Who's the star? - Matthew 2:1-12

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 8th December 2002.

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During the nineteen twenties, some students at Cambridge University carried out a practical joke which was a brilliant piece of daring. These students heard that an African king was coming to Cambridge and would be received with great pomp and ceremony as the first African dignitary to visit the university. In the 1920's, such African visitors were very rare indeed. However these students decided it would be a great joke to try and impersonate this African king and so deceive people into thinking that one of these students was actually the king. So one of them dressed up in some wealthy clothing and the rest of his friends attended him as his servants. And when they turned up in Cambridge they were received as royalty. They got a tour round the university, were given the best reception money could buy, and had a wonderful time. However, when the real king turned up the whole town was thrown into confusion. Who is this person? Are there two kings or is one false? And the confusion was only settled when the evidence was examined. The deceit was quickly spotted and the students found out.

Well in our passage for today, Matthew 2 vv 1-12, we are faced with two kings. One is true, the other false. One is Jesus, the other Herod. And the true King is the baby Jesus. Often our problem as Christians is that we are blinded to reality. We see the leaders of this world holding sway, holding all the power and causing chaos, making misery for the lives of millions. And when we see that, it is easy to think that our world is out of control, that we are heading for oblivion. And it is also easy to forget that these men are answerable to a higher authority. Their reign is temporary and their power finite and ultimately pathetic. One day they will have to face the king whose reign is eternal and whose power is infinite.

And that's the message of Matthew 2. Matthew explains to us that there is a king, Jesus, who is far more powerful and awesome than all the human leaders put together. It may seem like the Herods of this world have all the power, but actually the reins of power are firmly in Jesus' hands and the irony is that here he is only a small baby. Now it's important for us to see this, because Matthew wrote his gospel to help Christians stand firm in a hostile world. Matthew's first readers were under pressure from a hostile Roman regime and a hostile Jewish establishment. They needed courage to stand firm as Christians in a difficult world where the future seemed very uncertain. And these early chapters of Matthew's gospel which we're looking at during this time before Christmas were written not as children's nativity stories, little fairy stories to keep the children occupied. No they were written to show mature, hard pressed Christians just how amazing Jesus really is. We saw last week that Jesus is actually God with us, Immanuel, God in the flesh and that he is our rescuer to save us from sin. And this week Matthew teaches us that Jesus is the true King.

But before we see Matthew's lessons from this passage, it's worth us stripping away some of the Christmas card gloss that often accompanies this story. Often we understand this story in the light of the Christmas carol 'We three kings of Orient areThe only problem is that we're not told they were kings, we're not told there were three, nor are we told their names. All those things are additions of tradition down the years. And nor should we be too worried about this star. I take it that the God who caused himself to be implanted as a human embryo inside a virgin's womb, is just as capable of using the stars for his sovereign purposes. Such is the awesome power of the God of the Bible and such is the awesome event that Matthew is describing in his gospel. So what is it that Matthew wants us to learn about this king Jesus from this passage? What truths does he want us to appreciate about Jesus which will keep us firm and faithful in our Christian lives this week? Three things about king Jesus. He is the:

1) The Promised King

2) The Universal King

3) The Divisive King

1) The Promised King

So the first thing Matthew wants us to learn from this story is that Jesus is the promised king, the king that is promised in the OT. Matthew begins in verse 1: '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 in the east and have come to worship him.'' Now these Magi were astrologers, from the East, possibly from a country like Iran. And they spent all their time studying the stars for signs of special events. This was perfectly normal in the ancient world. So for instance when the Roman Emperor Nero became Emperor, Magi came to pay him homage as the new king. Now just because Matthew includes the story of the Magi does not mean he thinks star watching and telling the future from the stars is right. In fact, as a Jew he would have known that God condemns all forms of future telling from the stars or any sort of magic based on the stars. (See Jer. 10 vv 1-2; Deut. 4 v 17) That's why Christians should never have anything to do with horoscopes or the like. In fact, God mocks those who try to find security from the stars. (See Is. 47 vv 12-15) No, these were pagan astronomers who knew no better; but as we will see, even these gentile star gazers understood more than the Jewish theology professors. But all these men could deduce was that a king had been born and so they set off to where they thought a Jewish king would be born, to Jerusalem, the capital.

