Andy Stanley - Kingdoms In Conflict
Hey, I don't know how you were raised in terms of religious upbringing, but the tradition I was brought up in, and I think a lot of you can probably identify with this, is that I was encouraged at a very young age to pray some sort of salvation prayer. In my case, to ask Jesus to come into my heart. Yours might have been a little bit different. To pray, for you to ask Jesus to be your savior. And that's a big deal to parents, especially when I was growing up. Make sure that I have a place in heaven, my sister has a place in heaven. For me, don't raise your hand, I prayed that prayer a lot. Just sort of an insurance thing. Like at end of every camp or kind of had a dip in the road, it's like, just in case, Lord, I just pray that prayer again. It's kind of... And again, you have maybe something in your religious tradition similar.
Then as a parent, of course, I did the same thing with my children. We did the same thing with our children. It was very important to us that at just the right time when they understood enough, we don't wanna wait too long, we don't wanna go too early, wanted our kids to understand what it meant to place their faith in Christ and become a Christian. In fact, for us it was pretty simple. We kinda decided if our kids were Christians and they knew how to read, we're pretty much done here. That was just kind it. So, we homeschooled for a few years, then just put them all in a big old public high school. Our oldest Andrew said it's because we didn't love him anymore. That's what he said. He said he had to learn all the bad words in one day from the lunch lady. That's what he says. So, not trying to model how to parent.
Anyway, back to the original topic of the salvation prayer, the whole thing is super important. And again, for parents, for my parents as it related to me, from me as it related to my kids, when kids wonder, and some of us we all kind of wonder, there's something in a parent or grandparent that's like, "You know what? They're kind of wondering from their face, but I remember when they were eight, they were 10, they made that decision to put their faith in Christ".
And there's something very reassuring about that. But the focus of all that was about entering in. Entering into something. Ultimately entering into heaven one day, which is very important, right? I don't regret that decision at all. I'm so glad that my parents encouraged me to make that decision as a child, but when you follow Jesus through the gospels, like you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, these four amazing accounts of the life of Jesus, the emphasis is very different. It's not so much about entering in to something someday. It's primarily about participating in something right now. And the problem is when we reduce either for children or more so for ourselves, when we reduce Jesus to a sin forgiver and a ticket to heaven, we actually miss out on his primary call to our lives and on our lives to participate in something right now. And what happens is, and we don't do this on purpose and nobody does this to us on purpose, in those moments, we become believers rather than participators. We're to believe in rather than to participate in something.
Now, in the first century, these were synonymous. The believers participated as we're gonna see today, because the first century believers apparently understood something that we easily, and I think in some cases we intentionally overlook. That with the birth of Jesus, a king was born. A king who would actually establish in this life, on this planet, an upside down others-first kingdom in the here and now. A kingdom of conscience, a kingdom of the heart, a kingdom that was to move a group of people in societies, every language, every nation, every generation of the world so that there would be a new kind of kingdom ethic instituted and modeled by a king. And here's the interesting thing. This is undeniable. This is just history. The people early on in the first century in particular who participated then, not who believed them, those who participated then is the reason we even know to celebrate Christmas now.
Today we're in part two of our Christmas series, The Day After Christmas. And as we said last week, on the day after Christmas, everybody was anxious to get back to normal because on the day after that first Christmas, things were very chaotic. In an effort to update the tax base and to make sure Rome knew who was alive, where they live and if they were paying enough taxes, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken. This is amazing, so ambitious. Of the entire Roman world. So, everybody had to go to their place of birth, which for many people wasn't hard because they lived in their place of birth, but many people had to travel to their place of birth to register so the empire would know, how many citizens do we have? Where are they in? Are we getting enough taxes? And if not, how can we increase the tax base, or how can we increase the income to the empire? And of course, all this traveling around as you know is what set the stage for the very first Christmas, but in those days, and this is so hard for us to imagine, in those days, there was no Christmas.
Again, it was just chaos. And in the chaos, a child was born. But as we discovered last week, not just a child and not just a savior from sin, a king was born. Not a religious figure. We've reduced Jesus to a religious figure. A king was born. In fact, according to what the angel said to Mary, when the angel said to Mary, "Hey, your birth is gonna be unusual", the angel said, "This child's kingdom, his kingdom will never ever end". We reduce Jesus to a religious figure, but in the first century, that was not the case. They saw what we miss because they experienced what we can only imagine.
