Christmas Isn't Cancelled | Keeping Christmas
So last week, I told you that my favorite Christmas story is the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. And I know that I’m not the only one who loves this story. With more than seventy different big and small screen adaptations of this story, there’s a pretty good chance that you look forward to seeing at least one version of this story every Christmas.
You might look forward to Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which is the first version of this story that I remember seeing. And I still enjoy watching Mickey Mouse, Scrooge McDuck, and some of Disney’s most recognizable characters bring this story to life. Or you might prefer The Muppet Christmas Carol. And although there is definitely something endearing about Kermit and the gang’s version of this story, hearing Michael Caine sing at the end is still a little odd to me.
You may prefer more traditional versions of this classic story. Like when Patrick Stewart played Ebeneezer Scrooge in a 1999 television version of A Christmas Carol. Or, if you’re really old school, you might still be blown away by Alastair Sims’s portrayal of Scrooge way back in 1951. Or you might prefer more non-traditional takes on Dickens’ tale...like the one Bill Murray gives us in the hyper-violent and profit-obsessed entertainment world in Scrooged.
But for my money, nothing beats the book. So every Christmas, I like to curl up on the couch and take a trip back to Christmas Eve in Victorian England. And I love to spend a few hours with Ebeneezer Scrooge while the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet To Come transform the life of this curmudgeonly character.
And that really is the part of the story that keeps bringing me back to this book year after year. The part where Scrooge finally understands the lessons the three spirits have been trying to teach him. The part where his life is changed. And it finally happens at the end of Stave Four--and by the way, Charles Dickens calls his chapters Staves (like a stanza in a song) in this book to play up the idea that this story is a Christmas Carol...a story celebrating the birth of Jesus. But at the end of Stave Four, Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come and he sees what his future holds if he does not change.
Scrooge sees a future where he is dead. A future where no one grieves his passing. A future where people are relieved to know he is gone. And this is the tipping point for Scrooge. And his life is transformed. And Scrooge promises the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come:
“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future...I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
And Dickens goes on to tell us that, “Scrooge was better than his word.” Scrooge honored Christmas in his heart. Scrooge kept Christmas all the year...but what about us? Do we honor Christmas in our hearts? Do we keep Christmas when December comes to an end?
Throughout this Christmas season, we have been trying to remind you that, in spite of what may be happening in the world around us, Christmas isn’t cancelled. But right now, I’m not worried about what is happening in the world around us. Right now, I’m worried about what is happening in each of us.
And that’s because there is nothing that a novel and potentially deadly virus can do to cancel Christmas...but if you and I don’t honor Christmas and keep it all the year we can. We can cancel Christmas if we don’t keep Christmas throughout the year.
We can cancel Christmas if we don’t keep Christmas throughout the year.
So that’s what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about how we can each keep Christmas throughout the year. And to help us do that, I want to do what we’ve done every week throughout this Christmas season...I want to take a closer look at part of the story of the first Christmas. And the part of the story that I want to look at today comes from Matthew 2.
Now the book of Matthew is the very first book in the New Testament. And the New Testament basically tells us two major stories. It tells us the story of Jesus’ life, and it tells us the story of how our faith in Jesus grew and spread in the first century.
And the book of Matthew tells us the first kind of story. It tells us about Jesus’ life, and that includes the story of his birth. But Matthew tells us more about the surrounding characters in this story than the actual birth of Jesus. And I want you to pay attention to how these characters respond to the good news that Jesus has been born.
So let’s see what Matthew has to tell us. We’ll start reading in Matthew 2:1. Matthew writes:
2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.
So these verses in the book of Matthew tells us about the characters that I want us to pay attention to today. These verses tell about King Herod and the magi. But these verses don’t tell us a lot about these characters. So let me tell you a little more about King Herod and the magi. We’ll start with Herod.
Now, from what Matthew tells us, we know that Herod is a king and that he is troubled by the news that Jesus has been born. And it’s not too hard to figure out why Herod is troubled by what the magi told him. When the magi tell Herod that there is a newborn king of the Jews, Herod’s troubled because he is the current king of the Jews. And if there is a new king in town that means that Herod’s days as king are numbered.
