"A Tale of Two Kings"

Dec.30, 2007 Heb.2:8-18; Mt.2:13-23

Tsar or Star?

As we prepare to head into a new year, it's customary to make resolutions. It's good to have a sense of purpose and determination, if our plans spring from love of God and our neighbour. But our Lord Jesus' style would remind us as we pursue our goals not to throw our weight around like royal bullies who cause suffering for those who get in their way. Instead we're to follow Him in serving His Father and others, even if that entails suffering for their sake.

Recently Time magazine named its "Person of the Year" for 2007: edging out environmentalist Al Gore and author JK Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) was Vladimir Putin, Russia's President who will be switching in March to be Russia's Prime Minister. Time insists naming someone Person of the Year is not an honour or an endorsement, but recognition of "the most powerful individuals and forces shaping [the] world--for better or for worse". It says it chose Putin because he "has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power". Yet the magazine also acknowledges it's too early to tell whether Putin will actually leave the legacy of a good leader, or a new Joseph Stalin, having centralized power as he has. Time comments, "Whether he becomes more like [Stalin] --or like Peter the Great, the historical figure he most admires; whether he proves to be a reformer or an autocrat who takes Russia back to an era of repression--this we will know only over the next decade."

To his credit, Putin keeps and reads a Bible on his airplane. In the very interesting video interview that's online, this world leader notes the vital role religion plays. In response to the question: "What role does faith play in your leadership?" Putin replied (quote), "First and foremost, we should be governed by common sense. But common sense should be based on moral principles first. And it is not possible today to have morality separated from religious values." He declined to go into detail about his religious beliefs, maintaining that for someone in his position, that's not for public knowledge (it might cause unnecessary polarization).

As we make plans and set goals, not for a nation but our own lives in the next year, will we be more like a benevolent Peter the Great or a ruthless Stalin? Will we be governed by godly principles, or by greed for power or pleasure? We can be so bent on accomplishing our resolutions that we become driven to 'get 'er done' without regard for how that affects other people or makes them feel. Our Bible passages today describe two very different types of kings - one a cruel dictator, the other a loving Saviour.

Hateful Herod

Herod the Great reigned from 37 to 4 BC, and would have been the king that interacted with the Magi or Wise Men who came from the East at the time of Jesus' birth. The Bible portrays him as deceptive and deadly. In Mt 2:8, when he sent them to Bethlehem he told them to search for the newborn Messiah then report back to him, so he too might go and worship Him; but that was a lie, he just wanted the information so he might destroy Him. Then in 2:16, "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." Such genocide! This would have affected dozens of children, slaughtered for no reason.

But that was typical of Herod the Great. Other historians confirm his savagery. He killed his own favourite wife and two sons. He also killed his oldest son just before he died himself. He was paranoid about assassination plots: when palace eunuchs accused each other, heads rolled. Herod was extremely jealous, murdering suspects and rivals.

Herod wasn't principled. Of Gentile background, he built the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem but when in Rome sacrificed to the god Jupiter - his was a religion of convenience. His god was himself: witness his chaotic family life, and delusions in later life when power was finally slipping out of his grasp. Herod brought death, not life, to those he served. Even Caesar the Emperor is quoted as saying, "I would rather be Herod's DOG than his son." It would certainly be safer!

Mt 2:22 notes that when Joseph and family returned from Egypt, he was afraid to go to Judea because Archelaus was reigning in place of his father Herod. The Study Bible notes Archelaus reigned only 10 years; "he was unusually cruel and tyrannical and so was deposed." He seems to have picked up his father's style and gone even further - being so brutal even Caesar agreed he wasn't fit to govern, appointing administrators instead.

Jesus Suffered to Free and Help Others

The baby Herod tried to kill turned out to be a king indeed, on a much higher plane. Heb 2:9 says "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour..." Elsewhere Jesus is called "King of kings" (Rev 17:14, 19:16). But He didn't get that title by scheming, manipulation, and murderous plotting, like earthly rulers. Jesus forms a real contrast to Herod.

He was the son of an obscure peasant couple: virtually no earthly security, completely dependent on God's protection and provision. Jesus was born in a stable, in contrast to Herod's massive palaces at Masada, Jerusalem, and Samaria. Jesus didn't have bodyguards (not human ones, anyway): as an infant he escaped Herod's soldiers by a thread. Thankfully Joseph was warned in a dream and promptly obeyed.

As a rabbi, Jesus had no house or possessions to call his own; all were in the custody of the man who would one day betray him, Judas. Jesus left his heavenly glory and power, the closeness to the Father, to come and take on our flesh-ness with all its unfulfilled hungers, hurts, and day to day sufferings. Heb 2:10 notes "it was fitting that God...should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering." Not through posh silks, satins, and banquets.

Jesus in His pre-existence was ONE with God: eternal, divine, YET He became mortal, died, extinguished - why? To give His life away. 2:17 says "He had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people." He allowed Himself to be sacrificed - He embraced that, took the cup of suffering and drained it - so our sins could be forgiven. Vv14-15 observe, "Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-- that is, the devil-- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." The Divine One opted to share in our humanity, our flesh-and-blood weakness and limitation, in order to destroy Satan and free us from slavery to sin and death and fear.

Jesus had something Herod could only long for. Herod lived in constant fear of intrigue and assassination, whereas Jesus had a constant, imperturbable peace that drew adults and children to Him. Herod tried to hang on for dear life, he lived in constant anxiety, and murdered not just the babies in Bethlehem - but his own sons! Jesus gave life away, allowing Himself to be spent for our sakes; and so doing, by God's grace managed to overcome all hardships, whatever His enemies could throw at Him.

In contrast to Herod's incessant marrying, Jesus had no wife, yet God gave Him the largest family there ever was. V10 He brought "many sons to glory"; v11 those who are made holy "are of the same family" with Him, so Jesus calls us "brothers".

In retrospect, Herod was one of the most unjust rulers there ever was; but Jesus died to fulfill God's justice - the innocent for the sinful. Before that, our sins completely blocked us from suitability to be in the presence of a holy God: but He tasted death for us so we could be made acceptable in God's grace.

The Richest Man in Bedford Falls

One of our family's all-time favourite Christmas movies is It's a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Stewart. He plays George Bailey, manager of a savings-and-loan credit-union style company that makes it possible for people to stop renting slummy apartments and own their own modest home. At one point, some money is lost by a relative on the way to deposit it, and George's credibility is called into question. He considers killing himself in hopes his family might collect at least on his life insurance policy. The villain of the film is old man Potter, a flint-skinned hoarder who's bought up the banks and businesses one by one, itching to get his hands on the Bailey's savings-and-loan. Potter humiliates George and initiates proceedings to make him a criminal. But in the end the townspeople, who realize how much they've benefitted over the years from George's sacrificial leadership, pitch in to cover the loss. George's brother toasts him as "the richest man in Bedford Falls" - not Potter, who practically owns the town, but George. All the glory and honour comes to this humble man who has denied himself travelling and luxuries in order to serve others and save them in their need.

By the world's standards, Jesus was a failure, Herod a success - due to the latter's impressive long reign and great buildings. But Jesus has shown Himself to be worthy of lasting Kingship by suffering to save us, and share His glory with us, changing us from God's enemies into His friends.

Heb 2:18 says, "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." He continues to help us who are tempted, moment by moment today; He's interceding for us at the Father's right hand. His desire is that we not waste our life like Herod, bullying and taking from others, reaping the short-term gain of evil; but instead that we find life and strength in Jesus' Spirit to receive with thankfulness the life God offers us by grace, and share the riches of His goodness with all those to whom God calls us to act as family. Let's pray.