by Roger McCay
22 December 2019
Sermon Passage: Isaiah 9:2-7; Matthew 2:1-2
Link to Audio Version
Every year, around this time, it is easy to be distracted from him who is to be the joy of our heart all year long. In this, well, the world will be the world. Yet, for Christians, if we, as God’s people are going to celebrate Christmas, we should at least push the distractions aside.
I say “if,” because some Christians do not celebrate Christmas. God did not establish Christmas as a holiday. No apostle or prophet ever said, “Celebrate Christmas,” so, these Christians do not recognize it. That is their prerogative, and there is nothing wrong with their position.
Christmas was invented during the time of Constantine in 336 and made official by Pope Julius I to be celebrated on the 25th of December. It was not that anyone knew what day Jesus was born (and it, most likely was not in December). It was just a convenient date to override certain pagan celebrations. Thus, the tradition was established and passed down (and hijacked by Charles Dickens).
Even so, it is not wrong for Christians to celebrate, in remembrance, the birth of King Jesus. Worship of the Lord is always appropriate. However, if we really are going to celebrate King Jesus’ birthday, we should avoid letting the trappings of Christmas distract us from his worship, and celebrate with the reverence and focus the Lord deserves.
Now, why was the birth of Jesus such a big deal? Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Ok. Got it. But, so what?
If you’ve read the Bible straight through, you may know the sense of burden you feel upon finishing the OT and the uplifting feeling you experience moving into the NT. You turn the page on Malachi and BOOM! – Jesus. It is awesome! Yet, a lot happens between those two pages – from OT to New. In fact, it was abt. 440 years’ worth of events, as the last return of the exiles recorded in Nehemiah was about 445 B.C. To put it in perspective, more time passed between the OT to the New than from the time when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620 until now (which has only been 399 yrs). From the historical account in Nehemiah, which ends on basically a positive note, to the account in Matthew, there is an obvious difference. Times were pretty dark when the Lord was born. We see evidence of this shortly after the Birth of Christ, recorded in Matthew chapter 1.
Let’s review the history and see exactly how dark these times were for the Jews.
In chapter 2 of Matthew, Herod, the Roman-appointed King of the Jews, felt threatened by the birth of the True King—a birth that had been prophesied to take place in Bethlehem. So, in defiance of God, Herod ordered the murder of all the male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who were two years old and under. He did this in hope of killing this promised one, whose birth had come to his attention by the Wise Men from the east, who had followed the star.
It wasn’t always so dark for the Jews. From the time of the rebuilding of the temple in 516 B.C. until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. (roughly 200 years), they had been able to live in relative peace, worshipping the Lord as they would. This seemed to be in harmony with what Zephaniah had prophesied, as they returned home from exile to Jerusalem, proclaiming in 3:15: “The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.” However, after Alexander died, things changed for the worse, bringing such prophecy into question. Yet, the prophecy was sound. It was rather that their thoughts, concerning this prophecy being fulfilled, were premature. Fulfillment would not rightly come to pass until the True King, Immanuel, had come.
Following Alexander’s death, Palestine found itself right smack between two powerful empires—one to the north and one to the south. Initially the southern empire of Egypt took dominion over Israel for about 120 years. During this time, Greek culture (called Hellenism) became a dominant influence upon the Jews, which was largely adopted by the people.
After this time, the Northern Empire of Syria took dominion over Palestine. The Jews found themselves in a horrible position. They were forbidden to practice their traditions and religious worship; to do so was punishable by death. Persecution was rampant, and the Temple was converted into a pagan shrine. A notable travesty was that, in 167 B.C., the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes desecrated the temple in Jerusalem, erected an idol to Zeus there, and offered sacrifices upon the alter of the Most Holy Place. You can read about much of this in the Apocryphal books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees.
This was a terrible time for the Jews who worshipped the Lord. From 200 B.C. on they became increasingly desperate for salvation from their oppression. As a result, a certain literature, called apocalyptic literature, was written to bolster their hope. These writings have been called “tracts for bad times,” and had pseudepigraphal names such as 1 Enoch, The Sibylline Oracles, The Book of Jubilees, The Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs, The Psalms of Solomon, and, The Assumption of Moses, which was written around 6 A.D.
These works put forward a number of hopeful ideas that included some common themes that became part of the Jewish psyche: the future coming of God’s eternal Kingdom; God’s conquering of the enemies of his people; and hope for a “anointed” one, a Messiah, the Son of Man, who would rule, a King. These hopes were not baseless. They had foundations in the prophecies and promises of the OT including Daniel, Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah, Jeremiah, Genesis, and II Samuel.
