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Matthew 2:1-12—Recognizing Christ as King
Good morning, church. Please go with me to Matthew, chapter 2, and we’re going to start with the first verse.
I’ll start this morning just with a word about our times, which are difficult to say the least. Because as readers, and teachers of scripture our task is not just to read and understand the word of God, but as Bonhoeffer writes, we ask, “Who is Christ for us today?” We take the word and apply it to our lives, to our communities, and to our times. Theologians call this exegesis, discerning how the ancient truth of scripture is living and active today. Many of us are facing job loss and reduced hours, and all of us, I know, are facing uncertainty, starting from the national political stage, to a city plagued by sickness back on lockdown, all the way down to our little church, closed again and the passing of Mr. Frank. It’s difficult, which makes what God has been doing this week all the more important.
Because this week we celebrated the epiphany, which remembers, among other things, the wise men coming to pay homage to Christ, and reminds us of two vitally important facts about our world (in a time when it’s vitally important to be reminded of these things). One, that Jesus Christ is king regardless of who is on the throne, and two, because Jesus is king, we have reason, even in the midst of hardship, to rejoice exceedingly with great joy.
In the world this week, with everything going on, there is reason for fear, anxiety, and mourning. But in Christ, even in the midst of this world, there is reason for joy and hope.
Go with me to Matthew, chapter 2, starting in v. 1. [Matthew 2:1-12] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly: Father God, please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
I’ll begin today just with some clarifications, things people are often confused about with this story of the wise men. First, I’ll say, I love the nativity scenes you see every year around this time, but they’re a lie. Just kidding, but they do kind of falsely suggest that the wise men were present at the nativity. The wise men weren’t present at Jesus’ birth. They came some time afterward. We don’t really know how long it took them to arrive, whether it was days or years. We like to commemorate this fact at our house by setting up the nativity on one side of the room, and then putting the wise men on the opposite side, then as we get closer to epiphany, we move the wise men closer and closer.
Also, who are these people? Are they kings, wise men, astrologists? Magi is a word of Persian origin, and Matthew tells us they’re from the east. Combine that with Old Testament allusions and references here about the Babylonian exile, and they are probably Middle Eastern, but again, we don’t really know. We do know that wise men, magi, were often royal, or what I’ll call royal-adjacent. In the Old Testament, if you remember, Joseph is placed in the court of Pharaoh as a wise man and given a position of royalty after the Lord gave him an interpretation of pharaoh’s dreams.
Daniel, too, in the Old Testament is one of many wise men the emperor of Babylon has in his court. So these wise men are rightly called kings, or royals. It’s certainly remarkable that they bring tribute to the king of Israel, which hadn’t happened since the days of Solomon. In fact, the opposite had been happening for centuries, in that empires from the east and from the west had been plundering Israel and demanding tribute for centuries. Yet here are these three kings, three royals from the east, come to bow down and worship the boy Jesus whom they recognized as king and Lord.
And all of that may sound like interesting little points of trivia, but really there’s a depth of meaning here in this passage, and it’s so intricate, I want you to understand: the epiphany isn’t just a fun way to include live camels in the nativity play. Matthew is telling his readers that Jesus is the new and better Solomon, bringing peace and wisdom to his people. Matthew is saying, in Christ, the wisdom of God is made manifest. In him are the fortunes of Israel restored, the son of David who will save his people from exile, return what was lost, and restore the people of God back to their creator. All of the promises of God find their yes in Christ.
And because these three wise men come from other nations to worship the Lord, we can know that God, through Jesus, is saving people from every tribe and tongue, that Jesus is not just king of the Jews, but also king of kings, sovereign over all the world, even king over our time and place, king over this nation, which brings me to my first point this morning.
For us, in our time and place, recognizing Christ as king is the difference between death and new life. Recognizing Christ as king is the difference between death and new life.
What fascinates me in this passage is the juxtaposition, the comparison of Herod and the Jerusalem rulers with the wise men. Two sets of rulers with two entirely different reactions to the coming of Christ the King. When the three wise men discern the birth of Christ, they leave their homes, their thrones, travel across desert and wilderness to a country not their own to pay tribute—which is something you would do to a conquering ruler—and they call him king, they who are not even members of the people of Israel recognize the sovereignty of Christ over them, over their lives, and over their nation. Throughout all of this, v.10 tells us, they rejoice exceedingly with great joy. And when they finally arrive to find the Christ child, they worship him as God: in the end, they are there with this child, this new birth and new life, who offers to all of us who seek him new birth and new life.
