Sunday, December 21, 2014

What Gift Shall We Bring That’s Fit for A King? (Matthew 2:1-12)

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. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “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;for out of you will come a ruler    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
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 search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Disclaimer: Credit goes to Soo Inn's Ecommentary for much of the materials in this message. 

Christmas is feel good time.

And it’s starting to look a lot like Christmas when shopping malls and radio stations start to play all time favorites like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light…” or you hear kids singing: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”… Nostalgic music that brings back sweet memories … You know Christmas is near when TV stations begin to show Christmassy scenes of gently falling snowflakes, romantic kisses underneath the mistletoe, children opening presents in front of a Christmas tree.

Christmas is feel good time. It is time out from our busy work schedule as we holiday for awhile in the world of carols, family dinner, gift exchanges and of course, a shopping spree. For a little while we turn our eyes away from the pains of the world and the pains in our own hearts.

Indeed we feel we deserve a little break, don’t we? There is so much wrong that is in the world. There is so much grief in our lives. 2014 has not been an easy year at all for most of us. Some of us have lost a mother, a father or a dear friend this year. Our national airline has tragically lost two planes with passengers and crew on board. The Sedition act is not going to be repealed after all, but instead it will be strengthened according to our Prime Minister. And we have seen how this piece of legislation can be used to suppress academic freedom and dissenting voices in the opposition.

Yup, 2014 has not been easy. And we really need a break. Because the New Year will be upon us soon enough with its rude call to get on with life. By the way, welcome to the world of GST in 2015.

So Christmas is a much needed emotional break. Christmas is feel good time.

But not for this guy King Herod. When he heard that Jesus had been born, he didn’t feel good at all. Indeed the Scripture records for us that:

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...” (Matthew 2: 1-3)

But hold on for a second: Why should he be frightened? He was so paranoid and insecure that he tried to kill Jesus by slaughtering all boys aged two and below in Bethlehem. Similar violence against children happened again last Wednesday when the Taliban murdered more than 130 children in a school in Pakistan

So on one side of the ring, you have king Herod armed to the teeth with soldiers, weapons and unimaginable wealth. On the other side, you have a small, vulnerable baby. It was a no-brainer who would win this showdown.  

Except that this is no ordinary baby.

Herod was afraid because he was just a puppet king. He was appointed by the Roman empire. He didn’t have the support of his people.

Christmas meant that the rightful King of Israel has come. The kingdom of God is at hand. So Herod’s cruel reign was under serious threat. No wonder he was fearful.

Because the coming of the Messiah means that liberation has begun. The return of Israel’s king is at near. He is not far away, looking down from the outside. The Son of God is fully involved. He has entered our world. He has moved in to our neighborhood.

And because of that, every oppressive tyrant is in grave danger. Herod, the Taliban, Satan, sin, death, racism, disease, greed, bigotry - every oppressive value system is at risk. The King has returned. The rule of God had once again broken into our story, bringing its promise of healing and hope, of light and life, of holiness and love.

Why do Christians celebrate Christmas? Is it just a feel good time? It feels good but not that “escape from reality” kind of good. We celebrate the birth of Jesus because we remember the beginning of God’s campaign to reclaim the world for Himself. It is worth celebrating because Christ’s cosmic invasion to overthrow evil has started.

And every Christmas is a reminder that there is a war going on in our broken world.

It began with the birth of Christ. The decisive victory was won at the Cross when Jesus died to take away the sins of the world and rose to life again three days later. But the final victory over evil will be achieved one day when Christ returns. Far from feel-good escapism, every Christmas then is a renewed call to battle for us as followers of Jesus.

There is so much wrong in the world. There is so much that is broken in our own lives. The battle rages on!

And sometimes, following Jesus means not doing what feels good, but what is right even if it costs us something. You probably know that our brother Hwok Aun works as an economics lecturer in UM. Interesting things have happened in the university recently with Azmi Sharom a law lecturer being charged for sedition for giving his legal opinion in the media. And I’m very encouraged to see Hwok Aun doing what he can to stand in solidarity with Azmi for academic freedom and support student activism even though it might be seen as a career-limiting move. And I saw his Facebook status the other day: “Folks, you can stop asking whether I am in trouble. Of course I am. If we do not stand up against injustice, we are all in trouble. I've stopped wondering if I'm doing anything to jeopardise an academic career.”

His story is another real life example that reminds us of the fact following Jesus in a broken world is not always happy and clappy. It could be costly to do what is right. But it is even costlier if we do not stand up against injustice. What happens in Pakistan this week could one day happen in Malaysia if we allow religious extremism to shape our nation.

So Christmas is a wake up call that God is with us. He is among us. Stand firm through prayer, through love, through the gospel. Be salt and light in every sphere of life through the power of the Spirit and the Word. As we enter the year 2015, there are new opportunities to serve in the Name of Christ.

Now contrast Herod’s response with the Magi or wise men that came from afar to pay respect to the newborn King. Who are these people? They are most likely Gentiles, eastern astrologers who look for signs in the alignment of stars, planets and comets not unlike the ones we have today. For them, the birth of important kings is often associated with heavenly omens. That’s cutting-edge science and technology in those days. These star gazers are non-Jews wise and knowledgeable in astrology. And you might expect them to be opponents of the newborn King of the Jews like magicians and sorcerers who once opposed Moses and Daniel in the Old Testament scriptures.

