Advent and the Anxious Leaders

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To follow my advent related post this last week called “Advent and the Most Pernicious Program of All”, I wanted to post another advent related reflection.  Much is made about Jesus coming as a baby, but less focus is given to what environment Jesus was born into as it relates to the political and religious climate.  This was originally titled “Herod & Jerusalem” and posted three years ago on Dec. 19th, 2007.

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Over the past year I’ve spent a lot of time studying the book of Matthew. I’ve been motivated by the clear contrasts between Jesus and the variety of leaders that Matthew intentionally holds up to his example. Given this being the season of advent, I’ve been reading the early chapters again and a couple verses that have been giving me a lot of food for thought all year are back in my mind. They are Matthew 2:1-4:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.“ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

Maybe it’s simplified Sunday School education that has stuck with me, but Herod is frequently portrayed as an insecure, power hungry leader who is conspiring to preserve his reign by eliminating all threats to power. All that he most definitely was. However, what has been in my mind most of the year when thinking about the incarnation of Jesus are those words, “…and all Jerusalem with him.”

It would seem that to attribute the threat of Herod against Jesus to one man’s insatiable drive for power and glory would be to minimize the far reaching impact of what it would mean for Israel if the Messiah, the promised deliverer and King, were to come. But what does it mean that all of Jerusalem was troubled with Herod? Could it mean that there was a wide spread fear among the establishment of anything messing up their delicate rule in the shadow of Rome? Were people’s fears different? Were the chief priests or scribes afraid of the same thing as Herod or other political leaders?

I had never really locked on to the implications of these verses in my understanding of the climate that Jesus was born into, but I think it reflects the general tone of 1st century Judaism into which Jesus entered and eventually challenged. Israel, especially the establishment, was already in a state of great fear and anxiety before Jesus every even preached his first sermon or performed his first miracle. The leaders of the day were already afraid of a rival leader who would stir up the peoples’ loyalties, putting their own leadership to the test. It should not be a surprise that Jesus is met with the hostility that he was. The writing was on the wall before he was even born. Those in power valued the status quo so much in their hopes of keeping things under control and manageable that they feared the arrival of a leader who could offer so much more.

I still don’t know all of what it meant that “all Jerusalem” was troubled at the news of the arrival of the Messiah along with Herod. But I do know that at a fundamental level they feared change and allowed Herod to lead out of his own fear and insecurity. I think it is reasonable to conclude that behind every madman and power driven leader, there’s a pretty insecure, anxious, and dysfunctional system that allows that to be the case. Herod wasn’t the only one threatened by change, all of Jerusalem’s leadership was just as threatened.

Do those words “and all Jerusalem with him” add to or change your view of the Christmas story? It adds to and enriches my own understanding, though it perhaps raises more questions for me than provides answers. It also can raise a lot of interesting thoughts related to the mindset of the people that Jesus was encountering over the course of his life and ministry as well.

Feel free to add any of your own additional insights into this passage. I’m curious what ideas this may stir in others.

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