As we prepare to celebrate Christmas and the birth of our Savior, it is natural to think about how God intervenes in human history. The Bible is full of drastic examples, from armies defeated to miracles preformed. And yet, the most significant example of divine intervention – the incarnation of the Messiah – was also probably the least intrusive. God could have announced the arrival of Jesus with the blast of trumpets, or sent an army of angels to accompany him to earth, but instead Jesus came quietly, gently, as a baby in a modest town, born to modest parents. This is not how most of us would have chosen to make our arrival, but perhaps God was trying to teach us something through the way the Messiah was born. We should not separate God’s method from his message, and in this instance, his method suggests humility.
We often overlook the story of the birth of the Messiah, probably because we have all heard it so many times that we suppose there is nothing more we can learn from it. But I am always surprised how every year it speaks to me in a new way. There is so much to be gleaned from the story, it bears retelling. I have been thinking recently about the different ways people in the story responded to news of the birth of Jesus, and what we can learn from their responses. We will look at four different groups and how they responded, King Herod, the Magi, the religious leaders, and the shepards.
First we have Herod, the political ruler and self-proclaimed King of the Jews. He was a prolific builder, and made magnificent palaces and buildings all over, such as Caesarea, Masada, the Temple in Jerusalem. Politically he was very shrewd, and cruel towards all opposition. He was the supreme ruler, held all political power, and mercilessly crushed all opposition to his rule. When he heard about Jesus, his reaction was suspicion and fear. He was threatened by Jesus and tried to have him killed. Matthew 2:16-18 describes the horror that resulted from his fear, the massacre of the innocents. This act of deranged terror caused untold heartache and pain, but it is important to note that evil is limited in space and time. Even with all of his political power, Herod could not stop God’s plan. Also, if you read the gospels carefully, Herod is clearly the target of ridicule. Here was the great king, and he was afraid of a little helpless baby. As the political leader of the Jewish people, he should have been happy to welcome the King of the Jews, the one who would deliver “his” people. But he couldn’t because he was not concerned about his people, he only cared about his own power, and his reaction was therefore paranoid and incredibly cruel.
The next group we will look at is the Magi, the knowledgeable wise men from the East. It is important to remember that these men were pagans, and had no access to the scriptures or the prophecies. All they had were the stars, but still they were able to recognize that something special was happening. This may have seemed like very little to go on, but they left their homes in the east and traveled far in search of the king they knew had arrived, and they sought to worship him. (Matt. 2:2) Their reaction to Jesus was respect and adoration, and they presented him with gifts, (Matt. 2:11) The Magi came far, but did not make it all the way because they did not have the full revelation of God. They made it as far as Jerusalem, but did not know where to go from there. So, in Matthew 2:1-2, they asked King Herod about the baby, and he turned to the recognized experts – the Jewish religious leaders.
The religious leaders had the fullest revelation that was possible, they had all the knowledge and wisdom, the prophecies and scriptures. They knew how to answer King Herod’s questions, and knew that the Messiah was to come out of Bethlehem. (Matt. 2:6) But the religious leaders, and the entire Temple establishment were very much in league with the King and complicit in the oppression that was going on. They of all people, should have welcomed the coming of the true King, the one who would deliver and save. They spent their whole lives waiting this coming, and yet in spite of all their knowledge and revelation, they still missed it. They could not see God’s work in the person of a baby. This was very telling, but it is also disturbing. Not only did the religious leaders fail to recognize the arrival of the Messiah, because of their subservience to the King, many innocent children were murdered in Bethlehem.
Finally, we have the shepards. They were the simple people, salt of the earth, and lived on the fringe of society. They did not even sleep inside, but were instead spending the night outside with their sheep. They would not leave their flocks alone, but stayed with them and guarded them, which shows how dedicated they were to their work and to their flocks. (Luke 2:8) It is for this reason that shepards are the ultimate biblical symbol of leadership. When the angles appeared to them, they were afraid (at least partially) because of the political implications. They were told to come and see the new King, and they knew it was subversive. In typical dictator-like fashion, Herod had spies everywhere, so they had good reason to be afraid. But, they chose to go anyway, in spite of the danger, and they even told others about it. Their response to Jesus was recognition, respect and admiration.
What does all of this mean for us today? Obviously the Magi and the shepards are the examples that we should try to follow, but how do we do that in our daily lives? This list is far from exhaustive, but here are a number of ways. Even though we think we have all the knowledge and all the theology, if we are not obedient we will miss out on what God is doing. And we need to be attentive, and open to learning from others, even if they are people that, in our estimation, have the least amount of knowledge from the Bible and are the last people we would expect to understand God. Also, we should be careful to avoid aligning ourselves with political or religious powers that are actually serving the powers of oppression. This can easily happen and we need to be ever vigilant in guarding against it.
When we look around the political situation here in the Holy Land, we see little to be happy about. There has been no progress in the peace process. The divide between the rich and the poor is only getting bigger, and the divide between the Israelis and the Palestinians is only getting more and more entrenched. But we should remember that even in a time of great chaos and uncertainty, God still carries through with his plan, just as he did 2,000 years ago when he sent his son to earth. Will we be obedient? Will we follow the star?
Salim J. Munayer