Life of Christ 11
Everybody in America knows there were three wise men. Everybody in America knows those wise men were with the shepherds, and Joseph and Mary at the manger when Jesus was born. And everybody in America is wrong.
Yes, the Magi did bring three gifts but we don't know how many of them there were. The Scripture says (Matthew 2.1-23) they came from the East, meaning probably the Babylon area. Of course, Daniel and Ezekiel, prophets of the first order, had preached in Babylon for years, and there still remained a substantial number of Jews in the East whose forefathers had chosen not to return to Israel with Ezra, so much so that there is a version of the Talmud called the Babylonian Talmud. Additionally, three contemporary Roman historians, Tacitus, Seutonias, and Josephus report there was a common belief in the East at this time that a great king would be born in Judea, and that he would eventually rule the entire world. In such an environment we can easily understand how some wealthy, intellectual astronomers came to believe in the birth of a King in Israel.
Naturally, on their arrival in Palestine, they head to Jerusalem, where their search
for the king brings them to Herod's attention. Herod the Great was one of the great tyrants of ancient history, and the fact that he was also one of the great builders of the Roman Empire (he built the Temple, the Antonia Fortress, Masada, Herodium, Ceasarea Maritima, etc.) doesn't mitigate that fact. He brutally murdered thousands and thousands of people. Knowing how much he was disliked in Israel he hatched a scheme to make sure the Jews mourned at his death instead of rejoiced. As he lay dying he instructed the major Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to be rounded up, and executed in one of the stadiums he had built simply so people would weep when he died. Just prior to our story in Matthew 2 he had murdered three of his own children out of a paranoid fear that they would seek his throne. Caesar Augusts, the first emperor of Rome, reportedly said he would rather be one of Herod's hogs than one of his children for his hogs had a better chance at life.
With this kind of a man in charge as a Roman under-king, and with these beliefs going on, it shouldn't surprise us at all with what evil Herod the Great reacts to the news that the wise men are seeking a newborn king. Calling in the Jewish scribes, Herod learns that this king is supposed to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5.2). Deceitfully, he sends the wise men on ahead and asks them to return with news so he too may go and worship this new king.
Why were Joseph and Mary still in Bethlehem? The Bible doesn't say. I suspect it was because Mary's reputation was so trashed in Nazareth by her early pregnancy that the two of them simply chose to start life over again far away from home in Bethlehem of Judea, and thus we find them in their own home two years after the birth of Christ in the stable yard of the inn. The wise men, the first Gentiles to worship Jesus, solemnly come to worship, and generously give of their wealth to this new king. Immediately following, being warned by God through a dream not to carry the news back to Herod, they depart for home. Joseph, likewise being warned in a dream, runs with his family from Bethlehem down to Egypt, probably financing his sudden transition with the unexpected wealth bestowed upon them by the Magi.
Back in Jerusalem, an unreasonably suspicious Herod realizes the wise men are not going to return, and in a fit of foul paranoia, demands the death of every boy in Bethlehem three years of age or less. My father was an independent Baptist pastor for 38 years. One of the things he always did spectacularly well was the annual Christmas play. To this day, when I read this story, I can still see the Roman soldier standing in the front of our church auditorium, the spotlight menacingly reflecting off of his blade, as screams of horror rose all around us from mothers suddenly bereft of their sons, 'Rachel weeping for her children' (Matthew 1.18 quoting Jeremiah 31.15).
On that black night in Bethlehem screams did erupt, driven not just by the menace of a Roman cohort, or the fury of a mad king, but by the spawn of hell. I do not for one minute believe that Herod's actions sprang solely from his own feverish brain. The devil knew the Old Testament better than anyone, and he knew exactly where Jesus would be born. He saw that star, and I'm absolutely convinced he thought to himself, 'There is no better time to win a war then when your opponent is a defenseless baby.' This was not just a tyrant seeking to kill a rival. It was the first of many attempts by the devil to kill the Messiah before He could become the King.
Beloved, we are in a spiritual war. The things that happen on this earth are often simply reflections of the ongoing war between Heaven and hell. In Daniel 10 we see that a demonic prince ruled Persia, and fought a spiritual battle with the archangel Michael. Paul tells us in the classic passage of Ephesians 6.10-18 that it is demonic principalities that actually rule in this world. We know from Scripture that the devil is called 'the prince of this world' (John 12.31, 14.30, and 16.11). Understanding this vital truth, that we are engaged not in a political or cultural fight on this earth, but in a spiritual one, is a worldview that is absolutely necessary for the child of God living in a 21st century world. It helps you to discern things that other people totally miss, and informs your decision making, priorities, and prayer life as a Christian and as a church. The social gospel of the emerging church movement in our generation is as theologically bankrupt and spiritually misguided as the Moral Majority movement of our parent's generation. In joining up with Catholics and Mormons to win cultural and political battles, and dig wells in Africa, American Christians are shooting at the wrong king. Our aim must be to win men and women and boys and girls to Jesus Christ (Mark 16.15), disciple them in the faith (Matthew 28.20), live holy and unspotted in the world (James 1.27), and pray for God to graciously send either a revival or a Rapture (Titus 2.13).
This war we are in, this spiritual war, inevitably produces casualties as all wars do. In a theological sense, there are no innocent bystanders as we are all guilty before God, but in practical sense my heart breaks for the innocent children in my city who endure great suffering caused by the sin of their parents. Addicted, abusive, absent, selfish, violent parents have produced a generation of wounded young people. According to a 2012 Chicago Police Department study there are 600 gangs in this city with a minimum combined membership of over 70,000 people. In my experience, the vast majority of those gang members initially joined at a very young age because they were looking for the security and acceptance that their own home had so failed to provide. The breakdown of the America inner city is a direct reflection of the breakdown of the American home, and the breakdown of the American home is a direct result of an extended satanic attack on that most essential of institutions. In the war between the devil and God a whole lot of bystanders get hit in the crossfire. The problem in this city is not racism, economic exploitation, food deserts, educational inequality, or environmental pollution The problem is sin, and Jesus is the solution.
The fact that there is a spiritual war should drive our caution. The fact that there are innocent casualties should drive our compassion. Where are the Rachel's weeping for this generation's children? The Psalmist instructed us to weep as we bear the precious seed (Psalm 126.5-6). This thought challenges my own heart, for so often on my corner of this sin-sick city I find myself getting angry at the thuggish gangs that complicate life so much for ordinary people here, but do I weep for them? George Whitefield, that fiery 18th century English preacher, proclaimed while preaching out doors on Boston Common, 'If you will not weep for your sins and your crimes against a Holy God, George Whitefield will weep for you!' It is easy for me to become emotional when I think of the spiritual future of my own children, but have I wept for anybody else's children lately? The snow of mid-winter is strewn with the bloody casualties of the spiritual war going on around us in this city.
God, give us some Rachels to weep for the children!