“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” Matthew 2:1-3
The Christmas narratives have much to teach us about the mission of Christ. Part of this teaching is that the birth of Jesus presents us with a beautiful contrast between his kingdom and the kingdoms of this earth. As readers, we are presented with a choice: which kingdom will we belong to?
In one scene of the Christmas story (Matthew 2:1-8), we are introduced to a group of characters known as “the Magi.” We are told these visitors are from the “east” and have traveled a great distance to find a king whose star is shining in the sky. They confront a king named Herod and ask where this “other” king can be found. The text says that Herod and all of Jerusalem with him were disturbed by this question. Why were they disturbed? Perhaps a little background can help illuminate their dismay.
Herod, known by the epithet “The Great” was in many ways just that—he was great. His greatness was displayed in his vast building projects, influence and notoriety. Herod was a ruthless leader…and a bit paranoid too. He guarded his throne like a toddler guards his toys. He put to death those who opposed him, including his wife, sons and mother-in-law. There is even one account that says Herod ordered the imprisonment and execution of a group of prominent and well loved citizens of Jerusalem close to the time when he was about to die. He thought this would ensure mourning and sadness on the day of his death. All in all, he was not someone you’d confirm a friend request for on Facebook. Being that Herod is sort of a tyrant, his kingdom is marked by power, violence and fear. If he could dominate others through force, he would remain in control. The thought of another king threatening his throne would surely cause him, in the words of Rihana, “disturbia.”
The story continues in Matthew 2 with Herod deciding to go after this “king of the Jews.” His first attempt is to coerce the visiting Magi into telling him of the child’s whereabouts. When this plan falls through (the Magi never report back to him), he orders a mass slaughtering of boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity (2:16-18). Indeed, a very interesting contrast has appeared: the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Jesus.
From the beginning stages, Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t look anything like Herod’s. Herod rules over his people. His palace is heavily guarded; it stands as a symbol of his position and power. He spends his time walking down the marble hallways of his home, constantly being “removed” and “separated” from the people he serves. Jesus, however, is not born in a palace or born into riches. He is poor. His first nursery was a cave shared with animals. He does not look like your typical king. And, yet, he is the king the magi seek out. Eventually, they find him, present him with gifts (fit for a king), and worship him. They recognize that he is a king unlike Herod or any other earthly king for that matter. Hence, he is worthy of their worship.
Gregory Boyd in his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation, calls this distinction between an earthly kingdom and a heavenly one the “kingdom of the sword” versus the “kingdom of the cross.” Herod is a perfect example of the kingdom of the sword. His kingdom is built on power, manipulation, violence and oppression. Jesus’ kingdom on the other hand, is grounded in love, peace and service to others. Kingdom of the sword participants, similar to Herod, look for ways to maintain power through any means that benefit themselves. They justify violence and hate, as long as their positions remain intact. They practice lording their power over others in order to retain control. Herod learns that there is a new king in town and he seeks to silence this king by the only means he knows—the sword. Jesus, however, vehemently opposes the use of the sword.
Jesus’ first century Jewish followers believed he would be a messianic-type warrior, bringing freedom from political oppression all the while restoring a Jewish kingdom on earth. They believed he would be a conquering military-like king, yielding a powerful sword. His mission, however, was the antithesis of this belief. He stood in stark contrast to nationalistic hopes and ideals, and instead offered reconciliation and freedom for all people. He was a king who didn’t looked to be served, but chose to give, sacrifice and serve others. His final act of service, of course, was laying down his life on his own accord. The kingdom of the sword used its greatest weapon (the cross) against Jesus. The cross was the most painful and humiliating way for someone to die. It not only silenced your enemies for good by taking their life, but made an example to all those who watched that this, too, could be your fate. How ironic that Jesus used the ultimate symbol of the kingdom of this world as his way to defeat it. He surrendered his life to the sword, and in doing so, granted us freedom from living under its curse.
I’d like to suggest that there are still “Herod’s” vying for our attention today. Daily, we make the choice as to which kingdom we want to belong to. Do we choose to operate according to the kingdom of this world, a kingdom based on power, violence and control; or, do we choose to follow an unlikely king, who shows us a better way to live?
This is a tale of two kingdoms. Which king will you choose to follow? Perhaps you’ve noticed the signs of living in the kingdom of Herod. It looks like only loving those who are easy to love; it looks like caring more for oneself than for our neighbors; it looks like allowing prejudices to determine our thoughts and actions; it looks like allowing anything—be it love of money, love of country, love of power—to supersede our love and devotion for Christ. Living in the kingdom of God, however, looks like loving without conditions; it looks like practicing forgiveness, even for our enemies; it looks like practicing charity unconditionally; it looks like choosing to ignore the requests of Herod (much like the magi did) and choosing to pledge our allegiance to our true king, Jesus.
Matthew’s Christmas narrative is a reminder that we serve a king whose kingdom is not of this world. We, then, allow our minds to be renewed, and consciously choose to ignore living in the pattern of the sword that is presented to us daily. Instead, we boldly and confidently proclaim that our hope is not found in the power of sword, but in the truth of the manger.