A Revolutionary Christmas: The Political Implications of the First Christmas (Mat. 2)

Publié le 27 décembre 2021 dans Traductions

Sermon preached by Pastor Samuel Niblack on 5th December 2021

For us today, Christmas typically means decorations, presents and gastronomic traditions, but if we go back to the first Christmas, we can see how revolutionary it was.

In the book I’m reading right now, which is written by an Indian with a Hindu background and called “The Book That Changed Your World”, the writer says: « you Westerners forget how much the message of the Bible changed the world: in ethics, politics, medically, socially, musically… »

Luc Ferry, speaking of the incarnation (the fact that God became a person), says: « It is quite clear that without this typically Christian value of the human person, of the individual as such, the philosophy of human rights to which we are so attached today never would have come into being. »

So, for the entire month of December, we’ll be taking Christmas out of « religion », out of its box of « seasonal  decorations ». This morning, I’d like to look at the political implications of the first Christmas.  

Let’s read Matthew chapter 2.  

Most churches do not talk about politics (and rightly so). But in general, what they mean by that is that they refrain from supporting a political party as a church, or from taking a stand for this or that candidate, as a church. (With the 2022 presidential elections starting this week, we’re not going to give you any voting instructions!) But an absolute ban on talking about politics would prevent us from talking about the Christmas story where politicians and political decisions played an important role. The relationship between God and the state, between faith and politics was very present for Mary and Joseph, and for the Wise Men. The Christmas story can help us “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and  to God what is God’s”.

The first Christmas brought:  

• Trouble with King Herod  

• The disobedience of the Wise Men  

• A complicated but trusting life for Mary and Joseph 

• The future fall of the Roman Empire  

1. The troubles of a King

The Wise Men arrive at the capital, they go to the palace, they go to see King Herod, v2: “where is the  king of the Jews who has just been born?” Herod knows that there was no birth in his family. v3 says that Herod was very troubled. This confusion is a sign that Herod understood Christmas better than most people. He didn’t react well, but he did understand.

According to one commentary, « Matthew introduces his Christmas story by listing Jesus’ ancestors, going back to Abraham and mentioning King David in the process. The direction of the story is obvious: Jesus was the true « king of the Jews » at a time  when there was already one, Herod the Great. The birth of a baby who will inherit « the throne of his ancestor David » announces the beginning of a revolution. In Israel’s scriptures, David ruled over the  Twelve Tribes, but the Psalms and Prophets insisted that his ultimate successor would rule the whole world. Anyone who claims David’s kingdom is challenging the rulers of the world, whether in the first century or the twenty-first. » 

Herod felt directly threatened. Meanwhile, Jesus will go on to say, my kingdom is not of this world. He does not seek to usurp Herod’s political throne. Yet, as the Christmas carols state, he is the King of kings. He rules over the whole world. This truth can trouble politicians… and every human heart, which sees in Jesus a competitor.

In v8, Herod chooses the path of manipulation and lies, and he is neither the first nor the last politician to do so. Even worse, in v16, he orders the slaughter of babies (which is estimated to be about 20 babies – a far cry from the modern policy of abortion practiced today…).

2. The disobedience of the Wise Men 

The Wise Men have given to Herod what is Herod’s and they have given to Jesus what is Jesus’. They visited Herod, a courtesy visit. They showed respect to the powers at large. They did not arrive as spies.

But they did not worship him. They kept their worship for the true king of the Jews. 2.11: They came  into the house, saw the child with Mary his mother, bowed down and worshipped him; then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I remind you who these Wise Men were – we sometimes say, « the magi kings », « the three magi », but the Wise Men were neither kings, but rather astrologers, astronomers, and coming from the East, from Persia,  we know that astrologers could be highly placed as ministers, advisers of the king, as we see in the  book of Daniel. The Wise Men were certainly high ranking, politically, which makes their adoration of a baby even more noble.

But look at the rest of the story. Matthew 2:12 “Then, divinely warned in a dream not to return to Herod,  they returned to their country by another route”. The New Testament, which teaches submission to  authority, begins with civic disobedience. They did not return to Herod with the information he  requested. They went another way. What would the Wise Men have thought of Darmanin’s famous phrase this year: « We can no longer have discussions with people who refuse to write on paper that the law of the Republic is superior to the law of God« ? Certainly, they did not finance an army to overthrow Herod, they did not chant slogans, they were discreet, they were respectful, there was no violence.  

Philippe Rohbach, professor of philosophy in Strasbourg, says that “the important condition of legitimate civic disobedience is to call the state back to its own laws« . Herod is at odds with the Jewish law, the Ten Commandments, and the fact that Herod does not know where the King Messiah was to be born shows that he does not know the laws of his country, nor the law of God. The kings had to write a copy of the law themselves in order to know it. The idea that the authorities are not above the law is a Christian heritage that has often preserved a just policy in the West. 

3. A sometimes complicated but confident life for a couple  

The reason that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem was because Jesus was to be born there as prophesied, in the city of David. But they didn’t really know that at the time. In fact, they went there because of a policy put out by Caesar, who decreed a census probably related to taxes. They had to put up with a rather arduous Roman administration, with toll roads. Mary and Joseph show this  Christian attitude of submission to the authorities – they surrender to God. No protest, no anger, but trust in the sovereign God who leads, who provides. Imagine if in 2022, anyone living in France had to go back to their hometowns during the holiday season to pay a new ecological tax!

But again, this submission is not absolute. They endure this move to Bethlehem, but they will also flee to Egypt, following the clearly revealed will of God. Mat 2.13-14. “He took the child by night” – a  clandestine action, they go into exile for a few years to save the child Jesus, and then, for political reasons, they go live in Galilee rather than in Judea to protect their son. Both the submission and the clandestine exile required courage and trust. They did not act out of fear.  

In the incarnation, we see the beauty of submission, humility, peace, and these qualities make the best citizens. John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul all taught submission to political authorities, even non-Christian ones. John the Baptist encourages repentant Roman soldiers and tax collectors not to change their jobs. Jesus said to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and never called for insurrection. The apostles Peter and Paul left us 2 key texts: Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. 1 Peter 2:13-14 “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors.” But it is also good to remember that John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter and Paul were all  executed by politicians who exceeded their legitimate authority…, while each was filled with a sense of love,  forgiveness, and prayer towards these authorities. 

4. The future fall of the Roman Empire.  

Jesus’ mission was not a political mission. Jesus came to save, to free his people from their enemies. But these enemies are mainly spiritual. Jesus came to save the world not with an army, banners, a powerful lobby, but with the plan to give his life, through the cross. Just before he died, he forbade the use of the sword, he said: my kingdom is not of this world. My servants will not fight. The best politics cannot change hearts, only redemption can do that.  

But in coming in this way, Jesus showed another kind of power, the power of love, sacrifice, humility, and these values triumphed over the Herods, Caesars and Pilates of this world. Christmas set in motion the mechanism that eventually toppled the Roman Empire. And it was not a political mechanism, but a spiritual, subtle, loving mechanism that transformed hearts. Until the emperor Constantine himself later decided: “I prefer Christian values”.  The dignity of human life, democratic systems, freedom of conscience, authorities at the service of the people — all of these are Christian ideas, which will always remain noble, stronger than tyranny. They are gifts from the first Christmas. But the root is Jesus and his salvation. Ps 146:3 “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save”.