O Lord my God, if what I say is of me, then I pray that it will be forgiven by both you and by those who belong to you; but if what I say is of you, may those who belong to you receive it, delight in it and drink fully of it, that we might become more fully yours. We pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus. Amen.
There is something that has bugged me in the way that Matthew tells this story.
He writes, ‘When they saw the star they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him’. (Matthew 2:10-11)
Why do they rejoice when they see the star and not when they have entered the house and see Jesus?
But Matthew is telling us something that is quite important.
The wise men rejoice (literally, the Greek is ‘rejoiced exceedingly with a great joy’) when they see the sign pointing to Jesus. But when they see Jesus, they worship.
And in case you think that I am making a big thing of something very little, look at Matthew 28.
In Matthew 28, some of the women have come to the tomb where Jesus was laid after his death. They see that the stone has been removed, and an angel speaks to them. And in verse 5 the angel says, ““Do not be afraid .. Jesus is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him. Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell the disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them .. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him.”
It is exactly the same. There is joy when they hear the message that Jesus is alive, there is joy at the sign pointing to Jesus. But if you notice, there is worship when they come face to face with Jesus.
I think there are other places which speak of the joy which comes when we realize that Jesus is near:
Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”
1 Peter 1:8f, “Though you have not yet seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
There is a difference between joy and worship.
Joy is an emotion. It is a gift which comes from God. It is, certainly in the context that we are looking at here, a result of revelation – when God has shown us something in our head or in our heart. And here God has shown something, revealed something to these people, and they respond with joy. (cf note the connection between joy and revelation in Luke 10:17-21
Worship however is bigger than joy. It is a choice, a decision, an act. It may spring from an emotion, and godly joy certainly should lead to worship. But worship is not an emotion. It is an act. It is the act of meeting with Jesus.
And the act of worship of the wise men was to come into the presence of the king, to kneel before the baby, Immanuel (‘God with us’) and to offer themselves and to offer their gifts to him.
And the act of worship of the women at the tomb of Jesus, when he came to them, was to fall down and clasp his feet.
The act of worship is a response, not to the message of Jesus, but to a meeting with Jesus; to a meeting with the one who is more beautiful, more holy, more powerful, more radiant than anything or anyone that we can imagine
For the wise men, the knowledge that Jesus was near came through a star which broke all the rules. It was a quantum star; it appeared and then disappeared, and then came to rest over a house in Bethlehem. I like that.
Astrologers are people who believe that our fate is determined by the position of the stars. They try to work out what our destiny is. 99% of what goes for astrology today is rubbish. 1% is evil. The story is told of the local paper which had a horoscope column. The person who wrote it went on holiday, so one of the other journalists stepped in. He started to write the usual stuff, ‘Today you will meet a tall dark handsome stranger’, and so on. But he got bored. So for one star sign he wrote, ‘The woes of yesteryear will appear as nothing compared to the disaster which will befall you today’. The switchboard was overwhelmed and he got the sack.
Astrology will never work because reality is bigger than all our rules and laws and predictions. Science is only as good as its last observation. If, for instance, the next person who came through that door was wearing a blue sweater, and the next and the next and the next; and if the next million people came through that door wearing a blue sweater, we might start to predict that the next person coming through the door will be wearing a blue sweater. And indeed they are, and the next million are, and it becomes an established rule, an established law. And a genius comes up with a theory as to why that might be, and we develop those theories, and we have a scientific law: ‘People who walk through that door wear blue sweaters’. And then someone walks through the door wearing a red sweater. I love it. Reality is always going to be bigger than our rules and our laws.
And this star which appears and disappears, breaks the rules. It points to a reality that is bigger than what we can begin to imagine about the stars.
And when the wise men see this star resting over the place where Jesus lay, they were filled with joy. They knew that they were right; they knew that this was the place.
For us, the knowledge that Jesus, the Son of God, the one who gives life and whose kingdom is one of justice and peace and joy, is alive and is near may come in many ways.
