Kingdoms and Cultures in Conflict

In some Christian traditions, January 6 marks the celebration of Epiphany. A part of the Christmas season, it’s a day that focuses upon the visit of the wise men, or magi, to Christ. Whether Epiphany is part of your tradition, that celebration probably wasn’t your focus this past January 6, as the certification of a presidential election gave way to violence at our nation’s capitol.

I would like to speak to these events in the context of (what I hope is) a Christian worldview and encouragement and exhortation from the Scriptures. I find that it’s actually still the telling of the magi’s story that speaks to us, even about the events of this past week.

Ancient Trends that Transcend Time

Matthew 2:1–10 tells this familiar story of the wise men. From the passage, we can make seven observations that were true of the world 2,000 years ago and are still true of the world this week.

As you consider these observations, I ask you not to filter them through a particularly partisan or political viewpoint, nor to assume that I am referring to a particular candidate or politician. While my observations aren’t completely apolitical, nor do I advocate some “middle ground” (positions that are probably both impossible and irresponsible). Consider these in light of the Christian worldview, and judge for yourselves how these truths from Scripture apply in today’s world.

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem . . .

Observation #1: The manifestation of Jesus in this world occurs within geographical and political contexts.

Jesus was born into the geographical and political context of Bethlehem of Judea (having been born in that place specifically because of tax registration decree), born under the rulership of a king named Herod. Yet he was also revealed to men who lived far away So, too, we have our own contexts in which Jesus is manifested to us today.

2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

Observation #2: Wise men recognize Christ’s rulership in heaven and on earth.

He is a King in an earthly sense—He’s King of the Jewish people. He is also King in the heavenly sense, because He is God (if He weren’t, then He wouldn’t be worthy of worship).

Observation #3: The recognition of Jesus as King transcends cultural boundaries—and so does the rejection of Him.

Jesus came to the Jews in Judea. They should’ve recognized Him as King, but those from far away nevertheless did, while many Jews did not.

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

Observation #4: A region often looks like its ruler.

That which troubles the king, troubles the people.

4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

 7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”

Observation #5: It is often the case that political leaders interact with religious leaders for their own conveniences.

9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.

Observation #6: God moves and leads despite the ill intentions of the powerful.

Sometimes He moves and leads alongside and through the very directives of those in power. In this passage in Matthew, God leads the wise men to Christ because of what an evil king told them to do.

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

Observation #7: When the ruler of the land plots great evil, there is reason for joy.

Alongside the evil intentions and the perverse relationship between the religious and political powers, God still provides opportunities for rejoicing. This story of Matthew 2 has a very bad ending: Herod uses the very information provided to him by the magi to slaughter the babies of Bethlehem.

Even so, there is still room for joy, and this original Epiphany sets the pace for what we will see repeated in history: the acceptance and rejection of the true King of the world. We know this pattern will happen again because the final book in the New Testament tells us so. Based on Revelation 19:11–21:5, here are a couple more observations:

Observation #8: Not even the kingdom of God comes without violence.

Do not be shocked when the kingdoms of man aren’t peaceful.

Observation #9: Not even God Himself convinces all people of His righteous rule.

If Satan can deceive the multitudes to do battle against the followers of Christ after 1,000 years of righteous governance, do not be shocked that, in our present political climate, we can’t agree over that which is light and that which is dark.

We stand somewhere between the two comings of the true King of the world. In this time, we will see kingdoms and cultures come and go. And in every single one, the above observations will be true. So we are situated in a particular cultural context in which Jesus will be made manifest, and in which wise men will recognize His rulership both in heaven and on earth. And this recognition—and this rejection—will transcend cultural boundaries.

Contemporary Trends That Affect Our Spiritual Walk and Well-Being

We turn now to one more example from Scripture. Take some time now to read Acts 17:16–34. As you do, notice the cultural context, and, most importantly, notice that this world and where you are in it is designed for you to find God. We see this purpose especially in these verses:

He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26–27)

We’re not in the Areopagus of Ancient Greece—that culture is gone. We walk in America. And here, in our God-ordained context, I want to share with you three cultural trends that affect our collective spiritual walk and well-being.

Cultural Trend #1: The Bashing of America by Spiritual Leaders

For a while, it seemed that the easiest way to get published or to garner cheap applause was to pick the low-hanging fruit of decrying the American Dream: to wax eloquent on greed and selfishness, and to disparage the inherent “evil of wealth” and “pursuit of happiness.” And it would seem that the quick route to the front page of today’s publications is to cry out “Christian nationalism!” with any perceived overlap between our identity as both Christian and American.

