(A sermon I originally preached at Epiphany 2016, but adapted and preached in Rutland, VT, in July 2016–Note, there are references to some pictures and charts that I haven’t had time to add to this post. I also want to give links to some stats.)
If you were to drive a few miles southeast of Jerusalem you would come across a cone shaped mountain that books like a volcano. A giant cinder cone with a wide caldera. But an aerial view shows a different reality. It is a man-made mountain. And it encloses a fortress. It is the Herodium, built by Herod the Great.
I recently watched a documentary about Herod’s building projects. His most spectacular project was reconstructing the temple in Jerusalem. And he built a new platform for the Temple, called the Temple Mount–a massive structure 37 acres in area. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70, but Herod’s Temple Mount still stands today after two thousand years, having withstood wars and earthquakes. The largest stone in it is 46 feet long, ten feet high, ten feet wide, and weighs 415 tons.
We have no portraits of Herod. But we have references in Matthew and Luke, and in a contemporary historian, Flavius Josephus. Josephus portrays him as a violent and arrogant man. When Herod became king, he killed the entire Sanhedrin, except for one man. He suffered from depression and paranoia. This is consistent with what we see in the Biblical stories.
Herod was powerful—but he was full of fear. And he sought to allay his fears by self-aggrandizement, and giant fortresses, and a 2000 man body guard, and by murdering his enemies.
That’s the background for our reading from Matthew chapter 2.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
The word, magi, is Persian, and refers to the priests of the Zoroastrian religion. This was a monotheistic faith, that believed God speaks his word to prophets. They believed in a great controversy between good and evil, and looked forward to the last day, when a savior would come, he would overcome evil, and the dead would be raised and rewarded with eternal life.
They saw his star in the east. Not an ordinary star. Not a conjunction of planets. Not an astrological chart. This is a star that moves through the sky, as we see in verse 9:
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
But the star disappeared for a while. It led them as far as Jerusalem at first. So they went to Jerusalem and started asking questions. And Herod, verse 3, when he heard these things was “troubled,” or “agitated.” “Stirred up,” is the literal sense. He calls Biblical scholars, who tell him that Bethlehem is the place. He calls the magi to him, and sends them off, saying, “When you have found him, come back and tell me, so that I can worship him, too.”
The wording makes you think they had a long distance to go. They didn’t. It was only about 4.5 miles.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house …
Not a stable. Some time has passed. They’ve found a place to stay. There are no shepherds present.
they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
What a contrast between them and Herod. Herod hears of the child’s birth, and is afraid. He sees a threat, and wants to destroy it. And yet he a believer. He’s King of the Jews. He was a convert, and this was for political rather than religious reasons, it is true, but still, he was supposedly a believer. His first response was to consult the Bible. And the Bible’s teaching was clear. And he was convinced it was true. He didn’t doubt who the child was. He didn’t doubt that this child would be born in Bethlehem.
But Herod was afraid. And he responded in fear.
These magi, however, believed. Though they were strangers, they believed. Though they were of another religion, they believed. And they acted on that faith. They ignored the risks. They had no fear. They traveled hundreds of miles following the star; when they heard the prophecies, they believed them. When they saw the star again, they rejoiced. When they came into the house, they fell down, and they gave him kingly presents.
In Herod and in the wise men, we see the difference between fear and faith.
Fear sees a threat. Fear gives excuses. Fear builds walls. Fear boxes us in. Fear freezes us.
Faith sees an opportunity. Faith follows, without fear. Faith goes beyond walls. Faith goes beyond boxes. Faith spurs us to action.
If you have faith, you cannot be afraid. Because if you have faith, it means you believe God, and you trust him, and you go forward in confidence knowing that he is with you. You have fear when you doubt this. When you don’t believe. When you don’t trust.
Isaiah 60 foretold this event:
Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. … The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord.
Fear huddles in the dark. Faith steps into the light. Fear questions. Faith praises.