Times were dark for the Jews. But, they did not just passively put bags over their heads and die. A revolution took place led by the Maccabees, won in 164 B.C., successfully bringing independence back to the Jews. And, for a while, things were better. The temple was cleansed and daily burnt offerings and other religious ceremonies were reestablished. This event is still celebrated by the Jews today – Hanukkah.
Following Judas Maccabaeus, his family of Jewish priests(called the Hasmonaeans) ruled over Israel until 63 B.C. During this time period, it became evident such priestly rule was not the salvation from oppression for which the Jews hoped. It was not God’s Kingdom come. These priests became horribly corrupt, cruel, immoral, and pagan. F. F. Bruce says concerning this:
To the Pharisees and kindred groups, the Hasmonaeans’ increasing persecution of the godly stamped them as enemies of God, while there were some in whose eyes the Hasmonaean’ assumption of the high priesthood was a new “abomination of desolation.” Such people continued to look for the inbreaking of the kingdom of God and indulged in apocalyptic thought and language.
Sadly, things got so bad that the Jewish leaders called upon Rome to solve their problem. Yet, such a move was like asking the devil to help you with a demon problem.
In answer to the call for help, General Pompey marched into Jerusalem in 63 B.C. bringing in Roman rule. And this Roman rule was not the Kingdom that was so hoped for. Rather, things just got worse. The pagan Romans ruled the land from that point, even politically appointing the Jewish High Priests, who were supposed to be the representatives of God to the people and of the people to God. Military occupation, taxation, Roman justice; Rome took total control. And, ultimately, they would destroy Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D.
Thus, it was under Roman rule, during the reign of Herod (a scheming, murdering, despot appointed by Rome as the King of the Jews) during that time, the light of God burst forth in the darkness. Jesus, the King, was born.
6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
King Jesus’ birth was the inauguration of the fulfillment of the hope of the people given in OT prophecy and imaginatively put forward in apocalyptic reassurances.
However, the coming of the King and his Kingdom was not quite like the popular, hopeful imaginings of the time. The darkness in which they walked was even darker than they knew. And neither the King nor his Kingdom was exactly what they had in mind. The Lord’s humble birth showed this fact right off.
From the gospels, we know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem due to Joseph and Mary’s travel from Nazareth to their ancestral city for a census in compliance with the decree of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. Jesus’ mother was a young woman whose reputation had likely been marred because of her scandalous pregnancy, but her husband, Joseph, had shown her mercy. Reaching Bethlehem, the young couple could only find shelter in a stable for animals, and Mary went into labor. There, in the stable, likely on the floor, Jesus was born right into Joseph the carpenter’s hands. He was then wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a food trough for the animals, a manger.
Surprisingly, the announcement of the promised King was not given to the great in the land, but to humble shepherds in a field watching their flock. It was to them the host of heaven appeared singing joyously, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, among those with whom he is pleased.” Such humble settings are not what any of us (in our limited minds) would imagine to be those of the birth of the King of Kings, Lord of Lords. But God’s ways are not our ways.
Mary’s scandalous pregnancy was not due to sin, but to blessing; and lo the virgin gave birth, fulfilling Isaiah 7:14: “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
And the Son of God, the son of David, was born in Bethlehem as prophesied in Micah 5:2: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” It was this prophecy that Herod saw as being fulfilled. And so, he sent the destroyers of children. But, due to a warning from God, the little family had fled to Egypt, and so escaped.
Over time, many had come along claiming to be this hoped for Messiah, but they were all cast down. There was only one who would fulfill the promise. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he proclaimed: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” This was at the heart of his message. Considering the hopes of the people, you can imagine how such a message drew the Jews to Jesus in droves.
But the way they envisioned (the hoped-for deliverance from political oppression, the coming of the Messiah to save them and the establishment of God’s Kingdom) was short sighted.
The Kingdom existed in the very person of Jesus, as the Kingdom consists of the rule of God, and Jesus is God incarnate. Again, God’s ways are not our ways.
What Jesus did not bring was an earthly Kingdom to overthrow the oppression of the Romans and establish himself as the Messiah King with military might, placing himself on the throne in Jerusalem. No, the darkness the people were under was a darkness that covered the whole world. Political oppression was just a symptom of the darkness. This larger problem was what Jesus came to conquer. So, in order to conquer the darkness, the King had to suffer and die. And so, included with the prophecies of the King, the Messiah, was the prophecy of the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53: “By his stripes we are healed.”