But the most unexpected thing happens: They came from afar, risking their lives and possessions. They didn’t know much about Jesus, but they sought Him out anyway. Jesus was probably one year old when they finally presented him with expensive gifts befitting a king. They searched for him at great cost and worshipped Him. There’s a very ironic thing going on here: In Matthew’s Gospel, the Gentiles are now “his people” whom Jesus will “save from their sins”. He will be king not only of the Jews, but of all nations. This is the hope of Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” This is a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the nations will come bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

This is not an endorsement of astrology, of course. The bible clearly forbids that. But the point is: God met these Gentile Magi precisely where they were, using whatever access to knowledge that they had – in the form of a star. Should we be surprised that God leaves us a witness in the starry sky above and the moral law within our hearts? Witnesses that point us back to the wisdom and power of the Creator? God has left us traces of general revelation in every culture, sign posts that point us back to Himself.   

At the end of the day though, that Christmas star could not lead the Magi all the way to their final destination. They needed to stop and ask for directions: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” And it is only in Scripture, God’s written word, His final and ultimate revelation, that they found the way to Jesus. Hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Micah (5:2) has left them with the most important clue that the Christ will come from the town of Bethlehem, from among the clans of Judah. And this ruler is no ordinary king because his origins are from ancient times.

Friends, we can’t find Jesus on our own terms. We need God’s own self-revelation to find the way to salvation.

Some years back, we did our first Alpha course in CDPC Subang. It’s just an opportunity for people (skeptics, seekers, new believers, even long time believers) who want to explore the Christian faith to come together and have a safe space to ask questions. It’s a friendly place to have a conversation about the big questions – is there more to life than this? What is our final destination? Where do we come from? Who am I – really? The meetings start with a simple meal, then we watch a video presentation where these topics are discussed, and the highlight is small group discussions where people feel free to ask and talk about anything and everything. If that interests you, I would like to invite you to come for the next Alpha course on 17 Jan 2015. Sign up with me or google CDPC Puchong online.

Anyway, I was leading a small group with some very eager seekers who ask tough, challenging questions. Three of them left behind a high paying, prestigious consultancy career to go on a spiritual journey, backpacking in China for months. A mountain climbing friend invited them to come for Alpha. We had a really engaging time sharing our views of life and the question of God from various angles. We didn’t pretend we have all the answers. We could laugh at ourselves. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Eventually, we realized that our discoveries in science and technology, our knowledge and rationality could only take us so far. It’s the same with our personal relationships. You can only guess what’s on my mind until I truthfully reveal it through spoken words. In the same way, we can only get so far following the star of human wisdom. To understand God’s mind, we need Him to reveal Himself to us through His inspired word. And that sparked a hunger in us to dig deeper into the Bible, ask God to speak to us through it and see what He has to tell us.

Friends, it is only in God’s revealed word that we come to a real encounter with Christ this morning. So may I invite you to explore together what God’s word has to say about the big questions in life? Talk to us about the Alpha course. We’d be delighted to hear from you.

A little boy was sitting quietly, deep in thought one Christmas morning. His family was busy unwrapping presents that they have given each other. Then, he said: “Everybody gets a present on Christmas day, but what about Jesus? Why didn’t He get a gift? I thought it was His birthday!”

Funny isn’t it? Every one gets a gift on Christmas day except the birthday boy.

The Magi came and presented Jesus a tribute fit for a king. Say, what gift will you bring to the King of kings? Perhaps, the best tribute we can bring Him today are not gold, incense or myrrh. There is a nice Christmas song that goes like this (I’ll Give My Heart):  

Whose is that star
We've seen in the
You're not the least

Who is this Child
This Baby Boy
Who but the Son of God
Could bring so much joy

What can I give
What can I bring
What is a gift
That is fit for a King
I'll give my life
Not just a part
I'll give my all to Him
I'll give my heart

The best gift we can give to King Jesus is not gold but our lives! Not just a part, but our whole hearted devotion to Him and His kingdom. He is not a tyrant like Herod who lies and kills in order to keep power. Jesus is the kind of King who gives up power and becomes vulnerable in order to serve. He’s the kind of King who would sacrifice His own life on the cross to save us from our sin, guilt and condemnation. And He rose again in victory three days later so that He can make all things new.

Which King is ruling your life right now? Is your heart controlled by pride, self-promotion, lust and greed this Christmas? Do you think more about yourself than others? Do you crave for wealth and control over the people around you? If so, then sin is in the driving seat of your heart.

If you have never followed Jesus or recognized Him as King and Saviour, would you hear the call of His kingdom this morning? He’s calling each and every one of us here to follow Him, to join this kingdom of peace and justice that will one day overthrow all evil and wipe away all sorrows. Give your life to Him so He can cleanse it, renew it and purify it. 

As we gather this morning, we also come as a community of diverse people from various cultural, socio-economic, ethnic backgrounds gathered around the King and His kingdom. And there’s nothing that Jesus loves more than His bride, the church that He gave up his life for. 

So I think the best birthday gift we can give Him is to present ourselves as His people purchased by His own blood, as the bride whom He loves. Some of us have made a commitment to follow Christ and express that decision publicly through baptism. Some of us have been baptized as infants and today publicly confirm their faith before God and His people. Some of us have experienced what it means to live and grow together in a community, to serve God together with our unique abilities and to be spiritually accountable to one another. There’s a beautiful depth in relationship and growth in discipleship that is only possible when we commit and covenant with one another to serve the King as a body.  

What can we give, What can we bring
What is a gift, That is fit for a King
We'll give our life, Not just a part
We'll give our all to Him, We'll give our heart

Picture of the Magis bringing tribute to Christ by HeQi 

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