Sermon 12-29-19: “The Real War on Christmas”

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I read an article years ago, written by an historian, which asked a strange but thought-provoking question: “in popular imagination, who was Hitler before there was a Hitler?” In other words, for the past 70 years or so, when we’ve needed to compare an evil ruler, dictator, or king to someone from the past who was really evil, we needed look no further than to Hitler and the Nazis. For us, Hitler is the living embodiment of evil, the personification of evil. 

So the question this historian was asking was a good one: Who was Hitler before Hitler even existed? Prior to about 1945, who was the evil ruler to whom people routinely compared other evil rulers?

And the answer, according to this historian? None other than the evil king we encounter in today’s scripture, King Herod, or “Herod the Great.” And this was in large part because of what we see him do in today’s scripture. 

Remember from last week, he sends the Wise Men to Bethlehem to find the newborn King of the Jews. He says it’s because he wants to worship him. Yeah, right! The reality is, he wants to kill Jesus, because he perceives that Jesus is a rival to his throne. And when God warns the Wise Men in a dream what Herod is up to, they go home “by another way,” at great risk to their lives. Because Herod was not somebody you wanted to cross. So he finds out that the Wise Men had tricked him, he flies into a murderous rage, and he sends his army to slaughter all male children two and under in and around Bethlehem. Why “two years”? Because earlier he had asked the Wise Men when the star first appeared. Apparently they told him two years earlier.

Now, whether that means that God was preparing them for their months-long journey from Babylon and had given them the star long before Jesus was born or not, we don’t know. I mean, the Wise Men saw the star; they probably had to spend time figuring out what the star meant, how to interpret it; consulting with Jewish teachers in Babylon; preparing for the journey; packing for the journey, making the journey.

So they don’t make it to Jerusalem, Matthew tells us in verse 1, until after Jesus was born. But Bethlehem was just a couple of hours away… So, for all we know, they got there very shortly after jesus’ birth. All that to say, if you have a manger scene in your home, and you want the Wise Men to be there, I don’t think that’s the worst thing! In my opinion, they were there very shortly after Jesus’ birth.

But Herod, like the rest of us, doesn’t know whether the star appeared in advance of the birth, so just to be sure, he kills all male children two and under—which, as far as he knows, would include the newborn “king of the Jews.” Given the population of Bethlehem at the time, scholars estimate that 20 to 30 children were killed.

You may read that some historians doubt that this massacre happened, since the only source we have for the event is Matthew’s gospel. To which I would say, “Yes, but why would we have any other historical document of this event?” As horrifying as this massacre is to us, the killing of a couple of dozen children in an insignificant town like Bethlehem—for Herod—was just another day at the office! It would hardly rate a mention. Here was a man, after all, who had three of his own sons killed—for fear that they would usurp his throne. He had one of his wives and a mother-in-law killed for the same reason!

Herod was not ethnically Jewish, but he was religiously Jewish, all least to some extent. He followed Jewish dietary law. Which means he didn’t eat pork. This prompted Augustus Caesar, who gave Herod his throne in the first place, to famously quip: “It’s safer to be a pig in Herod’s household than a member of his own family”—because Herod would kill family members before he would kill pigs!

All that to say, Herod’s killing of these children was perfectly in keeping with everything else we know about him. He heard about a newborn king; he was jealous; and he took action to take care of the threat—or at least he tried.

To say the least, I wasn’t looking forward to preaching this scripture the Sunday after Christmas—even though it’s part of the Christmas story; indeed, it’s even one of the church’s assigned Lectionary readings for the Sunday of this year. But I wasn’t looking forward to it because it seems, well… so un-Christmas-like. After all, Christmas is associated with peace, joy, love, generosity, and good will. And here we have Herod disrupting all of this by committing unspeakable evil. Right in the midst of the Christmas story!

But I said this on Christmas Eve, and I’ll say it again: the Bible is realistic. It tells the truth about the world… A few days ago in Nigeria, for example, we were disheartened to hear about Islamic State terrorists beheading twelve men—and broadcasting it for the world to see—men whose only crime was professing faith in that king who born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago! Which goes to show that the Christmas message is as much a threat now as it was back then. The spiritof Herod lives on in today’s world!

But brothers and sisters, it’s actually worse than that. That same “spirit of Herod” is much closer to home than faraway places like West Africa! In fact, it’s in our country, in our city, on our street, in our homes… even in our church. I’m talking about spiritual warfare. I’m taking about the devil. Like Herod, he is a ruler who has a kingdom. Jesus calls him “the ruler of this world”;[1] Paul calls him the “prince of the power of the air.”[2] I don’t say this to make you afraid; if you’re a Christian, you have no need to be afraid of Satan—at least not for yourself and your own salvation. As the apostle John says, “He who is in you”—the Spirit of Jesus Christ—“is greater than he who is in the world,”[3] that is, the devil. Satan is an enemy, but he’s an enemy who we know for sure will ultimately be defeated—Jesus won that victory on the cross. And that victory will be manifest when Christ comes again in glory.

But in the meantime, Satan aims to take as many people down with him to hell as he possibly can. And that’s what he’s working to do right now.

There’s a popular organization called FiveThirtyEight—which does all kinds of statistical number-crunching in order to make predictions. They’ve made some bold and accurate predictions, for example, concerning presidential elections. So we shouldn’t take their research lightly. But I read an article by them that they published just yesterday entitled, “Millennials Are Leaving Religion And Not Coming Back.” It said that millennials—that is, adults between the ages of 23 and 38—are not doing what previous generations have done—that is, they drop out of church in early adulthood but eventually settle down, get married, have kids, have mortgages, and return to church. According to FiveThirtyEight, that’s not happening anymore.[4]

Does that alarm any of you? 

