One main theme of my Advent sermon series is that we’re not so different from the men and women in the Bible’s Christmas narratives. In today’s scripture I focus on three responses to the birth of the newborn king: hostility, indifference, and transformation. Chances are, your life, like my life, reflects all three responses. What do we need to do to become more like the magi?
Sermon Text: Matthew 2:1-12
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download a MP3.]
A company called Modern Nativity has made a splash this holiday season by reimagining the manger scene as having happened to a group of present-day hipsters. “Hipster Nativity”! So Mary, holding a cup of Starbucks coffee, and Joseph, with his smartphone, are shown taking a selfie of themselves and the baby Jesus in a stable with a solar-paneled roof. A shepherd is shown uploading pictures of the joyous event to Instagram or Snapchat. And the wise men, the subject of today’s scripture, are shown wearing skinny jeans, riding Segways, and carrying their gifts to the newborn king in Amazon boxes—naturally.
I don’t love this nativity set, to be honest—especially for the $130 that they’re asking for it. But I do think if the magi were giving gifts to Jesus today, Amazon would somehow be involved. This was literally a picture I took yesterday of one delivery to my house! [Show picture of Amazon boxes.]
Remember when we used to go to stores to buy stuff—we used to go to the mall? I don’t miss those days!
But getting back to Hipster Nativity, I also appreciate that contemporary nativities help us imagine ourselves in this story. As has been my theme throughout this Advent sermon series, I want us to see that we’re not so different from the men and women who took part in these events related to Christmas about 2,020 years ago. We can see ourselves in them!
In fact, I want this sermon to focus on three very different responses that we see in today’s scripture to the events of Christmas and the birth of Christ.
First, we see in King Herod the response of hostility.
By the way, you know how Hitler is, for all of us, the personification of evil? How Hitler sort of sets the standard for evil-doing in the modern world. I heard an interview with an historian once who was asked, “Who was Hitler before there was a Hitler?” In other words, before the mid-20th century, when you wanted to say that someone was really wicked, who would you compare them to? And the answer this historian gave was Herod. And for good reason. If you read ahead in Matthew chapter 2, you see the unspeakably tragic results of Herod’s hostility toward Christ: he has every male child in Bethlehem, ages two and under, killed. Given the size of Bethlehem, historians estimate that would have meant killing about 20 children.
Herod’s wickedness was famous. He was desperately afraid of conspiracies against his rule. So, for example, he had one of his many wives killed—and two of his sons. Julius Caesar, who appointed Herod “king” over Judea is reported to have joked with his courtiers that it’s safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than it is to be one of his sons. Because Herod, out of respect for Jewish dietary law, would have refrained from eating pork and thus killing a pig; whereas he had no problem killing his own sons!
But… Let’s give Herod some credit: At least he understood exactly who Jesus was and the threat that he posed! Herod knew, among other things, that if Jesus was the Messiah, the king of the universe, and the Son of God, it meant that everything in Herod’s life would need to change; it meant that he couldn’t continue to rule his life and the lives of others in the same way; it meant that the world wasn’t big enough for two kings, and Herod would have to step aside. So naturally, Herod wanted Jesus dead!
What about us? Are we a little like Herod? Not that we want Jesus dead exactly. But are there parts of our lives where we resist Jesus’ rule? Do we say, though our actions and attitudes, “Jesus, I don’t want you messing around in that particular area of my life. This throne in my heart isn’t big enough for both of us to sit on, so you’ll have to step aside.”
I’ve said this before, but of the three dozen or so weddings I’ve presided over over the years—all but literally three or four couples were either already in a sexual relationship with one another or were living together before they got married. Most had been in sexual relationships with others—as I learned through premarital counseling with them. And these were mostly good Methodist young people. So you tell me: Are we not telling Jesus through our actions: “Stay out of this part of my life, Jesus! I don’t want to obey you and your Word when it comes to this! I don’t want you to be king over this part of my life!”
God’s Word couldn’t be clearer on this subject, and we are basically saying, “We don’t care. We’re not going to obey the Lord. There is an epidemic of disobedience when it comes to this part of our lives. We can’t be O.K. With that!”
And I’ve talked about this recently—but you know whether or not you’re being faithful to Jesus with your tithes and offerings. The vast majority of people in our church do not give even a tithe. And our church is struggling to make ends meet at the end of this year, as a result—as we’ve discussed and as we’ve prayed about. So are we not, through our actions at least, telling Jesus, “Stay out of this financial part of my life, Jesus! I don’t want to obey you and your Word when it comes to my money! I don’t want you to be king over my wallet, my purse, my bank account!”
