Sermon from 12/31/2011

January 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is the manuscript from the sermon I delivered at Emmaus Road Church on December 31st, 2011.

I. Introduction – Good evening, Emmaus Road! How is everyone? This week puts us squarely in the middle of the 12 Days of Christmas, so if you needed a reason to eat more awesome food, have more awesome celebrations, etc., then you’re in luck. In this next week, we will flip the page on the church calendar and jump into Epiphany. This season marks the coming of the Magi to Jesus (which we’ll read a bit about tonight) and invites us to explore the implications of Christ’s birth. When you read the Gospels, you find that sometimes they tell the same story different ways; this is because the Gospel writers were aiming at different audiences and so told the story in such a way to emphasize their specific point to their specific audience. For example, we’ve read out of Luke lately; we’ve seen what the birth of Christ meant for the poor, the ignored and downtrodden, and for the speaks of these themes because he is trying to show Jesus as Healer and Savior of the Gentiles. Matthew takes a slightly different approach, because his audience is different; Matthew is writing to Jews to convince them that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, and so he is going to tell his story in such a way that helps us to see Jesus as a prophet, leader, and deliverer like Moses; he’s also going to try to help us see Jesus as a king, a king of the lineage of David; the only family line that even has the right to claim the throne of Israel. So when we read from Matthew 2 tonight, we’re going to be seeing things from the perspective of Kingdom. We’re going read about the Kingdom of Heaven coming to Earth as a baby; we’re also going to see what Herod the Great does to oppose the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew tells us of somewhat of a chess match between Herod and Heaven. But for us to appreciate the story a bit more, we’re going to need some background on Herod himself.

II.Body A.Herod the Great – Herod the Great was quite a man. He was the son of an Idumean

adventurer turned politician who played power games with the both the Jews and the Romans; and when his father died, Herod found himself in a position to step in as Rome’s appointed ruler for the area. He was a gifted politician and engineer, and made sure to appease as many people as he could while ruthlessly consolidating his power and playing with his own pet building projects. He was a half-Jew who walked an interesting line with his faith – he set up many tributes to the Emperor of Rome to make sure he stayed in Rome’s good graces. He adopted many Greek ideals of society so that people could feel comfortable in his town, which didn’t make the Jews happy – but to take care of them, he rebuilt the temple in magnificent fashion. As he was an engineer, he did a swell job – some of the walls are still standing. He quarried stones that were 40 feet long, 10 feet tall, and 10 feet wide – as big as a school bus! The stonework was so precise that even though the stones were so large, some of the walls that are still standing, one cannot get the blade of a knife between them even though no mortar was used. He installed aqueducts, indoor plumbing, and many other conveniences. He built palaces for himself all over his territory. One time, he decided to have a palace fortress on top of a mountain – only there was no mountain there. So, he built one. It’s called the Herodium, and still stands today. However, he was a paranoid and ruthless man. He had tens of wives and scores of children and grandchildren, so he lived in constant fear of conspiracies to take the throne. He was not above assassinating his own wives and children to consolidate his power, and people lived in the constant fear that these changes caused. Because he was so afraid, Herod got from Rome the special right to choose his own successor – normally the Empire would – and then after he got this right, he rewrote his will six times before he died because he was afraid of so many people. He tried to come across as a great benefactor and innovator, but

people feared him and did not like him. He knew this, and knew that people would not mourn his passing. So, he gave standing orders for many beloved Jewish officials to be assassinated the day that he died so that there would be mourning when he died. This is Herod the Great; this is who’s in charge when the Kingdom of Heaven arrives in the form of a baby. Let’s look at Matthew.

B.Text – The story actually begins at Matthew 1.18. We’ll be starting here tonight and reading up through the end of chapter 2. Along the way, we’ll look at how Matthew tells the story; we’ll look at the little clues that he gives us as to how we are to see Jesus. He quotes plenty of prophecies to make his point. We’ll look at the exciting way that Heaven comes to Earth. We’ll also look at how Heaven and Herod go toe-to-toe over the next few verses. Let’s read.