But what if I told you that there was another part of this story that we’ve been missing? And what if I told you that this part of the story makes Herod’s reaction to the wise men’s message a little more surprising?
Let me explain what I mean. So Herod isn’t just the king of the Jews, according to one early historian, Herod was also Jewish. It was said that Herod was a descendant of a prominent Jewish family that came back to Israel after the Babylonian exile about 500 years earlier.
And, based on some of the work Herod did while he was king of the Jews, it can be argued that he took his faith seriously. And that’s because Herod’s greatest claim to fame--aside from being the king of the Jews when Jesus was born--was that Herod renovated the Temple in Jerusalem.
And saying that Herod renovated the Temple in Jerusalem is kind of like saying that Walt Disney built another park in Florida after he built Disneyland. Before Herod came along, the Temple was a relatively small building that was still about the same size as the Tabernacle that we’ve read about in Exodus. But when Herod rebuilds the Temple he doesn’t just rebuild the Temple, he builds up all the area surrounding the Temple. The whole thing got so elaborate that it took over 60 years to finish the work.
And I think it’s safe to say that anybody who is willing to put that much time, effort, energy, and money into rebuilding a temple knows a little something about their faith.
Now let me explain why that matters. It matters because of one of the most basic beliefs that the people of Israel--the Jews--have had for centuries. And that’s the belief that God will send a new king who will restore the kingdom of Israel. We commonly refer to this king as the Messiah.
So when the magi come and tell Herod about a newborn king of the Jews, they aren’t really telling him that there’s a threat to his throne. What they’re telling him is that the king that every Jew has been waiting for--including Herod himself--has finally arrived. The king that will set the people of Israel free and restore their kingdom for good has finally come.
The magi tell Herod that the long-awaited Messiah has arrived.
So Herod should be excited. Herod should celebrate this good news. Herod should go running out the door to go see this baby.
But that’s enough about Herod for right now. So let’s take a minute to talk about the magi. Now the verses that we read a minute ago tell us a few things about the magi. First, these verses say that the magi have seen the star of the newborn king of the Jews. Now I don’t know about you, but when I look at the stars I can’t even find the Big Dipper and I wouldn’t have known about the “Christmas star” in the sky last Monday if it wasn’t all over social media. So the fact that the magi can tell that the newborn king of the Jews has come simply by looking at the stars tells us that these people know a lot about the stars.
Next, we learn where the magi were when they saw this star. They were in the east. So what was east of Israel when Jesus was born? It was the Persian Empire. So we know that the magi know a lot about stars and they are Persian.
And the last thing we’ll learn about the magi here is that they have come to honor the newborn king of the Jews. Now the word “honor” here probably isn’t the best translation, because the word “honor” sounds like something that anyone would do for a newborn king. But there’s more to this word.
This word would be better translated as “worship”. So the magi have come to worship, or pay respect to a deity. So this tells us that the magi are religious, that they know a lot about stars, and that they are from Persia. And if you dig a little deeper into who the magi are, you’ll find that they weren’t just religious they were actually priests.
So the magi were priests, from Persia, who studied the stars. And when we know that, it tells us so much more about the magi. As priests, the magi would’ve been highly respected and powerful people. These people held important positions in not only the religious but also the political affairs of their empire. And a little later on in this story--when we hear about the gifts they bring with them--we also learn that they were extremely wealthy.
So the magi are respected, they are powerful, and they are rich. These guys have everything the world tells us we could want.
Okay, now that we know a little more about the magi and about Herod, let’s get back to the story and see if they will keep Christmas or cancel Christmas. We’ll pick up in verse 4. It says:
4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah, because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel.”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route…
So this is everybody’s favorite part of the magi’s story. But it also shows us whether they will keep Christmas or try to cancel Christmas. And, when the magi finally make it to Jesus, what do they do? They give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But did you notice what they did before they gave Jesus these gifts? They did exactly what they said they would do in verse 2.
The magi fell down on their knees and worshiped Jesus. The magi fell down on their knees and worshiped Jesus.
