Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Matthew 03: The Two Responses to Jesus

The Magi in the House of Herod - James Tissot, 1936-1902
Sermon text: Matthew 2:1-12

Introductory Comments

It was Christmas in July last week as we preached on the birth of Jesus. Several points really stuck out from that text. First, we discovered that the birth of Jesus inside of Mary, or anyone else for that matter, is work of God the Holy Spirit. God chooses those whom he will for salvation. The Holy Spirit then gives birth to Christ inside of that chosen person, so that, in the words of Dale Bruner, “every conversion is a virgin birth.” If you have been born again and given the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, that gift was entirely the operation of God, not you. Second, if Christ does in fact live in you, then you are not your own person any more. Jesus Christ is Lord and your life is then on lived entirely for Jesus and His glory. We asked the question, “Does you life show forth the glory of the Christ who has saved you this way?” Finally, we saw in the text that this saving work of God most perfectly declares God’s awesomeness. What kind of God would willingly set aside his own glory for the sake of his children? We cannot overlook how God left the infinite to enter into our finite, fallen world. That’s is true magnificence – to be able to assume a place amongst the fallen without falling himself.

If God indeed do this great thing in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit has come upon us, and the kingdom of God has been inaugurated on earth, then this presents a clear decision for those who are confronted with this new reality. What the story of the Magi and Herod shows is the two responses to the arrival of the king of kings. If Jesus is the new king who sits upon his throne forever, as David was promised by God in the Old Testament, then there can only be two responses to this news. The first response is illustrated for us by the Magi. The second response is illutrated by Herod. One response is the result of humans live under the power of grace. The other response is the driven when humans live under the power of sin. These two responses have implications for us as we consider our future together as proclamers of Jesus Christ our Lord and King.

The Arrival of Gentile, Pagan, Astrologers – The Power of Grace
[2:1] Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, [2] saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
In almost all popular contemporary portrayals of this story, the Magi (or “wise men”) are presented to us as fundamentaly good people. In an earlier message, I mentioned the recent movie “The Nativity.” The portrayal of the Magi was very interesting. They are very collegial, friendly, funny, able to joke around with one another. However, my guess is that this is not how Matthew’s early readers, especially early Jewish readers, would have viewed the Magi. Such individuals were considered idolaters, those who confused the created order with the Creator. For example, here is Isaiah preaching about Babylon’s astrologers in Isaiah (47:13ff)
[13] … let them stand forth and save you, those who divide the heavens, who gaze at the stars, who at the new moons make known what shall come upon you.
That’s an example from the Old Testament. The book of Acts tells of two other men who are given the same title as the Magi here in Matthew 2. The first is Simon, in Acts 8:9-24:
[9] But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. [10] They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.”
The other is a man named Elymas Bar-Jesus, mentioned in Acts 13:6-11, who sought to obstruct Paul’s preaching in Salamis:
[6] When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus.
So these Magi were probably not viewed very favorably by early readers. And yet, just as Gentiles are found in Jesus’ genealogy, so are Gentiles in the Christmas story.

What has happened to bring the Magi to Jerusalem? They have, by God’s grace, been shown something in nature - a star. And it has been revealed to them that they are seeking one who has been “born king of the Jews.” This has taken them to the court of the one designated by the world as “king” of the Jews, a man named Herod.

King Herod – Humanity Under Slavery to Sin

What do we know about Herod? He was known for his extravagance, and for his jealous guarding of his power and privilege. His lust for power was so great that he killed not one, not two, but three of his own sons to maintain his control and authority. He was also a Jew by religious practice, and so it seems very likely that he knew his Old Testament and the promise of the prophets for a Messiah. The reason we know this this is because the announcement by the Magi freaks him out:
[3] When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;
The reason Herod is troubled is because the Magi have come to ask the whereabouts of the King of the Jews, when Herod already considered himself the King of the Jews. Therefore, this new King was a threat. Herod immediately calls for his advisers:
[4] and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
In other words, Herod calls together all of the big time bible teachers and authorities, and asks them if they know where to find this new king. Being skilled biblical scholars, they know the answer to Herod’s inquiry without missing a beat:
[5] They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet [quoting Micah 5:2]:

