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The King of Christmas

Christmas 2017  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Jesus' kingly authourity challenges our proud autonomy, yet his weakness assures us of His selfless love.

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Good morning and Merry Xmas. Christmas is my favorite time of year, and it is an absolutely massive holiday in our culture, partly because it is both a Christian holiday and a secular holiday. Christmas, from a commercial point of view, seems to be an absolute success and doesn't appear to be diminishing in popularity at all. Now, I don’t mind that Christmas is both a Christian holiday as well as a secular holiday, in fact I quite like it. But one of the consequences of Christmas being celebrated by a variety of people with different beliefs, is that its true message can easily be lost or misunderstood. In fact, I think that the more Christmas becomes a secular holiday, the more important it is to be aware of the Christian origins and message behind it. Because to misunderstand the message of Christmas is to really misunderstand the message of Christianity. And so, in the few minutes we have together, I want to explore with you what Christmas (and Christianity) is all about from that passage in . And at the heart of the message of Christmas is the story of a King.
In , we are given a portrait of the King. It’s a rich and layered portrait; Matthew skilfully weaves a variety of sources into the picture he paints, but this morning I want to focus on just two themes of the King we see here, the first one being the challenge of the King.

The Challenge of the King

The scene begins with the arrival of the magi, verse 2, come from the East to King Herod and ask: “Where is the King of the Jews?” Now this is an absolutely charged moment, and to fully appreciate how electric this scene is, we have to understand the historical background.
Firstly, we should note that King of the Jews was Herod’s official title! So they are asking the King where the King is. But also notice the exact language, verse 2: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” You see, Herod was an insecure King because he wasn’t ethnically a completely legitimate Jewish King—he had been appointed by Rome. In fact, in 40BC, Herod had to flee Jerusalem when a more legitimate Jewish ruler, Antigonus, took the throne. And here’s the thing: Antigonus was backed by the Parthians, an Empire that was Rome’s chief rival. And where were the Parthians? To the East.
This map might help us picture it (indicate to map)
So Herod fled from the Parthian attack in Jersualem to Rome, secured military backing from Mark Antony and returned to Jersusalem with two legions of Romans soldiers in 37 BC. He captured Jersualem and was declared by Rome to be Jersualem’s King, the King of the Jews. But Herod wasn’t born King of the Jews, he lacked the genuine ancestry and so he remained incredibly insecure throughout his reign. This insecurity is seen in his violence--murdering family members and anyone who might have had a more legitimate claim to the throne than him. In fact, one historian said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son because Herod wouldn't eat pork but would kill his own child. So Herod lived in fear of being deposed as the King, he lived in fear of losing control, and all of a sudden men from the East (Parthian territory) appear. And in one of the great understatements of the Bible, verse 3, we’re told that Herod was disturbed (semantic range: startled—terrified).
But also notice the exact language, verse 2: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” You see, Herod was an insecure King because he wasn’t ethnically a completely legitimate Jewish King. In fact, in 40BC, Herod had to flee Jerusalem when a more legitimate Jewish ruler, Antigonus, took the throne. And here’s the thing: Antigonus was backed by the Parthians, an Empire that was Rome’s chief rival. And where were the Parthians? To the East. So Herod fled from Jersualem to Rome, secured military backing from Mark Antony and returned to Jersusalem with two legions of Romans soldiers in 37 BC. He captured Jersualem and was declared by Rome to be Jersualem’s King, the King of the Jews. But Herod wasn’t born King of the Jews, he lacked the genuine ancestry and so he remained incredibly insecure throughout his reign. This insecurity is seen in his violence--murdering family members and anyone who might have had a more legitimate claim to the throne than him. In fact, one historian said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son because Herod wouldn't eat pork but would kill his own child. So Herod lived in fear of being deposed as the King, and all of a sudden men from the East (Parthian territory) appear. And in one of the great understatements of the Bible, we’re told that Herod was disturbed (semantic range: startled—terrified).
Finally, Herod would have been disturbed because of who the Magi were. Now, the Magi were astrologers but what many folks don’t know is that the Magi often played a role in politics, so their arrival in Jerusalem would have been seen as a politically significant event (they most likely had an entourage). The message the Magi are sending is absolutely unmistakable: there are two kings in Judea. And the obvious implication is that the King of the Jews who was born the King of the Jews, well, that’s the real King. The birth of Jesus is a challenge to Herod.
Imagine foreign dignitaries arriving in South Africa, going straight to Luthuli House, and when faced with President Zuma, they ask to see the new ruler of South Africa.
Matthew’s purpose is to show that Herod and Jesus are rival Kings. Jesus, it is claimed by the Magi, is now the King, Jesus is the one in authority, and the question we’re wondering is: what will Herod do? Will King Herod acknowledge that Jesus is the true King? Will Herod, like the Magi, acknowledge Jesus’ authority and worship Him?
