(The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on December 20, 2009. It is the fourth of a sermon series called, “A Herodian Christmas Carol.”)
The birth of our Savior is truly an amazing story. And no matter how many times I read it, or hear it told, or see it acted out on stage, the story never gets old. And the reason is that this is not just the story of a baby born long ago who has long since lived and died, but it is a living story because this Jesus is still living today. And when you really hear this story, it does change everything. It changes you.
Over the last few weeks, I have been preaching a sermon series called “A Herodian Christmas Carol.” I have been looking through the eyes of several rulers of Palestine during the time of Jesus, all with the family name of Herod. And when they met Jesus, that experience changed them. When you experience Jesus, it just changes you. Experiencing Jesus forces you to respond in one way or another.
When Herod the Great learned of Jesus’ birth, he responded by trying to kill him. When Herod Antipas experienced Jesus, he responded by asking to see a miracle. When Agrippa experienced Jesus at work through those who followed Him, he arrested them and tried to kill the key leaders. And the last Herod we will meet was no different. When he heard the story of the living Christ, it forced him to respond to.
When Herod Agrippa died suddenly in 44 AD, after a five day infestation of intestinal worms, the heir to his throne was his seventeen year old son, Agrippa II. However, the Emperor of Rome decided that Agrippa II was too young to rule. So, the territory of his father was broken up into smaller territories and became a Roman province. As Agrippa II became older, the Emperor slowly gave him territories to govern. However, Agrippa II never became a significant political force in Palestine like the Herods before him. His territory was never that large. In fact, he never ruled over Judea or Galilee or Jerusalem like his predecessors. In fact, this particular Herod probably would have passed unnoticed to the gospel reader if not for two reasons.
The first reason is that even though he never really ruled that large of a territory, and never ruled over Judea or Jerusalem, for some reason, the Emperor decided to appoint Agrippa II as the Curator of the Temple in Jerusalem. This meant that it was his responsibility to appoint (and depose) the high priest, to oversee the temple treasury, and to oversee the priestly vestments. He was the Roman ruler in charge of the Temple. As a result of this office, Agrippa II was considered by Rome to be an expert on the Jewish religion. When Rome had a question about how to rule the Jewish people or how to understand the Jewish customs, they turned to Agrippa II for advice.
The second reason that we are even talking about Agrippa II today is really nothing more than a scheduling coincidence. The king of Judea was the primary ruler in Palestine. When the rule of Judea passed from one king to the next, it was customary for the rulers of the smaller adjoining areas to come and “pay their respects” to the primary ruler of the region. So, when Festus took over as king of Judea from Felix, Agrippa II, like all of the other rulers of the small territories around Judea, went to Caesarea to pay his respects to the new ruler. It just so happened that while Agrippa II was there, a situation arose where he became useful to Festus as “the expert on the Jewish religion.”
One of the things that Festus inherited from his predecessor was a court case involving a man who was accused by the Jewish leaders of being a trouble maker, stirring up riots, and desecrating the Temple. After investigating the problem, Festus discovered that the man was really innocent of breaking any civil law and that this was really an internal dispute among religious leaders. Unfortunately, the prisoner had taken advantage of a right that belonged to all Roman citizens: he appealed his case to Caesar. So, Festus could not release him. The prisoner that we are talking about was, of course, the apostle Paul, and the court trial is recorded in the book of Acts.
The problem for Festus was that when he sends Paul to Rome, it was his responsibility to present to Rome the charges against the accused. He has to fill out the paperwork on Paul. But he doesn’t really know what the charges are because he thinks Paul is innocent. He has no idea what to put on the paperwork that will be sent with Paul when he appears before Caesar. But lucky for Festus, the local, Roman expert in the Jewish religion is in town. So Festus sets up a meeting for Agrippa II and himself to hear the apostle Paul. Festus is hoping that Agrippa II can help him understand what Paul is accused of.