All of this compared to Herod and the rulers of Jerusalem. Far from leaving their thrones, they cling to power. Herod, like the wise men, goes to great efforts to find Jesus, but, not rejoicing at the advent, in v.3 we see he was deeply troubled, and all of the rulers of Jerusalem with him. He goes seeking Christ just like the wise men, but with murderous intent. We see the result, the fruit of this in his life, the same result sin always has in our lives when allowed to grow in us, when we do not confess and repent, we see it in v.16. Death. Horribly, like the Pharaoh of Egypt so long ago in Israel’s past, he slaughters all of the children of his nation to keep his throne. Just as Jesus is the new and better Solomon who brings peace and wisdom to his people, so Herod is the new and bent Pharaoh who enslaves and murders his own people.
We have a choice today of which way to go, toward Herod or toward the wise men. Will you allow Christ to be king in your life, or will you trust in, cling to, earthly power, or your own power?
You see, because becoming a Christian means that you are no longer your own, and Jesus becomes king over your life, which is to say he has always been king only by our sin we have rebelled against him. But Christ as king in your life means both that he will seek peace, welfare, and justice among his people, and that he has the right to define the rule and order by which his people live. We live according to his law, and if we don’t, we are in rebellion.
As you mature in Christianity you’ll find yourself doing more and more things in accordance with the will of God, and your own will for your life becomes secondary—in fact, to become a Christian, you have to admit that you were never really ruling your own life, because without Jesus we are slaves to sin. You were never king over your own life, just like Herod isn’t really king in Jerusalem, he’s a Roman puppet. The irony of the Lordship of Christ, of Jesus being king in your life, is that only life in Christ is free. In submitting to him, in doing his will, you’ll find your own will for the first time, like a musician who in learning the laws of music, meter and time, is thereby set free to express herself beautifully.
And hear this, because we need to remember this: the kingship of Christ does not settle neatly into a corner or a nook of your spiritual life. Again, we like to separate out spiritual realities in our lives from physical realities. We think of Jesus being king as a metaphor, but no one in this story believed the wise men to be speaking metaphorically when they said Jesus is king. Do you think Herod would kill and murder to keep his throne if he believed Jesus was metaphorically king of the Jews? Jesus is not metaphorically king in this story, just like he isn’t metaphorically king over his people today. Jesus is not just king in some vague, spiritual way. Jesus is actually, in every way, king over his people, and his reign is over every nation.
One summer in college, I was a part of a mission team operating on a university campus in Istanbul Turkey, and everyone on campus pretty much smoked. I was sitting on a bench outside of the engineering building one morning just trying to meet people and start relationships, hoping to share my faith and hope in Jesus, so I prayed asking God to send someone to me to ask for a light. Now again, pretty much everyone smoked there—it’s a national pass-time, you smoke and you play backgammon. It’s a wonderful country.
But out of the dozens of people who had just gotten out of class and were standing around smoking, two students walked past them, up to me and a friend who were sitting on a bench, not smoking, and asked for a light. We talked while they smoked their cigarette, and they invited us to get dinner that night with their friends. While we were eating dinner, we were talking about Jesus and Christianity, and we asked what their religious beliefs were, and they answered that they were Turkish. I didn’t understand at first what they meant, so they explained: to be Turkish is to be Muslim, and if any Turkish person were to convert to Christianity they would be arrested and jailed, not for believing in Jesus, but for sedition. The law they use to arrest and even execute Christian converts is not a law against Christianity, but a law against un-Turkishness.
You see, in Turkey, they see a conversion to Christianity means that you have exchanged your national identity from being Turkish to being Christian, and you have denounced the Turkish government in order to call Jesus Christ king. Recognizing Christ as king in Turkey is literally the difference between death and life, and we were asked to decide, before sharing our faith there, to seriously weigh in our hearts, whether we thought new life in Christ was worth facing death.