1. “This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly. As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.”

a)Interpretation – Here, we have the birth story. It’s told from Joseph’s perspective rather than Mary’s.

(1)Right in the beginning, Matthew tells us that Jesus, this baby, is going to be Israel’s deliverer. He’s going to be the Messiah, the Anointed One.

(2)We see Heaven and Earth rubbing shoulders here in some remarkable ways. The first way is that Mary became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. Not exactly something that happens every day… But it’s a head-scratcher for sure, so Joseph’s trying to figure out what to do. An angel appears to him in a dream – another sure sign that Heaven is coming to Earth.

(3)The angel addresses Joseph as a “son of David;” this means that Joseph is a descendant of King David. This means that Jesus is a legitimate heir to the throne of King David – something that Herod is not. Remember, Herod came in from the outside. He gained his power through political luck and cunning; he may sit on the throne, but it’s not his throne to sit on. The throne belongs to the baby; that’s what Matthew is saying. He’s a deliverer; he’s a king. Right away, Matthew is telling us that there’s a new king in town.

(4)Matthew is quoting from Isaiah 7 here. This establishes that Jesus’ birth is part of the same story of Jewish history; it’s not a new story, but rather, it is the same story moving along. Remember, Matthew is trying to prove to Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. He’s saying, “This is your king! The one you’ve been waiting for!”

2. But there’s another king around, and he’s not going to let another king just cut in on him. Not even a baby king. Let’s keep reading. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea,

during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote: ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’” Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!” After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.”

a)Interpretation – Lots of stuff going on here… (1)Right in the beginning, Matthew tells us who the other king is. Herod the

Great. From other sources, it’s probably a good guess that some time passes

here – maybe about 2 years or so. (2)Magi – And then the Magi show up. This is a group of mysterious people that

we don’t really know much about. We can make some guesses, though. They were likely Persians. They were probably court officials, similar to Obama’s cabinet members. They were not Jews, though they may have been familiar with Jewish ways and scripture; likely, they were Zoroastrians. Around that time, it was believed by many that strange occurrences in the sky foretold changes in regime and power, and so these men studied the heavens in order to be up on what was happening. Interesting fact: This is the only place in the Bible that Magi are mentioned favorably. Daniel and other Jews, when in exile, deal with the Persian king’s court magicians: his Magi. Later on, in Acts, a sorcerer called Simon Magus tries to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit. In Greek, these men are all Magi. And so, Magi are not looked upon favorably; and yet, these foreigners, these shady magicians, come to worship the true king. They saw the sign in the skies, and knew something was up.

(3)So they come to Jerusalem (where the king should be, right?) and begin asking around for the newborn King of the Jews. These guys act sort of naive; we can imagine that they ask for the KoJ, and they eventually they get back to Herod who says, “Yes, you were looking for me?” And they politely say, “Oh, no. We were looking for the other one. The one who has just been born.” And Herod goes into paranoid mode. This is another conspiracy he’s got to fight off. So he decides to keep them around for a few days while he figures out what’s going on.

(4)So he’s scared, and the rest of the city is too, because who knows what kind of havoc Herod is going to unleash in order to consolidate his power yet again. So he calls the scribes and the priests – remember, he’s a Jew because it’s politically advantageous, not because he’s faithful. He doesn’t know the law and prophets, and so he has to call people together to tell him. So he does, and they quote Micah 5.1-3 to him, and Herod finds out the location of his usurper – ground zero of the conspiracy he’s imagining. He calls the Magi back to get more information, and he discovered from them exactly when the star appeared – and now he’s got an age of the child.

(5)So Herod, the master strategist, essentially tries to use the Magi as his pawns – they will go to Bethlehem, find out the exact location of the child, and then report back to Herod. Herod told the Magi that he wanted this information so that he could worship the Messiah as a Jew, but it’s far more likely that he’ll kill the child and the child’s family for good measure. So the Magi depart.

