Matthew recollects the story of Jesus “advent” into the world as follows:
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. (Mt 2:1-3)
As the narrative of Matthew 2 progresses, we see Matthew moving back and forth between the two figures which cause so much dramatic tension: the “king” and the “child” (who happens to be the rightful king). The narrative climaxes with a hoodwinked Herod furiously ordering the annihilation of all boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area two years old and under, with Jesus and his parents narrowly escaping.
Matthew’s tale of Jesus advent is important for so many reasons. In the first place, it reminds us that the reality about which we sing, speak, remember, and confess at Christmastime is not as air-brushed as we’d often like to think. The first Christmas was soaked in pain and sorrow, conflict, confusion, and anxiety… as many Christmases are.
Secondly, I love this narrative because it reminds me that God gets what God wants. He brought about the birth of the child, and arranged for his survival. It wasn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t some kind of “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens”, Thomas Kinkade-esque, “Your Best Life Now” tale. But it happened. God got what God wanted. It seems that’s his way.
But thirdly, lastly, and what I love the most about this narrative, is that Herod feels threatened. By a baby. Why? Because Herod knows what the baby represents. Or at least what they people will MAKE the baby to represent. The Magi come and ask, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews?” “Huh?” Herod must have thought. “I’M the King of the Jews! How can you possibly ask me that question?” And really, it’s quite a bit of gall on the part of those Magi… march right into King Herod’s office and ask where the REAL “King of the Jews” is without thinking twice about it.
Herod, accordingly, is nervous. “Disturbed” is the word the NIV uses. For what happens if popular messianic expectation galvanizes around this child? It could upset the settled order of Galilee and Judea. Spark civil unrest. Revolution maybe. And what if Rome hears about it? Will they then descend upon that region with their vast military might? Will the Herodian dynasty come to an end as martial law is imposed?
If those were the thoughts that motivated Herod’s unrest, he was right to think them. The galvanization of messianic hope around this little baby could and would indeed prove to be a powder keg. But imagine it… such a small thing… a baby… born in a small town, from parents who hailed from an out of the way village… but so much anxiety for Herod and his lot.
This would not, of course, be the last time the baby would clash with the powers that be. His life began under threat from the powers, it proceeded under suspicion of the powers, and it ended at the hands of the powers. Power, political, religious, or otherwise, has never been particularly friendly to Jesus. For as we learned during our Sermon on the Mount series at Bloom this fall, Jesus came to establish a new order. He is the reality for which everything else is a sham. And his presence is not meant to fit neatly into our established modes of being… He comes to flip the world upside down… by redefining power, redefining God, redefining forgiveness, redefining human worth.
That is to say, he is the kingdom-bringer. Better yet, as we learned this fall, he IS the kingdom. And established power, whenever it comes in contact with him, knows that his presence is always likely to start a revolution. It only takes one baby and a handful of devotees. That’s why they try to shut him down. And that’s how it always goes. Avalanches begin with small pockets of debris losing their grip. Dams break when small cracks give way. Large forests are set ablaze with single sparks. In God’s world, it doesn’t take much.
In 1955 a black woman named Rosa parks refused to take the back seat on an empty bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her actions incited a period of general social unrest that ultimately led to the Civil Rights movement.
Changed the world…
Also changed the world…
How about that? It doesn’t take much. The Kingdom, however weak it appears (one baby, one woman), it the strongest thing in the universe. Jesus once told a parable about the kingdom saying:
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Mt 13:31-32)
Small thing. So insignificant. But ultimately, it becomes the “largest thing”. An encompassing reality that shades, embraces, and stabilizes our lives…
Kingdom. HE is the Kingdom. God give us grace to follow Him.