We're going to do something a little different this year in December. We want to focus on a "Hometown Christmas." Typically we tend to think a lot about significant people during the holiday season, but this year we want to think about some significant places surrounding that first Christmas. We'll look at Bethlehem, Nazareth, and today, we begin in Jerusalem.
How many of you have ever been to Israel? Last month, Beth and I were fortunate enough to go to Israel with Jerusalem Tours, and it was one of the most amazing and awesome experiences of our lives. Let me give you a glimpse and acquaint you with the city of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem … it's quite a site. It's one of the most unbelievable sites! You've heard me talk a lot about when I come around Northern Kentucky and I see the skyline of Cincinnati, Ohio. I tell my family, "It's the most beautiful site in the world." Well, if that's Number One, this is a close second.
Jerusalem. With a population of 750,000 people today it is almost the size of Louisville, but it wasn't always like that. By the first Christmas, Jerusalem was much smaller—around 40-50,000 people.
Jesus had a burden for the people in Jerusalem. On one occasion He wept for the city. Last week we heard him say in Matthew 23, "Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I longed to gather you together as a mother hen gathers her chicks but you were unwilling." Jerusalem was a city that Jesus loved.
This week we are going to the city to learn about several kings. One was ruthless, paranoid, and barbaric. His name was King Herod. But long before Herod the Great, Jerusalem became famous because of another King—King David. It was David who established Jerusalem as the capital of Israel around 1,000 B.C. He valued the strategic location of the city.
Although his son, Solomon, built the Temple, it was King David who was the driving force behind the Temple being built. It stood until around 586 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it. After being rebuilt, it was destroyed again in A.D. 70 when the Romans dismantled it after an insurrection by the Jews.
When you look at Jerusalem, what stands out to you? Obviously the most visible feature is the gold dome. It's called "The Dome of the Rock." Centuries after the temple was destroyed, the Muslims built this shrine on that very place where the Jewish temple had been. That's quite unsettling to the Jews, and the Muslims did it to to communicate that they were in control.
What you may not know is why King David originally decided to build the Jewish temple on that particular spot in the first place. Way back in Genesis 22, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son near the mountainous area of Moriah. Just as Abraham was about to bring the knife down, the Lord stopped him. Then God gave Abraham a blessing which, in turn, blessed all the Jews. God said that Abraham's descendants would be as numerous as the sands of the sea.
Centuries later, guess where David chose to build the Temple where they could worship God? He chose the very place where God made His promise to the Jewish nation. King David chose to honor the King of the Universe for sparing Abraham's son and for promising to multiply the Jewish nation.
There is no shortage of "kings" when you talk about Jerusalem. If you were to go to Israel today you'd see for yourself that the Temple is gone. But even though the temple is gone, people in Jerusalem can still worship the one true God. Let's go back to Matthew 2 and learn of the promise of a new King whose birth would infuriate an old king. [
In Matthew chapter 2 we read that Jerusalem is a unique city, packed with incredible history and political power struggles. What happens in Jerusalem gets talked about all around the world.
While I was visiting Jerusalem, the city also hosted a number of American politicians—12 U.S. Senators and Congressmen, Governor Schwarzenegger, and former President Bill Clinton. They were all there for a variety of reasons. This is a place of significance.
If we were to jump back in time to Jerusalem just before the birth of Christ, we would find that there were even power struggles back then. Let's explore the three kinds of people found in Jerusalem on that first Christmas. We'll also find how they reacted to the coming of this new Messiah.
Many were threatened by Jesus.
Nobody felt more threatened in Jerusalem than King Herod. When Jesus first arrived, Herod the Great (as he "humbly" called himself) ruled the province for nearly 40 years. Herod was a paranoid and frightened egomaniac. And those were his good traits. He was also a butcher of people, both young and old alike.
Matthew 2:1-2 tells us: "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and we have come to worship him.'"