(6)And then something happens – the star reappears! It was in the sky long enough to get them to Jerusalem – but now it comes back, much to their great joy, and directs them precisely and exactly to where Mary and Joseph are living. The Kingdom of Heaven is at work again.

(7)They enter the house and find Mary and Jesus. They worship him, and give him kingly gifts. This whole scene is loaded with imagery. They are Gentiles, coming to worship – the Magi, the Gentiles, the outsiders have been led by the Kingdom of Heaven to recognize and worship the true king – something that Herod could not see. They bring kingly gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A Jew familiar with the family history would have instantly thought of when the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon and brought many gifts. Matthew’s message comes through loud and clear – this child is a king, and not just King of the Jews – the King of all.

(8)The Kingdom of Heaven steps in again – God warns the Magi not to go back to Herod, not even to stop in Jerusalem on the way. Interesting thing – the Magi don’t seem to be good at playing Herod’s political games, but for Gentiles, they sure know how to hear from God.

3. Well, let’s keep reading. “After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,” the angel said. “Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother, and they stayed there until Herod’s death. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

a)Interpretation – (1)Heaven again intervenes – The Magi bought some time by going another way,

but not much. Jerusalem and Bethlehem are close; even on foot, you could get from one to the other and back in a day. Herod is waiting, but he won’t wait long. Mary and Joseph have to get out of Dodge, and an angel gives them instructions to head out of Herod’s jurisdiction, over to Egypt.

(2)To put the icing on the cake, Matthew reminds us of Hosea 11.1, which brings to mind another deliverer that came out of Egypt – Moses. Matthew tells us

again and again – this is your Messiah. Just like Moses delivered your ancestors,

Jesus will deliver you. 4. But Herod’s no dummy. “Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had

outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A cry was heard in Ramah – weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.”

a) Interpretation

(1)In a desperate attempt to kill Jesus, Herod acts on the information he has – remember, he has an age and he has a place. So, in an act that history has come to know as “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” he kills all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger. Matthew uses this event to tell us who Herod is – again, a Jew who knew the family history would have picked up on this. There was another king who ordered the wholesale slaughter of baby boys – Pharaoh, before Moses was born. Just as Moses was supernaturally protected and delivered to be the deliverer, so is Jesus. Matthew is again telling us – Jesus is the new Moses, and Herod is the new Pharaoh, the one who opposes God’s acts.

(2)Matthew also shows us something else – he quotes Jeremiah 31.15 here, showing that even Herod, despite his best efforts, is playing Heaven’s game – not the other way around. Matthew continues to tell his Jewish audience, “Yes, this is your story, but it’s growing – it will be the story of the redemption of the world.”

5. Well, let’s go ahead and close out the chapter. “When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee. So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: “He will be called a Nazarene.””

a)Interpretation – (1)So maybe Herod thought that he had won, but he went on to play other games

of political intrigue – and after he dies, the Kingdom of Heaven is still on the

move. An angel tells Joseph that it’s safe to return, so they do. (2)Heaven continues to direct Joseph – some of Herod’s family were still around.

Archelaus was just as paranoid as his daddy, but didn’t have anywhere near as much political skill – Herod was sneaky about how he handled conspiracies, but Archelaus just killed people outright. He killed so many that eventually Rome stepped in, deposed him, and put the area under direct Roman control.

(3)Either way, Joseph and the family are not heading there; so they go to Nazareth. According to Luke 1.26, Nazareth was Mary’s hometown. Matthew was probably quoting a different tradition here that is not included in our scriptures, but his point is clear: this is all happening according to plan.

C. The Kingdom of Heaven – So what kind of a king is Jesus? Matthew 4.23 tells us about this. When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing

every disease and every sickness among the people.” This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. Here’s an interesting study for you: take some time, grab a pen, and go through the Gospel of Matthew. Underline and study the verses where the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” shows up; you’ll find that there are many. Matthew is telling us about the Kingdom while he’s telling us about the King. In the beginning of the gospel, we learned a great deal about what the Kingdom of Herod is about. But what about the Kingdom of Heaven? What does Matthew tell us?

