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Lord of the Kings

December 23, 2001

Matthew 1: 18-25


Tony Grant

Lord of the Rings

An angel is in the story, and a young woman, plus a little guy who is destined to save the world. This hero resists temptation and is true to the end. He offers himself as a sacrifice to a good cause, defies death, and remains faithful until he is permitted to leave for a heavenly realm. So, who is he? You might think "Jesus," the one who will "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). Of course you're right, but this is also a description of Frodo - the heroic hobbit in the first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings." The angel of this story is Gandalf, and the Virgin Mary is Galadrial, although - granted - Galadrial is not the mother of Frodo. Still, the Ring Trilogy is a redemptive story that parallels the gospel.

Surely you have seen the ads and previews of the movie that opened this past Wednesday. After sinking $270 million into the trilogy, director Peter Jackson wants to make sure everyone knows about this major movie event. The hype actually began last January, when the first Internet preview was downloaded by 1.7 million people in 24 hours. Lately it has been all over TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, the Internet. People are rabid about the Rings.

But what's it all about? The trilogy begins with a poem:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

The plot of The Lord of the Rings is a classic hero quest. To save Middle Earth, the little Hobbit Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring must take an all-powerful Ring back into enemy territory where it was forged, and destroy it in the blazing fires there. But that is no easy task, because evil forces are in pursuit.

Picture this: The Fellowship undertakes a dangerous trek through the Mines of Moria. The group discovers a vast underground chamber strewn with the skeletal remains of dead warriors, who have been killed by the evil Orcs.

But then: Rumbling. The Moria Orcs are coming!

A pack of the troll-like monsters breaks through the barricaded door, followed by a massive cave troll. Arrows fly, swords flash and Orcs spew black blood. The angelic Gandalf places himself between the group and the Balrog, a giant, fiery demon. A showdown is at hand.

Will the Fellowship escape? You can by a ticket and find out—or you can read the books.

The "Lord of the Rings" looks like it is destined for box-office success, and not just because of its high-tech special effects. Many fans like the film because of its story, which centers on a clear-cut battle between good and evil. In this age of ambiguity and relativism, we hunger for someone who can decisively defeat the powers of darkness.

British writer Jonathan Nicholas says, "We don't believe in anybody anymore, or in anything. We're awash on the sea of life, and nobody seems to have a moral compass. We need someone to engage us, to embrace us, to fire us with commitment and candor, to fill us with passion, hope and trust. We need, in short, a savior" [quoted in Luis Palau Responds E-zine, February 15, 2000].

We have one. We have a Savior whose birth we celebrate in this season: not Frodo the fictional hobbit, but Christ, the Lord of the Kings.

Of course, Jesus did not look like much of a king when he first appeared on the scene, but then the 40-inch-tall hobbit Frodo did not look like a savior either. But both Scripture and Tolkien's trilogy remind us that appearances can be deceiving.

Let's imagine, for a moment, how the trailers for a movie version of Lord of the Kings might read: The camera sweeps across the Middle Eastern countryside, the narrator intones, "They're young and in love, engaged but not living together. Now she's pregnant, the child's not his, but he won't leave her, and he's there for her when they make a tortuous trip to Bethlehem.

But will the unborn child survive the journey?

Where will the couple find shelter in an unknown town?

How will the evil King Herod react to the birth of a future king?

Don't miss the exciting story, now showing in a theater near you, starring Mary, Joseph and Jesus as themselves!"

Descrated Bethrothal

We read that story today in Matthew's birth narrative, which is less popular to read at Christmastime than Luke's literary masterpiece on the same subject. Luke's text focuses on Mary, the obedient virgin, who willingly submits to God's plans and never questions all that is required of her. Matthew's description of Jesus' conception and birth focuses instead on Joseph. Joseph's name and reputation are on the line; Joseph's active obedience to divine instruction saves both his reputation and the baby Jesus.

In Matthew's text, we know nothing about Mary, except for the suspicious fact that while she and Joseph were betrothed, she became pregnant. In ancient Judaea, out-of-wedlock pregnancies were a far more serious issue than in today's permissive culture, and the formal nature of Joseph and Mary's betrothal made this untimely pregnancy a crime with deadly consequences.