Christ is king over us today. And Christ is king over our nation, not solely in a spiritual sense, but in a natural sense as well. As Christians, this world is not our home. Yes, we are citizens of the United States, but in the same way Nehemiah was a citizen of Babylon and Paul was a citizen of Rome.
There is a temptation in our country right now to hope in one president or the other, one party or the other, as the savior of our country, the only person or group who will be able to restore it and put it back to rights. We’ve begun to define our ethics, our ideas on what’s right and wrong, even what is true or not, what is important or not, based upon our political affiliations. I asked a friend the other day what he thought about medicaid for all and his answer was, “I’m a republican,” and I was reminded immediately of Istanbul and my friend’s answer there of “I’m Turkish.”
We have to recognize, on this day of epiphany, that Christ is king of kings here, too. He is truth, and he alone is good. To be good is to be Christlike, and to speak truth is to speak his wisdom. He alone is our hope. He is the only one who will be able to restore this earth and put things back to rights. If you are hoping for a holy nation, living at peace with each other, with the oppressed lifted up, and justice flowing in our streets, you’re not hoping for a political movement; you’re hoping for the reign of Christ as king on earth as he is in heaven.
And his kingdom is already here, so we, like the wise men, are able to rejoice exceedingly with great joy in whatever place we find God with us. And we are able to do the works of his kingdom now, to participate in the restoration of justice, peace, and joy to the earth now. I hope you do, and I hope you involve yourself in the political process at every level to bring about the welfare of the nation into which the Lord has sent us as exiles. But his kingdom is also not yet, meaning that until he returns we will have brokenness to one degree or another in our society. Meaning we do not live in a holy nation. We are not the city on a hill.
And before you blame this or that group for the brokenness of our society, know that our society’s brokenness is endemic of, comes from, our own sin. So as you look at the democratic or the republican party, as you look at our country, if you see anything that is broken, if you see anything that you wish to change, your part in that change begins—not with blame or hatred—but with confession. Confessing your own sin, your own part in the brokenness of our world that rejected Christ as king and plunged our world into fallenness.
Start from a place of confession and hope in Christ, then you are able to work for the already-not-yet kingdom. If you are hoping in anything or anyone else but Christ, you’re hoping in futility. If you aren’t able to see your own part, your complicity in the brokenness of our society and world, you’re not seeing rightly.
The spiritual and the physical are not so separate. If we try to cling to power, if we put our hope in something other than Christ, the result will always only be death. But if we hope in him, and labor for his kingdom we will find new life with it, for our society and for our communities.
So, recognizing Christ as king is the difference between death and new life, and my last point for today is this: Recognizing Christ as king is the difference between worshipping God falsely and worshipping him in truth. Recognizing Christ as king is the difference between worshipping God falsely and worshipping him in truth.
Again, I’m struck by the contrast between the wise men and Herod. Herod tells the wise men that he’s seeking Jesus—and why? He says, in order to worship him. But the wise men, when they find him, worship him in truth. With their gifts they pay tribute and declare him king, and by their worship they declare him God.
Still today we have a choice of whether to worship Jesus with our lips, as Herod does, or worship him in spirit and in truth. I’ve known many people, in the church and outside of it, who are quick to tell me how spiritual or how good they are, what values they hold, how thoroughly they’ve thought out their spiritual lives, or how smart they are, and I want to shout: none of it matters! No act of devotion, no amount of thought on spiritual things, no family connection, no vague sense of spirituality has ever “broken a chain or freed a human soul.”
But in recognizing Christ as king, in following after him, in Christian discipline, and in obedience—in Christ you find truth and freedom. We mistake rebellion for freedom, but his law, his kingship gives freedom. Like learning a language to speak to the person you love. Like learning design gives you freedom to create. Like obeying loving parents grows life and freedom in a healthy child. Jesus’s kingship, his law, gives us freedom.
I invite you today to examine yourself, examine your life, and wherever you find rebellion, whatever shape it takes, trust that in the law of Christ, and under his kingship, there is freedom. Choose to worship him in Spirit and in truth, not just with your lips.
Christ is our hope for the future, the only source of restoration, the good judge that brings justice, he is our refuge in difficult times, he is truth itself. He is king. Pray with me.