And they did that because they knew who this child is. I already told you the magi were priests who studied the stars. And in their faith tradition, the magi believed that when they saw a certain celestial sign--which we commonly call the star of Bethlehem--that a promise of their faith was coming true.
You see, the magi believed in a supreme deity—a God amongst all gods—that was opposed by a great evil. And when the star of Bethlehem appeared, it was a sign that the final savior had come. The savior who would defeat evil once and for all had come. So the magi spent years traveling to find Jesus because of the possibility that Jesus had come to change the world. And when they found him, the magi kept Christmas by worshiping Jesus.
But that’s not exactly what Herod does. So let’s get back to Matthew’s story and see how Herod responds. In verse 16, we’re told:
16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.
Matthew 2:1-12, 16 (Common English Bible)
So in this story, Herod hears the news that the long-awaited Messiah has been born. This is news that Herod and his people--the people of Israel--have been waiting centuries to hear. But instead of celebrating the news of the very first Christmas, Herod orders one of the most atrocious acts of violence in the entire New Testament. Instead of celebrating the birth of Jesus, Herod orders the execution of every baby boy in the area.
But how could Herod do that?
Well, to answer that question, let me tell you a little more about who Herod was. Herod came to power in a tumultuous time in Israel’s history. Israel was under Roman rule, but one prominent family, the Hasmoneans, continued to fight for Israel’s independence. At the time, Herod was the governor of Galilee and he struck a deal with the Roman Empire to ensure the Hasmoneans would be destroyed and that he would become king.
By the time he was forty, Herod had been appointed the king of the Jews by Rome, but only after conspiring with Marc Antony to have the leader of the Hasmonean family, a man named Antigonus executed. One of his first acts as king was to have 45 of Antigonus’ supporters executed. And then, in a calculated political move, Herod married into the Hasmonean family to alleviate the threat of a future rebellion.
But that didn’t do anything to alleviate Herod’s growing paranoia, for as Shakespeare once put it, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” So it wasn’t long before Herod began having his in-laws executed. It began with a nephew--who Herod himself had appointed as high priest--being drowned after becoming too popular. Then Herod moved on to his grandfather-in-law, his mother-in-law, and even his own wife.
Even after all of these executions, Herod remained afraid that his family was out to get him throughout the rest of his life. This leads him to change his will seven times, appointing a different heir each time, and to have his three eldest boys executed to keep them from claiming the crown of their aging father.
And those are just the broad brushstrokes of Herod’s life. There is no telling how many people died to help Herod sleep a little easier at night. So you could call Herod cruel, manipulative, power-hungry, and paranoid…and it would still be an understatement.
And that’s without a doubt why Herod doesn’t hesitate to order the execution of innocent children when he hears the news that the “king of the Jews” has been born. Herod knew that there could only be one “king of the Jews,” and he would stop at nothing to make sure that king was him.
So that’s why Herod responds the way that he does. Herod tries to cancel Christmas because Herod was only worried about himself.
Now the question that I have for you today is who do you want to be like? Do you want to be like the magi? Or do you want to be like King Herod? Or to put it to you a different way: do you want to be an Ebenezer or a Scrooge?
You see, in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens actually gave us a hint of how the story would turn out before it really even began when he told us the name of the main character in his tail. When he called him Scrooge, Dickens showed us the character of the man at the beginning of the story. The word scrooge means to squeeze...and Scrooge did everything he could to squeeze every last penny out of everyone around him.
But his first name, Ebenezer, means something entirely different. The word ebenezer literally means “a stone of help” and it comes from 1 Samuel 7. In this story, the prophet Samuel sets up a stone to commemorate the help that the Lord had given the people of Israel. So the word ebenezer refers to a place of worship.
So let me ask you again do you want to be an Ebenezer or a Scrooge?
Do you want to be an Ebenezer or a Scrooge?
Do you want to keep Christmas by worshiping God? Or do you want to cancel Christmas and only worry about yourself?
I hope that you’ll choose to be like the magi. I hope that you’ll choose to be an ebenezer. I hope that you’ll choose to make God the center of your life. I hope that you’ll choose to keep Christmas. I hope that you’ll choose to make sure that the good news of Christmas isn’t cancelled.