A betrothal, while less than a full marriage, was certainly more than any modern notion of an "engagement." In Judaea, Betrothal was a definitive legal state. Contracts had been signed, dowries exchanged, binding agreements set in place. While a legal marriage did not exist until husband and wife consummated their union, a betrothed couple was, nevertheless, a legal entity, bound by the strict codes of conduct. A woman whose betrothed husband died was a widow. A betrothed woman who had sexual relations with another man was an adulteress. When Mary was found to be pregnant, she faced the full measure of the Mosaic adultery laws, which was death by stoning.

Matthew' stresses that Joseph was "a just man" (1:19). As one who was "just," Joseph's obedience to the law insisted that he have nothing more to do with Mary. Under the law, she was an adulteress, and their marriage could not occur. But Joseph could choose one of two ways to void their betrothal contract. He could bring public charges of adultery against Mary and let the law take its course. Or, he could simply take two witnesses with him as he formally confronted Mary with charges of adultery. In the presence of just those two witnesses, Joseph could divorce his betrothed.

So Joseph wrestles with all this, in a personal battle as intense as the fight between the Fellowship and the Orcs in the Mines of Moria. Coming through his own dark night of the soul, he decides to proceed in a compassionate way. Instead of calling for stoning or public humiliation, Joseph decides to be merciful and divorce Mary quietly.

Remember this the next time you have a chance to crush someone who has hurt you. Joseph decides to put down the stone of revenge, and pick up the mantle of compassion.

But then, he is visited by an angel, who tells him, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit."

This is the first of three divinely inspired dreams Joseph will have. This dream tells Joseph to go ahead with the marriage because the adultery accusation is not true. Mary should not be made subject to the law because her pregnancy came about through the activity of the Holy Spirit, not through human disobedience.

The angelic messenger's formal address to Joseph emphasizes an important reason for Joseph to marry Mary and thus claim her child as his own. The angel refers to Joseph as a "son of David." In order for the several Old Testament messianic birth prophecies to be fulfilled, the Messiah must be born of the line of David. According to Matthew, Joseph must become Jesus' legal father in order for Jesus to be able to lay claim to a Davidic heritage.

In verse 21, the angelic messenger gives to Joseph a name for the baby and reveals the role the baby will play in Israel's history. The child is to be called Jesus, the Greek rendering of Joshua, from the Hebrew words "the Lord saves," because he will "save his people from their sins." Thus, Joseph is given explicit foreknowledge that the child Mary bears is none other than the Messiah, the one who will bring about the reality of God's saving forgiveness for all Israel.


In verse 22, Matthew reaches back into Hebrew Scripture to further verify the miraculous events that are unfolding. Isaiah 7:14 is the basis of Matthew's text here,

I suppose that I should talk a bit about the controversy over the word "virgin" in v23. There is a variance between the Greek in the Septuagint OT, which Matthew used, and the Hebrew of Isaiah's text. The Hebrew term 'almah’ is used in Isaiah 7:14, and is usually rendered as "young woman." The Septuagint, however, uses the term "parthenos," that is "virgin," to describe the woman in Isaiah's text. You can argue then, on the basis of the Hebrew, that Isaiah never said anything at all about a virgin birth, even though Matthew says he did.

But Matthew was writing by inspiration of the holy Spirit and was inspired to use the Greek, parthenos—virgin--to emphasize Mary's innocence and the divine parentage of Jesus. Matthew’s point is that whether Isaiah meant it or not the real fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy is in Mary’s baby.


At first glance, v23 may seem to contradict v21. Is this baby to be called Jesus or Immanuel? I suspect that Immanuel is more of a title than a name. Perhaps the story of the poinsettia might help us here. Poinsettias come from Central America and are named for Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was United States ambassador to Mexico almost 200 years ago. The people of Mexico call the poinsettia the "flower of the Holy Night," because the flower's flaming star reminds them of the star of Bethlehem. The baby born in Bethlehem was Jesus— the Lord who saves us--and he was Immanuel—God with us. He was God come among us in the flesh. He is still Jesus, the Lord who saves me, and still Immanuel, God who is with me right now.


