This Advent* we’re exploring the contrasts in the nativity stories. (This post will give you a short introduction) Many churches focus on four traditional Advent themes. Peace, Joy, Love, Hope. But we seldom wonder why those themes are important. Why do we lift these up as a focal point? I think it is because so often the world is filled with the opposite condition. Discord rather than peace. Sorrow rather then joy. Hate rather than love. Despair rather the hope.
The story of the magi and Herod is a dark story. Popular imagination strips the story down to it’s palatable essentials. Wise men follow a special star, find the baby Jesus, give him gifts, worship and then go home. The story in the Bible is darker,bringing sorrow, hate, despair and violence into the nativity story. You can read more about magi here and here, but suffice it to say that magi, as a group, were neither kings nor wise men. They did interpret celestial events. These magi find significance in the appearance of a star but following the star is not a simple task. The star doesn’t lead them directly to the baby but first takes them to Jerusalem. Herod, appointed by Rome as King of the Jews, holds on to his throne with a mixture of terror and violence. Terrified at the suggestion of a successor to his throne, Herod first tries to manipulate the magi for his own ends. Herod’s own wise men tell the magi where to find the new king. Herod asks the magi to do him a favor, if they would. Could they let Herod know where this king is so Herod himself can also pay homage. The magi, it seems, agree until they are warned off in a dream and fail to report back to Herod.
When persuasion and deception fail, Herod falls back on the tried and true method of violence. The new baby king must be eliminated and the surest method is to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem. I wonder if the magi ever knew how much suffering their innocent question caused? Surely they did not intend to cause such suffering but it is a tragic example of people trying to do a good thing and causing unintended and unexpected tragedy.
Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and escapes under cover of darkness to Egypt. When Herod dies, Joseph, Mary and Jesus return home only to find that Herod’s son Archelaus now rules. Sadly, Archelaus was even more violent and dangerous than his father and the holy family has to relocate to Nazareth.
Being the Messiah is dangerous, even for a baby. The fear and hatred of those in power result in the suffering of innocent families. Today we might call them collateral damage. To come as the savior is dangerous. Dangerous for the baby. Dangerous for his family. Dangerous for families who live in the wrong small village at the wrong time.
Saving the world, bringing hope, joy, peace, and love comes with a significant price. If we don’t acknowledge the price of salvation, if we ignore the desperate measures the powerful will go to preserve their power, we risk minimizing the gospel. The powers and principalities won’t graciously cede to the rule of God. The nativity story makes that quite clear.
The nativity story also makes it quite clear that God is at work in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. Faithful, small town Mary and Joseph. Unexpected foreign visitors. Sanctuary in another land. Angels guiding those willing to listen and respond.
God is at work in the world in non violent ways but that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous work for all involved. It is work that leads, for Jesus, to the cross. It is work that, thankfully, doesn’t end at the cross but ends when God becomes king. Violence replaced with peace. Sorrow gives way to joy. Hate is overcome by love. Despair turned into hope. In Advent they are what we wait for. In Christmas they are what we celebrate. In the new year, what we pray for and work for. Peace, love, joy, and hope.
* I know Advent is over and we are now in the days of Christmas. But I kept Advent in the title to keep these past posts and this one linked together as a series.