In Acts 26, Paul was brought before the two rulers and given a chance to speak in his defense, and you know Paul is going to take advantage of this. What Paul really does is he shares his testimony. He told them of his past as a Pharisee of Pharisees, a Jew among Jews. He told them about how he had persecuted those “Christians” who thought Jesus was the Messiah. And he told them about that moment on the road to Damascus, where Paul’s life was changed forever because he met the resurrected Christ. And Paul realized that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. He told them about God’s call on His life, when the resurrected Jesus said to him,
I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26.17-18)
This experience radically changed Paul’s life. From that moment on, Paul told Agrippa, he was obedient to God by preaching the good news about Jesus Christ. He told Agrippa,
But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26.22-23)
Up until this moment, everything seemed to going well for Paul’s defense. He had the whole court hanging on his every word until he mentioned the idea of Jesus being raised from the dead. This was about all Festus could handle. Festus interrupted Paul, saying, “You are out of your mind” (Acts 26.24). But Paul took that moment to say something very important to Agrippa. And here is the moment I want you to see, the moment where Agrippa experiences for himself the resurrected Christ.
25“I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26The king (speaking of Agrippa II) is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 27King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” (Acts 26.25-27)
Now what Paul is saying to Agrippa is that the prophets pointed towards the coming Messiah just like the drama team acted out. Isaiah said that the people walking in darkness will see a great light, and the light has come in Jesus. Jesus fulfilled what the prophets said about the Messiah. As the resident, Roman expert on the Jewish religion, Agrippa was aware of these things, and that is why he responded the way he did to Paul.
28Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” 29Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26.25-29)
Herod Agrippa II met the resurrected Christ, and I see something very important about the Christ through his eyes. I see that when anyone experiences the resurrected Christ, whether its Paul on the road to Damascus or Agrippa in the royal court or you and I sitting in a church in Benbrook, when anyone experiences the resurrected Christ, that experience demands a decision. It demands a response.
When the apostle Paul met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, that experience demanded a decision. Paul was either going to continue to persecute those who faithed in Christ, or he was going to embrace the gospel and turn from his sins and believe upon Jesus as his Savior and Lord. When Agrippa heard about the resurrected Jesus, he knew that this story demanded a response. And he felt it. He felt Paul backing him into a corner. That is why he so quickly said, “Do you think you can persuade me to become a Christian?” This was not just the legal defense of an accused prisoner. This story was a personal challenge to Agrippa. And he knew it.
Today, you have heard and have seen the story of the Christ. This baby was not just a baby, but the incarnate Word of God. Christmas is about the incarnation, when God Himself became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have to ask ourselves, why did God go through all of this trouble? So that we could sings carols and decorate trees and give gifts? No, the purpose behind the incarnation was so that this Jesus could save you and me from our sins. That was the word of the angel to Joseph, you shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us because we are all sinners separated from a loving and holy God. And because God is rich in mercy, He sent His Son to make a way for us to return to Him. And that way was that this baby would grow up, and in the fullness of time, this Christ who knew no sin would become sin for you and me that we might become righteous in the eyes of God. This is the good news of Christmas.
But this story demands a response. If you really hear the story, it will back you into a corner. If you really hear this story, you should feel like Agrippa. You should feel backed into a corner. You should feel this story calling out to you, “Would you become a Christian?” This story, if you really hear it, will force you to either say “yes” or “no” to everything wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
If this baby is who the choir says He is, if this baby is who the drama team says He is, if this baby is who the Scriptures say He is, if this baby is the Christ, the Savior, the Eternal God who became flesh, if this baby is one who has come to save you from your sins, then this baby cannot be just another story to entertain you. This is not just a Hallmark movie with a feel good ending. You have to do something about this story.
And you will either do what Agrippa did or what Paul did.
You can do what Agrippa did. “Would you have me to become a Christian? Wait a moment, I was just here to help my friend rule on a court case. I’m not here to buy into some kind of religious group. Step back Paul.” And you can say the same thing. “Hey, I just came along with my grandmother or my friend. I’m just here to get into the Christmas spirit. Don’t push me. Why would you push me to become a Christian?” You can respond like Agrippa did.
Or, you may be more like Paul. Paul met the resurrected Christ, and his life was changed in an instant. The instantaneous change of Paul is nothing short miraculous. How does a man who is bound and determined to arrest any one who believes Jesus is the Christ all of the sudden come to faith in Christ? How does that happen? It happens because God gets a hold of your heart, mind, and soul and draws you to Himself. It happens when you know in your soul that this story is true.