In fact, hundreds of miles away from Bethlehem, there's a group of men, we don't know if they knew each other before or they just communicated through mail, but there was a group of men that were politically connected, very wealthy, very connected in terms of what was happening in society, their particular society, and their job, their hobby essentially was to look for messages from the gods in the sky. They studied the movement of the planets and they studied the movements of the stars. And either independently or collectively, they noticed, or they identified a brand new star. And they were absolutely convinced that indeed this brand new star was the indication that a king had been born, and specifically, a Jewish king had been born. So, they did what of course they would do. They decided to go to the logical place to meet the brand new baby king that had been born into this world that they had discovered or discerned from watching the movement of the planets and the stars. And they went to the logical place. They went to Jerusalem. They went to Jerusalem to meet the baby king.
This is what this Matthew tells us happen. The Magi as they're referred to came from the east, and they came to Jerusalem, because of course, if a king is born, the Jewish king, surely the king is in Jerusalem. And they ask around. They just start asking people on the street, or they went to the temple, or they've tried to find government officials, or perhaps they had letters from their kings to say, "Hey, when you get there, look for this person, ask for this person, give them this letter". They begin asking around about the birth of a king. "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews"? And they're asking this assuming everyone in Jerusalem is like, "Oh, you go about 100 yards up there and take a left. Or you go to the temple. Or you go to Herod's palace".
Assuming they would get there and everybody in Jerusalem would know about the birth of a Jewish king. And nobody seems to know what they're talking about. And they're like, "You're kidding. We saw a star when it rose and we've come to worship him. What do you mean? You don't even know that a king has been born in your midst"? The problem, of course, was that the Jews already had a king. And so, when king Herod heard this, he was disturbed. He was not happy about this. And all Jerusalem with him because the birth of a king, especially the birth of a king and it's written in the sky and people from different parts of the world have recognized that something new has happened in the city of Jerusalem or in the vicinity of Jerusalem or in Palestine.
This was very disconcerting to Herod. Herod had already mapped out how his children would eventually take over his rule. He'd already worked out a deal with Rome so that when he died, his sons would be given areas that he was currently ruling. This was all worked out. If there was a new king and if the birth of this king had been foretold by the stars in the sky, this was not good news for him. And perhaps it wasn't good news for the region, because the birth of a king led to civil unrest. The birth of a king could mean civil war. It was certainly a threat to Herod's legacy. And when he had called together because he's so disturbed, Herod calls together all the chief priest and the teachers of the law. So, he brings them in from the temple to his palace. He asked them, "Isn't there something written in one of the prophets? I mean, you guys are the experts. You should know. Where is the Messiah to be born in?" as we talked about last week. Herod interjects a brand new word, the Magi. He said, "A king is born". But Herod has a sneaking suspicion this isn't just a king.
Again, if it has been foretold by the stars in the sky, this is a big deal. So, he asked the religious leaders, "Hey, isn't there something in the prophets about a final king"? God's anointed one, that's what the word Messiah means. Herod has a feeling, this isn't just a king. This is the king, this is God's final king. Not anointed or appointed by a prophet or a priest. God's anointed king, anointed and appointed by God himself. So he says to them, "Isn't there something in our ancient scriptures about where the Messiah, when the Messiah comes is to be born"? That's the Hebrew term Messiah. The Greek term is Christ. And Herod knew what we easily missed. That the term Christ is not a name, it's not a label, it's not even a differentiator. It's a title. It means king. God's anointed final king.
And Herod knew if God had finally made his move, his kingdom, his rule, his legacy, his dynasty would be threatened. And so he says, "Where is it that this king, this Messiah is to be born"? And they're like, "Oh, we're glad you asked because we're the experts. Six miles from here. Just six miles from here in the village of Bethlehem". Everybody in Jerusalem knew where Bethlehem was. "In Bethlehem right here in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written". And then they quote to him what Micah said about the birth of a ruler. Micah wrote many, many years earlier, "But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah are by no means least among the rulers, for out of you will come a ruler". This was so disturbing. Herod sends everybody out of the room. "What do I do about this? This has been prophesied. If word gets out that there is a baby king and that the stars and the sky have proclaimed his birth, and if these religious leaders run around the city saying, 'Hey, the prophecy in Micah has been fulfilled in our time,' I'm doomed".
