Sunday, December 4, 2016

Story of Royalty

The Story of Royalty

We all know the Story; we’ve heard it over and over again.  If you close your eyes you can almost picture them.  Riding their camels across the desert at night, the moon highlighting their royal robes and crowns against the stark desert sand.

It is a very familiar part of the Christmas story and it has all the earmarks of a great story.  You hear it this time of year in sermons, songs and read about it on Christmas cards. 

A favourite Christmas Carol even honours them,
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.”

Which of course sounds better than “We undetermined number of men of non-royal descent”

In the bible, they are described as wise men and there are no numbers mentioned.  Sometime around 600ish the wise men were promoted to Kings, some feel that perhaps it was a reaction to Psalm 72 verse 10 where we read   Psalm 72:10  The western kings of Tarshish and other distant lands will bring him tribute. The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts.   

Of course, while some Psalms are referred to as Messianic Psalms, which simply means they were written about the coming Messiah, Psalm 72 isn’t one of those.  It was simply written about King Solomon and his reign.

So, the bible never refers to the visitors as Kings or even alludes to it and the early church never identified them as kings.  And while their actual numbers are never mentioned the fact that they brought 3 gifts has set their numbers at 3.  But the story of the Kings remains a part of the Christmas story that most people are familiar with.

We all know the Story; we’ve heard it over and over again. But there is another story, a story seldom told that is part of the Christmas Narrative as well.

I would invite you to stand for the reading from God’s word.

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-8

So, while there were kings mentioned in the Christmas story there were only two and they didn’t come from the east.  Let’s go back to the scripture

Matthew 2:1-2  Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking,  “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”

The two kings didn’t arrive on camels; they didn’t arrive carrying gifts and they didn’t arrive from the east.  The only two kings mentioned in the Christmas story were King Herod and King Jesus. 

And while both kings are mentioned here, and while they would both hold the title “King of the Jews” their kingdoms, their objectives and their methods  were diametrically opposed.  As they would say in Australia “They were as different as chalk and cheese.” 

The first King mentioned was King Herod, and this was Herod the Great to be specific, not his son Herod Agrippa who we meet later in the story when he executes John the Baptist. 

And Herod was not a nice person. 

Now Herod has received a lot of bad press through the years.  You ever get the feeling that sometimes we need to tear heroes and historical figures down just on principal. 

In Australia, they talked about the “tall poppy syndrome” and that was the desire to pull anyone down who had risen above the herd, that is if poppies come in herds.

In Herod’s case, it may very well have been valid.  Now granted he wasn’t perfect but he wasn’t entirely bad either.  After all he wasn’t called Herod the Great for nothing.  Herod was half Jewish and half Gentile.  He had curried favor with the Romans during the civil wars in Palestine and kept the locals in line for the Romans.

While this did nothing to endear him to the Jewish population but it made him a favourite of the Romans and if nothing else Herod knew which side his bread was buttered on.  In 47 BC he was appointed Governor of Palestine and seven years later he was appointed King by Octavian who you would know better as Caesar Augustus. 

The other king in the story of course is Jesus.  He has just been born, but already there are those talking about his destiny.  There was no hesitancy in what the Wise men asked, they didn’t say “The one who will be called king of the Jews.”  They didn’t say “The one who someday will be king of the Jews.”  There were looking for the new born king of the Jews.  The one who was the King of the Jews.  And that must have been a shock to Herod because he thought he was king of the Jews.  

And throughout the story we see this theme of Jesus being king surfacing.  When Jesus called Nathanael to follow him we read this exchange John 1:49  Then Nathanael exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God—the King of Israel!”

When Jesus makes his triumphant entry in Jerusalem on what we now refer to as Psalm Sunday we read this Luke 19:36-38  As he (Jesus) rode along, the crowds spread out their garments on the road ahead of him.  When they reached the place where the road started down the Mount of Olives, all of his followers began to shout and sing as they walked along, praising God for all the wonderful miracles they had seen.  “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the LORD! Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven!”

And when Pilate is interrogating Jesus after his arrest and before his crucifixion he asks Jesus in  Luke 23:3 So Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  now listen to Christ’s reply  Jesus replied, “You have said it.”

At no point, does Jesus ever stop people from calling him king.  And when he was crucified we read in John 19:19-22  And Pilate posted a sign over him that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, so that many people could read it.  Then the leading priests objected and said to Pilate, “Change it from ‘The King of the Jews’ to ‘He said, I am King of the Jews.’”  Pilate replied, “No, what I have written, I have written.”

But while we have two kings in the story they were very different kings.

Herod’s Kingdom Was Defined by Hate and Selfishness 

Herod had one motive and one desire, to be the most powerful man in Israel.  He wanted to be loved and if he couldn’t be loved then he wanted to be feared. 

The title Herod the Great wasn’t simply an empty title, he kept peace in Palestine throughout his reign which was no mean feat and during that time he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, it would later be destroyed by the Romans. 

What is referred to as the Western Wall or Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is kind of a part of that structure.  It was the retaining wall that was built to hold Herod’s temple.  It was deemed too insignificant for the Romans to destroy but has been considered on of the holiest sites in Israel over the past two thousand years.   You can see in this picture of the Western Wall, the temple was where the trees now are. 

But even Herod’s motives behind rebuilding the temple were mixed.  Historians feel that rather than motivated by a spiritual motive that it was done so that he would “have a capital city worthy of his dignity and grandeur.”

The King also built several great fortresses including the mountain top fort of Masada, but they weren’t as much for the protection of the nation as they were for the protection of Herod and his family in case of war or revolt.  They were big “Panic Rooms”

In the year 12 BC he underwrote the cost of the Olympic games in Greece and was named the game’s “Perpetual President.” 

For Herod, it was all about Herod.

But with all of Herod’s attributes he did have one small, little problem.  I mean face it we all have one problem or another, don’t we? 

Herod’s was that he kept killing people.  Not just anyone, just anyone he suspected might be a threat to his leadership.  You see he was insanely suspicious and paranoid and he was always afraid that people were trying to usurp him.  Not that they weren’t.  And the older he got the more suspicious he got until someone even referred to him as a “Murderous Old Man”

During his reign, he had his wife Mariamne executed along with her mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater, his middle son Alexander and his third son Aristobulus. 

Augustus stated at one point “It is safer to be Herod’s pig then to be his son.”  It was a bit more poetic in the original language because in the Greek hus is the word for a pig, and huios is the word for son. 

When he was 70 and felt that he was near the end he retired to Jericho and had some of the most notable and distinguished citizens of Jerusalem arrested on trumped up charges.  On his orders, they were to be slaughtered at the moment of his death.  You see Herod knew how people felt about him and he said that he was determined to have tears shed at his death. 

Fortunately for the dignitaries, Herod's son and sister refused to carry out his wishes and had the hostages released.  Which is again a reminder that your last wishes are just that, wishes.  And if wishes were horses then beggars would ride.

And so, it was that this old man who was crippled with hate and suspicion was told about the one who was the King of the Jews.  And he was a little disturbed at the news. The Bible says in Matthew 2:3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, “Disturbed” now there’s an understatement, that’s like saying Donald Trump is a little strange.
Herod got ugly.  And when his plans to find the child and “do him in” failed, he flipped, went from disturbed to seriously psychopathic or maybe sociopathic, I always get those mixed up. 

If you don’t know the story.   The wise men are warned in a dream to not return to Herod, so they bypassed Jerusalem on their way home.  And Joseph also had an angel appear to him, telling him to take his wife and his new born son and to flee to Egypt. 

And that was a good thing for them because Herod in a fit of rage, ordered that all the boy children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem would be slaughtered. 

On the other hand, Jesus’ Kingdom Was Defined by Love and Sacrifice

From the very beginning the birth of Jesus was defined not by what he could get but what could he give.  We keep going back to John 3:16 but that is where the Gospel begins.  Before the angel came to Mary, before there was a Mary there was a plan and that is summed up in John 3:16  “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

And throughout his ministry we see Jesus giving of himself, whether it was when he was healing the sick, feeding the hungry or teaching the crowds it was never about Jesus, it was about others and it was about the Father.

And this theme is mentioned again and again in the bible.  Jesus himself told us Mark 10:45  “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Paul would write about it 1 Timothy 1:15  This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”. . .

When God created humanity, he created men and women to be in fellowship with Him, and they were, until they chose not to be.  The story of humanity’s rebellion is told in the book of Genesis, the first book of the bible. 

It’s there we read how God had place the first couple in a beautiful garden with only one condition.   There was only one rule.  How would you like to live a life with only one rule?

And they chose to rebel and disobey that one rule, and they set the pattern for all of us.  It’s why Paul wrote Romans 3:23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. And while that statement may sound hopeless it is followed with a statement of hope, Romans 3:24 Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.

There is a gap between us and God that we cannot bridge on our own.  The prophet writes in  Isaiah 64:5-6  . . . We are constant sinners; how can people like us be saved?  We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.

The answer to Isaiah’s question “How can people like us be saved?”  comes at the beginning of the Christmas story. 

Remember the angel has come to a young lady named Mary and tells her that even though she is a virgin she will become pregnant with the son of God.  Leaving her with the difficult task of telling her fiancé Joseph that she is pregnant.

And Joseph knows that it takes two to tango and he knows that he wasn’t Mary’s dance partner so he decides to break off the engagement.

That night he receives his own angelic visit.  Matthew 1:20-21  As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”     

The mission of Christ was simple, he summed it up himself in Luke 19:10  For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

The difference between the lives of the two kings is that Jesus taught the Golden Rule, “Do unto others”, but Herod lived by his own version of the golden rule, “He who has the gold, makes the rules.”

Both Kings Left a Legacy 

If you goggle the legacy that Herod left you will discover that during his reign the king was a prolific builder.  It wasn’t by accident that he was called “The great.”  But nothing remains of those buildings but rubble and ruin.

Some of the accomplishment that top the list are the mountain top fortress of Masada, maybe you saw the movie.  When the Roman army was crushing the Jewish rebellion in 73 there was a group who made a stand in Masada. 

When the Romans finally took the fortress they discovered that 960 of its resident had either killed each other or committed suicide.  Men, women and children.  There were only 7 survivors, 2 women and 5 children. 

This is what Masada looks like today.  Interesting that this event has taken on almost heroic status.  In 1978 909 people died the same way at Jonestown in Guyana and it is considered the work of a mad man with a deluded following.  Strange how history works.

Herod was also known for creating the port city of Caesarea, named of course after Caesar this was the foremost port in Israel in its day.  This is a picture of what remains of Caesarea today. 

There is a community that bears the same name but it was established in 1952.

Herod’s palace was considered the largest palace of its day.  He named it Herodium in honour of himself, and here are the remains.

There is nothing left standing of Herod’s architectural accomplishments and most of them were destroyed by very empire that Herod aligned himself with. 

If you ask people if they know who Herod is, they will usual mention the Christmas story or the Easter story.

By the way that the Herod in the Easter story who mockingly dressed Jesus in a purple robe and sent him back to Pilate to be crucified was the son of the Herod from the Christmas story.

The legacy of Herod is of a bitter old man who killed his family, terrorized his subjects and left behind piles of ruins.

Although we have no record of Christ ever constructing a building his legacy is cathedrals, universities and hospitals.  His teachings have shaped how we treat the sick and the poor. 

If you are university educated, then you probably were educated at an institution founded by His Church.

If you were born in Halifax before 1996 then you were probably born in a hospital that was founded by His Church.

In the 17 and 18 hundreds, His church was at the forefront of the fight against slavery and child labour. 

If you are a woman and enjoy the rights that have come your way in the past 200 years you can probably trace many of those rights back to the first women’s rights conference held in Seneca Falls NY in 1848.  Which was held in a Wesleyan Church.

The legacy of Christ is a legacy of better people, people who have shaped and changed the world for the better because they have taken to heart the teachings of Christ. 

In 1979 Bob Dylan released an album about his Christian faith called Slow Train Coming and on that album was the song “You Gotta Serve Somebody” and in it Dylan wrote this epic truth. 

“But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.”

And so the question today, December 4th 2016 is “Who will you serve?”

And the only person who can answer that is you. 

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