1. The nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven means that we repent. (4.17). Sin keeps us from God. It’s difficult to be a citizen of God’s Kingdom on Earth when we create distance between us and him by habits, actions, and attitudes. Repentance means that we, through the Holy Spirit working in us, acknowledge that have sinned; that we are living in an improper relationship to God. Repentance also means that we, again, by the power of the Holy Spirit, reject and leave this flawed way of living behind. We often like to cover our sin, disguising it with euphemisms so that it doesn’t sound so bad; but if we can’t take sin seriously, we can’t take forgiveness seriously. Forgiveness is a big deal in the Kingdom of Heaven; but if we do not see our need to draw closer to God and live in proper relationship with Him and others, forgiveness doesn’t mean much to us.

2. The Kingdom is good news. (4.23) While repentance is necessary, there is more to the Kingdom than that – and this “more” is good news. Such a contrast to Herod’s kingdom, which so often meant bad news for those living under his rule.

3. The Kingdom welcomes the poor, the persecuted, the sick, and the lonely. (Beatitudes) Another contrast with Herod’s kingdom – His kingdom often persecuted people, and then kicked them to the curb.

4. The Kingdom of Heaven is not exclusive. Jew, Gentile, doesn’t matter. Slave or slaveowner, doesn’t matter. Sick or healed, doesn’t matter. Come on in. Herod’s kingdom didn’t do this – you had to be elite and constantly making sure you stayed in Herod’s good graces.

5. It is worth selling all that you own for the sake of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is greater than the pursuit of possessions and power – yet Herod was on a constant quest to maintain as much power as he could. (ch. 13)

6. Must be like a child. How unlike Herod – who ruthlessly slaughtered children. (19.23) 7. It doesn’t belong to those who have it all figured out, the religious elite (21). Rather, it belongs to those who do the work of the Kingdom – those who spread the Kingdom

whenever and wherever they can. 8. It’s a place of mercy, where mercy is the rule and not the exception. What a difference

from Herod’s kingdom. D.Us and the Kingdom – So what does this mean for us? Well, the kingdom often passes

away with the king. However, the spirit of Herod’s kingdom still exists in the world. We don’t have to look far to see tales of oppression, power grabbing, and injustice. He has passed, but many in the world today are trying to live and succeed according to the rules of his kingdom. Read the news. Oftentimes, we may find ourselves operating according to the rules of Herod’s kingdom; society and culture encourage us in these things. However, the Kingdom of Heaven stands opposed. Matthew’s Gospel tells us about the Kingdom of Heaven and it’s King, and then ends with this: Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all

the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus has the authority of the Kingdom, and he commands us to do the work of the Kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom does not pass away, because Jesus is risen, and he lives. In Acts 1.8, he commands us to go and be his witnesses in the power of the Holy Spirit.

III. Conclusion – So a baby has been born. What do we do now? This child, this king, invites us into his kingdom and then commands us to bring his kingdom to others. But many times, it doesn’t feel so simple. We may not feel that we’re worthy of his kingdom. Maybe we’re struggling with repenting of sins that separate us from God. Many things challenge our entry into Christ’s kingdom. But also, we may struggle with being an ambassador of the Kingdom. God doesn’t want to use a person like me. My past cannot be overcome. The fear is too great. I have no talents. Could be anything. In closing tonight, we’re going to take some time to pray. During this prayer, I’d like to us to think about these things. Do you feel that there’s a struggle in entering the Kingdom of Heaven? Or perhaps serving in it? During the prayer, there will be a time for us to silently name our struggle before God and ask for his help. After the prayer, we’ll take communion together, as we always do; this is the food of the kingdom, which sustains our souls. Let’s pray.

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