So then Herod called a different meeting. He called the Magi, and secretly. No one else is in the room. And he finds out from them. And he says, "Tell me the exact time that this new star appeared in the sky". He's trying to ascertain the approximate age of the child king so that he would plan accordingly. Herod was a planner. He was an architect. He was a military strategist. He'd been in power about 40 years. He had navigated some of the most tumultuous times with Rome and had won the favor of Rome. Even though he made many mistakes along the way, he was not gonna sit around and just watch events unfold. "So, tell me exactly when you saw this star because I want to figure out exactly the approximate age of this king".
Now, here's where our lives intersect with king Herod. You see, Herod had no problem at all acknowledging that he sinned, that he broke God's law. In fact, Herod's family kind of adopted Judaism. They weren't exactly Jewish. And they had a very unusual relationship with Judaism, but he was a second or third generation from a family that had embraced Judaism, and now he's the king basically of the Jews ruling that area. And so, he had no problem going to the temple and making sacrifices for his sin, he had no problem in the world recognizing that Yahweh was God, he had no problem with all the ritual, all the animal sacrifice. In fact, not only did he not have a problem with it, Herod actually rebuilt the Jewish temple. It was kind of a mini-temple. It was in disrepair. Herod comes along and spends a lot of his own wealth and raises taxes to create this temple that will become one of the wonders of the world. And he did this for the Jewish people. He had no problem with the ritual. In fact, the temple sometimes is referred to as Herod's temple because it's the second temple.
So again, he's all about the religion, he's all about the ritual, he's all about, "Yeah, I've sinned, we have a deal, we have a building at the temple". This is where the heaven kinda met earth. It was the epicenter of God's presence. He had no problem with that. In fact, he invested in that. So, forgiveness of sin, that's one thing. The rituals and the ceremonies, the animal sacrifice, that's one thing, but submit himself, bow his knee to another king, another ruler, never. And that's where we are. As long as religion is religion and my job is my job, and religion is religion and heaven out there somewhere, and hopefully it'll work out on the other side, but in the meantime, this is what I got to do, this is how I live my life, this is how I make my decisions. There we are attempting to keep having an earth conveniently separated.
On the first day after Christmas, that was no longer an option because heaven had come to earth in the form of the baby king, the child king who had established a kingdom in this world, in the hearts of men and women, and would invite everyone of every generation and every nation to participate in it. So Herod sent them to Bethlehem. He sent them to Bethlehem to discover the exact location of the child king. He said, "Gentlemen, I want you to go and search carefully for the child. And as soon as you find him," not a day later, not a week later, "as soon as you find him, I want you to report to me. Send a messenger to me so that I too may go and worship the child king".
And after they heard the king, they went on their way, six miles away, to Bethlehem, perhaps with a guide, perhaps with a map. But everyone in the vicinity knew where Bethlehem was. And Matthew tells us that in some mysterious way, "And the star they had seen when it rose," many, many months perhaps before that time, "went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was". And then, "On coming," not to a manger, not to a stable, not to a cave, "on coming to the house," because apparently Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem for many weeks, many months, perhaps over a year, maybe a year and a half, we don't know, but they've moved into a home by this time. So it's no longer baby Jesus, it's child Jesus. It's maybe six month old, one year old Jesus. "On coming to the house, they saw", and again, a different term here, "they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and they worshiped him".
They bowed to a child like they would to a king, they worshiped a child like they would worship a God because God had become flesh to dwell among them and to dwell among us to demonstrate what God is like. And when he was a man, Jesus of Nazareth, it was uncanny. John would tell us, "It was like," I don't even know how to describe it. John would say, "It was like grace and truth. And it wasn't like a mix, it wasn't like a balance. It was like he was all grace and all truth all the time". He said some of the most awkward things, some of the most penetrating things. He never played down or turned down the grace, he never dumbed down the truth. He was all grace and all truth all the time. He was love personified. It's why later as an old man, John tried to describe this epic event, this epic narrative that he'd been privileged to live through. He said, "The only way I can describe God, if I have to boil it down, is God is love". "And John, why would you say God is loved"? And John would say, "Because I gazed into the eyes of love when I gazed into the eyes of my rabbi. And I don't know how to describe it any more than that".