Our ideas have consequences.

The false notion that there exists some perfect manmade system for governing imperfect man will result in our trashing a system that, historically and practically, allows men to live freely—or at least allows men to fervently appeal to a system that upholds freedom in theory even if it fails to honor it in practice.

We cannot preach that the American Dream is a spiritual nightmare and expect to wake up and find ourselves honoring each other in person and in property.

Let me be clear. The American Dream, or even American exceptionalism as properly understood, is an opportunity for improvement. This view doesn’t mean that man or society will ever perfect itself in any context, or that individuals should amass for themselves as much of their selfish pleasures as they can with little thought for others. Rather, we have the opportunity, through mutual and moral agreement, to pursue our dreams and flourish in our God-given potential if we can cooperatively create a society in which our every waking hour isn’t devoted to just surviving to the next season or fighting off enemies. This latter description has been the way of the world for almost every generation, for almost every past society.

The history of the world is one of violence, disease, and poverty. If we return to that way of living because we falsely believe that the American Dream was somehow unspiritual or unworthy of pursuing, even through its missteps, then it will be to our own shame, and it will be our own fault.

If you think the American Dream is inherently flawed because it is “American,” let me remind you of your unique position here, in the United States, to pursue God—and that God is to be pursued in all lands. No matter if we are “men from the east” or “men of Athens” or “men of America,” we can be “men of God.”

The Jewish and Roman Apostle Paul wrote his letter of Ephesians from prison, encouraging us to “redeem the time” even though “the days are evil” (5:16). In our own culture, the American Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter, also from prison, in which he encouraged those in the midst of their evil day to stand up “for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, and thusly, carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”[1]

Those founding documents are great ones. They are not Scripture, nor should we treat them as such. But insofar as they provide for the flourishing of man in recognition of God’s providence, they can be for us and for future generations a means not only by which our citizens come to know their Creator, but for promoting the freedom that allows our own creativity and prosperity to point others to a generous God who made us all.

So, fellow Christians and Christian ministers and authors, when you so freely speak of an American Dream that is unspiritual or unworthy . . .

Be not surprised when that freedom with which you speak is no longer enjoyed by those who come after you.

Be not surprised that a national outrage is so agitated that Americans hate their institutions, hate their leaders, and hate their fellow Americans.

Be not surprised when we trade our extraordinary Dream for a familiar slumber.

Cultural Trend #2: Our Access to Information in Excess Has Given Us a False Sense of Wisdom and Expertise

Acquiring information, pursuing knowledge, and listening to the thoughts and arguments of others aren’t bad things to do. If I thought so, then delivering a sermon would be a foolish exercise. We are, by nature, creatures who want to know, but there are some traps within this unending need for access to and awareness of what’s going on.

Again, it is the wisdom of the Scriptures that instructs us about who we are.

Interestingly, a world in which Adam and Eve had it all—an earth that produced for them unending nourishment and delight, direct access to God, and uninhibited access to each other—was brought down by the desire to know just a little bit more, to obtain a god-like knowledge (Genesis 3:5–6).

In Paul’s last letters in the New Testament, he warns young Timothy against those who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).

So in our excess of access, let’s beware of a few things before we endlessly scroll, and click, and subscribe, and watch:

The exchange of information isn’t neutral. Imagine for a moment that you had no knowledge of the recent events in our nation’s capital, and I reported to you the following two versions of what happened:

  • Version 1: An unarmed, 14-year military veteran was killed by police while protesting at the building that sent her to war four times.
  • Version 2: A rioter breached the United States Capitol through a smashed window strapped with a backpack, but was thwarted by police just before reaching the inner chambers where Congress was in session.

Two versions, same event. If I want to continue to influence what you think, I would tell you the person’s age, sex, political affiliation, and arrest record. I’d label that person a patriot or a terrorist. Those details change what you think, don’t they? They are designed to.

You will realize at some point that the information is just too much to take in, too much to think about, too much to digest. And you will trade how to think for what to think, and you will identify and judge others across a multitude of categories because of snap judgments based on quick associations.

