There was an article in Time magazine a couple of years ago entitled, “Why More Americans are Reading and Talking About the End of the World.” The article mentions the popularity of the “Left Behind” series which had sold more than 50 million copies at the writing of the article. Time also took a survey and discovered that 59% of Americans believe that the events in the book of Revelation will come true in some way.
There is no doubt that, despite all of the shopping, we live in a world of anxiety and uncertainty. We look at events around the world and post-Sept 11 and post-Iraq America and we wonder what God is doing.
‘In the fulness of time, God sent his Son…’ so says the apostle Paul. The time of the birth of Jesus was also a time of tension and anxiety and confusion. The Jewish people, having endured occupation from the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Greeks, were now occupied by the mighty Roman Empire. Jerusalem was free, yet not free. There was an expectancy of something, a move of God, a deliverance.
There were various responses to Roman occupation. There was compromise, there was prayer, there was separation, and there was militancy.
In Matthew 24, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem and Jesus has just pronounced a series of ‘woes’ against the Pharisees. But as the disciples walk around the city, they are amazed at the Temple, which was under a nearly 100 year renovation (begun by Herod the Great). Jesus then goes on to tell them that not one of the stones of the Temple would be on top of another and he then alludes to his coming in great power, as well as the cost of following him–their very lives.
The apostles ask a simple question, ‘when will these things take place?’ In Jesus answer, there is contained truth about the destruction of the Temple, and their need to be watchful for his return.
This is an Advent passage, a reflection on Jesus coming for a second and powerful time. But it is also a passage of response. What do you do when the days are uncertain? How do you respond to the enemies of God? What does God do and when will he answer?
I want to start with one response to times of uncertainty. I was inspired in my Advent sermons to use material from Eugene Peterson’s book, The Jesus Way. If Jesus says he is the ‘way,’ then there must also be other ways that are not the way. Most of those ways we are familiar with and I hope we can move away from this Advent.
When Jesus reflects on the Temple, there is a tragic note there. Today I do not want to focus on the Temple itself, but the architect of its renovation, because he shows us a ‘way’ that is all too common in our world.
What do you do when the world around you is crashing in? You use everything in your power to gain as much power as possible. This was the game plan of Herod the Great. 37 years before the birth of Jesus, Herod was faced with a decision, do I let a rival Jew take my land, or do I appeal to Ceasar Augustus, compromising all that I value and believe in? Do I reach a compromise with my own people and lose control over the land dad game me, or do I reach for the heights and compromise with the Gentiles, the enemies of God?
We know what Herod did. He reached out to Rome, conquered Jerusalem and was named by Caesar Augustus and Marc Antony “The King of the Jews.” He then became a master builder constructing cities and the great harbor city Caesarea Martima (Caesar by the Sea). He constructed Greek Stadia and Theaters for Greek games and entertainment, even in Jerusalem, and he funded (through heavy taxation) a 90 year project to renovate and reconstruct the Temple of the Lord–a gift to the Jewish people.
His Gentile subjects were gifted with temples to their gods by Herod, and as one writer put it, ‘for Herod, these were acts that established diplomatic relations and made Judea less of a second class player in the Roman Empire.’ In Herod’s mind, he was putting his people back on the map. Of course his people saw him as a sacrilege to Jewish faith and life.
But such was the way of Herod. And once he reached the heights, once he was no longer a second class world leader, he did what many do when they reach this point–he would be damned before he gave any of it up. There was no room for anyone else in Herod’s world, but Herod. He became a tyrant. Listen to Peterson’s description, “He became a virtual monster, hated by everyone, massacring at whim. Executions were routine. Twice, when he had to be away on dangerous political business, he arranged with a confidante that if for any reason he failed to return, his favorite wife, Mariamne (he had ten wives), was to be killed–he couldn’t think of anyone else having her. He was passionately in love with her, but it was typically Herodoan kind of love, love of possession, not a person.” Of course, he ended up killing her eventually because of jealousy. He also killed his uncle Joseph, his mother in law Alexandra, and three of his sons. Caesar Augustus, a friend of Herod’s said, ‘I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.’
Herod’s intention before his death was, on the day of his death, have popular Jewish elders all over Palestine executed so there would be mourning and lamentation, for he knew he was hated by his own people. Thankfully, his orders were not followed through, but this was Herod’s way. It is no surprise that Herod’s Christmas gift to Bethlehem was to slaughter innocent baby boys in search of the messiah. I love Herod’s quote from Zeffereli’s movie, “There will be no messiah’s born in my Kingdom.”
Herod the Great was gone when Jesus spoke to his disciples, but his son still ruled. But it was Herod’s Temple that was in Jesus’ sights that day. Not only did Jesus predict the end of the Temple and its sacrifices, he predicted the end of Herod’s way–and all who would follow Herod’s way in all times and in all places. The architecture of Herod would give way to a manger and a cross. The Jesus way.
Herod’s way says that when the going gets tough, the tough kill everyone in their way. When the kingdom is not as it should be, you do everything in your power to make sure you make your way to the top and to hell with anyone who gets in your way.
The Jesus way says, when the going gets tough, build a boat. When the going gets tough, live like you are awake, watching for God to do something.
‘As it was in the days of Noah.’ While everyone is looking to be a little Herod, while everyone is shopping, while everyone is trying to fill their minds with distractions, build a boat, because the flood is coming. Stay awake, for you do not know when the day of the Lord is coming.
In the ancient world, there were no police officers to watch over your house. There were no alarm systems. If you were poor and you lived in the ‘hood, which was the majority of the population, you had to be alert for thieves, who could enter through the roof. Dad, or dad’s appointed person had to virtually stay up all night to make sure the house wasn’t robbed. That posture, being alert, is what Jesus is calling for.
But what does that look like? It doesn’t mean stockpiling goods and weapons. The coming of Jesus is dramatic and powerful, the Scripture says so, but the waiting is Jesus’ kind of waiting. It is not building a community of fear and hand wringing. Matthew tells us exactly what that is.
Jesus’ kingdom is not like Herod’s kingdom. Jesus’ way is not like Herod’s way. Therefore, to wait on Jesus’ kingdom is to live a Jesus kind of way. To build and to watch is to live a life worthy of the kingdom of heaven. What does that look like?
Peterson asks, and I with him, why did Jesus not use Herod as a role model for building a kingdom? If anyone knew how to gain friends from all kinds of diverse opinions and who knew how to leverage his way to the top, why wouldn’t Jesus do the same thing? Jesus aims were the same as Herod’s, build a kingdom. So why not look at someone who did it right, and just add godliness and righteousness to the mix?
But Jesus had a totally different definition of kingdom.
Matthew 5 and Matthew 25 tell us exactly what it looks like. It is the total opposite of Herod.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
And Matthew 25 says ‘I was hungry..I was thirsty…I was a stranger…’ “Whatever you have done for the least of these…”
The end times and the second coming of Jesus may be hard concepts for us to understand. But getting there is straightforward. It is to live by the kingdom principles, in both disposition and action.
In light of all of this, how can we do Chirstmas differently this year? I am proud that many of you are stepping forward in faith to say that this Christmas you are going to follow Jesus words–to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger and to visit the sick and imprisoned. I know there are initiatives in the church to do just that. This is what Advent is all about. Find a way to make it different this time. ‘Be ready’ by practicing kingdom principles.
To close, Herod built a palace 7 miles south of Jerusalem called the Herodium. This was the place he wanted to be buried. Its ruins can still be seen. Herod built it as a man made mountain in the desert, a castle to proclaim his name forever. There are still visitors to the Herodium. But what kind of visitors are they? Curiosity seekers. No worshipers, no one to proclaim the greatness of Herod, no pilgrims.
But in a tiny village that is actually one of the most dangerous places in the world right now, there are still worshipers, pilgrims, seekers of God. In fact in this place the tourists and curiosity seekers are too afraid to visit. In that little town of Bethlehem.