Well, that’s the impression Herod initially gives. Take a look at verses 4-8:
Matthew 2:4–8 NIV
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.”
Of course, it’s obvious why Herod is enraged: Jesus is a challenge to Herod. Jesus claims to be the King, Jesus claims to be the one in authority, and the question we’re wondering is: what will Herod do? Will King Herod acknowledge that Jesus is the true King? Will Herod bow down and worship? Well, that’s the impression he initially gives. Take a look at verses 3-8:
Matthew 2:3–8 NIV
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 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.”
So Herod pretends to want to worship Jesus, but in fact, as the story progresses, we know that he doesn't want to worship Jesus, he wants to eliminate Jesus. He wants to be the King, and he doesn't want to share the throne with anyone!
Now, before we become too superior and uppity about Herod, it’s worth noting that for many years theologians have highlighted how all people reflect something of Herod’s attitude. I’m not saying that we’re as bloodthirsty and brutal as Herod was, but we are similar in that we don’t like our authority being challenged. We don’t want to be told what to do, we don’t want someone else coming into our life saying that they are the boss. But that’s the challenge of Jesus: Jesus comes into this world as a King, he’s born a King, it’s who he is, and the claim of a King is a claim of authority. The King is the boss, and the King can tell you and me what to do.
And that’s why Jesus can be hard to accept. Because we have problems with authority. And Jesus’ authority challenges our autonomy, our pride, because to accept Jesus is to accept Him as the King. It is to accept Him as the leader of your life. And can I say that it’s OK to be honest about how challenging this is? It’s hard to worship Jesus as the King. This is the big stumbling block for Christianity: you have to renounce yourself, you have to deny yourself, you have to give Jesus control. You don’t just invite him into your heart in an abstract, sentimental way, you have to make Jesus the boss and leader of your life.
Now, as you know, I am a pastor and because of my role at weddings or other events, I often end up in conversations with people about Jesus. And I am amazed at how positive people who don’t follow Jesus are about him. Here’s what I mean: we’ll be talking about Jesus, and the person will mention that they really admire him or respect. But will speak about Jesus in glowing terms. But I am sometimes concerned that people haven’t really understood who he is because they haven't encountered the authority problem: Jesus is the King! To encounter Jesus is to encounter this crisis of authority: Jesus the King claims authority over our lives. Which is, let’s be honest, quite challenging to have to process. One of the people that is refreshingly honest about their feelings is the philosopher Thomas Nagel. This is what he said:
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally I hope that my belief is right. I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God. I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not rare.
Are you as honest about your own feelings as Thomas Nagel about his? If you’re visiting this morning and you are exploring Christianity, can I encourage you to be honest about the challenge Jesus is? Herod got a lot of things wrong but the one thing he really gets right is that Jesus challenges his authority. You see, no-one is really neutral about whether Christmas is true. If God really came to earth as a baby, then it means that we’ve lost the right to be in control of our lives. And that means that it’s difficult to be objective about whether it’s really true—because you have an incentive to not believe it. This might have meant that you’ve never really, objectively, investigated the claims of Christ thoroughly. Perhaps that’s something worth doing this Christmas. Here’s a simple way to do that: read the Gospel of Matthew.
And if you are already a Christian, can I also encourage you to be honest about how hard it is to relate to Jesus as King? Even as Christians, we can have cosmic authority problems; we can resist his authority in our lives. There is still something inside us that resists his authority—why do you think it’s so hard to change your bad habits? Why do you think it’s so hard to pray? Because we all have a cosmic authority problem, and even as Christians, we can find ourselves resisting Jesus as King.
This passage asks a searching question of all of us: who will be the King? Who will be the King? Will I remain on the throne of my life, calling all the shots, making all the decisions, pursuing my self-interest, maximizing my freedoms and privileges? Or will Jesus be the King? Will Jesus be the one who I submit to? Will Jesus be the one I give my allegiance to? Will he be the leader of my life?
One of the big ideas in Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus is the descendant of Israel’s Great King, David. Great David’s greater Son has arrived, a noble King, who will usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. Eight times Matthew describes Jesus as the Son of David: He is the King; the question is whether he is your King? Is He my King? Have I personally had an encounter with this King?
So that’s the challenge of the King: he comes to rule our hearts and lives. And we all need to answer the question: who will be the King?
One of the reasons it is so hard for us to accept to this, though, is because we wonder whether we really can trust this King. Most Kings come across as megalomaniacs (like Herod!). Often people in authority display narcissistic tendencies, and so how do we know that King Jesus is any different? How do we know that he actually has our best interests at heart? How do we know that if we submit to Him, if we give him our allegiance, that we’ll be OK?
Let’s keep following the story: In this second part of the passage, we move from the challenge of the King, to the weakness of the King.