Herod was afraid of death, yet death came to him. In his fear of Rome and of his own people, Herod built palaces and fortresses and surrounded himself by guards. But in death, his tomb was destroyed. His sarcophagus was smashed. It was only recently found, and the pieces put back together. And it stands as a witness that all of Herod’s actions to protect himself and preserve himself were futile. He could do nothing.
Yet those magi who believed, and Mary and Joseph, they were not afraid, and they were preserved. They did not try to defend themselves—because they knew God would defend them. God spoke to them, and they believed, and they were protected.
There are lessons here for those who live in the last days.
Take a look at Luke 21:25-27. This is Jesus’ eschatological discourse, which you’ll also find in Matthew 24.
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
The wisemen saw a star—people in the last days will also see heavenly signs.
Herod responded as many will in the last days—distress, perplexity, fear.
“And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” And as it was 2000 years ago, some will be afraid. They will beg the rocks to fall on them. And others will be glad and rejoice, and say, “This is our God. We have waited for him, and he will save us.”
Here’s the question for us. Do you have faith today? Or are you afraid?
Many are afraid. The media stirs up fear. Politicians stir up fear. We’re afraid of enemies in far off places, and we’re afraid of those who are fleeing those enemies, including young children without a place to stay. Last Sabbath at camp meeting we heard Jonathan Duffy, the head of ADRA. He spoke of the Adventist church’s work on behalf of refugees. We aren’t afraid of them. We see in them Christ, who comes to us naked, and hungry, and sick, and in prison.
Now, we could address these fears through logic and reason. What are you most likely to die of? Heart disease is the biggest killer. Then cancer. Things that are caused not by enemies thousands of miles away, but by the food in our refrigerators. But how many are afraid of a slab of bacon? Or a juicy steak? Or a fast food burger? How many are afraid of an electronic cigarette, or of a cold beer? But these are the things that will kills us. These are the things that are killing us by the millions. And those terrorists? Insignificant. A handful of deaths. Even all the war-related deaths combined are miniscule next to dietary deaths.
Here are some statistics. You are 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack. You are 12,571 times more likely to die from cancer. 11,000 more likely to die in an airplane accident than from a terrorist plot involving an airplane. 1048 times more likely to die in a car accident than from a terrorist. 404 times more likely to die in a fall. 87 times more likely to drown. 12 times more likely to accidentally suffocate in your own bed. 8 times more likely to be killed by a cop. 8 times more likely to be electrocuted. Six times more likely to die from heat stroke.
McDonald’s should frighten you more than ISIS.
Franklin Roosevelt was right. It isn’t the external threats that should worry us. It is our obsessive worrying about things that really don’t affect us. This was from his first inaugural address in 1933. He began with these words:
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
And this is the Bible’s message. “Fear not.” Now, contrary to Facebook, the Bible doesn’t say it 365 times. It says it about 100 times. But that’s more than enough. It only tells us a couple of times not to eat pork, and we don’t eat it. We are commanded to keep the Sabbath a handful of times, and we do not doubt. Well then, if God tells us 100 times not to fear, why do we fear?
As Paul said to Timothy, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
In Isaiah 41, God says,
You are My servant, I have chosen you and have not cast you away: Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
But how often are we like the disciples in the boat during the storm. Jesus was right there, in their midst, in the boat. They could see him. They could touch him. But they were afraid. They didn’t believe. They didn’t trust. They cried to him, “Lord, save us! We perish!” And he responded, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”
That’s what Jesus says to us now, in our fears for the future, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”
So what will we do? We can step into the future afraid, or with faith. We can cower in front of the darkness of the unknown, or we can step out into the light that shines in Jesus Christ. We can see enemies around us, and listen to the media and some politicians, and build up walls and weapons and arguments. Or we can listen to the word of God, the word of the one who created us, the word that was made flesh, the word that calls us to follow, the word that tells us to open our hearts to those in need, the word that calls us to go out and bring light and life and peace and joy to the world.
“Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”