I recently addressed a gathering of believers, explaining to them Paul’s use of the terms, “spiritual,” “carnal,” and “natural” when discussing the human condition. In this address, I touched on the danger of religious arrogance and, in that context, said that it has been my observation that there are two arenas in which people of absolute incompetence can rise to positions of power very quickly. It happens in politics, and it happens in the church.
In 1994, Paramount Pictures released the third installment of its Tom Clancy political thriller series, Clear and Present Danger. In the film, CIA Deputy Director of Operations, Robert Ritter, is attempting to persuade a mercenary, John Clark, to assemble a black-ops team to fight Columbian drug cartels. During their discussion, Clark explains to Ritter that he is creating a huge mess for the current presidential administration.
“Is that what they want?” Clark asks, “because that’s what this is.”
“They want what every first-term administration wants,” Ritter responded, “a second term.”
The illusion of power is intoxicating, and the illusion of political power may be the most intoxicating of all.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him – Matthew 2:1-3, NASB
Jesus as a Threat to Herod
If you know anything of the history of the Herod family, you understand that when Herod was “troubled” everyone around Herod was troubled right along with him. Herod was an exceedingly cruel and unstable man. In the case of Matthew 2:1-3, Herod saw the birth of Jesus as a direct threat to his political power. Where is this “King of the Jews?”
Given Herod’s cruelty and ego-centrism, to say that Herod (and all Jerusalem) was “troubled” is a serious understatement, at least by today’s vernacular. The term εταραχθη denotes something closer to full-blown alarm and agitation than simply being bummed out or a little upset. Make no mistake about it, Herod was freaking out over the news of this new king.
As a foreigner and a usurper, Herod was intensely unpopular with his subjects, having risen to power through criminal activity and bloodshed, eventually being granted the title “king” by the Roman Senate in 40 BC. Given his illegitimate claim to the throne, Herod was paranoid about losing power and, as a result, had a history of murdering his own children, wives, and father-in-law in his efforts to retain that power.
The announcement of this new king (Jesus), resulted in nothing less than an edict from Herod to slaughter every male in the city of Bethlehem, and its surrounding area, aged two and under. It is an act of horrific violence foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, something he described as Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted.
What is, perhaps, most intriguing about Herod’s situation is that, at this point, he was in his seventies, so Jesus was no serious threat to his personal power. Herod would not survive long enough to be unseated by any infant rival to his throne. But so drunk with power was he, that even the suggestion of a rival awakened within him the anxiety of resistance.
Jesus as a Threat to Me
But Christmas, this year, isn’t really about Herod, is it? The focal point is not those ways in which Jesus is a threat to Herod, but rather those ways in which Jesus is a threat to me, to my belief system, my social status, my personal power. Jesus interferes with my selfishness, my ambitions, my indulgences. Jesus is counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, and really, just counter… There is nothing status quo about Jesus.
Jesus is the one who tells me to love those who hate me, to endlessly forgive those who damage me. He tells me to pray for rather than against my enemies. He teaches me that personal reproach is irrelevant, that I need never worry because God will always provide, and that I should be giving my life away for others, even if they are ungrateful. Jesus embraced his personal oppressors, as well as those who oppressed his people.
Jesus teaches me that the first (self-serving) shall be last and the last shall be first, and that greatness comes through serving the least of society. Jesus teaches me that the love and pursuit of personal wealth is not only pointless, but that it is fraught with danger. Jesus teaches me that loyalty to him outweighs even my love of family.
Jesus teaches me that I am to love, touch, and give myself fully to the underprivileged, the marginalized, the outcast, those whom many would consider the dregs of society. And this Jesus is the one who said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21), a truth that should drive us to our knees.
To say that Jesus was/is revolutionary is akin to saying that the ocean is wet. He is the man who said he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34). The question with which I must wrestle is, “To whom is Jesus revolutionary?” To others? To Herod? To the 1st Century Romans? Or to me?
Jesus is a threat not only to the status quo, but to my status quo.
When Jesus takes control, meaning I cede control to him, he messes with my preconceptions, my allegiances, my passions, and he begins to bring all of those into alignment with his own. He chips away at the religious and economic foundations upon which I have constructed my very existence. He forces me into positions that demand of me frightening levels of trust.
For me, Christmas has very little to do with “Ooo, look at the cuteness of the baby on the hay,” and a whole lot to do with the most radical human being ever to be born who has called me to follow him, address him as Lord and King, and to become what he is. He shatters my lifetime religious dogma, excises my selfishness, and opens my eyes to the blindness of my years.
Herod was troubled by the birth of Jesus. I am troubled by it as well, because his arrival is a call for me to forge the heart and mind of Christ within me, and my very nature is to resist that call.
The Christ child is the King of Kings and he is the Lord of Lords. That is far easier to say than it is to say (and mean it) that Jesus is King of me, and Lord of me. The words are easy, but the life is hard. One of the most frightening prayers I can imagine is, “Lord, make me as radical as you need me to be.” It is something to ponder this advent season.