And when Herod, the present non Jewish king of Israel, found out, he was furious. Now Herod was, to put it mildly, paranoid that his reign was under threat. In fact, one time he had his wife and two sons murdered because he thought they were plotting to take the throne. So can you imagine what he must have felt like when these Iranian astronomers turn up on their camels saying they want to worship the new king. It's not exactly good news for Herod! It would be enough to drive him mad! A king! Here in Jerusalem? Surely it cannot be? So what does Herod do? He consults his theological advisors. Verse 3: 'When King Herod heard this he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.' He would have known that the Bible promised that a king, who was known as the Messiah or Christ the anointed one, was prophesied throughout the OT be born to the Jews. And obviously, as these pagan star gazers had worked out, this promised Messiah, this king had been born. So what did the Bible say about this king's whereabouts? The professors of theology knew exactly where to turn. They quote from Micah, an old prophet from the 8th century, who had prophesied about the coming of the Messiah, and they quote from 2 Samuel 5. And this is what they said to Herod: ''In Bethlehem in Judea.' they replied. 'For this is what the prophet has written: But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; from out of you will come a ruler, who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'' This new king was going to be born in Bethlehem. And what did Matthew say in verse 1: 'After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in JudeaIt's not that every baby born in Bethlehem was thought to be the Messiah. But as Matthew has shown us in previous passages it was clear that Jesus was the Messiah. He had the credentials. He is the promised king.

And what kind of king did Micah say this Messiah would be? Well he tells us in chapter 5 vv 2-5. He says in verse 2 that his origins are of old, or from eternity as some versions put it. And in verse 5: 'He will stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.' It's some prophecy isn't it? It's clear this is no ordinary king. This king is the eternal God who will shepherd the people of God and be their peace. And the staggering thing is that Jesus claimed to be that king who Micah spoke about. Listen to some to the claims that Jesus made. 'Before Abraham was, I am.' He claims to be from eternity. 'I am the good shepherd. The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.' He's claiming to be that shepherd of the people. Or again: 'Come unto me and I will give you rest.' He claims to be the one to give us rest and peace. Yes, says Matthew, this Jesus is the promised King. He wasn't born to grow up to be the king of the Jews. He was the king.

Now what is perhaps most extraordinary about these prophecies that often occur in the OT is how Jesus fulfils them fully. It's been said that there well over 100 prophecies about this promised King. Some are about his birth, some about his life, some about death, some about his coming in judgement. But Jesus amazingly fulfils them all. It would be impossible to fake them. But Jesus fulfils them all. God has gone to incredible lengths to plan for the coming of his king and at last he has come.

You may know that visits of the President of the USA are planned with military precision. Two or three months before the visit a 12 man team photographs all venues, checks out hotels, hospitals and local protocol. About six weeks before the visit about 30 officials examine airports, helicopter landing sites, land routes and media coverage. Ten days ahead, huge cargo planes deliver limousines, helicopters, communications vehicles band a backup war wagon containing a crack armed response unit. In the final week the secret service plans the 'spontaneous events' like walkabouts, and up to nine hundred staff are brought in. And at last the President arrives on Air Force One, the presidential plane, itself costing $54,000 an hour to run. It is no surprise that Bill Clinton's visit to Africa in 1998 cost a staggering $42.8 million! That's what happens when the President comes to town!

Now we may think it impressive when a great human leader comes to town, but when God comes to earth on his rescue mission in the person of his Son, then it is planned to the most minute detail. And Jesus fulfils the promises exactly, even to the place where he is born. Now let me ask. If God keeps his promises on such a grand scale as the coming of his Saviour, then do you not think he is able to keep his promises with you and me? God's word can be trusted. He's proved it time and again. So should we not trust him with every ounce of our beings? And if God has got any promises left to fulfil about Jesus coming again and wrapping up world history, if there are any promises about him judging justly, then we can absolutely cast iron guaranteed than God will be faithful and keep his promises. Because we've seen it before. Yes the world may look topsey turvey, but God's promises remain. And if he kept his promises to send his king the first time, then we can be sure he'll keep his promises the second time. God's word can be trusted. Jesus is the promised King.

2) The Universal King

But there is a second thing that Matthew wants us to learn about Jesus and that is that he is the universal king. He is the king of the whole world and he is the king for the whole world. What helps us see this is that the Magi are the first people in Matthew's gospel to come and worship Jesus. Do you see what they say in verse 2: 'We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.' Now these men, you remember, were not Jews, they were pagan astronomers. But what is all the more amazing is that these men were willing to travel hundreds of miles to worship this new king. Pagans are coming to the Jewish Messiah to worship him.

