Monday, December 27, 2010

The Weary World Did Not Rejoice (Christmas Carols Vs the Bible Part 3)

Most people love babies. Just think of the excitement that breaks out when one of our young families brings their newborn to our assembly for the first time. And of the people who don’t love babies, for most it is really that they are afraid of what to do with one, since babies are so fragile and delicate. Even that awkwardness is born out of the concern to make sure the baby is treated properly.

And most people love the baby Jesus, meaning that most people still cherish the traditional story of the Nativity. Our culture for the most part still draws great comfort and inspiration from Christmas. The awkwardness comes in trying to relate to the grown- up Jesus, who made dogmatic declarations (“I am the way, the truth and the life”), debated theological opponents (“you are wrong not knowing the Scriptures or the power of God”), denounced pretentious hypocrites (“woe to you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites”), and demanded total allegiance (“whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me”).

So the baby Jesus is still very popular, but the grown Jesus is not. This was illustrated a few years ago in a movie called Talladega Nights, which lampoons a redneck racecar driver named Ricky Bobby. Even though he is worldly and arrogant, he pauses to give thanks for his meal, but typical of the shallow fecklessness of his character he addresses his prayer to the “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in golden, fleece diapers.” When an older man interrupts him and says, “He was a man! He had a beard!” Ricky says, “I like the baby version the best, do you hear me?”

While the movie is ridiculing the utter imbecility of Ricky Bobby, the fact is that lots of people feel like him. They are content to confine their thoughts about Jesus to the little infant in the idyllic manger. Babies are lovable, babies are huggable, and babies are not threatening.

The last couple of weeks we have been measuring famous Christmas Carols against the standard of Scripture, and to paraphrase Daniel, they have been weighed in the balances and found wanting. The picture of the birth of Jesus often conveyed in these songs sounds more like a Mother Goose story than a biography, which is what the gospels claim to be. Silent Night claims that “all was calm, all was bright” the night Jesus was born when in fact He was delivered in very chaotic conditions. Away in the Manger expects us to believe that the little Lord Jesus did not cry when as we studied last week the grow up Jesus wept many times.

This week the aspect of Christmas Carols that I want us to consider is the pervasive joyous optimism with which they speak of the birth of Jesus. The way they come across, everyone is like Ricky Bobby and loves the baby Jesus.

And since I have critiqued Silent Night and Away in the Manger, to be fair this morning I am going to focus on a line from my own personal favorite Christmas song:

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

There is so much about this hymn (and that’s really what it is – not a Christmas carol but a hymn!) to love. But here is the question – did the weary world really rejoice when Jesus appeared? Did everyone love the baby Jesus?

Some Did Rejoice At Jesus’ Birth

Unmistakably, many people did rejoice at the birth of Jesus. When the angel Gabriel told Mary she was carrying the Messiah, she broke into a glorious song called the Magnificat, which begins:

Luke 1

46And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior

And as many songs suggest, the angels rejoiced at the news of Jesus’ birth.

Luke 2

10And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 "Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!"

After those shepherds saw the newborn King the text says in verse 20 they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

A few days later when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple, an aging saint named Simeon praised God because he was allowed to see the coming of the Messiah:

Luke 2

27And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29"Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel."

So on the surface it is easy to see why so many carols reverberate with happiness. Many people were thrilled to see the Christ child. Luke continues the parade of well wishers with a godly woman named Anna, who according to Luke 2:38 “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

But the issue is not whether a few deeply pious believers rejoiced at Jesus’ birth. I don’t mean to be irreverent in any way, but just to make a point, if you think about it, probably as many people if not more rejoiced at the news of your birth as did Jesus’ birth. The issue is, did the “weary world” rejoice?

Many Were Troubled

We all know that at least one person was not thrilled by the news of Jesus’ birth, but was threatened.

Matthew 2

1Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him." 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

Herod had a special relationship with Rome that permitted him to consider the land of Israel his own little kingdom as long as he kept the peace and made sure Caesar got his tax money. He was a prodigious builder, most famous for constructing the temple in Jerusalem. He also built several palace/fortresses, which he needed because he was paranoid, and wanted secured locations all over his tiny fiefdom. His paranoia turned homicidal, to the extent that he murdered his wife and two of his children.

Someone that mad and that brutal would have no qualms about wiping out an entire village of babies, which is precisely what he ordered once he learned that this so called “King of the Jews” was to be born at Bethlehem.