Okay, maybe that trend isn’t as pronounced, or maybe it’s not happening as quickly, in our small, “Bible belt” town of Toccoa as it is in big cities. But y’all now it’s happening! Many of you see it in your own families. 

When I hear this research, I want to protest: “It may be true that younger generations are dropping out of church in larger numbers, but in generations past, there were plenty of Christians in name only, who went to church because it was the socially acceptable thing to do. And now that it no longer something that matters in the eyes of our culture, these nominal Christians don’t bother. And it’s not true that belief in God is on the decline—or that atheism is on the rise. People are still as religious as ever, but they’re less likely to go to church or identify as Christian, and certainly not isn’t a particular denomination.

So that’s what I want to say—to soften the blow. But any way you look at it, this tend not good, let’s face it. Because at least if these nominal Christians were coming to church, they might hear the gospel, repent, and be saved. Today, there’s one less avenue for that to take place!

So what does that mean for us? It means we can’t just sit back and wait for people to show up at our church doors! We have to get out there and invite, and witness, and share the gospel with people! We need to pray for opportunities to witness!

A few weeks before I came to be your pastor here, I was talking to someone who lived here. I asked about Toccoa Falls College, and its reputation in the community. This person told me that their reputation in the community wasn’t as good as it ought to be. Why? Because some students from the college were coming into town on weekends and doing sidewalk evangelism—in other words, these students were actually sharing the gospel with the people in Toccoa. And some people didn’t like it. Surprise, surprise.

If we actually do our part in fulfilling the Great Commission, we will always encounter opposition to our efforts. Jesus warns that we’ll even be persecuted! Not all the time; not most of the time, even. But it will happen. So it didn’t surprise me that people in town didn’t like these college students trying to witness.

Besides, what are these Christian college students supposed to do about lost people? Pray that the Baptists reach them before they die? Or maybe the Pointe? What are we at Toccoa First supposed to do about lost people?

And I know what a few of you are thinking… “There’s Brent… being all Baptist again. Showing his Baptist roots.” Oh please… Listen to what our very own United Methodist Book of Discipline says: 

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… (¶ 120)

In other words, there are people who are not presently disciples who must become disciples and thereby transform the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are supposed to play a role in making this happen. This is what Jesus commands us to do in the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20. This is what we all pledge to do when we join a United Methodist church—we promise to be witnesses. Or listen to this, also from our Book of Discipline:

The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world. (¶ 129)

We “must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced.” So my question is, do we love our friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, our fellow students, our own family members enough—will we love them enough—to answer God’s call to play a role in saving them? 

Because listen: Just as Herod was coming for Mary and Joseph’s child, so our Enemy, the devil, is coming for our own children, our own grandchildren, our own great-grandchildren—and the children of people we know! Sugar-coat it if you like. That’s facts! It’s happening.

That article I mentioned earlier cites several reasons for this trend of millennials dropping out of church, but we who believe the Bible know that there’s a deeper, more ultimate reason: Satan… and spiritual warfare. 

If it angers us and breaks our hearts that the King Herods of the distant past, as well as King Herods today, have the power to destroy children’s lives on this side of eternity, why doesn’t it anger us and break our hearts even more that we have an Enemy—right here, right now—who seeks to destroy our own children’s lives both now and for eternity? 

Because every day—every single day—in this community people are dying without having received God’s gift of eternal life in Christ. Every single day. We know some of them! The “ruler of this world” and the “prince of the power of the air”—Satan himself—has done far more harm to those who die without Christ than King Herod could ever do! And this is happening right here… in the shadow of our church! 

So God bless those TFC students who were bothered enough by this fact to do something about it! Maybe I’ll get out and join them next time! Let our church get a “reputation.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people in this town were talking about us: Like, “What’s going on with those Methodists? They’re acting so weird. Telling people about Jesus! Acting like they really believe all this stuff? What’s gotten into them?”

So, yeah, I don’t mind if people accuse us of acting weird. Let us act as if heaven and hell hang in the balance of what we do here at Toccoa First United Methodist Church! Because it does!

Notice verse 13: “[A]n angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Do you hear the urgency there. The angel says, “I know you’re asleep. It’s time to get up. Get moving. There’s no time to spare. Lives are at stake! Eternal life is at stake because people need Jesus!”

Brothers and sisters, is it possible that our Lord is telling Toccoa First United Methodist Church a similar word this morning? “You’ve been sleeping long enough. Wake up! Get moving. There’s no time to spare. Lives are at stake. Eternal life is at stake! People need Jesus, and I’ve called you to do your part in reaching them for Jesus!”

I want revival at this church. Most of you want revival at this church. I want a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit to blow through this place in the year 2020. Don’t you? I want more people joining the church. I want more people getting saved and baptized. I want backsliders, Christians who’ve been away from Jesus, to repent and come back home, and find a new and better life here at this church. And I want all of us to grow more in love with Jesus and more on fire for Jesus. 

And y’all want that, too. I know… 

But here’s what I sense the Lord is telling me about revival at Toccoa First: It’s not going to happen unless of until we become faithful in this area of witnessing… evangelism… sharing the gospel… praying for people’s salvation… praying for the Holy Spirit to come down and do powerful things… inviting friends and neighbors and coworkers to church… and changing our church culture here to be a place where saving people’s souls is nothing less than our top priority. Do y’all agree with me about this? And I understand that a lot of this falls on me to lead.

And I promise you I’m preparing to do that in this year ahead. But I can lead all I want… “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”[5]

So let’s pray that he will make this happen!

[1] John 12:31 ESV

[2] Ephesians 2:2 ESV

[3] 1 John 4:4 ESV

[4] Daniel Cox and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, “Millennials Are Leaving Religion And Not Coming Back,” Accessed 28 December 2019.

[5] Psalm 127:1a

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