Week 2: Joy vs. The Black Crown
Pastor Rick Henderson December 9-10, 2023
TODAY’S QUESTION: In the Christmas story, who do you identify with most?
Whether you’re a reader or a binge-watcher, part of getting into any story is connecting with the characters we identify with. So, who is it for you?
I wouldn’t know how you’d relate to this. Maybe if your kids make you feel like you live in a barn.
Never had an angel appear to me. Maybe if you are a blue collar guy you can relate to the shepherds. They were blue collar guys.
I’ve got nothing.
I’m going old school with this one. If you know, you know.
I’m going to invite you today to see the familiar story of Christmas, but in a new light. And I’m even going to suggest that we identify with someone who we’ve never identified with before. Looking at it in a new light isn’t suggesting that the story needs to be changed. And it’s not that truth changed. That’s nonsense. There are times, however, because something is so familiar, because a particular aspect of it so expected, we need to be shaken up. We need to look again because it’s so easy to look past what’s always been there, staring us in the face. Maybe today, you’ll be surprised by who you find yourself identifying with. It might even mess with you.
Grab a bible or use your phone. This is our passage today. The Bible is divided into two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Matthew is the first book in the New Testament. As you’re finding it, think about this with me.
Why do we walk past dirty dishes, or a full trash can and not do anything about it? It’s probably not laziness. What’s obviously there, when you’re used to it, it just blends in and stops being obvious. That same thing happens with the Bible and people who have become familiar with the Bible.
MATTHEW 2:1-3 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Why would all of Jerusalem be disturbed because he’s disturbed? If the president has a bad day, I don’t lose any sleep over that. But for those of us who’ve lived with someone, or worked for someone who could lose it at any moment without warning, we get why people around him would be disturbed.
On one level, Herod was easy to admire. The man was ambitious and accomplished. He was a builder. He built the very Temple that Jesus walked in.
He built port cities.
He built aqueducts.
He built palaces and fortresses. He was an extraordinarily talented person. His problem wasn’t ability. It was the need for control. He was a control freak. Many high-capacity people evolve into control freaks.
There’s an inescapable irony here. An honest look at the need for control always reveals insecurities. Did you know that the man changed his will four times, and ended up executing son after son because he thought that they were conspiring to take his power from him? Pretty soon, there wasn’t a son who wanted to get near the throne.
His cocktail of control and insecurity so intoxicated and warped his mind that he also killed wives and any other person who could possibly overthrow him or pull off a coup. He executed so many Jewish Rabbis that no Rabbi wanted to get near Jerusalem. He did whatever he thought it would take to protect his position of authority—to maintain control.
So that’s King Herod: ambitious, controlling, and insecure. In the passage that we just read, Herod was about 70 years old, and he had a very painful kidney disease. Based on historical accounts of his symptoms, it’s believed that he had Fournier’s gangrene. At the point where we jump in, he’s committed to consolidating his power because he knows he doesn’t have long to live. That’s when he gets the most disturbing news possible…5 miles south of him, there is a new king! And this new king is just learning to walk.
Now we can see why all of Jerusalem would be disturbed. We say things like, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Their motto was, “If Herod’s freaking out, we’re all freaking out.” Because when his insecurities and need for control flared up, people died.
MATTHEW 2:4-10 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
If you are familiar with these events, you know that Herod didn’t want to worship the newborn king. He wanted to kill him. The reason that the real, historic Christmas story is about to get violent is because Christmas brings about a collision between rival forces that want to be in control.
That’s just a common human story, isn’t it? What happens in your workplace when one person feels like their control is taken away? What happens in your family when one sibling loses a little control to another sibling? What happens in a dating relationship when one person can no longer get their way? At the heart of any conflict, I do mean any conflict, we’ll find a wrestling match for control. That struggle for control can get ugly; depending on how committed one person is to getting control, it can even turn violent. That’s exactly what happened in the real, historic Christmas.
Last week we talked about this.
Christmas isn’t an escape. It’s an INVASION.
The dominant metaphor used to describe the arrival of Jesus is that light has come. The light is invading and intruding into our world of darkness. Light has come to end distress and despair. Light has come to heal what’s broken. Light has come to bring life. We also said this.
The metaphor of light means God is WITH us and FOR us.