I like the way pastor Tim Keller puts it in his new book on Christmas. He says that even for us Christians who claim that Christ is our Lord, we, like Herod, have “residual anger and hostility to God.” He writes:
Why do you think it is so hard to pray? Why do you think it is so hard to concentrate on the most glorious person possible? Why, when God answers a prayer, do you say, “Oh, I will never forget this, Lord,” but soon you do anyway? How many times have you said, “I will never do this again!” and two weeks later you do it again? In Romans 7:15 Paul says, “What I hate I do.” There is still a little King Herod inside you. It means you have got to be far more intentional about Christian growth, about prayer, and about accountability to other people to overcome your bad habits. You can’t just glide through the Christian life. There is still something in you that fights it.[†]
I would only add that there’s also something outside of you and me that fights the Lordship of Christ—and that’s the devil. Satan also has a way of making the “little King Herod” inside each of us a hundred times more dangerous!
The second response we see here to the newborn king is indifference. After all, notice what Matthew tells us in in verse 3: “When Herod the king heard this”—in other words, when he heard about the birth of a rival “king of the Jews”—“he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” And all Jerusalem with him. In other words, the magi’s quest for the Messiah wasn’t a secret. Everyone was hearing about it! Everyone was talking about if. Especially the chief priests and the scribes, who were the experts when it came to the Bible. They were the ones who talked to Herod and the magi, and told them that scripture prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
So naturally these men—these Bible scholars, these theologians, these believers in God’s Word—would jump at the chance to go to Bethlehem and see the newborn king. Right?
Wrong… Whereas these magi—these Gentiles, these pagans, these outsiders—traveled 700 miles west from the Persian Gulf to Judea for the sake of Christ, these “insiders”—the ones who already believed in the Bible—weren’t willing to travel seven miles south to Bethlehem to see Christ! Shouldn’t they have been excited and overwhelmed with joy? Surely nothing would have been more important than getting down to Bethlehem to see if what the magi said was really true. How is it possible that they would stay home? How is it possible that nothing in their lives would change in response to the birth of the newborn king?
But when we consider our own lives, do we really have to wonder?
Tim Keller pastors a church in perhaps the most secular, least Christian, most godless place imaginable in our country: in New York City, in Manhattan. And to his credit, he’s had great success reaching young people in their twenties and thirties with an uncompromising gospel message. But he said in a sermon once that people have often come up to him over the years and said, “I would consider following Jesus, but not if it means…” And then they give him a list of the conditions that Jesus will have to meet before they’ll follow him.
And when I heard this, I thought, “In my twelve years of pastoral ministry—whether it was in Forsyth, Georgia, or in Alpharetta, or in Hampton, or anywhere in between—I have never had a single person person come up to me and say that they would consider following Jesus if. That’s never happened down here in the Bible Belt. Why?
Because down here nearly everyone believes that they’re already following Jesus—that they’re already Christians. And yet, for most people, the message of Christmas leaves their lives mostly unchanged. Like the Bible scholars in today’s scripture—who believe the Bible—they are indifferent.
But friends, if we truly understand the Christmas message, then we understand that that message changes everything!
Why do I say this? Because of the way, finally, that the magi responded: First, it says that they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” The Christmas message, in other words, changed the way they felt—it penetrated their hearts; it affected them emotionally. Do those words judge us? Are we coming to church during this season “rejoicing exceedingly with great joy”? Why not?
Next, it says that they fell down and worshiped—and notice that their worship also included the giving of costly, sacrificial gifts.
Finally, in verse 12, it says that after being warned in a dream about Herod’s intentions, the magi “departed to their own country by another way.”
For two-thousand years the church has interpreted these words symbolically as well as historically. Recall that in the Book of Acts, the Christian movement was called “the way,” and Jesus said in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life…” The magi were now following a new and different and better way—the way of Jesus Christ. So their lives were permanently changed as a result of their encounter with Christ.
What about our lives?
I want all of us to come to the manger—to come to the manger on Christmas Eve next Saturday night—to come to the manger on Christmas Day—by all means I want you to be here, singing, and praying, and celebrating, and giving, and loving. I know you’ll be blessed if you’re here. But even more than that, I want you to leave the manger and return home “by another way.” Because your life has been changed for eternity by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ!
[Invitation to give… Receive offering.]
† Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 73.