by Bekah Vickers
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. — John 1:9-12
The world did not recognize him – Because he turned all our expectations upside down. This week, we are looking closely at the characters involved in Jesus’ birth in order to further understand that “the world did not recognize” Christ: in the Nativity Story, God turns every expectation upside down.
Read Matthew 2:1-18
Christians in China are again facing mounting limitations on their religious freedoms. Over the past few years, church buildings have been closed or torn down, and religious symbols, such as crosses and images of Jesus, have been replaced by the Chinese flag and images of President Xi Jinping. In a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Chinese Christian Derek Lam concludes that the leadership in his country is increasingly “making Jesus subservient to Xi Jinping” – something he himself refuses to do, even if it puts him “behind bars.” These efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to bring “Christianity under its thumb” speak of a deep-seated fear. The CCP knows that faith is a threat to its power. Because God is a threat to earthly power.
The Nativity story makes that clear. Mary sings that God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones” (Luke 1:52), and although the literal fulfillment of this prophecy will not take place immediately, King Herod takes the threat of the Magi’s newborn “king of the Jews” very seriously. In just a few verses of Matthew, we learn how Herod, in his fury, orders his army to slaughter all of Bethlehem’s baby boys (Mt. 2:16-18).
I find it difficult to think about this episode as part of the story of the birth of Christ. I cannot bear the thought of those mothers whose children were so unjustly ripped from their arms – not beside the glorious arrival of the Messiah! How can something so awful accompany something so wonderful? What happened to “peace on earth”?
But contrary to the songs of the angel host, Jesus himself will later claim that He did “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt. 10:34). He knew that He was ushering in a Kingdom that would always be in direct conflict with the kingdoms of this world. And indeed, from the very moment of His birth, swords were drawn.
The violence in this scene was no doubt bred from a very great fear. Herod would do anything – anything – to protect his place on the throne of Jerusalem. He could not stand idly by while any other threat to power existed.
Same for China.
Same for us.
There are those in our culture and in our country who believe that political power is necessary to bring good to the world. But when Jesus teaches about bringing justice to the world, He speaks of giving up power. He tells us to turn the other cheek and offer a second cloak to the thief who steals our first one. He presents a child as the role model for our highest aspirations, and He backs up every ounce of this wildly unorthodox message with His own example. Swords are indeed drawn in response to Jesus’ Kingdom – but not by Him (at least, not yet). Jesus leaves His throne, and calls us to do the same.
This is a hard message. It calls for true surrender of control, just as the old hymn proclaims: “All to Jesus I surrender…” In the past several years, I’ve found it more difficult to sing that song because I know all too well how desperate I am to hold back, to keep control of something in my life, to trust God to a certain point – but then fall back on my own wits when it really comes down to it. My need for a certain amount of power may not be the same as Herod’s, but in the end, it isn’t all that different, either. Too many times, I have ignored God’s call to love Him and to love my neighbor because it threatened my own self-sufficiency. Too many times, I have held jealously on to the throne of my own heart.
In what areas of your life are you resistant to the Spirit’s calling because you fear having to give up control and authority? As we think about the various reactions of those surrounding the Nativity, let us take time to consider our own fears and insecurities and ask God to break us of our own addiction to kingship. Let us lay down our crowns at the feet of the True King and sing with the multitude in Heaven, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power!” (Rev. 4:11).