Let us return to Joseph, for Joseph is an admirable man. Joseph's obedience to the angelic messenger's command is complete. Without hesitation, he takes Mary for his wife. As further evidence of his righteousness, he refrains from having sexual relations with her, at least until after jesus is born. Matthew's text does not necessarily offer evidence one way or another for the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. The gospel writer is focused on the unique situation that surrounded Jesus' conception and birth--a situation that enabled Jesus to claim both the earthly genealogy of his human father Joseph, and the divine heritage of his heavenly Father through the workings of the Holy Spirit.

The Baby’s Quest

Mathew chapter 1 is the beginning of the epic quest of Jesus the Messiah. He has a long way to go, and many battles to fight, before he finally fulfills his divinely-appointed role as the son of King David and the Messiah who delivers the people of God.

First comes a conflict of kingdoms, one illustrated in the later visit of the "three kings" and their divinely-directed decision not to divulge the location of Jesus to King Herod. This is followed by Herod's massacre of the children of Bethlehem, and the escape of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt. Upon Herod's death, Jesus and his family return. Perhaps initially they wanted to settle in Bethlehem, but that was not safe for them, and so they returned to Nazareth. In Gallilee, the Lord of the Kings reaches maturity, and begins his world-changing work.

Of course, when Jesus is born, he does not appear to be destined to save humankind. He looks more like a refugee than a ruler; more like a common kid than a cosmic king. Anyone looking at the baby Jesus could not have predicted his end, any more than we can guess where the Hobbit Frodo will end up at the conclusion of Fellowship of the Ring. Appearances can be deceiving.

Only in retrospect can we see that on that night in Bethlehem, history was in the balance.

Will the child survive the harsh surroundings of his birth?

Will he survive the wrath of the king?

Will the wise men rat him out and reveal his location to Herod?

Will he be caught in the subsequent bloodbath?

The epic quest continues. Jesus inaugurates the kingdom of God, dies as the king of the Jews, rises as a death-conquering, divine king. God has highly exalted him and given him the name that is above every name, so that as Philippians 2:9-11 says, "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father"

Lord of Our Lives

Jesus is Lord of every ruler and every power; thus he is also Lord of our lives. This leads then to some questions we should ponder as we celebrate the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

Is this baby of Bethlehem the one and only Lord of our everyday earthly existence?

Is Jesus our leader on an exciting and truly epic quest toward the kingdom of God?

Is he our ruler when we face truly tempting choices, and our protector when we feel vulnerable and scared?

Is he the Lord who inspires our loyalty and ignites our enthusiasm, challenging us to fight the good fight of faith and spread the good news of his grace and love?

Now I confess to you that I have read the Ring Trilogy, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked Frodo and Gandalf and Galadrial, and all those other wonderful fantasy characters that J. R. R. Tolkien created. And yes, I expect to eventually see the movie. I know that some folks in the church are altogether hostile to that sort of fantasy, but I have a better use for it. Enjoy it, have fun with it, and let it remind you of your true Lord and true king—the baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, so long ago.

Magic Princess

Because Jesus is our Lord and King, that says something about who we are in Christ. A year or so ago, we told my granddaughter Marin that she was the magic princess, and she picked up on that immediately, and she will tell you right now if you ask her that she is a princess. She hears the fairy tales and sees how beautiful the princesses are, and she sees that as desirable and claims it as part of her identity. And I think that is great. I know that a lot of little girls are called princesses, and I think they all probably like it, because they see it as elevating them to a special status.

But we are all elevated to a special status. We are all Kings and queens, princes and princesses in Christ—because Jesus Christ is the Lord of the Kings. Christians can be a ragtag bunch of hurting, sinning people, but we are also royalty--sons and daughters of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. So the next time you feel discouraged, imagine the crown on your head and remember what you are in Christ. Amen.

Source: Flynn, Gillian. "Hobbit forming."Entertainment Weekly, June 14, 2001.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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