What does that mean? Let me start by saying what it doesn’t mean. Jesus didn’t come as genie, to sprinkle fairy dust on us. He came as king. He is a good king. He is with us, and he is for us. but he will not be dictated to by us. He will not be manipulated by us. He will not be coerced into getting with our agendas, he will not be coerced by our religious performance. You’ve got to hear me on this. He is eager to bring you joy. You can’t even believe how eager he is to bring joy to you. But it’s only available to those who submit to him as king.
I don’t know how much of that Herod understood. He understood enough to know that this newborn king threatened his grip on control. That’s why he wanted to kill him. He was filled with anxiety because he could feel the control slipping away.
Jesus’ arrival will RIVAL our need for control.
This isn’t a history lesson as much as it’s a personal lesson. I’m inviting you to let what we find in the Christmas story run a kind of spiritual MRI on us. If you are a control freak, or just a control enthusiast—this might be tough. I don’t want your defenses to go up, but I’m about to risk that with what I’ll say next.
To the degree that you or I need to cling to control—to that same degree, we have a little Herod in us.
- For any of us who feel the need to be in control…
- For any of us who struggle to be OK when we don’t get our way…
To the degree that this is in you or in me, to that same degree, there is a Herod in us. To the degree that not getting our way gives way to being rude, pushy, manipulative, pouty, complaining, nagging, bringing the same things up over and over, being combative—are you still with me? To whatever degree that’s true of us when we don’t get control or get our way, to that degree, we are Herod.
I’m not going to make any assumptions about you. I will be honest with you about me. There is something in me that wants to have control and wear the crown. If you think I look a little stupid with this on, you’re right. I give you permission to laugh at me. But let me ask. What is it that you think you look like when you grab for control when you try to wear the crown? The truth is, it looks pretty silly, but it’s worse than that. It looks ugly when you try to wear the crown, and I try to wear the crown.
My goal today is to show all the Herods in the room (and I’m one of them), I want to show all the people in the room with a little control freak in them, I want to show us the way out of being a control freak and the way to become free and joy-filled. This is about pivoting from being in control to joy being in you. And believe it not, the need for control is the enemy of your joy and my joy. When your drive to control goes down, your capacity for joy goes up. That’s my hope for you this year. That you and I would stop grabbing for control and receive joy instead.
Let me show you why this is urgent. David Wallace-Wells published this in the New York Times just a few days ago.
According to the General Social Survey, the share of Americans describing themselves as “very happy” fell about 40 percent between 2018 and 2021, and has only halfway recovered since. The share of Americans who described themselves as “not too happy” roughly doubled early in the pandemic, and has barely declined since.
What is contributing to that for us?
The pandemic shattered a lot of illusions of control…the pandemic caused a sudden increase in pessimism that hasn’t gone away.
Something broke in people; something broke us when the pandemic took hold. And it hasn’t gotten better. The illusion of control has crumbled into dust, and people don’t know how to have joy. They don’t know how to be OK. Maybe you can relate. I’m here to tell you today that we don’t need to have control to have joy. In fact, it’s the lust for control that erodes joy. I want us to see this together.
MATTHEW 2:9-11 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
So far, we’ve fixated on Herod, but here we a see a completely different response to the arrival of Jesus: overflowing joy and worship. That sparks a question for me.
QUESTION: What’s the difference between those who resist and those who worship at Christmas?
- RESISTERS preserve, protect, and control.
The resisters may not be who we think. There are a lot of resisters who think they’re worshipers. I want to show you a picture that I stumbled across online. Can you see that?
The light didn’t come to the darkness so that we could have a bigger teddy bear. The genius of this is that illustrates how susceptible we are to using Jesus to get a bigger, better IDOL. Jesus is a means unto an end. We use him to get what we enjoy instead of surrendering allegiance and control to him because he is what we enjoy most.
Resisters can participate in organized worship services and participate in church services but do so as a means of resistance to the king and as a means of trying to maintain control.
This is what the prosperity gospel does and quite a few versions have snuck into us.
- Health and wealth
You know this one. If you have enough faith and do the right religious things, God will give you health and wealth. That’s a form of control. But it’s not the only prosperity gospel that has taken hold of folks, turning people into resisters.
- Marriage and Family
If you have enough faith and do the right Christian things, God will give you the version of a wife you want, or the version of a husband you want. If you have enough faith and do the right Christian things you’re kids will be well-behaved and they’ll love and follow Jesus. That’s nothing more than trying to get control and using Jesus to serve you. It doesn’t matter if what you and I want is good. He’s the king, not us.
If you have enough faith and do the right Christian things, God will give you the best sex life ever.