It's as if God inhabited a body and it was so unique. Heaven had come to earth. He sent us a king who would reverse the order of things, a kingdom that was established around others first, a kingdom with the men and the women, the people that had the most power and resources would leverage their power and resources for people with less power and fewer resources. Everything about it was backwards, everything about it was upside down, but then so was our rabbi, so was our king. Back to the story. "And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, the Magi returned to their country by another route". The angel warns Joseph as well that Herod wants to murder the child king. "And when Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious".
And what happens next? If you read the story, you wonder why would someone ruin the Christmas story with what happens next? And the answer is because this isn't the Christmas story. This is the story of the birth of a king. And even in the beginning, the kingdoms of man and the kingdom of God would come into conflict, and they would always be in conflict because God sent his king son into the world to establish a different kind of kingdom. And so, Herod gave orders to kill all the boys and Bethlehem. Before we go, we need a little bit... Well, not just in Bethlehem, the entire vicinity. Okay, Sire, that's a lot of children, two years old and under just to be sure. That's my best guess in accordance with the time I learned. "You're trying to execute a child, you want us to execute all the children"? "Yes, that's my orders".
Bad things have been happening to good people, innocent people for a very long time ever since sin entered the world. And here's something that maybe this message is for you, maybe this is the part of the message that you need to hear. Our Christian faith does not require us to look away from cruelty, injustice, and suffering. It is part of the story. It is baked into the story. It is woven into the fabric of the story from the very beginning. As we say, at the end of the earthly life of Jesus, the worst possible thing happened to the best possible person. In fact, not only do we not have to look away, as Jesus followers, we are required to look at the cruelty and the injustice and the suffering in the world because it is a reminder to us of why God sent his son and why he didn't just send a savior from sin. He sent a king to lead us and to instruct us in a different way of living. It's the reason we have Christmas. And so, Herod in his refusal to bow to the child king, if only he knew, becomes a footnote in the story of the birth of that very king.
Now, as I said last time, God, it was as if he was trying to secret into the world the birth of this king. And if it hadn't been for the Magi who kind of messed the whole thing up by showing up in Jerusalem and getting Herod's attention, nobody but Joseph and Mary and maybe just a handful of others would even know the significance of the birth of this child. They certainly wouldn't know there was royalty attached. And because it became somewhat public, it became somewhat dangerous to raise little baby Jesus and toddler Jesus and middle-school Jesus and high school Jesus. In fact, here's what history tells us: it would be about 40 years after his birth, it would be about 40 years before the world outside of Palestine, Gentiles in particular, Greeks and Romans began to understand the tension and the reality of what had happened. That God had sent a king into the world. And that there was a tension between the kingdoms of men and the kingdoms of God as expressed through Jesus.
It would be about 40 years of days after Christmas before this became apparent. Here's what happened. About 300 miles north of Jerusalem in Syria, in the amazing city of Antioch, one of the three largest and wealthiest cities in the Roman empire at the time, in the city of Antioch, a new term had been coined by people to describe something that was happening within the city. It was a response to basically a new political movement. Not a religious movement, a political movement that Greeks and Romans were choosing to follow and swear allegiance to a brand new king. They referred to him as a Kristos, an anointed one. And this was disturbing on several levels primarily because this God king that they were swearing allegiance to had been crucified about 10 or 12 years before by Rome. And now not only were they swearing allegiance to him as their king, they said he was a God. But unlike all the pagan gods, this God king did not require sacrifice.
