There is a scene in the biblical Christmas story that bugs me. I didn’t notice it for years. But one Christmas as I was preparing a couple of sermons, I was struggling with how to talk about the same stories we all know and love (without causing the congregation to saw yule logs during the sermon). I fear that sometimes we know the stories so well that we do not really pay attention to the mystery and magic of them.
As I was reading through the biblical account that year, something jumped out at me. When the Magi showed up in Jerusalem looking for the newborn “King of the Jews,” Herod — the Roman-appointed King of the Jewish people — “called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law” and “asked them where the Christ was to be born” (Matt. 2:4). The religious leaders say “Bethlehem” and quote a scripture passage to prove it. Then, the Magi left to Bethlehem while Herod starts plotting to protect his throne from a potential rival.
Sounds pretty standard, right? But then it hit me what was missing — the religious leaders apparently stayed in Jerusalem!
Can you imagine? Some guys show up and say that the Messiah has been born and all they need to know is where he is. The religious leaders know their scriptures well enough to provide the answer, but don’t say, “He is in Bethlehem, let’s go!” Instead, they’re like, “He’s over there if you’re interested; bring me back a nice souvenir.” I would expect that if they knew where the Messiah was coming that they would make periodic visits to the town just to make sure they didn’t miss it!
Perhaps the religious leaders became so callous and comfortable hanging out in the king’s palace that they were not even moved by the news the Messiah was born. Maybe they failed to heed the warning of Daniel, who knew not to be tempted by the fine royal food and drinks that can numb not only one’s mind and body but also one’s spirit.
Later in the biblical accounts, we find that the religious leaders were often unimpressed by the miracles and teachings of Jesus. Now looking at their actions in Herod’s court, it seems they were also unmoved even by the announcement of the birth of Jesus. How ironic that the religious leaders did not want to meet the Messiah, but the astrologers did.
The Messiah finally came and the religious leaders just shrugged. Or, as it’s often written these days with a popular emoji in texting or online: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I worry that the shrug emoji — and the attitude of the religious leaders in Herod’s court — could also be used to describe us sometimes. Spending a week in Cuba in early November, I was again moved by the passion of Cuban Baptists and their awareness of the God’s work in the world. Jesus taught us to ask God daily for our bread for that day, but our wealth tricks us into thinking we’re self-reliant. For many Cubans, that prayer for daily needs is naturally part of their lives. Paul taught us to “pray without ceasing,” but living in a land of plenty and security makes it easy to go through a day without praying. For many Cubans, each activity is one done only by stepping out in faith.
We live in a land where we can wallow in easy comfort and enjoy pleasures we mistake for joy. That can make it harder to hear the true tidings of Divine comfort and joy. That old scrooge, Ebenezer, merely followed in the tradition of the religious leaders in Herod’s court. What we need instead is the spirit seen at Eben-Ezer as the prophet Samuel led the people in repentance and worship (1 Sam. 7). That spirit led to the name of a Baptist church where Martin Luther King Jr. pastored in Atlanta and the name of a Cuban Baptist church I visited in Manzanillo.
Just as Scrooge allowed his soul to be stirred and awakened, may we allow God to move in our hearts this holy season. That may mean we need to cut back on some of the craziness of the holiday season, spend more time with our families and friends, buy less stuff and find time away from the commercial glittering and glowing of the season so we can reflect on the Light of the world. Let’s not stay in Herod’s court and miss the King!
May you have a sacred, joyous and merry Christmas!
Brian Kaylor is editor of Word&Way.