But the stability of their system was threatened. Their status quo was on the verge of dissolution. They knew Herod was paranoid, powerful, and violent. Maybe the people knew he was the kind of king who would order a genocide to protect his throne. Maybe they had witnessed too many revolutionaries crucified. Maybe the Religious leaders who were cozy with the government sensed a threat to their power. Maybe the Religious leaders who opposed the government anticipated the peril of accusations of treason. Maybe, just maybe, they all knew that there was nothing safe about the arrival of a different king.
Surely the wise men sensed the anxiety of this great city. Even without social media, fear and uncertainty are not difficult to see when their shadows loom large over individuals, families, institutions, and governments. I wonder if the wise men encountered poets or musicians as they traveled. Perhaps they sat and listened to Mary's song. Her words are haunting for those in power. Kings are dethroned, the proud are scattered, and the rich are left wanting (Luke 1:52-53), and all of this revolves around the promise of an awaited king. This is anything but safe.
But the wise men were not distressed. Distressed people do not travel hundreds of miles in the direction of a perceived threat. Neither do they bring gifts or bestow honor. The wise men were not distressed; they were overjoyed! (Matt. 2:10).
Maybe, just maybe, they knew this was no ordinary king; this was not the birth of another Jewish revolutionary. Perhaps they had read, perhaps they had heard, the words of Israel's prophets, that this King would be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 6:9). Perhaps they knew his kingdom would have no end and no boundaries. They were not Jews, but they worshiped this King. Perhaps they understood what no one else seemed to, that the arrival of a divine King is worth celebrating.
In C.S. Lewis' beloved story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver is asked if Aslan, the great lion, is safe. Mr. Beaver replies, "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But He's good. He's the King, I tell you." This is what those traveling foreign stargazers understood.
Christmas is not safe. It was not then. It certainly is not now. Kings are temporary; their power is an illusion, their pride is self-destructive, and their riches are false security. Kingdoms, empires, and democracies will come to an end. Anticipating the arrival of a different king is anything but safe. But we do not need to be distressed, because we know that the arrival of a divine King is worth celebrating. After all, "He's good. He's the King, I tell you."
May you discover joy in expectation this advent season,
- Pastor Jonathan