By Dr Daniel Chan
One of the meaningful activities during Advent is to read again the Christmas story as recounted in the Bible. Many churches hold a Service of Lessons and Carols to encourage this, in which passages from several books of the Bible, ranging from Genesis to Revelation are read, interspersed by the singing of Carols. We enjoy hearing our favourite passages but often gloss over the parts of the Christmas story which ask difficult questions. In his book, Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller seeks to bring out these difficult passages and the challenging questions they pose for us.
Matthew (Matt 1:1-3, 7-8, 13-16, 22-23) tells of wise men from the East who came to Jerusalem when Jesus was still an infant in Bethlehem. They came to the ruler of Judea, King Herod, and asked him ‘where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’ This question alarmed the person who was then actually sitting on the throne. Herod was an unusually violent ruler even by the standards of those days and stopped at nothing to eliminate any potential rival. To make sure that no newly born baby would grow up to challenge his reign in later years, he had all the boys killed within Bethlehem and its vicinity who were 2 years old and under. By this outrageous act, he thought he could ensure the elimination of this potential rival that the wise men had spoken about. Jesus would have been a victim of this mass killing except that God had forewarned Joseph who took Mary and baby Jesus and fled to Egypt. So Jesus became a refugee in Egypt. When Herod died, Joseph took his family and returned to settle at a town called Nazareth.
The awful atrocity does not fit in with the Christmas season as many imagine it should be. It ruins the feel-good atmosphere we wish to create. Of the four gospels, only Mathew’s gospel includes this story. Out of all the materials he could choose from, why did Matthew choose this? What is he telling us about the meaning of Christmas and about Jesus himself? According to Keller, the story of King Herod’s reaction to Christ has a similar story in our own lives. We too are faced with the question ‘Where is the true King?’ We find this question uncomfortable, especially during Christmas. Each of us wants to be the captain of our own soul, the master of our own fate. By nature, we are self-centred, self-righteous, self-absorbed. We all want the world to orbit around us and to serve our needs and desires. We do not want to serve God or our neighbour – we want them to serve us. In every heart, then, there is a “little King Herod” that wants to rule and that is threatened by anything that may compromise its omnipotence and sovereignty. Paul writes that ‘the human mind in its natural state, is hostile towards God. It does not submit to God’s law, and cannot do so.’ (Rom 8:7-8). There is a natural enmity of the human heart against all claims of sovereignty over it. It rises up a little when minor claims are made over us. But Jesus’ claims of authority are ultimate and infinite. No heart, unaided, can gladly surrender to them.
Even Christians who have been reconciled to God through Jesus, at peace with him, still have a heart with residual anger and hostility to God. Until we get to the very end of time and are glorified, and we get our perfect bodies and our perfect souls, it is still there. Maybe that is why we find it hard to pray, why we find it hard to concentrate on our glorious King Jesus. That may be why our gratitude for answered prayer does not last very long, and why when we promise never to do something again, we repeat the act a few weeks later. As Paul says, “what I hate I do.” (Rom 7:15).
There is a little King Herod inside us. It means we must be far more intentional about Christian growth, about prayer, and about accountability to other people, to overcome our bad habits. We cannot just cruise through Christian life. There is still something within us that fights it.
‘Where is the true King?’ is a question that continues to challenge us. Because, one day soon, the King will return. At Advent, the question for us is, will we be ready?