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.