Matthew 2

16Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

And so Herod became a grisly parody of Pharaoh and ordered the death of Hebrew babies – whatever it took to stay on the throne.

Herod’s treachery is well known. But did you notice the end of verse 3. Is wasn’t just the despotic Herod who was troubled by news of Jesus’ birth. “All Jerusalem with him” was also alarmed. Why was Jerusalem so bothered by the news of Jesus’ birth?

Just as Herod represented the corrupt political structure of the first century, Jerusalem represented the corrupt religious structure. The priesthood and the Pharisees were every bit as power hungry as Herod. Remember what Matthew says Pilate discerned about the motives of the chief priests and scribes at Jesus’ trial? “For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Matt. 27:18). A career politician like Pilate easily saw through the charade of legalities and knew the Sanhedrin was just another bunch of politicians desperately clinging to power.

That’s why Herod and all Jerusalem were threatened by a baby. They saw Jesus as a threat to their power, and nothing, not even a little baby, can be allowed to jeopardize power. They hated the baby Jesus. That is not the stuff of happy, carefree Christmas carols. It is the tragic reality of a world gone mad with sin and selfishness, and for every joyful Mary and Simeon and Anna there was a young mother wailing the lament of Rachel for her children, who “refused to be comforted because they are no more” according to Matthew 2:18.

I will take it a step further. More people would have responded just like Herod had they known about the birth of the Christ. If a two-bit dictator like Herod wanted Jesus dead, imagine how Caesar Augustus would have reacted had he known about that angelic proclamation that an obscure couple from Nazareth was giving birth to a King? We don’t have to guess. Augustus was the nephew of Julius Caesar, and as he consolidated power after his uncle’s assassination, he ordered the only son of Julius Caesar, a teenager named Caesarion (whose mother was Cleopatra) put to death, because as one of his advisors is supposed to have said, “Two Caesars are one too many.”

As it turns out, Augustus unwittingly played a role in fulfilling God’s plan to bring the Messiah into the world, by ordering a census that forced Joseph and Mary to return to Bethlehem. Seven centuries earlier the prophet Micah wrote:

Micah 5

2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
3Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
4And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
5And he shall be their peace.

The Messiah born in Bethlehem will be ruler in Israel. Not Herod, not the Sanhedrin, not Caesar. The Messiah. And His name will be great, and He will be their peace.

Those last two expressions are particularly interesting in light of Caesar’s claims. “Augustus” was the name he took, meaning “august one” or “revered one.” And of course Augustus took great pride in the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, that his administration brought to the world. But Micah says that it is the Lord’s Anointed who shall be great, that He will be the true source of peace.

In fact, lots of terms that are purely “Christian” to us were in widespread use in the first century regarding Caesar and his empire. When a successor was born or a victory was won, messengers would proclaim the “good news” – the euangelion – “the gospel” of Caesar’s success. Roman citizens greeted each other “Caesar is Lord,” and coins from that period often contained inscriptions referring to Caesar as the Son of God and Savior.

But Mark says that his book is “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). And Christians confess that “Jesus is Lord.” And the angels told Joseph that Jesus would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus is the true King, the only Lord, the mighty Savior, and His coming is the good news, the gospel.

Which means that once Rome did figure out what the Christian gospel really was, conflict with Caesar was just as unavoidable as it had been with Herod or the Sanhedrin. This conflict was foreshadowed in the way the Jews manipulated Pilate in John 19:

John 19

12From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar." 13So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. 14Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, "Behold your King!" 15They cried out, "Away with him, away with him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." 16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

It is laughable that the Jews who hated Roman subjugation would profess allegiance to Caesar – but truth doesn’t matter to people craving power. But the main point here is that “Two Caesars is one too many,” and if Pilate allows this man to continue His claim to be King, he will be abetting a challenger to Caesar’s throne – no friend of Caesar would do this.

Pilate already knew that whatever Jesus was, He was not an insurrectionist like Barabbas. He wasn’t like anyone the old governor had ever questioned. Look at the interrogation of Jesus in John 18:

John 18

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34Jesus answered, "Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?" 35Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?" 36Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world." 37Then Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice." 38Pilate said to him, "What is truth?"

Kingdoms in Conflict

There are two kinds of kingdoms. There is the worldly kingdom, and it is all about power. Power by any means. You scratch and claw and kill your way to the top and do whatever you have to do to stay there. It’s what Herod did; it’s what Caesar did; it’s what the chief priests did. In the worldly kingdom truth doesn’t even exist. That is sadly the only world Pilate knew.