The Weakness of the King

Verse 11: The Magi finally get to Jesus, they give him gifts fit for a King, giving Him their allegiance and worship. Then, having been warned in a dream (verse 12) not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. But then things get bad. Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, is told to go to Egypt because when Herod finds out that he’s been tricked, he kills all the boys two years and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity. Of course, this is an horrific event, and there is widespread mourning and weeping.
This section highlights the weakness of the King because the King of Heaven comes to earth as a vulnerable baby. And when God comes to earth in vulnerability and weakness, he gets attacked. He has to flee—or, more accurately, he gets carried away because he can’t even flee himself so vulnerable is the King of heaven. And Matthew is giving us a pattern that will endure throughout Jesus’ life: he will get attacked, persecuted, mocked, and eventually killed. And although Jesus had all the resources of heaven at his disposal, he never flexes his power to dominate or control people. The King continues to embrace weakness—he walks around, he weeps with people, he gets hungry and tired. When he finally gets his royal parade, he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. You see, unlike human kings, the King of Heaven embraces weakness, service, humility. Jesus was born into poverty, displaced from home, fled as a refugee, mocked by his siblings, trolled by religious hypocrites, oppressed by political tyrants, and, eventually, abandoned even by his friends as he died a gruesome death on the cross. This is the King—the King of Heaven who comes to earth not to get power, but to empower others, not to get served but to serve, not to build His empire but to save the lost. This is the King of Christmas.
And the next time we hear the phrase, “King of the Jews” it’s in . The soldiers mocked him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” as they beat Him. And the written charge above his head on the cross said, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” The weakness of the King is not just seen in his life, it’s primarily seen in his death. The King of Heaven dying for the sins of the world. In our place, taking our punishment. Because he loves us. Because he wants to make forgiveness available. Because he wants to bring us into relationship with God.
You see, the essence of sin is the desire to be the King. Like Herod, we all have a desire to be in control of our own lives. And the Bible teaches us that this separates us from God—and yet when God sends His King into the world, Jesus doesn’t attack us rebels…he dies for us. And that’s what we have to keep remembering about this King: that though He was the King of Heaven, when on earth he didn't wear a crown of jewels. He wore a crown of thorns. He isn’t like other Kings, he isn’t like other leaders. He isn’t a megalomaniac, he’s not an egomaniac, he’s a servant.
This is how we know we can trust the King: because of his chosen weakness. Because the King of Heaven had all power and authority, and yet he chose to lay it all down for you and me.
Think of how we build trust in other relationships: we see people keeping their word; we see them putting other’s needs above their own; we see them making personal sacrifices for the well-being of others.
In Jesus Christ, we have the proof we need to know that God love us. In Jesus Christ, we have the assurance we need that God is trustworthy. Don’t you think if he gave you everything that you can trust Him? He held nothing back from you, so now you know that you don’t need to hold anything back from him. He loves you. He absolutely loves you. He embraced weakness for you, he embraced death for you. To give you a gift. To give you the offer of forgiveness. To invite you to join His kingdom. To bring you into eternal life.
This passage starts with Jesus receiving gifts from the Magi. But as we read through Matthew’s Gospel, we realise, in the end, that Jesus is giving us a gift. The King isn’t taking anything from us, He is giving everything to us; He is giving us the gift of forgiveness, salvation, and a seat at the table in God’s Kingdom. Jesus is a King you can trust. Jesus is a King whose rule brings freedom, whose authority brings liberty.
This passage starts with Jesus receiving gifts from the Magi. But as we read through Matthew’s Gospel, we realise, in the end, that Jesus is giving us a gift. The King isn’t taking anything from us, He is giving everything to us; He is giving us the gift of forgiveness, salvation, and a seat at the table in God’s Kingdom. Jesus is a King you can trust. Jesus is a King whose rule brings freedom, whose authority, brings liberty. And we can respond to this King either like Herod did, or the Magi did. Herod sought to break free from jesus’ authority, and foolishly continued doing his won thing. The Magi are a great spiritual example to us. They worship the King. They give him their allegiance. Herod sees himself as the King, but the Magi see Jesus as the King. The question for all of us, is: who will be our King? What will we do with Jesus? Will we make him the King of Christmas?
And we can respond to this King either like Herod did, or like the Magi did. Herod sought to break free from Jesus’ authority, and foolishly continued doing his own thing. The Magi are a great spiritual example to us. They worship the King. They give him their allegiance. Herod sees himself as the King, but the Magi see Jesus as the King. The question for all of us, is: who will be our King? What will we do with Jesus? Will we make him the King of Christmas?
Let’s pray.
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