In fact, the people who followed this God king said that this God king came to earth to be the final sacrifice. And specifically not a good luck charm sacrifice, the sacrifice for sin. He was the king who required something other than sacrifice. This was a king that required what any earthly king would require or demand, allegiance and obedience. It's important to understand that in the first century in ancient times, the secular and the spiritual were two completely separate realms. The gods did not care how anyone behaved. They just wanted their blood sacrifices. And Rome didn't really care who you worship. You can worship your ancestors, you can worship your tribal deities, you can worship anyone you want. In fact, their motto when something like this, "To all the people in the empire, worship your gods, but obey Caesar. Worship your gods. We don't care who you worship, we don't care who you sacrifice to, we don't care what their names are or how many there are, you worship your gods, but at the end of the day, you swear allegiance to Caesar".
But in Antioch, there was a group of Greeks and Romans from which this didn't work any more because the divine and the secular had collided, had come together in the person of a Jewish rabbi who they swore was a king. And here's the thing we can't miss, the citizens of Antioch weren't changing religions. The citizens in Antioch were changing their allegiance to a king who invited them into a different way of living, an others-first way of living. It's why we call it the upside down kingdom of God. It was so upside down that the followers of this new king, they would actually... This was amazing in the first century. They would actually give to people and not expect the people to give back. They would loan and not expect for people to return the favor.
And in fact, they would give to and loan to people who could not return the favor, and they would do it on purpose, and they considered that a virtue. They would bind themselves by an oath not to commit fraud or theft or adultery. They would bind themselves to an oath, this was their terminology, was so strange, to carry one another's burdens. They bound themselves to an oath to forgive the people that offended them and the people that harmed them. And then it was so strange, instead of going to a temple and sacrificing an animal to gain the favor of their god, they would get up on the first day of the week before work, because the first day of the week was a workday, they would get up on the first day of the week before the sun rose and they would meet in gardens and homes. And instead of offering a sacrifice to their God king, they would actually sing songs of gratitude for the fact that they no longer had to make sacrifice because their God king was the sacrifice, the final sacrifice for their sin.
And the other thing was that they ignored... This was so disrupting. They ignored almost all the cultural distinctions of the day. It's as if they just didn't even pay any attention to the caste system. There were no Jews and Gentiles. There was not even male and female in the hierarchy. There weren't even slaves and free. They called each other brothers and sisters. Slave owners would refer to their slaves as brothers and sisters. The wealthy would refer to the poor as brothers and sisters. It was so disruptive. In fact, one of their leaders, an ex fishermen named Peter had actually written a letter, and here's what he said. He said, "Let me describe it to you this way. As followers of this new king, you are now joint heirs of his kingdom". No distinction. But most surprising of all is that this new movement with this resurrected king, they were insistent that their king instructed them to submit to the current governing authorities because their king has submitted to the current governing authorities himself, that when he was arrested, instead of fighting, he surrendered.
When he was arrested, instead of rallying his followers, they have betrayed and disbanded him, and he gave himself to his enemies. And God his father raised him. This was not a religion. This was a revolution. But the problem was, what do you call these people? I mean, they call themselves believers and they call themselves disciples, whatever that meant. That just meant teacher or learner, but what to call these people. And so, Luke who wrote the gospel of Luke and also wrote the book of Acts, says, "It was in this city, this flourishing large city of Antioch that the name was finally given". He says, "The disciples or the followers of Jesus were called or actually accused of being Christian first in Antioch". And this term in that culture and in that context meant a partisan of the Christ or someone of the political party of the Christ.
In the first century, Christian was not a religious term. It was a political term. They weren't branded Christians to differentiate them from Zusians, or Jupiterians, or Merzians. In fact, those terms didn't even exist. This was a derivative of Latin political terminology. It was analogous to other words used to describe who someone followed. You could be a Caesarion, a follower of Caesar; a Herodian, someone who followed Herod; or a Christiani, someone who followed King Jesus. In fact, to be a Christian in the Roman empire would eventually become a crime, not because of what you believed, but because it was anti-Roman. In fact, they were persecuted, not because of what they believed. They were persecuted because of whom they chose to obey and to follow. Herod understood this and chose to resist.