Jesus came preaching the message of the Kingdom with absolute authority – often speaking in parables concerning it. In his ministry, he engaged and overcame the evil one, and he cast out innumerable demons. He acknowledged his identity as the Lord, even claimed to be one with the Father. He referred to himself as the Son of Man, the one spoken of in Daniel 7:13-14. He accepted the title the “King of the Jews” from Pilate, and he repeatedly spoke to the very fact that he must suffer and die.
Yet the Jews in general rejected their hoped-for Messiah. In many cases, it was because they did not put together the idea that the Messiah King must also be the Suffering Servant. They were focused on their earthly oppression and not the oppression of darkness that covered the world. Thus, one minute they were hailing him as the King that comes in the name of the Lord, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, and in the next, when he did not fulfill their short-sighted expectations, they were crying out, “Crucify him!” Thus, they sent the Lord of Glory to the Cross.
It is a hard thing to understand—the Cross—but, it was God’s plan. At the cross, God’s justice and righteousness were made manifest. Jesus, the sinless lamb of God, took the sins of the world (our sins) upon himself suffering and dying as the ultimate sacrificial lamb. God’s wrath against our sin was satisfied. God’s perfect justice and perfect mercy were displayed before all. The darkness was overthrown, and to God was the victory!
Death did not win that day, for Jesus did not stay dead. In three days, he arose from the dead. He spent time among his followers. And then, he was exalted into heaven.
In Matt. 28:18, the Son of David claimed that “All authority in heaven and on earth” was given to him. And he told his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus reigns now as King over all creation, on earth and heaven. He is Immanuel, God with us. The government is on his shoulder. And …
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Jesus’ incarnation was for a vastly larger purpose than to just save the ethnic Jews from their earthly troubles. He came to save not only the Jews, but also, the Romans, the Samaritans, and all the races of the world. He came to save all those who would trust in him, to set them free from the trap of the devil, sin, and their deserved condemnation for their sin. In his incarnation, death, and resurrection, Jesus healed the rift between God and man.
All those who trust in him reap the eternal benefits of his blessings and Kingdom. He sits on the throne of David, ruling over his kingdom with perfect justice and righteousness. His Kingdom is an eternal Kingdom, God’s rule. It is not absent from us. It is in place now. And, it will be perfectly consummated when he returns on “that day” in Judgment.
The name of Jesus is, indeed, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. As “God with Us,” he is the embodiment of wisdom and might. No enemy can stand before him, for he is Almighty God – the Lord of hosts. To him is the victory. The evil one’s defeat is secured – indeed, was secure at Jesus’ birth. The Lord’s rule, as Wonderful Counselor, consists of a perfect insight into the essential nature of things, as he leads his people along the path of righteousness. He is the Everlasting Father, caring for his children, the subjects of his Kingdom, his people, bestowing eternal blessings upon us in this life and the life to come in our inheritance. He is the Prince of Peace, establishing and maintaining peace between God and man. He did this on the cross and now stands as our High Priest and advocate. “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Thus, we take time to celebrate the birth of the King every year. Yet, keeping Jesus as a little baby in a manger is inappropriate—like the cross, the manger is empty. Jesus is the King now: over all peoples; over all rulers and powers, both in the spiritual realms and the earthly realm; over all governments; over all creation, the visible and invisible. He is first, last; alpha, omega; supreme.
As you celebrate the birth of Jesus the King this Christmas, take time to consider who it was that came into the world, and who he is now. Jesus’ birth was the first strike of the hammer against our chains to set us free. His death, burial and resurrection were the breaking of those chains. And, his rule is his glorious care for us as his freed people.
Jesus taught that to be a citizen of his Kingdom, you must have a relationship with him. Follow him, as his disciple. Trust in him, as Lord, who saves you, who guides you. Repent your sins, knowing that he forgives you. Talk with him. Spend time with him. And worship him. Not only is he your Lord and King, but he is also your best friend and best love.
The Lord loves you. The King not only took time for you, but he drove time to you, so that he might be with you. He left the glories of heaven and humbled himself to be born in a stable and laid in a manger. The King did this for you. Will you take time for him?
Don’t be distracted this Christmas with the frivolous trappings our culture throws in the way. Focus on who it is we celebrate. Take time for the King—Jesus Christ, the Lord.
Because Jesus was born, we must rejoice in him.
 F. F. Bruce, “A Reappraisal of Jewish Apocalyptic Literature,” Review and Expositor 72 (1975): 307.