Wow, the second week of Advent, and as we were reminded earlier the second candle to be lit on the advent wreath is the Bethlehem candle. And it brings our focus to bear on the town of Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus.
We sing about it in Little Town of Bethlehem and Once in Royal David’s City but do we ever really think about Bethlehem? Presently it’s population is around 29,000 which is four times what it was in 1948 when Israel became a nation and probably close to 15 times what it was when Jesus was born. It is called the city of David, but everything is relative, and apparently cities back then weren’t what they are today.
Here is a picture of Bethlehem in 1895, only 30 years after Philip Brooks had visited the town that inspired the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. It was in Bethlehem that Jacob buried Rachel. And it was in Bethlehem that Ruth lived married Boaz. But to most Jews the very name Bethlehem was synonymous with King David, who was born and raised in Bethlehem.
And so it was here in this little town 9 kilometers from Jerusalem that Jesus Christ the son of God was born. Some folks say this probably isn’t were Jesus was born because in the Gospels he is referred to as a Galilean or a Nazarene and Bethlehem was in Judea. No problem, I was born in Chatham but that isn’t were I tell people I’m from, not that I have anything against Chatham. I only lived there for a few months of my life before my parents moved. And so when people ask me where I’m from I say Saint John, although I only actually lived in Saint John between the ages of 16 and 19.
And it was in Bethlehem where we see who mankind becomes divided into three separate groups when Christmas rolls around.
And what that proves is that the more things change the more things stay the same because on the first Christmas we see how the feelings of people polarized because of the events in this obscure little village.
Matthew 2:1 Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. The first person we need to look at this morning is Herod the King. And it is here that we discover that Sometimes Christmas Brings Out the Worst in People. Now Herod has received a lot of bad press through the years. You ever get the feeling that sometimes we need to tear heroes and historical figures down just on principal. In Australia they talked about the “tall poppy syndrome” and that was the desire to pull anyone down who had risen above the herd, that is if poppies come in herds.
In Herod’s case it may very well have been valid. Now granted he wasn’t perfect but he wasn’t entirely bad either. After all he wasn’t called Herod the Great for nothing. Herod was half Jew and half Gentile. He had curried favor with the Romans during the civil wars in Palestine and kept the locals in line for the Romans.
While this did nothing to endear him to the Jewish population it endeared him to the Romans and if nothing else Herod knew which side his bread was buttered on. In 47 BC he was appointed Governor of Palestine and seven years later he was appointed King by Octavian who you would know better as Caesar Augustus. Now not even the Tories can do partronize like that.
The title Herod the Great wasn’t simply an empty title, he kept peace in Palestine throughout his reign which was no mean feat, he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, built many great fortresses including the mountain top fort of Masada. In the year 12 BC he underwrote the cost of the Olympic games in Greece and was named the games “Perpetual President.”
And he wasn’t all bad as a politician, during the lean years he stopped collecting taxes, boy there’s a suggestion for an economic stimulus package that doesn’t involve bailing out inefficient auto companies , and in 24 BC he had his gold plates melted down to buy corn for the poor.
But he did have one small, little problem. I mean face it we all have one problem or another don’t we? Herod’s was that he kept killing people. Not just anyone, just anyone he suspected might be a threat to his leadership. You see he was insanely suspicious and paranoid and he was always afraid that people were trying to usurp him. Not that they weren’t. And the older he got the more suspicious he got until someone ever referred to him as a “Murderous Old Man”
During his reign he had his wife Mariamne executed along with her mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater, his middle son Alexander and his third son Aristobulus. Augustus stated at one point “It is safer to be Herod’s pig then to be his son.”
When he was 70 he felt that he was near the end and he retired to Jerico and had some of the most notable and distinguished citizens of Jerusalem arrested on trumped up charges. On his orders they were slaughtered at the moment of his death. You see Herod knew how people felt about him and he said that he was determined to have tears shed at his death. It worked.