The Magi saw this coming and they chose to worship. And these amazing people, Greeks and Roman citizens, and Antioch heard the message of the good news and they understood it and they embraced it, and they didn't just believe, they followed and they participated. He was more than a forgiver of sins. For them, Jesus wasn't a religious icon. He was a king. He was their king. He was the intersection of heaven and earth. He was God personified. So, the question they would ask you and they would ask me the question, the question we should ask ourself in this season, the question that we should ask every morning when we get up and begin our day is if Jesus is the king, if Jesus is God's final king, is he your king? Is he my king?
Don't miss this, forgiven people didn't change the world. The forgivers changed the world. The followers changed the world. The people who chose to participate in this life in the kingdom of God are the ones that shaped Western civilization and elevated the value of women and elevated the value of the poor and elevated the value of children because they begin to understand we are brothers and sisters, and at the foot of the cross, everything is equal and everything is leveled. And whatever God has placed in my hand is a stewardship for the benefit of the people around me. And the world began to change. These were men and women who had a holy, H-O-L-Y, a holy discontent with the way the world was and decided to follow Jesus, embrace the virtues and the values and the ethics of Jesus and to change. And wherever these little communities of Christians, these Jesus followers, these Christians, wherever it took hold, the world became a better place and the world became a safer place because they embraced the kingdom of God as illustrated by Jesus.
You want to make America or your community or your city great? Or to ask it the way Jesus asked his disciples one day on the way to Jerusalem, "Do you want to be great"? He said, "You guys want to be great? Do you want to be great"? Do you want to be the light of your world? Do you want to leave this world, to have made a difference in this world, to participate in something that is not of this world, but is for this world when Jesus showed up to unleash and launch and roll out his kingdom ethic? And the challenge for me and the challenge for you is are we willing to do what the people in Antioch did? Are we willing to change parties? Are we willing to shift our ultimate allegiance and submit to the king who came to reverse the order of things? To submit to the king who said, "Here's what I want you to do. I want you to love one another the way that I have loved you".
John, again, who he's a very old man, he's trying to sum all of this up because he lived it, he saw. John, imagine this moment, he's standing at Jesus' crucifixion with his arm around Mary the mother of Jesus, the mother of God. And church tradition says that John took care of Mary for the rest of her life. And then as an old man, he's trying to sum all of this up knowing he may not have long. And here's what he writes. He says, "I know this isn't gonna make as much sense to you as it does to me, but in him, in Jesus was life, and that life was the light of the entire human race". Even though it was just one body and one person, those eyes, that posture, those words, that conviction, that confidence, that humility, it's hard to describe, but in that one body was the light of the whole world. "And that light shines in the darkness". And when he wrote this, it was so dark.
By this time, it's possible that both Peter and the apostle Paul had been executed in Nero's Rome. We don't know for sure. By the time he wrote this, Jerusalem was perhaps surrounded by the 10th Legion. And soon the temple would be burnt to the ground, to it's foundation. We don't know, but it was a dark time and yet his time with Jesus, his memories, his experiences, "In him was life, and that life was the light of the entire human race. The light shines in the darkness, even in all this darkness and the darkness has not overcome it". It didn't then, it doesn't now, and it never will.
The day after Christmas, Christmas wasn't over, Christmas was just beginning. The king had been secreted into the world. Your king, my king, but practically speaking, is he my king? Is he your king? He's the king who has invited you. He won't force you. He has invited you to participate in something right now. He has invited you to change your allegiance, to bow, to submit, to follow and to participate in his kingdom, the kingdom of God come to earth. So, this Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of the king, the question for all of us, is he your king? Is he your king? Have you chosen to participate in the ever-lasting, never-ending kingdom of Christ our Lord?
Heavenly Father, why do we resist, why do we power up, why do we close our hands, close our hearts? Why do we judge? Why don't we listen? Why can't we just love? Father, would you give us eyes to see maybe this Christmas something we've never seen before? It's both threatening and encouraging, it's threatening, it's inviting. It means not my will, but Thy will be done, and that scares us to death. Father, maybe in this Christmas season, we drop our defenses and say, I want to participate in the kingdom of God as illustrated through Jesus, my king. So, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. And Father, for the man or the woman, the teenager, the college student who faith is pretty much in the rear view mirror, I pray Father that you would light something up on the inside of them. That there would be a curiosity that just wouldn't go away because we've all been invited to participate in the kingdom of God on earth. In Jesus name. Amen.