Those two verses stirred up a hornet's nest. Do you see the problem in Herod's mind? He senses that he's about to lose power and influence to this newborn king. Never mind the fact that Herod is around 70 and this is an infant. Herod is threatened—the news of the Magi coming in search of this baby was unsettling to him.
Matthew 2:3 says, "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him." You say, "Why would Jerusalem be disturbed?" That's easy! You know the phrase "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." The scriptures say, "Herod ain't happy."
Let me explain further. When Herod took the throne, his first act of leadership was to have the entire Jewish Sanhedrin put to death. That's 70 of the top religious leaders in Jerusalem. Later he put to death his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, his wife, and three of his own children—all for fear that they might want to undermine his position. Caesar Augustus once sarcastically commented that it was safer to be Herod's pig than his son. No wonder all of Jerusalem was disturbed with Herod. He is the perfect example of power gone bad; he abused power for personal gain.
Some people never learn how to handle power correctly. Herod let power get to him and he was so paranoid about his throne—his ego—that he saw Jesus Christ as a threat.
Let's continue by reading Matthew 2:7-8: "Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.'"
Herod's immediate response to the Magi was to attempt to manipulate them into divulging the location of his rival. But after they visit the baby, the Magi do not return to Herod because God warns them in a dream. They begin to realize that a new King is always a threat to those who love power. So Herod is going to handle this in the most efficient way he knows, the only way he handles things. The scriptures tell us that he places an edict that initiates one of the most heinous acts in the Bible. This will blow your mind as he tries to find this new King.
Look at verse 16 of Matthew 2: "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." (Note that the Magi went home to their faraway countries by a different route. That infuriated Herod so, since he can't find Jesus, he will deal with the situation "collectively" by wiping out all the boys under the age of two.) "Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 'A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
What a senseless tragedy. Try to imagine the sounds of those experiencing such great loss—the emotional screams of parents as their children were murdered before their eyes. if you are in this room, and you have a son or a grandson who is two years of age or younger, please raise your hand. Can you feel the heartache perpetrated by Herod? Dozens of deaths. If Herod wasn't hated before, from that day on I guarantee you that he was despised. But he didn't get the baby Jesus, because an angel of the Lord warned Mary and Joseph and they fled to Egypt with the baby. You see, there's a lesson that we should all learn from this story: a human plot cannot stop a divine plan.
The full Christmas story is much more than a quiet nativity scene; it's a raving ruler, a fugitive family, and a myriad of tombstones with the names of babies and toddlers on them. Herod wasn't about to give up his throne. The Romans helped him come to power because they loved his merciless efficiency in extracting taxes. Herod was ruthless. Toward the end of his reign, some five days before his impending death, he arrested all the leading citizens of Jerusalem and left orders that they be executed at his death. He knew that no one would weep for him without this other tragedy taking place at the same time.
Herod is a troubling illustration of self-absorption on steroids. But today, while he is dead, his spirit lives on. Herod typifies many people in our world today—not so much with the violence, but because, like Herod, they feel threatened by Jesus. Most people don't mind taking some time off work to commemorate Jesus' birth. They will embrace him as a resource when they get in trouble. They will accept him as a spiritual benefactor.
Many in our culture, especially here in the Bible Belt, are willing to add Jesus to their lives and even call themselves Christian. But when reality begins to sink in, that this little baby demands to be the Master of our lives, we often feel shaken.
We're not typically threatened by a little baby, but neither do we want to bow before a king. So when the true meaning of his coming is understood, suddenly the baby in the manger becomes a threat. I'm not referring to the controversy of whether or not a nativity with Jesus can be displayed in a public place; I'm talking about whether or not we allow this same Jesus to have authority in our private lives.
Do I really want a king? If I'm honest, maybe I do. But maybe I'm looking more for a mascot, a good luck charm, a warm blanket, even a Savior. But I'm not so sure I want a king … someone to be the Lord, the King of my life—because the truth be known, I kind of like the throne.