And so it was that this old man who was crippled with hate and suspicion was told about the one who would become King of the Jews. And he was a little disturbed at the news. The Bible says in Matthew 2:3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, “Disturbed” now there’s an understatement, that’s like saying Tom Cruise is a little strange.
Herod got ugly. And when his plans to find the child and “do him in” failed, he flipped, went from disturbed to seriously psychopathic or maybe sociopathic, I always get those mixed up.
Matthew 2:16 Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. The only thing that saved Jesus was that an Angel visited Joseph in a dream and told him in Matthew 2:13 After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
The Bible is silent about the journey and the stay in Egypt, however there are several legends that were passed around the early Christian community concerning the trip. One tells about how the small family was confronted by a band of robbers who were intent on robbing and killing the three of them. Fortunately one of the band stopped the rest and saved the day. Before the holy family went on their way though the compassionate robber had this to say “O most blessed of children, if ever there comes a time for having mercy on me, then remember me and forget not this hour.” Tradition also gives the robber a name and that was Dismas, which by chance is the same name given to the thief on the cross who acknowledged Jesus.
Another legend is a children’s story and it tells how when Herod’s henchmen were almost upon the family Joseph led them into a cave. After they went in a small spider saw the Christ child and wanted to do something to keep them warm and so he spun his web across the entrance to the cave. When the soldiers came they didn’t search the cave because of the unbroken web spun across the entrance. And that, they say is why we put tinsel on our Christmas trees to this day.
Some people wonder why a genocide like this wouldn’t be mentioned in history. Well, remember that at the time Bethlehem probably had a population of no more then 2000. So we are probably talking the death of 25 or 30 children tops. In a time when murder and unrighteousness was so wide spread the only people who would have been outraged at this tragedy would have been the parents.
And so there was Herod who represents those who are hostile toward Christmas. You know the Grinch syndrome. Not only do they have a total lack of respect for the sacred aspect of Christmas but they also won’t be a part of the secular activities either.
Robert Lynd made this observation “There are some people who want to throw their arms round you simply because it is Christmas; there are other people who want to strangle you simply because it is Christmas.”
Their milk of human kindness has been bottled up so long it’s gone sour.
But Herod wasn’t alone that first Christmas in Matthew 2:4 we read He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
Sometimes Christmas Doesn’t Make a Difference. Here we read about the Chief Priests who were former high priests. It was a very exclusive club. You see only certain families could enter the priest hood and then only some of the high priests actually were able to go on to become chief priests. They were mostly old men who gathered together to talk of yesterday and once in a while they would choice to flex their administrative muscle, kind of like the senate.
This was the same group who in Matthew 26:3 masterminded the plot to do away with Jesus. The scribes were the keepers and interpreters of the law. And it was this group that Herod asked where the Christ would be born and right off they quoted Micah 5:2 But you, O Bethlehem, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. They knew all there was to know about the Christ but that head knowledge had never trickled down to their hearts.
There are people like that today. It’s so difficult to separate the sacred from the secular at Christmas time. Churches put up Christmas trees and government offices put up nativity scenes. Some people do all the Christmas things; they put Santa on the roof top and the stable on the front lawn. They go to the big company Christmas blow out and dance and then go to the Christmas Eve candlelight service.
They make their semi-annual trek to church not to be repeated until Easter and yet with all of that Christmas knowledge they’re no closer to the Christ then the High Priests and the scribes were. They’re indifferent to the real Christmas, and to the Christ which Christmas represents.
And the story continues Matthew 2:1 Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem. . .
Then there were the Magi and it’s here we discover that Sometimes Christmas Brings Out the Best in People. These were the wise men of the east, not kings but magi. Originally Magi were from Persia which is now Iran, and were from a tribe of Medes who tried to overthrow the king. When that failed they put their political aspirations to rest and became holy men, priest and teachers of kings. Talk about a career shift. And it was to them that this sign came.
