After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
— Matt 2:1-2, CEB
When the mysterious men from somewhere east came to Jerusalem, they unintentionally put the city on edge. Herod the Great was not about to tolerate any possible rivals to his throne. And when King Herod was upset, everyone around him got nervous; his reputation for paranoia and brutality was well-deserved.
By contrast, the king to whom the magi paid homage was a mere child, hardly the image of power. Yet the men bowed in worship, laid out their treasures before him, and went on their way.
And for decades afterward, Jesus was known to others only as the son of Joseph the carpenter. Not a king — just a guy from Nazareth, a town from which no king could possibly come.
Until Jesus began his public ministry.
It happened even before his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had just performed one of his most stunning signs: the feeding of thousands with nothing more than a brown bag lunch. The people were so impressed that they declared him to be the Prophet that Moses had foretold long ago (Deut 18:15). And they were determined to make this man their king, by force if necessary (John 6:15).
The gospels are clear: Jesus is the King, bringing God’s kingdom of heaven on earth. But just as he had refused to rule the kingdoms of the world on Satan’s terms (Matt 4:9-10), so too did he refuse to take part in the people’s definition of what a king should be.
At Christmas, we sing of Jesus as King:
“Come and worship / come and worship / Worship Christ the newborn King.”
“Come and behold him / born the King of angels / O come let us adore him.”
And in the hymn “What Child is This?” we openly declare, “This, this is Christ the King.”
But what king is this? The King that Jesus knew his Father wanted him to be, a humble king for a humble people? Or the king we want him to be, a powerful king who will give us what we want?
The baby in Bethlehem gives us the sign of a humble God. The paradox of both Christmas and Easter is that the most powerful events of God’s action in human history were accomplished by humble means.
Jesus will, one day, return to reign in power. But for now, at Christmas, when we sing of Christ the King, let’s remember the King as he was given: a baby, a fragile human life.
For unless we know that the power of God can be embodied in humble flesh, there is no hope for the Christian life.