You see, it's not just King Herod who's been threatened by the birth of the Christ child. We, too, don't want him to tell us right and wrong. We say, "I'll date who I want to date." "I'll marry who I want to marry." "We will raise our kids the way we want to." "I'll go to church when it's convenient to go to church." "I'll manage my resources the way I want to manage them." "I will determine my morality." "I will sit on the throne of my life." And when I come to the end of my life I can sing, "I did it my way."
That's the anthem for the Herod's of the world. Mankind's first reaction to someone else sitting on the throne of our life was rebellion. Herod was threatened by the coming of Christ. Don't make the same mistake; we must be willing to give up our puny dynasties for a higher authority.
Is it any wonder that many were and still are threatened by the birth of Jesus?
Some were complacent about Jesus.
The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem didn't seem threatened by the first Christmas. Honestly they hardly noticed it. One would think that they would have been obsessed with checking it out.
Look back Matthew 2:4-6: "When he (Herod) had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 'In Bethlehem in Judea,' they replied, 'for this is what the prophet has written: "But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel."'"
Why didn't the scribes and the rabbis make the trip themselves? They knew all the right verses, but they were too busy to go search for a new king. You see, it's possible to know the Bible and ignore the King. Fortunately when the angels announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds in the field, they were willing to make the journey to find and worship Jesus. The Magi traveled hundreds of miles from another country.
But to our knowledge not another person made their way to see the newborn King. The Jewish scholars and religious leaders were just five or six miles from Bethlehem. Surely between the reports of the shepherds, the appearance of the Star and Wise Men, and the investigation by Herod, they were aware of what, where, and when all this happened. Yet none of them bothered to make the trip to see with their own eyes if the things the shepherds reported were true. If the long-awaited Messiah had indeed finally come to earth, then they had become complacent.
If anyone should have been excited about going to see the birth of this newborn King it should have been those who could put the puzzle together and go on the Amazing Race that would lead to a barnyard delivery room. But it's possible for the super religious and self-righteous to be oblivious to the obvious. Evidently they had become sucked into a religion of rituals and they had no idea that God would take on flesh and come to their level in order to have a personal relationship with them.
We assume that if we were religious leaders back then, we would have dropped what we were doing and led the way. We would have taken a personal day and walked for an hour and a half to see what was going on in Bethlehem.
Really? There are some of you who have been on the verge of making a spiritual commitment, but at the end of this service you won't be willing to walk some 50 feet to make a decision for Christ. Complacency rather than commitment isn't relegated to that first Christmas.
Many were threatened by Jesus. Some were complacent about Jesus. But perhaps the best sub-plot to that First Christmas in Jerusalem comes from a couple named Simeon and Anna.
A few people embraced Jesus.
Over in Luke, Chapter 2 verse 25 we read: "Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him."
Day in and day out, Simeon was at the temple, faithfully serving while on the lookout for the Messiah. Simeon was not a priest, but he was revered by the people for his righteousness. We could compare Simeon to one of our church's elders. They are not on our staff, but they have the distinction of being chosen because of their character and spiritual leadership. But despite his goodness, he recognized his need for God's intervention in his life.
Check it out Luke 2:26-30: "It had been revealed to him [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 'Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation.'"
Let's be honest. This must have been a strange scene. What would you think if you saw this elderly man grabbing a baby and dancing around the temple courts as he shouted, "Now I'm ready to die! Now I'm ready to die!" Can you say, "Pepper Spray"? Can you say, "Funny Farm"?
But don't be fooled. This is another confirmation that God was involved in this story. In other words, Simeon said, "Now you can call your servant home, Lord, for my eyes have seen your salvation." By the way, that's what the word "Jesus" means—the one who saves. What's awesome is that because of Jesus' hopeful birth Simeon was prepared to die.
We've talked about the response of a lot of different people in Jerusalem but now let's ponder this question: when you take your last breath, will have accepted Jesus as your new King? Can I remind you what the King does in your life? He calls the shots. There's no discussion over whether to obey him or not. There's no real opportunity for advancement. You never get any higher in his kingdom than the position of a servant. His ways are not our ways and God unfolds his will according to his timetable and not ours. That's the prerogative of the King.