We are told that there was an air of expectancy over the known world. Suetonis the Roman historian wrote “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.”
There are all kinds of tradition out there concerning the Magi. Early tradition numbered them at twelve, but modern tradition has settled at three. And no three isn’t fact it’s just supposition.
Three Magi for three gifts makes sense doesn’t it? I mean it would be a little cheap for twelve of them to come and only bring three gifts. And over the years we’ve given them names, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthassar. And to the names tradition has added looks. Mechior was old and gray haired with a long beard. He brought the gold. Caspar, well he was young and beardless with a ruddy complexion he brought the frankincense. And lastly was Balthassar, a swarthy man with a new beard he brought the myrrh.
The latest legend it would appear is that the wise men weren’t actually present that first Christmas but didn’t arrive until a couple of years later. A few years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who attends another evangelical church in the city and she told me how surprised she was to find out that the Wise men weren’t at the first Christmas but arrived much later. I kind of suspected where she got this nugget of information but asked anyway and she told me that one of her pastors had preached on it the Sunday before.
It comes up from time to time and here’s the rational. It would have taken the Magi a considerable amount of time to make their way from their home in Persia to Bethlehem so they wouldn’t have made it on time. And it says in Matthew 2:11 They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. So obviously he wasn’t in a stable and lastly Herod ordered the boys two and under executed. And so the assumption is that the Magi arrived after a lengthy journey perhaps almost two years later.
But we all know what happens when we assume right? Sometimes we’re wrong.
There are times that I think some preachers stretch a point in order to show how much smarter they are then other people.
A few things to consider, if you will? If God could put a star in the sky to announce the birth of his son, then he could put it there far enough in advance to get the wise men there on time. 2 The Bible says Jesus was born in a manager, there is nothing to indicate that is where they stayed for their entire stay in Bethlehem, could have moved into a house the next day if room became available. Just imagine what happened when the innkeeper’s wife found out about Mary and Joseph and their new born baby in the stable. The Innkeeper would have found himself in the stable and they would have had his room.
And logically why would Joseph a carpenter from Nazareth stay in Bethlehem any longer then he had to for the census?
That was free. Now to the gifts. (Free video ‘unspoken messages’ from www.muddyrivermedia.com ) So what did these gifts say? The first gift was gold, to remind us that Christ is not just Saviour but he is also king. Not one who rules by force but one who rules by love. Ruling over men’s hearts not from a throne but from a cross.
The second gift was the gift of frankincense. It was in temple worship and sacrifice that frankincense was used, it is mentioned in the book of Exodus as one of the spices used in the Holy of Holies. Remember that the function of the priest was to open the way to God for people, the Latin word for priest is Ponitfex and means bridge builder and that is what Christ did for us was to open the way to God.
The third gift was the gift of Myrrh, and it’s use is recorded in John 19:38-40 Afterward Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus (because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’ body. When Pilate gave permission, Joseph came and took the body away. With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes. Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in long sheets of linen cloth. Nicodemus also gave Myrrh to Jesus as a gift, but not at his birth, rather his death.
I wonder if on the day Jesus was crucified if Mary remembered the strange gift of myrrh that was given to her newborn son?
Myrrh was what the Jews used for embalming and so the last gift was for one who would die. Holman Hunt was a famous painter from the last century, and one of his paintings is called the shadow of death. It shows Jesus as a young man standing in the door of the carpenter shop and he stretching, and the sun casts his shadow on the wall behind him and it is the shadow of a, forget it, they say a picture is worth a thousand words. By the way, it is Mary who is looking at the picture of her son’s death.
The trip of the Magi came to an end when the star came stood still over Bethlehem. Legend has it that the star fell into the central well of the village and can still be seen by the pure of heart. The trip of the wise men is summed up in Matthew 2:10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! In the contemporary English version it They were thrilled and excited . . .
Which is the way that Christmas is supposed to be, full of joy, adoration and worship for Christ.
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