If you have enough faith and do the right Christian things, you can get control of areas where you think culture is going wrong. We could be talking about church, schools, or government.
Jesus is king. And all the different versions of the prosperity gospels are trying to snatch the crown off his head and put it on ours. That’s why, believe it or not, church worship services can actually be full of resisters. The reason I know that is because that very tendency is inside of me.
The point isn’t to give up whatever we’re holding on to so Jesus can give us a bigger, better, new version of that thing. The whole point is to give up whatever it is that we’re holding onto so that we can have Jesus. That’s what worshipers want and that’s what we all need.
- WORSHIPERS submit, give, and enjoy.
We see this when the Magi dropped to their knees to worship their King. They were filled with AWE. They recognized Jesus for who He really was and is. They knew that they were in the presence of not just greatness, but ultimate GREATNESS. This rival King to Herod surpassed him in every way imaginable. By the way, Jesus isn’t just a better king than Herod. He’s a better king than we are. They dropped to their knees and gave him gifts to proclaim that they valued Him.
When we see these magi bowing down, it’s a demonstration of submission. It is an act that places one person UNDER the other. I’m talking about the kind of submission that says yes to God, even before we know the question. I’m talking about writing a BLANK CHECK with my life. This doesn’t come naturally to any of us, does it? What did the magi know that we need to know?
The people with the least control have the most JOY.
Herod is a case study that proves having whatever you want and doing whatever you want doesn’t bring fulfillment. But with the magi we rediscover that control isn’t an ingredient for joy. This Christmas, which gift would you rather have, control or joy?
Sometime after the visit of the magi, God warned Joseph to leave the country. So he, Mary, and Jesus went to Egypt. Herod doesn’t know any of this. All he knows is that nobody is giving him information. Paranoid and angry for the magi not reporting back to him, he enacted the nuclear option in a desperate attempt to keep control.
MATTHEW 2:16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders tokill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
It would be appropriate to read this account while also thinking about images we’ve seen from Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza. Don’t interpret this as a commentary about who is wrong and who is right. Rather, the reality of life is that struggles for control almost always come with casualties. Remember, this isn’t just a history lesson; it’s a personal lesson.
At some point, our need to control will HURT people.
If you think that’s overstated, if you think I’m overdoing it, you may be right, and maybe I’m wrong. But can I ask, is there anyone in here who has never been hurt by someone else’s need for control? Is there anyone in here who has never hurt someone with your grasp of control? Isn’t it true that the story of your life and the story of my life have chapters in which us wearing the crown meant that other people were the casualties?
How do you know if you struggle to give over control to God? Just ask the people you spend the most time with. They will tell you, if they’re honest, the ways you try to exercise control:
- Do you observe that I get angry when I don’t have control or don’t get my way?
- Do you observe that I use abusive speech, yelling, or harsh tones when I don’t have control or get my way?
- Do you observe that I use the silent treatment when I don’t have control or get my way?
- Do you observe that I use guilting or shaming when I don’t have control or get my way?
- Do you observe that I use passive aggressiveness when I don’t have control or get my way?
- Do you observe that I’m unable to be at peace or joyful when I don’t have control or get my way?
If you don’t like these questions, guess what. I don’t like it either. I see my need for Jesus’ leadership to take over my leadership. He’s much better at wearing the crown than me.
I want to be more like the magi than Herod. I don’t want to be a resister. I want to worship. And I don’t want to just worship when circumstances are all going my way. I don’t to treat Christmas like an escape. I want the invasion of Jesus’ light and life and joy. I want that to come and invade my darkness, my love affair with control. How about you?
BOTTOM LINE: Because HE is in control, WE don’t need to be.
I want to give you a simple way to put this into practice in your life. The need for control is always, not sometimes, it’s always connected to insecurity. Wherever you’re feeling the need to take control what if you did this instead?
- Write down what it is that you are afraid of or concerned about. What is it that you believe will go wrong if you don’t get your way. It might take a little time. That’s OK. Sit down and get honest with yourself.
- Say out loud, in prayer, what it is that you’re afraid of or concerned about. In 1 Peter we read, “Cast all your cares on Jesus because he cares for you.” Don’t stuff it. Don’t ignore it. Say it out loud in prayer.
- Ask Jesus to do whatever it is he wants to do in you, with this situation.
Will you give yourself the gift of discovery the joy that comes from letting go of the crown and trusting Jesus to be in control, to be the authority? Will we trust that the light has come? God is with us and God is for us. May we worship the king.