It may come as a result of a long search, and much thinking. It may come as a result of a remarkable event which breaks all the rules: a miraculous healing, an astonishing answer to prayer, an experience of God, a dream or a vision. Yancey writes of a middle aged woman from a strict moslem background who had dreams and visions for a period of 14 years before she finally surrendered to Isa, Jesus.
But the main way that Jesus has revealed to us that he is very near is through his word and his promises.
The Psalmist writes, ‘Your testimonies (meaning law or ways) are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart’. (Psalm 119)
And on the day of his resurrection, Jesus walks with two of his disciples. They do not recognize Jesus. They think he is dead, and they are profoundly depressed. But Jesus gives them an impromptu bible study. He shows them that the Messiah had to suffer before he entered into his glory. And later they speak of that bible study. They said, Even though we did not recognize him .. “were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
At the beginning of this New Year, read the bible.
The words of the bible point us to Jesus.
Peter writes, We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts .. (2 Peter 1:19)
Try to read a passage each day. Use notes if that helps. If you say that you will, but don’t manage to do so, don’t give up. Maybe read through what you have missed (a sort of binge-reading), or simply go to where you should be, and come back to the bit you missed next year! A number of people said that they did read through the New Testament last year and that they found it tremendously helpful. We’re going to have the same readings on our notice sheet as last year, so if you didn’t do it then, you can do it this year. And if you did read through the New Testament, read it again. Or read the psalm or the Old Testament reading for the day. If you want joy, real joy, then get to know your bible; get to know the promises and the testimonies of God. And ask God to help you understand what you are reading. Work at it. The wise men saw the star, but they had to follow the star to find the place where Jesus lay. And they first went to the wrong place. And Paul writes to Timothy about what is written in the bible, “Think about these things, for the Lord will give you insight into all of this” (2 Timothy 2:7). Indeed there are times when the harder that we need to think or reflect, the greater the joy when we realize what the passage is actually saying.
But, and there is a big BUT, never get so hung up on the sign, or on the bible, that you do not actually go in to meet Jesus. Don’t stop with the joy!
I belong to a tradition which stresses the fact that our worship is a response to the love of God and involves everything that we do, our whole lifestyle. (cf Romans 12:1ff). Worship really is a 24/7 event.
But Matthew reminds us that worship can also be an act, a moment which shapes and defines us: who we are, how we will live, and what our destiny will be.
The wise men would not have been so wise if, having got to the end of their journey, they saw the star over the place, they rejoiced and then turned round and went home.
The women would have been very foolish if, having heard the message that Jesus was alive, and having been told that they would meet him in Galilee, they had rejoiced but simply gone home.
And do not spend your time studying the bible, making new connections, receiving great joy as you uncover new things, but never actually meeting with Jesus. Don’t be like miners digging for that seam of gold that they know is down there, but constantly getting waylaid by little crystals that are glistening along the way.
Do not be like the people to whom Jesus said, “You diligently study the scriptures thinking that in them you have eternal life. These are the very scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life”. (John 5:39)
Of course we will not fully meet with Jesus until we see him face to face in heaven. Then we will be taken fully out of ourselves and we will worship him. He will be our joy, our peace, our everything.
But, even though we cannot meet him here in the same way that the wise men at the birth or the women at the tomb met him, we can still meet him. There is a place for the act of worship.
It can be here in church, when we silently kneel before him, or when we come up to receive communion and invite him to come and live again in our deepest being.
It can be as we walk or drive home after this service, and give ourselves to Jesus. It can be at home, when we kneel down beside our bed and surrender ourselves to him.
We meet him in those acts of worship, when having heard about him with joy, that he is so very close, we respond to his presence and kneel down before him, offer him all that we are and all that we have, and invite him to come beside us to be our friend, to lead us as our Lord, to be beneath us as our rock, to surround us as our protector, and to come into our very being as our life. We worship when we ask him to shape our mind that we might think like Jesus, to melt our heart that we might love like Jesus, and to mould our wills that we might live like Jesus.