The Bible tells us that no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws them to His side. And when that happens, when you hear the word, when you hear the gospel, when you hear of the good news of Jesus who came to save you from your sins, the Spirit of God quickens your spirit. When God draws you to Him, the eyes of your heart are opened and you can see the full glory of the gospel. When God’s Spirit is at work in your soul, there is an overwhelming conviction of sin and longing for God’s forgiveness. When God reaches into your soul, it is as if your soul is on fire and you can’t wait to come to Jesus. When God draws you to Himself, this story becomes the bread of life.
If that is happening in your soul right now, if you just can’t walk away from this story, if you joyfully hear the invitation to become a Christian, I want to help you respond to Jesus. I want to help you become a Christian and a follower of Christ.
What do you do with this burning desire to become a Christian? Let me give you four simple words.
The first word is confess. If you want to become a Christian, you have to confess. To confess means to admit that you are a sinner and that sin is a great problem that you can’t solve. Everyone knows they are not perfect, but to admit you are a sinner is totally different than admitting you have faults. A sinner is one who has broken God’s law, twisted His plan for your life, and rebelled against His kingship in your life. When you confess, you are admitting that you are a sinner worthy of the judgment of God. If Jesus came to save you from your sins, then obviously you and I were sinners who needed to be saved.
But the real key to confessing is admitting that there are consequences to my sin. If there were no consequences, then I would not need to be saved. The consequences of my rebellion against the King of Kings is that His wrath is revealed against all ungodliness, and that the wages of sin is eternal death. Because of my sin, I will spend eternity cast out from the presence of God in a place called hell, a place of torment and judgment. To confess is to admit that all of that is true of me.
The second word is to believe. To become a Christian, you need to believe upon the name of Jesus. You need to believe that Jesus is everything the choir has just sung about, that Jesus is God’s Son, that Jesus became flesh and dwelt on this earth, that Jesus died on the cross, in your place, for the forgiveness of your sins, and that God raised Jesus from the dead. You need to believe that Jesus took your sins upon Himself, and through His grace and mercy, you can be forgiven of your sins and cleansed of all unrighteousness.
The third word is repent. To become a Christian, you need to repent. The word repent means to stop walking one way and to start walking another direction. To become a Christian, we must have a change of course. You can admit and believe and still not be a Christian. To become a Christian, you have to turn from darkness and turn to the light. You must leave one kingdom, the kingdom where you are in charge of your life, and move towards another kingdom, a kingdom where Jesus is Lord. This is a change of orientation.
The fourth word is to submit. To be a Christian, you must submit your life to the Lordship of Christ. You need to accept Jesus as the final and complete authority over your entire life. Christ must become the ultimate ruler of your time, your tongue, your money, your morals, your anger, your career, your family, and every area of your life.
When you do this, a great miracle will take place in your life. The Bible says that you will be born again, you will become a new creation, that old things will pass away and new things will come. If God is calling you to become a Christian right now, then would you let me pray for you and with you? I want to lead you in a simple prayer where you can confess, believe, repent, and submit to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
Dear God, I confess that I am a sinner who has rebelled against the King of Kings and am worthy of your judgment. But I believe in Jesus, your Son, whom you sent to die in my place so that I might have forgiveness of sins. Today, I want to turn away from my sin and turn to you. Please forgive me of my sin, and please take control of my life. I submit to you as my Savior and Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
If you prayed this prayer, if you truly admitted you are a sinner, believed upon Jesus, repented from your sins, and submitted your life to Jesus as Savior and Lord, what do you do next? The answer is that you have a lifetime of following Christ before you and His Spirit will lead you to many steps. But let me give you a simple first step.
First, you need to baptized as a testimony of your new life in Christ. Second, you need to become part of a church family where you can worship Christ and learn what it means to follow Him. Finally, you need to develop the personal habits of walking with Jesus each and every day through Bible reading and prayer. But really, all of these need more explanation that I can give you at this moment. So, here is the first step you can take if just became a Christian: when we stand together and sing this next song, I encourage you to come down to the front where I will be standing, shake my hand, and proudly say, “I became a Christian.”
 Matthew 1.21
 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” 41At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” 43“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. 44“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6.35-44)