I am teaching through the book of Matthew at River City, and its been a lot of fun to spend the last couple of months studying through the entire Gospel account. There are definitely big themes that you notice when you take a step back and look at a book as a whole.
One of those big themes that Matthew comes back to repeatedly is the claim that Jesus is King. In fact, its such a dominant theme that he opens the book with this proclamation, in what has become one of the most famous Christmas/Epiphany stories:
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. (Matthew 2.1-3)
I already did a post about how surprising and significant the presence of the Magi are in this account – by including them in the story, God is showing the ability to hold all of history together in a sovereign way that our minds cannot even comprehend.
Its also significant to note that they play a major role in announcing the central theme of Matthew’s account – that Jesus is King: “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.”
The Magi are not just the ones who make this proclamation – they are also the ones who demonstrate a pure, authentic, and comprehensive response of worship to this claim. This is the very first story in Matthew after the birth of Jesus, and here is what we see: A group of highly educated, upwardly mobile wise men, who have heard the news of a baby king. They live 900 miles away, would have to travel through dangerous, rugged terrain, and have nothing but the faint glimmer of a star to lead them. And yet, even the possibility of encountering the presence of King Jesus is enough to compel them to take the voyage of a lifetime. Amazing, right?
But Matthew doesn’t stop there. If we see the response of worship in the lives of Magi, then we discover the opposite extreme in Herod’s response:”When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Could these possibly be more contrary to each other? One group hears the news that Jesus is King, and it changes everything. They are willing to risk everything, and they open up themselves completely to him in worship.
Another group hears the news that Jesus is King, and they are threatened, scared, and defensive. We don’t know what all the rest of those from “all Jerusalem” do in this state of anxiety, but we know what Herod ultimately does. And its downright scary.
What are we to make of this extreme contrast?
As I studied and reflected on this text, something jumped out to me. By opening his account of the life of Jesus with the contrast of these two responses, Matthew is making a profound point. I believe that what he is saying goes beyond just the fact that these are the two options we have when hearing the news that Jesus is King. That may be true, but what Matthew is saying goes even deeper.
Here’s the bottom line:
As human beings, both of these responses live inside of us.
There is a part of us that instinctively responds to the proclamation of Jesus as King the same way that the Magi do. Some dimension of our heart and soul carries a memory that traces all the way back to the Garden of Eden. We remember that our only true home is in God’s presence, and that the only hope for wholeness and transformation is when we live in the proper relationship with our Creator. We long to respond to Jesus as King, and would travel to the ends of the world to find that deep, spiritual connection if we knew it was true.
Unfortunately, there is also a part of us that instinctively rejects the proclamation that Jesus is King. Call it the younger/older prodigal syndrome, in the words of Jesus. Call it enmity – the word that Paul often uses to describe the internal battle for control of our heart and lives. Call it the little Herod that lives in us, to use the the words of Matthew. Like Herod, we all have our own little kingdoms that feel threatened by the presence of Jesus, and there is a part of us that desperately wants to retain control of our turf.
Are you able to see the presence of both of those responses in your heart? When I take an honest look at myself, I certainly can.
It’s a bit scary and depressing to name and acknowledge the presence of the little Herod that lives inside each of our hearts. Who wants to believe that is true of themselves?
And yet, there is something unbelievably freeing about it too. If God already knows that there is a side to me that instinctively rebels towards the claim of Christ as King, then what really do I need to hide from God? God knows the true condition of my heart – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Therefore, when the ugly manifests itself, I need not hide in shame – God already knew it was there. And more importantly, God has already made provision for it.
Naming and acknowledging the presence of both the good and the bad – the light and the dark – has been so freeing for me. It expands my view of grace, and vision of God’s love.
I historically have thought of grace as mostly the tonic for forgiving my bad deeds. If I lie, or gossip, or envy, or whatever other bad thing I do… then through repentance and grace I can be forgiven of that sin. That is absolutely true, and yet I don’t think it goes nearly far enough.
What about that darkness that lives within me – the little Herod that rejects Christ as King? What about when I am actually obeying the right behaviors, but am motivated more by controlling God than genuinely worshiping Christ as King? What about when I am rejecting the overtures of God and don’t even realize it? What then?
That’s what’s so amazing about grace.
The proclamation of Christ as King should never be heard as scary, threatening, or distressing. It is meant to be good news!
Christ the King is the only One who can save us from the darkness. It is only in the light of his presence that we become healthy and whole. It is only through his leadership that we find our way into the freedom of truth. We desperately need the good news of Christ the King!
It is only when we see the fullness of what is true of us that we can authentically respond in worship to the proclamation of Christ as King. But when we do see clearly – and I believe this is what most of the Christian life is ultimately about – then we instinctively respond exactly as the Magi did. We move towards the light. We proclaim the good news of what is true. We bow down in worship. We give of our affection. We bask in his grace.