[6] “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Let's review where we are in the story: The Gentile, pagan, Magi have come to Jerusalem, to the court of Herod, having been drawn by God’s grace through a visible sign in nature. Both the Magi and the King have now heard preached the word of God regarding the place where the Messiah shall come, Bethlehem. What then happens? Herod convenes a secret meeting with the Magi. He doesn’t want anyone else to know that this new King may have actually been born. And rather than send a contingent of his own to check out what is happening in Bethlehem, he tells the Magi to go there and then report what they find:
[7] Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. [8] And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” [9] After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.
Compare the responses to the scriptures by the pagan Magi and the religious Herod. In the hearing of the Word regarding the messiah, the Gentile, pagan, idolatrous Magi respond to the scriptures by going to the place identified in the scriptures, to the place where they will ultimately encounter the living Word, the very Son of God who is God. Herod, on the other had, having heard the exact same word, refuses to go see for himself. The Gentile outsiders hear and believe the scriptures. The insiders hears and refuse to believe and respond. Oh, what love God has for the outsider, the Gentile sinner, who can start out oblivious to the existence of the creator, confusion the creation for the creator, and can, through the Word of God, be brought into fellowship with God and with the people of God.

As I read this, I continue to be convicted in by my own lack of love for those outside of the faith. Bruner, Luther, and others have preached on how we ought to be the “star” from this story for those in our families and communities who don’t know Jesus. We should be the light that shines upon where Jesus lay and shouts to the world, “Here He is! Come and see the King who takes away the sin of the world.”

Christ the Living Word – The Response

The Magi hear the scriptures and depart for Bethlehem:
[9] After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. [10] When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. [11] And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. [12] And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
The star gives illumination to the place where Jesus is. The Word functions the same way for us today, and the result is often the same. Where the light of the the scriptures show forth in greater clarity the Christ we worship, the proper response is to rejoice exceedingly with a great joy, because then we see and know Jesus for who He is.

And what is the response of those called by grace to hear the Word and encounter Jesus? It says right here: “They fell down and worshiped him.” The Greek word for “worship” means to literally fall down on one’s face. They see this human child and worship him. Who is the only one worthy of worship? The one true God. What we see, then, is the worship of a human who is also God Incarnate. Matthew is showing us the truth about Jesus: Jesus is God-with-us, the Immanuel title shown declared in chapter 1 of the gospel.

Having worshiped, the Magi then present to Jesus several gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I’m not particularly interested in what these gifts might represent individually, but the gift itself is critical to see. When they worship and see Jesus for who he is, they give forth the best gifts they have. They don’t do it grudgingly, but joyfully, having in grace been shown more than they originally thought they would see when they set out for their journey. What about the gifts we offer each Sunday? What is the condition of our hearts when the plate is passed before us? Is there resentment there at all? Or is there joy and thanksgiving? The condition of our hearts during the offering speaks volumes about what we think of seeing Jesus in the Word read and proclaimed and in the sacraments rightly administered.

Lastly, the Magi depart, having been “warned in a dream not to return to Herod.” They then return to their country by “another way.” Did you know that the early Christians used to refer to their new life as “The Way?” When you encounter the Lord Jesus Christ, you live life differently than you did before. You see the world in a different way. You will walk differently in life if you know the joy of Jesus Christ and His glorious peace.

What, then, was Herod’s response to all of this, when he learns that the Magi go by another way? It’s rage, driven fear of loss of power and control, which results in a catastrophic disaster with the slaughter of the innocents. That is the way sinful rebellion works itself out – there are social ramifications when we reject God’s Word. The sin isn’t just individual, but has corporate effects. We explore those in greater detail next week.

So those are the two ways of responding to the coming of the Lord and King, Jesus. Grace leads to a faithful response to news. Sin leads to rebellion, sin, and in many cases literal harm against our neighbors. The question before you today is this: How will you respond to the news that there is a new King in town? Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson Minnesota
August 7, 2011
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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