Summary: People have and have always had different reactions to the Christmas story.
In the year 1769, Napoleon Bonaparte was born. In 1796, he was crossing the Alps to crush the Austrians and Sardinians. Had Dan Rather been living in the year 1809, his newscast would have focused on Austria. The attention of the world was on this man known as Napoleon as he swept across Europe. Emphasis was given to the bloody scenes of tyranny carried out by this dictator of France. While he killed millions of people, he left an indelible impression on the world. The most important thing impact on the world was the fall of Austria in 1809. At the same time, however, babies were being born in Britain and America, but nobody cared. In 1809, a veritable host of thinkers and statesman were born, but they drew the attention of no one. William Gladstone, British statesman and prime minister, was born in Liverpool. Alfred Tennyson began his life in Lincolnshire. Oliver Wendell Holmes, US. Writer, physician, and associate justice, cried out in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Edgar Allen Poe started his brief and tragic life. A physician named Darwin and his wife named their infant son Charles Robert. A rugged log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky, owned by an illiterate wandering laborer, filled with the screams of a boy named Abraham Lincoln. Though all this happened in 1809, no one cared that much because history was being made in Austria. Today these Austrian campaigns are forgotten for the most part, but the impact of these others is still remembered.
Eighteen centuries before Napoleon Bonaparte came on the scene, the world was watching the splendor of Rome. This empire was vast and vicious. The political intrigue, the racial tension, the increase in immorality, and the enormous military might captured the attention of the world. The land of Palestine was under their control. The Caesar, Augustus, called for a census to determine a measurement to increase taxes.
While the attention of the world was on Rome, a young couple was making an eighty mile trip south from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Who cared about a Jewish child being born in Bethlehem when Rome was making such an impact on the world. Yet the impact of this birth upon the world would be beyond comparison. While Rome was busy making history, God arrived on the scene in the person of Jesus.
Just as the birth of many great individuals was overlooked because Napoleon was making history, so the birth of Jesus was largely overlooked because of the actions of Rome. Many today still overlook the birth of Jesus and its consequences, and yet it was and is the most magnificent birth to ever take place.
In our passage, we see three reactions to the birth of Jesus, and these three reactions have been repeated over and over again throughout history and are still repeated today.
Herod the king gives us an example of this reaction. Herod was an Idumean who married Mariamne, heiress to the Jewish Hasmonean house. He did this to make himself more acceptable to the Jewish people. He was a clever and capable orator, warrior, and diplomat. When severe economic times came, he gave back some of the tax money to the people. During a famine in 25 BC, he melted down gold objects to buy food for the poor. He built many things and began reconstruction on the Temple in Jerusalem in 19 BC.
At the same time, he was careless and merciless. He was jealous, suspicious, and afraid someone would take his position and power from him. He had his wife’s brother drowned, his wife killed, her mother killed, and finally killed three of his sons. Shortly before his own death, he had the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem imprisoned and ordered them executed the moment he died so there would be mourning when he died. This barbaric act was surpassed only by his slaughter of ’all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under’ in an attempt to kill one the magi said was born king of the Jews. One said, ’any mention of another king of the Jews sent him into a frenzy of fear and anger.’ The appearance of the wise men renewed in Herod a political threat from the east.
Herod was not the only one troubled; for all Jerusalem was too. Perhaps they feared another conquest by the Parthians. While Herod was not a Jew, he was familiar with Jewish beliefs. He may have connected this news of the birth of a King of the Jews with the Messiah. The current messianic expectation by most Jews was for a military and political ruler rather than a Savior. This explains why Herod would react as he did.
Like Herod, some still react with hostility to the birth of Jesus and all Christians proclaim it to mean.