About a month ago Beth's dad, Bob Bowman, was diagnosed with cancer. They weren't sure what type of cancer it was or where it originated. But the next week, with the blessing of my father-in-law and the family, Beth and I left on our seven-day trip to Israel.
The day after we arrived in Israel, we received an email stating that he had been hospitalized. That was surprising. The next day the family called and told us that he just had weeks to live. The next day we were told by phone that he just had days to live and that we might want to try to change our flights and come back. So we tried to fly out that night, but due to full flights and fewer flights on the Sabbath, all of our efforts were futile.
It was extremely frustrating to be away from our three kids and our extended family. But the next morning we were walking around Old Jerusalem and I was constantly checking my Blackberry® for any news when I saw that my brother in law had sent us the following email:
Beth, ten minutes ago (at 4:15 this morning), Dad took his first step in Paradise. He went peacefully and we were all around his hospital bed. We are all thinking of you. Bobby
My wife was walking a little bit ahead of me and I said, "Hey Beth" and she turned around and I glanced at my phone. As she came walking back, she said, "Oh, have you heard from anyone?" Without any emotion I said, "Yes." And she said, "Oh no, has he taken a turn for the worse?"
I didn't say anything, and she asked, "Did he die?" I nodded and pulled her close and held her as she stood there and sobbed on my chest. After a couple of minutes, Beth broke into prayer thanking God for her dad and for his faith while praying for our family.
Here we were 6,000 miles away from the ones we loved. It was one of the most helpless moments of our lives. Even after 25 years of ministry, I had never heard of someone going downhill so quickly. We assumed we'd be home before his first treatment.
After making some phone calls, the reality set in that the next possible standby flight wasn't for another ten hours. So Beth and I decided that, rather than going back to the hotel and weep, it was more therapeutic for us to continue to see the sights of Jerusalem. So we did.
Providentially, several hours later, we visited two familiar places. The first is called Golgotha, the place of the Skull—the area where Jesus was crucified. We stared at a mountain which looked like a skull and we prayed together.
From there we walked for a few minutes over to an area known as the empty tomb, or the Garden Tomb. It's a tomb built in a hillside that dates back to before the first century. We stared at that mountain graveyard, and then we quietly walked inside an empty tomb. We looked around and then we walked out of it, just as Christ had done before. It's probably not the exact place where Jesus was laid to rest, but that didn't matter. It was what it represented.
When my wife left the empty tomb, I knew she felt better, even though she was crying. Were they tears of sadness? Sure. Were they tears of victory? You better believe it.
Remembering the resurrection has a way of doing that—"for we do not grieve as those who have no hope." As we left the tomb, Beth said to me, "If I can't be at home, then this is where God knew that I needed to be." And I said to her, "Think of it this way … today, while you are experiencing the Old Jerusalem, your dad is experiencing the New Jerusalem."
Christ wants you to experience Jerusalem someday. He might like you to see the Old Jerusalem, the city that He loved so much, but he'd much rather have you experience the New Jerusalem someday with him, for all eternity.
Revelation 21:1-3a reminds us: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.'"
Make no mistake: those verses only apply to those who have submitted to the authority of the King. Heaven for all eternity is for those who trust in Christ.
So what's it going to be? If you want to submit to his authority and are willing to commit to the King and his kingdom, then you'll find fulfillment and joy forever.
On that first Christmas in the City, in the Old Jerusalem, the people reacted in one of three ways to the arrival of Jesus and you are faced with the same choices. Like Herod you can abhor him. Like the religious leaders you can ignore him. Or, like Simeon you can adore him as the King whom you willingly choose to serve.
If you have never turned your life over to Christ, if you have never bowed before that King, if you have never said, "I want to be a part of this church family"—whatever your decision is this morning—now is the time to meet Christ. Please join me down front as we stand and sing.
Dave Stone is the former Senior Pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky,