by Shane Scott
Most people love babies. And most people love the baby Jesus. It is the demanding and challenging adult Jesus that lots of people find too uncomfortable to deal with. This was illustrated a few years ago in a movie called Talladega Nights, which lampoons a redneck racecar driver named Ricky Bobby. Even though he is worldly and arrogant, he pauses to give thanks for his meal, but typical of the shallow fecklessness of his character he addresses his prayer to the “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in golden, fleece diapers.” When an older man interrupts him and says, “He was a man! He had a beard!” Ricky says, “I like the baby version the best!”
This may also explain why “Christmas Carols” remain so popular in our increasingly secular culture. The picture of the birth of Jesus often conveyed in these songs sounds more like a Mother Goose story than a biography, which is what the gospels claim to be. Silent Night claims that “all was calm, all was bright” the night Jesus was born when in fact He was delivered in very chaotic conditions. Away in the Manger expects us to believe that the little Lord Jesus did not cry when in fact the grown up Jesus wept many times.
There is a pervasive, joyous optimism in these carols. The way they come across, everyone is like Ricky Bobby and loves the baby Jesus. Consider this verse:
O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
There is so much about this hymn (and that’s really what it is – not a Christmas carol but a hymn!) to love. But here is the question – did the weary world really rejoice when Jesus appeared? Did everyone love the baby Jesus?
Some Did Rejoice At Jesus’ Birth
Unmistakably, many people did rejoice at the birth of Jesus. When the angel Gabriel told Mary she was carrying the Messiah, she broke into a glorious song called the Magnificat, which begins: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). And as many songs suggest, the angels rejoiced at the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:10-14). After the shepherds saw the newborn King they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). And a few days later when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple, an aging saint named Simeon praised God because he was allowed to see the coming of the Messiah (Luke 2:27-32).
So on the surface it is easy to see why so many carols reverberate with happiness. Many people were thrilled to see the Christ child. Luke continues the parade of well wishers with a godly woman named Anna, who according to Luke 2:38 “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
But the issue is not whether a few deeply pious believers rejoiced at Jesus’ birth. I don’t mean to be irreverent in any way, but just to make a point, if you think about it, probably as many people – if not more – rejoiced at the news of your birth as did Jesus’ birth. The issue is, did the “weary world” rejoice?
Many Were Troubled
At least one person was not thrilled by the news of Jesus’ birth. When Herod heard the report of the birth of Jesus, “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3).
Herod had a special relationship with Rome that permitted him to consider the land of Israel his own little kingdom as long as he kept the peace and made sure Caesar got his tax money. Herod’s lust for power led to a homicidal paranoia, to the extent that he murdered his wife and two of his children.
Someone that mad and that brutal would have no qualms about wiping out an entire village of babies, which is precisely what he ordered once he learned that this so called “King of the Jews” was to be born at Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). And so Herod became a grisly parody of Pharaoh and ordered the death of Hebrew babies – whatever it took to stay on the throne.
Herod’s treachery is well known. But did you notice the end of Matthew 2:3. Is wasn’t just the despotic Herod who was troubled by news of Jesus’ birth. “All Jerusalem with him” was also alarmed. Why was Jerusalem so bothered by the news of Jesus’ birth?
Just as Herod represented the corrupt political structure of the first century, Jerusalem represented the corrupt religious structure. The priesthood and the Pharisees were every bit as power hungry as Herod. Remember what Matthew says Pilate discerned about the motives of the chief priests and scribes at Jesus’ trial? “For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Matthew 27:18). A career politician like Pilate easily saw through the charade of legalities and knew the Sanhedrin was just another bunch of politicians desperately clinging to power.
That’s why Herod and all Jerusalem were threatened by a baby. They saw Jesus as a threat to their power, and nothing, not even a little baby, can be allowed to jeopardize power. They hated the baby Jesus. That is not the stuff of happy, carefree Christmas carols. It is the tragic reality of a world gone mad with sin and selfishness.
But this is also my story. And your story. All of us made a decision at some point to embrace power rather than truth. That’s what it means to be lost. And when we were in the grip of that compulsion to have our way, to do what we wanted to, to be king of our own little world, had we been alive when Jesus was born and knew what He represented, I am afraid we would have felt a lot more like Herod than Mary.
We need to strip away the fairy tale veneer of so many Christmas Carols to let the message of the gospel speak for itself. It depicts a world in which not all is calm and bright, a world where babies cry and tyrants kill and the power mad try to win at all costs. And a Savior who exposes all that ugliness for what it is, and urges a “weary world” to rejoice in His salvation by surrendering to His lordship.