You’ll have to move quickly with this information and judgment, because it will move at such a pace that you can’t keep up, and it will overwhelm you, and you will experience this fear of missing out. We can’t even slow down enough to spell that out (FOMO stands for “fear of missing out” for those not in the know).

Be aware that the fear of missing out will masquerade as a sense of responsibility to be in the know. You’ll trade that for rest, you’ll trade it for family, and you’ll trade it for friendships. But you won’t feel those other things are now missing because you’ll get a dopamine hit with each scroll. Plus, you’ll establish connections that transcend distances, and you’ll amass a network of “likes” and instantaneous feedback unlike that which you’ve ever had access to before.

You will create a moral imperative of unending availability so you can bolster the cause, correct the misinformed, enlighten the dull.

You will do all of these things at the cost of the truth, goodness, and beauty of the world and of relationships right in front of you. I’ve watched people form perverse alliances with people they just saw on the news five minutes ago or with politicians they’ve only just been introduced to in the current political cycle.

We’re saying somebody’s name or waving somebody’s flag based on the thinnest of connections because it’s what our team’s doing, and it’s what’s expected of us, and it’s what—of course—our true companions, the truly enlightened—know to be so obviously and clearly true.

Cultural Trend #3: This Forced Physical Separation Has Highlighted Our Need for Community and Our Inability to Commune Well

Make no mistake: I’m not under the illusion that a distance of six feet, or conversations mediated by panes of glass, or our masked expressions are the single or novel sources of societal angst. But these practices are changing us. And I want to challenge you: If you can gather with people, gather.

I’ve seen the relationships forged by gathering with others in this season in which we’re told to stay away (we’re told we’re in this together, ironically).

You need to remember what it’s like to sit in a room with people, to see people’s faces, to understand they have something to teach you, and they are a catalyst of worship for you because they reflect the image of God.

I’ve been in groups of people coming out of quarantine, for whom the gathering was their first with a group of live people since last spring, where they say they were able to laugh for the first time in nearly a year. I’ve seen people who would otherwise consume and observe in a group setting instead take the initiative to participate and serve—because community creates that.

If you’re not gathering in a body of believers out of convenience or comfort or the mistaken notion that church is just one more avenue of information gathering, don’t forsake the assembling and, with it, your calling to participate in the body of Christ (Hebrews 10:25).

I realize some are homebound or sick, and others have had their churches shut down. I understand the vital role that online connections play in these situations. However, connecting to other believers online (whether on Facebook or some other platform) is not the same as being together. If you’re able, find a group of believers willing to gather and read Scripture and share songs and pray and break bread.

Speaking of Facebook, in this season of limited human contact, you may be tempted to spend even more time on social media as you socially distance and experience the absence of in-person connection. Remember that there are real people on the other side of those screens. And there are real people reading what you type. It’s a lot easier to lob bombs across the keyboard to a screen name, a handle, an avatar than it is to speak our words out loud to real human beings.

As believers, our lives should be marked by grace. Our lives in the digital realm are no exception. We can uphold both freedom and unity at the same time. We will (and should) have our own, sometimes different political opinions, but we must share and argue our ideas with graciousness (see Colossians 4:6), showing the world what civil discourse looks like. We must always strive to live together in unity—as one body, one household, whose chief identity is in Christ (Ephesians 2:19–22)—and take care not to tear one another apart (see Galatians 5:15), no matter if we are inside or outside the walls of a church building, and regardless of denomination or church tradition.

I remind my own congregation that it’s the duty of Christians to wake one another up to the truths from Scripture and the reality of sin in our lives (Ephesians 5:11–21). And it’s the job of the shepherds of every local body of believers to exhort and remind their people of these truths. You’d judge me to be a terrible and unloving father if I were to let my own children act ungodly toward one another. You’d expect me to train them in righteousness. Likewise, I’d be a terrible and unloving pastor if I were to hold the same attitude about unity in the household of God.

I expect Christians to exchange ideas, and I expect Christians to disagree. But I expect us to do so in a spirit of brotherhood, a spirit of sisterhood, a spirit of unity—as “fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6).

Rejoice and Pray

As we navigate the coming weeks of political intensity, I invite you to join me in reflecting on the observations we made from the story of the magi, particularly the seventh one: The ruler of the land can plot great evil, and yet there is still reason for joy. Alongside evil intentions and perverse relationships between religious and political leaders, Christians are to rejoice.

As we rejoice, please join me in praying for our country.

[1] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (p. 20), Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf.