"Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?"
I met King Jesus last week at the Sports-Med health club in Carol Stream, Illinois.
I was coming from a hospital visit with a friend, heading toward my office for a 9:30 a.m. appointment. I was to meet with the president of the company that's publishing my next book. I had timed my morning carefully, so I would have just enough time to visit my friend, drive to work, scoot into the parking lot, and walk into my office with a couple of minutes to spare.
But on the way from the hospital, I realized I was running five minutes early. Sports-Med is about two blocks from my office. I calculated that I had just enough time to clear up a billing issue, so I pulled into the parking lot, bolted through the doors, turned the corner to step up to the billing window—and saw that somebody was standing there talking to the attendant. I checked my irritation, and then, as if in answer to prayer, this man and the attendant each said "Thank you," signaling they were done. The man turned around, offering me a pleasant smile and a "Good morning!" I gave him my I'm-in-a-hurry-but-let-me-try-to-look-gracious smile and greeted him in return.
When I finished with the attendant, I turned around to walk past the receptionist's desk. I noticed the same man standing there. He wore a threadbare sports coat, wrinkled pants, and a calm countenance. He looked me in the eye and, with another warm smile, asked in an African accent, "You wouldn't happen to be going by Wheaton College, would you? I could use a ride."
Where Is This King?
The season of Advent is about preparing for the birth of the King of Kings. The season of Christmas is about welcoming him: "Joy to the World, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!" During this time of year, many are asking the same question the wise men asked long ago: "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?" (Matt. 2:2, ESV).
So where is this King? What does this King look like? How does he make himself known to us today as King?
The problem for Americans is that we have no idea what a king is. I lived in Sacramento for a time, which has a basketball team called the Sacramento Kings. And when I was a boy, I played "king of the hill." There's also a little plastic figure I move around on a chessboard called a king. About the only bit of royalty we have in America is a certain rock star from the 1950s and 1960s, "the king." I suspect that none of these kings will be much help in spotting "he who has been born king of the Jews."
We've done enough reading—of The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia series, and so forth—to at least figure out that a king is political figure who deserves our honor and obedience. But I suspect we each harbor a subconscious image of Christ as King that actually makes it harder, not easier, to honor and obey him.
Resistant to Royalty
For example, I suspect we sometimes think of Jesus as though he were King Herod the Despot. Herod murdered one of his wives. He executed John the Baptist to please a houseguest. He taxed people oppressively and then dispatched soldiers to beat anyone who protested his rule. He even slaughtered every baby boy in Bethlehem, because he was threatened by a rumor about the royal future of one of those boys. In other words, Herod had power and authority, yet he did not use them for good.
Let's admit it: Sometimes King Jesus, who has undisputed power and authority, seems as if he were up to no good. A scan of the morning paper reveals, once again, a dreary liturgy of heartache: Innocents slaughtered by a terrorist's bomb or AIDS or forgotten landmines or the latest tsunami or earthquake of biblical proportions. No, we don't believe King Jesus instigated these modern-day Bethlehem massacres, but we have been taught he has the power and authority to stop them. When he doesn't stop them, we are tempted to think he's no better than King Herod the Despot. Naturally, we're not enthusiastic about honoring or obeying that type of king.
At other times, we think of King Jesus as British royalty, something akin to Queen Elizabeth the Figurehead. Americans remain fascinated with the English royal scene, especially the pomp and circumstance that goes with it. I still recall our country's enthusiasm for the wedding of Prince Charles and soon-to-be Princess Diana. It was a magnificent ceremony in one of the world's most magnificent cathedrals, St. Paul's. Some 750 million watched on TV, and millions of those were Americans glued to their sets in the wee hours of the morning. The apparel and music and liturgy were rich with color and texture and brilliance. We ate it up. We're so fascinated with British royalty, we even think the changing of the guards is pretty cool.
But if Queen Elizabeth were to issue a directive, ordering us to pay taxes to help with the upkeep of Windsor Castle, we'd politely, or not so politely, decline: "Are you kidding? Who do you think you are? We learned long ago—in 1776 to be exact—how to manage our lives without you."
This, of course, is a continuing temptation for those of us who love the "pomp and circumstance" of worshipping King Jesus—both high-church Anglicans who relish fine robes, classical music, and exquisite liturgy and low-church Pentecostals mesmerized by praise choruses and miraculous gifts. But on Monday morning, when the very King we've worshiped taps us on the shoulder and says, "How about forgiving that co-worker? Or giving up that nasty habit? Or volunteering at the food closet?" we're tempted to respond, "Are you kidding? Who do you think you are? I learned long ago how to manage my life without your continual interference." It's hard to honor and obey Jesus if we think of him as Queen Elizabeth the Figurehead.
Then again, some of us think of Jesus as King David the Disappointment. King David had it all. He had the good looks of Michelangelo's David as well as charisma, leadership skills, and military genius. When he became king at a young age, he had nothing but a glorious future stretching before him—the hope of not only his family but of all Israel.
While he is remembered as Israel's greatest king, could he not have become the greatest king in ancient Middle Eastern history, even in world history? Yet he squandered his future by succumbing to adultery and then covering it up with murder. His family fragmented, with many of his sons becoming bent on his destruction. His story ends with a family destroyed and Israel in check. It could have ended so much better.
King Jesus is supposed to care for and guide us. One would think that by putting our trust in him, we should know nothing but blessings. But then your spouse dies, or the children you've raised in the love and admonition of the Lord say they don't know him anymore, or a friend gets pancreatic cancer, or you lose a job you desperately wanted, or, more importantly, desperately needed. King Jesus showed so much promise when we gave our lives to him, but he has not always seemed to manage our lives well. He's become to us like King David the Disappointment. Though we go through the motions of prayer and church and Bible reading, there isn't much enthusiasm for honoring or obeying him.
So one reason we do not honor and obey King Jesus is that, unlike the wise men, we see him plain and clear. We know very well where he is who was born King of the Jews. Indeed, it is a normal part of the journey of faith to look ahead to the Royal One and at times imagine we are seeing instead King Herod the Despot or Queen Elizabeth the Figurehead or King David the Disappointment. But it is also part of our walk to continue to trust his leadership, to continue to follow him, until our vision clears and we see Jesus for the King he really is.
The King and the Pauper
Day to day, however, I suspect that most of us do not honor and obey our King because he often comes to us as King Edward the Disguised.
In Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, we are introduced to Prince Edward and a poor boy named Tom Canty. In the opening pages, they meet each other and discover they look identical. Since each one is dissatisfied with his social situation, they decide to swap places and see what life's like from the other side. Tom takes on the life of Prince Edward, and Prince Edward adopts the life of the pauper Tom. During the course of the novel, King Henry dies, at which point Prince Edward becomes King of England. For the rest of the story, Edward has to convince others that he is the legitimate king. All they see, of course, is a poor boy in rags.
Many people—not just the wise men—had trouble spotting King Jesus in his day, because they were looking for the trappings of royalty instead of an infant in a manger or a young man in a carpenter's shop. Many today have trouble recognizing King Jesus because he tends to show up in the strangest places: "I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. . . . When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me" (Matt. 25:35, 40).
Sometimes he even shows up as a young African looking for a ride to the local college.
The rest of the story
The young man seemed pleasant enough, and I really wanted to help him. I mentally calculated that a ride to Wheaton College would cost me ten minutes at most. But my appointment with the president of my publishing house was just five minutes away. So I smiled and said, "Well, actually, I'm just going a couple of blocks. I've got a 9:30 appointment. Normally, I'd be happy to take you, but I just can't do it today." He said he understood. I walked out the door, got in my car, and started to drive to my office.
I've been a Christian long enough to know better, so in that short two blocks, I began to debate: Maybe that was Jesus. Maybe I should go back and give him a ride. Then again, maybe I'm just being zealous. My calling is my work, no? And maybe someone else is supposed to give him a ride!
Such moments would be much easier if Jesus made himself plain. If only this young man had worn a crown or a bracelet with the initials WWID (What Would I Do?).
When I was a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, the famous Anglican preacher John Stott came for a visit. He was someone I admired deeply. I had read his books and listened to his sermon tapes. He was the king of preachers as far as I was concerned. After he spoke at chapel, I stood in line to meet him. I told him how much I enjoyed his book, and I mentioned another preaching book I was reading. At this, he said, "That sounds interesting. I need to get a copy of that."
I was not stupid: I saw my opportunity to serve the king of preachers! I ran out of chapel and to the bookstore. My heart was pounding as I placed the book on the counter. Breathlessly I said, "I'm getting this for John Stott!" I rushed back to chapel, stood in line again, and gave him the book. He was as grateful as I was proud.
Suppose John Stott had then said to me, "Mark, I stepped in a mud puddle on my way to chapel, and I'm scheduled to meet next with the board of trustees in a few minutes. While I stand here greeting people, would you mind polishing my shoes, getting rid of the mud and the muck?" I would have done it in a heartbeat, and I would have bragged about it for years. I would have used it as a sermon illustration later in life.
If Jesus would only come like that, in the form of people we admire, there wouldn't be so much internal debate and doubt. But as I said, when you've been in the Christian life for a few years, you should know better. I knew better. But I drove down the street to my office anyway and made my appointment on time.
Complicated by time
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic Life Together writes about the sort of encounter I had:
We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps reading the Bible. When we do that we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised athwart our path to show us that not our way but God's way must be done.
It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God's "crooked yet straight path" (Gottfried Arnold). They do not want a life that is crossed and balked. But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.
Why is it that I kept on driving even though I've read this Bonhoeffer passage dozens of times and should know better? Well, I'm selfish, proud, lazy, and narcissistic. I'm not alone in this, but though this is true of everyone, there are also states of mind that contribute to the problem. One such state of mind is very American, very modern: We have a funny relationship with time.
Though we'd like to believe that Paul's "fruit of the Spirit" is "love, joy, peace, patience, efficiency, and punctuality," it is not so. Yet we instinctively believe it is, and we even put efficiency and punctuality at the top of the list. We follow their dictates even at the expense of love, which really is at the top of the list.
Take punctuality. As a culture, we allow only a limited number of excuses for being late. If I explain to a business associate that I'm going to be late because I have a flat tire, he's likely to say, "No problem, those things happen."
If I were to say, "I'm going to be late, because my son is sick, and I had to get him some medicine before I left the house," this man would say, "No problem."
But suppose I were to say: "I'm going to be late because I bumped into a homeless man, and he needed a meal, but I didn't want just to give him a handout. So I took him to a restaurant and sat with him while he ate." This man very well might say, "What's with that? I thought we had an appointment!"
Even if he were more understanding, we have a cultural sense that this last excuse isn't a very good one. This sense persists even when we're dealing with people who ought to know better. The woman I was to meet in my office that morning is a devout Christian. She lives and works in a community that deliberately strives to embody the teachings of Jesus. If I had said, "Pam, I'm going to be about 20 minutes late, because I have to give a man a ride to Wheaton College," Pam would have said, "No problem." But so committed am I to punctuality that it didn't even occur to me to phone her about it.
Efficiency is a similar value. I had planned my morning so that I would just make the 9:30 appointment. I gave myself time for my morning routines, for the drive to and from the hospital, and for a 20-minute visit—all planned so that not a minute would be wasted. When I found I had an extra five minutes, I used it to its fullest, taking care of a bill at Sports-Med. That way I didn't "waste time" by coming back during my lunch hour.
Taking the young man to Wheaton College did not fit into what I had imagined was an efficient morning or what I conceived of as the beginning of an efficient day—arriving 20 minutes late for my first appointment!
Let me be clear. Punctuality and efficiency are virtues. The former is a sign of respect; the latter, of good stewardship. The problem is when these virtues begin to manage our schedules, when they take over for the Spirit. God, as Bonhoeffer points out, loves to manage our schedules by interruptions.
So how to respect time, yet honor and obey King Jesus who likes to interrupt our lives? Here's one thing I'm doing: I'm trying to build into my schedule ten- to fifteen-minute blocks of time so that I can feel less pressure when King Jesus taps me on the shoulder. For instance, I'm trying to get into the habit of leaving for appointments and meetings ten to fifteen minutes early. If I arrive at my breakfast early, I look for opportunities to ask the waitress a few more questions than I would normally, or I spot a friend in the restaurant and try to find out what's going on with him. And if a complete stranger approaches me and needs a listening ear or a ride or even a meal, I have the space in my day to make it happen.
If no opportunity presents itself, I take it as a sign that the Lord simply wants me to spend the time quietly or in prayer. (Which I then have to remind myself is not a waste of time!)
King Jesus the Friend
After reflecting on this Jesus who comes as King Edward the Disguised, I think I've figured out, at least in part, why he does things this elusive way. As Americans, I think we're specially situated to understand it.
We have a principle in American politics that says we respect the office even if we don't respect the person. I know a lot of people who came to despise Bill Clinton toward the end of his presidency. Because of his failed policies (in their view) and his moral failings, they could hardly talk about him without turning red.
But if Bill Clinton had shown up at their school or workplace, you can be sure these people would have stood in honor. To honor the person? No. To honor the office of the President of the United States. That's because we respect the office, as well we should, no matter who happens to be inhabiting it.
Jesus comes to us not with a crown on his head or a WWID bracelet. He disguises himself as one of us, because he wants us to remember that we are not just disciples of the Lord and servants of the King—though we certainly are these things. He wants us to respect his office, but he also wants us to love his person: "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (John 5:14).
It's when we make space in our busy days to meet King Jesus in personal, intimate settings—in a manger, in a carpenter's shop, or even at Sports-Med—that we find he's not only a King to serve but also a friend to love.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today. He first preached this sermon at Church of the Resurrection in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
Mark Galli's newest book, Jesus Mean and Wild, is available at ChristianBook.com and other retailers.