And that was always God's plan from the very start. Though he chose Israel as his people, yet his plan was that through Israel the whole world would come to know God. All nations would be blessed. And sure enough Isaiah prophesied that non Jews, gentiles would come to worship the new born Messiah. 'Nations will come to your light, he said. And kings will come to your dawn.' (Is. 60 v 3) The psalmist talking about the Messiah said: 'Kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.' (Ps. 72 v 10) And throughout Matthew's gospel he shows us that Jesus is the universal king. He is the king of the whole world and the king to whom everyone must come for salvation. And for us who are probably mostly non Jews, we have received a double grace. Not only have we been saved from our sins through Jesus, but also God has allowed us to become his people, even though we were not in the original covenant. We are doubly blessed! And it's all through Jesus the universal king, the king for the whole world. He came not just to save Jews, but also Gentiles like us. And so we inherit the great command Jesus gives to his disciples at the end of Matthew's gospel to go and make disciples of all nations. So our task therefore is to go out and tell the world that the Saviour of the world has come. And these pagan astrologers who came to worship Jesus at his birth are the first fruits of the amazing mission of Jesus to the whole world. For truly Jesus is the universal king.

I wonder sometimes if we are in danger of loosing this universal understanding of the kingship of the Lord Jesus. Often I think we are content to let it rest that Jesus is our king. Of course that's nice and tolerant, and we're obeying what the world tell us which is not to pass judgement on anyone else's view. But Jesus won't let it rest there. He wishes that the whole world know about his kingship and what he has done for us. Furthermore, Paul says that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow. That doesn't mean that everyone will be in heaven. Rather it means that everyone, whether they like it or not, will have to acknowledge on judgement day that Jesus is the universal king. So it means that every atheist knee, every Mormon knee, every Hindu knee, every Moslem knee, every Buddhist knee, every knee will bow before Jesus. Surely we long for every knee to bow in loving joy, rather than in begrudging submission. And that's why Jesus sends us out to tell the world about him. You see the fact is Jesus is the Lord over your neighbour. Jesus is Lord over your colleague. Jesus is Lord over your family. He is the universal Lord. And one day they will recognise it. One day they will meet him and Jesus will hold them and us to account. We'll either appear before him as a friend or an enemy. And the challenge for us is to be in the business of telling others about this universal Lord. We cannot be held responsible for their reaction. But it is our task to tell them.

It's often easy to feel guilty about our inability to tell others about our faith. But in reality it is just like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread, the bread of life. Once we have grasped that Jesus is the universal Lord, the king of kings, who gives life, then we'll long for others to know him. So pray that God would show you more and more how immense Jesus is, that he is the only Lord. Pray God would give you such a passion to tell others that cannot keep quiet. Christmas is a brilliant opportunity to invite friends along to church to hear the good news. It's about as easy as it gets. So why hot get praying for opportunities to ask people for the carol service on the 22nd. For Jesus is the Lord. He will broke no rivals. For there is no other king.

One man who took this seriously was a man called Albert McMakin. Albert was a hard working farmer in the USA not particularly educated nor very famous. But at the age of 24 he became a Christian. And he was so excited about this new found faith that he decided to try and tell all his friends about it. So he invited them along to a meeting where the Christian message would be explained clearly and he took all his friends in his pick up truck. Now there was one young man he was keen to get along. He was a farmer's son but he was more interested in girls than in Jesus Christ and it all seemed a dead loss. However one day Albert managed to get his friend along by inviting him to drive his pick up truck to the meeting. The friend said he would just as a one off but was so spell bound by the message that was spoken that he came back again and again until he gave his life to Jesus Christ. That friend of Albert McMakin was Billy Graham. The year was 1934, and Billy Graham has gone on to lead thousands to a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Now God doesn't expect us all to be Billy Graham's. But we can simply invite a friend along and share with them our hope. And the more we realise Jesus is the universal king, that he is the king for the whole world, the more we'll long to tell others. So pray God would give you a passion to tell others. Pray for boldness. For Jesus is the universal king.