But there is a kingdom that is not from this world; it is from above. And its defining quality is not power, but truth. Truth that confronts, and convicts and condemns the power structures that come from this world. And that is why the “weary world” doesn’t rejoice when the King from above bears witness to the truth.

No, the world doesn’t rejoice. It rejects. As John says in John 1:11, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” Or later, in John 3:19-20:

John 3

19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

Just this week I went through this passage with the ladies at Morningside. One of them is starting to slip a little, almost into a childlike state of naiveté. When I read these verses she said, “That’s horrible.” And it is. But it is the clash of the kingdoms of truth (light) versus power.

And it is our story. Your story. My story. All of us have sinned, all of us loved the darkness because our deeds were evil. This isn’t just about Herod or the Jews or Caesar. In Romans 5:10 Paul says we were God’s enemies! All of us made a decision at some point to embrace power rather than truth. That’s what it means to be lost. And when we were in the grip of that compulsion to have our way, to do what we wanted to, to be king of our own little world, had we been alive when Jesus was born and knew what He represented, I am afraid we would have felt a lot more like Herod than Mary.

So the weary world did not rejoice. It seethed with hatred because the light of God’s kingdom burst into a world of darkness and confronted power with truth. While none of the songs we typically think of as Christmas Carols mention this conflict, Mary’s song did. Look again at Mary’s song-

Luke 1

46And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate

There it is plain as day – “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, he has brought down the mighty from their thrones”!

What incredible insight that young lady had! From the beginning she understood what the coming of Jesus meant. It meant a challenge to every worldly power enthroned in pride.

No wonder Herod was so hysterical about the birth of Jesus. No wonder the ruling class of the Jews used every dirty trick in the book to murder Jesus. And no wonder you and I at one time were enemies of Christ. After all, “Two Caesars is one too many.”

The Ruler of This World

There is one more bitter adversary of the baby Jesus I need to mention. If Herod and the chief priests were antagonized by the birth of Jesus, imagine how the one Jesus Himself described in John 12:31 as “the ruler of this world” felt? Revelation 12 paints in vibrant imagery just exactly how the devil reacted to the birth of Christ.

Revelation 12

1And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.

Let me pause here. In verse 9 John identifies this dragon – it is Satan. Pictured as a vicious monster, red (the color of blood), with seven heads (cunning), and ten horns (powerful), but with what on each head? Diadems – crowns – this is a king! And notice what the ruler of this world is doing-

Revelation 12

And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.

This dragon seethes with hatred for a baby about to be born, hovers over it ready to pounce. And on paper this seems like a cruel mismatch. What chance does a newborn baby, the most vulnerable creature on earth, have against this grotesque monster? Or what chance does truth have against power?

Revelation 12

5She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.

What was surely already clear is now made explicit. The child was the Christ, the one who would (in the language of the second psalm) rule the nations! No wonder this self-proclaimed ruler, wearing seven diadems, was so enraged at the prospect of His birth. But truth overcame power, and the great dragon was thwarted as the male child ascended to God.

Remember Mary’s song? “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” Even Satan could not withstand the Lord’s Anointed. What John pictured in vivid symbolic language here in Revelation 12 he also spelled out for us in the 12th chapter of his gospel, where Jesus made it clear what He was going to do:

John 12

31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

Jesus came to break the bonds of oppression, to defeat the ruler of this world and all his petty vassals, and to draw us to Himself through His death. As long as we still prefer the darkness so that our deeds are not exposed to the light of truth, we will be lost to our own pride of power. But if we will surrender our will to His truth, we can truly become free.

Last night I went to see the remake of True Grit, which tells the story of a crusty old U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn. A young lady is trying to hire Rooster Cogburn to track down the man who shot her father, and promises him a lot of money. There is a line in the remake that I don’t think is in the original. He says: “I don't believe in sermons, fairy tales or stories about money.”

Pretty tough company for sermons! But I hope in these sermons about the birth of Jesus we have stripped away the fairy tale veneer of so many Christmas carols to let the message of the gospel speak for itself. It depicts a world in which not all is calm and bright, a world where babies cry and tyrants kill and the power mad try to win at all costs. And a Savior who exposes all that ugliness for what it is, and urges a “weary world” to rejoice in His salvation.