Wednesday, December 04, 2013

December 1, 2013 - Two Very Different Kings

Matthew 2:1-8

Two Very Different Kings

One of Mark Twain’s classic stories is The Prince and the Pauper.  The story centers upon two young men.  The first is a young man named Tom Canty, a poverty-stricken young man who lived in London with his impoverished family.  The other is Prince Edward the VI, son of King Henry VIII.  One day the two young chanced to meet, and finding they looked identical, decided to change places.  The course of the story is very interesting, as they both gain a new perspective on life by trading places with the other.  Prince Edward, of course, in the end becomes a much better king because of his experience living on the street as a pauper.

This morning we study Two Very Different Kings, from the story of the magi’s arrival in Jerusalem, looking for Jesus.  In this story we find two kings – King Herod and Jesus, the King of Kings.  Herod could have used an experience similar to Edward the VI, because he was a brutal king.

What a contrast we find in King Herod and Jesus.  Both carry the title of king, but that is where the similarities end.   I want to draw some comparisons between the two kings this morning as we study this passage from Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus and Herod both had power, but very different types of power.
There is nothing quite like political power to draw people in and hold onto them.  Power, even more than money, is what people most desire. 

Herod began his political life at a fairly young age – in his early 20s – and was addicted to power. Herod was absolutely intoxicated with power and would do anything to keep it.  He reigned for almost 40 years, so he knew how to survive politically.

But Herod had become very distrusting and paranoid about challengers and potential challengers to his power, so he would go on murderous rampages.  He arranged the assassinations of one wife – his favorite, actually – her mother and at least three of his sons.  The Roman Emperor Augustus said it was safer to be one of Herod’s pigs than to be his son (Barclay, p. 29).  So when Matthew writes, in verse three, that not only was Herod disturbed to hear of the birth of a king, and all Jerusalem with him, there was very good reason for the people of Jerusalem to be disturbed, because Herod wielded his power ruthlessly.

Jesus stands in stark contrast to Herod.  Many of the words and deeds of Jesus had very strong political overtones, but he was never captivated by the use of political power to accomplish his mission and never aligned himself with a particular political party or point of view.    

I believe that we should have something to say about the issues of the day, but I also believe we must recognize the danger in aligning the gospel with a particular political persuasion or partisan position.  When people proclaim there is a Christian position on health care or defense spending or other political issues, I start getting nervous.  I think there are principles that we glean from Scripture, and those principles ought to guide us and remind us that we are to call our leaders to account to some basic principles that ought to be practiced. 

The prophetic tradition of Scripture, for instance, always pronounces judgment upon the tendency to favor the rich to the detriment of the poor.  It is important to remind those in positions of political power of the vulnerability of the poor and our calling and responsibility to see they are neither forgotten nor victimized.  The book of James says religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.  Isaiah 10:1-3 says woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.  What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar?  To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?

There are powers greater than political power.  On June 4, 1989 an historic photo was taken.  You may not remember the date, but you will remember the picture.  The Chinese government was cracking down on dissidents who were protesting in Tiananmen Square, and on June 4th tanks began to roll into Tiananmen Square.  The picture is of an anonymous young man who stepped in front of a row of tanks – and the tanks stopped.  When they tried to go around him, he again stepped in front of them and they stopped again.

That episode represents the real shortcoming of political power – in some ways it’s not all that powerful.  To trade spiritual power for political power is a negative trade-off. 

Without underestimating the sufferings of those living under political tyranny, we can say there is a greater power than the might of tyrants and dictators.  The God-given power of the human spirit to resist political tyranny creates an energy that has time and again brought down empires.  In our own lifetimes we have seen examples that perhaps we never thought were possible – the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union fell.  The power of the human spirit yearning for God-given freedom proved stronger than any political or military might that sought to control them.

Herod exercised a power based on fear, intimidation, subterfuge, tyranny, and military might.  Jesus exercised a power based on love, which means that, 

Jesus and Herod drew different responses from people.
People do not respond very well to coercion.  People loved Jesus and flocked to him; people feared Herod.  Historians record that as Herod knew his life was drawing to a close, he made a tragic decision.  Recognizing that few people, if any, would mourn his passing, he had a number of leading citizens arrested.  He gave the order that upon his death those individuals were to be killed, ensuring that the day of his death would always be a day accompanied by great mourning (Barclay).

Jesus never used coercion upon anyone.  Never.  Love neither seeks to control or to coerce people.  Again, this is one of the shortcomings of political power.  You can force certain things upon people but in the end you know that force is the only reason they listen and obey. 

One of the evidences of the power of Jesus was his ability to draw love and commitment from people.  Both Peter and Thomas pledged their willingness to die for Jesus (John 13:37; 11:16).

This is the difference between the cold and ruthless power of politics and the power of the love of Jesus – Herod was willing to take the lives of others to gain and hold his power; Jesus was willing to give his life to demonstrate the power of his love.
This means that,

Nothing much has changed; yet everything has changed.
That sounds like a contradiction, but it’s really not.

Some things don’t change.  People still worship power.  Kings, tyrants, and political leaders still seek to coerce people into doing what they want them to do.  They still find that force is necessary to get what they want from people and so the never-ending cycle of violence continues. 

When Herod assassinated a political rival there was another waiting in the wings; when he squashed an uprising in one area it popped up in another.  These things never change in terms of earthly power.

Here, though, is where we find the genius of the love of Jesus.  Things did change because of Jesus.  Though much appears to remain the same in the world, everything has changed.  The love of Jesus broke the back of oppression and hatred.  The remnants are still alive and active in the world but they will one day diminish and come to an end.  Millions of people now see a crown – a crown of thorns – as a demonstration of love rather than a symbol of tyranny and force.

But we mustn’t let things return to how they used to be.  You know how entropy gradually winds down the best of intentions, so we must continually remind ourselves that while nothing much has changed, everything has changed.

And if there is a manifesto to go with the kingdom of Jesus, the King of Kings, it is surely Philippians 2:1-12.  This is the Magna Carta, the Constitution, the Declaration, of the kingdom of God –

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of the others.
You attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

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