3) The Divisive King

But there is one final thing that we can see about this king in this passage, and that is the fact that Jesus is the divisive king, in other words that he is the king who divides people. And right at the start of Jesus' life there are different reactions to him. It would continue throughout his life, and it continues to this day. And here we find there are three different reactions to this king:

a) Hostile Opposition- First we find there is hostile opposition to Jesus. And the opposition to this King Jesus is found in Herod. Let's look at verse 7: 'Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said: 'Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I may go and worship him.'' Now that may sound very plausible, mightn't it? But we've already found out in verse 3 that Herod is disturbed by the reports about this new king, and in fact when the Magi fail to follow Herod's instructions and go back home by a different route after a divine tip off, then Herod's true colours come out. Just glance on to verse 16: 'When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in BethlehemYou can't get more opposed to Jesus than that can you. He tries to kill him.

And still today there are those who strongly refuse to come to Jesus. Maybe you know people like that. Maybe you are one yourself. Well bear in mind who the true king is. Herod will stand before King Jesus and bow the knee, not in humble submission but in begrudging realisation that Jesus is King. So don't be surprised when people fiercely reject the gospel or even you the messenger. Because it happened to Jesus first.

b) Cold-Hearted Apathy- But there is a second reaction in this passage and that is cold hearted apathy. And we can see it because it's not reported by Matthew. It may seem strange to say that, but notice what the chief priests and the teachers of the law do when they hear the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem. Do they get on the first express camel to Bethlehem? Do they immediately shout for joy and rejoice that the Messiah has at last come? No, not at all! What are told? Nothing. They did nothing. There is just a big silence surrounding the reaction of these theology professors. These were the guys who knew all the answers. These guys knew everything there was to know. But they simply did nothing. They didn't lift a finger to go and see who was born in Bethlehem. And Matthew's silence is his biggest indictment against them. They were simply cold heartedly apathetic. And that is the reaction of these men to Jesus throughout the gospel. These top religious officials should have been first at Mary and Joseph's house. They should have been the ones carrying the presents. They knew all the promises in the OT. But they did nothing. And even worse is that as the gospel progresses, their cold hearted apathy turned to hostile opposition.

And here, we who would claim to be Christians need to be most careful. Because it is possible to know your Bible backwards, to come to church regularly, to do all the Christian types of things, and yet to have a heart as cold as stone. It is possible to look the keenest of the keen, and yet be the coldest of the cold. And in Jesus' book cold apathy is as bad as hostile opposition. And the two are never far away from each other. Examine your heart. Do you claim to be a Christian simply because it's what you've always done, because it's how you've been brought up? When push comes to shove are you genuinely in love with your Saviour? Or are you cold and apathetic. Apathy is a killer. It'll kill your relationship with God stone dead. And it reveals where you truly stand with him. You may look the part, but you could be stone dead. Examine your heart and if you see you really are cold and apathetic, then come back to the Saviour who will warm your heart. But there is another way. And that's the way, not of the great leader Herod, nor of the religious officials, but of the pagan astrologers.

c) Whole hearted adoration- And it's the way of whole hearted adoration. What do the magi do? Verse 9: 'After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star they were overjoyed.' Literally Matthew wrote: 'They rejoiced exceedingly with a great joy!' It's a far cry from cold hearted apathy isn't it? And Matthew goes on: 'On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures, and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.' When these pagan astrologers came face to face with Jesus, they worshipped him. They may not have realised everything about him, but they knew enough to worship him. And they gave him gifts fit for a king- gold, frankincense and myrrh. These weren't things you cold just buy at the Jerusalem branch of Tescos. No these were seriously wealthy gifts. These were gifts you would only give to a king. Whether or not they are meant to have symbolic value, it's clear the magi gave them simply as expensive gifts to this great king. These magi didn't do things by halves. They gave the very best. That's what it means to be whole hearted in our adoration of Jesus. It means to give him our very best.

And again, as we thought last week, Christmas is a brilliant opportunity to reassess our relationship with Jesus. Are we in danger of giving him second best? Surely he deserves the very best we can give. No other king is like this king. He deserves everything we have to offer, including ourselves. And whole hearted adoration is the only reaction to King Jesus that truly does justice to who he is. He is the king of kings, Immanuel, Jesus the Saviour. Bow the knee and worship your God.

Our world may seem to be a confusing and often hostile place. But there is only one king. He is the king of Kings. He is the king promised in the OT. He is the universal king of the whole world. And he's the king who demands we give him everything we have, even our lives. Because it's only as we give him everything, that we, like those wise men, will find true joy this Christmas.


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