The visit of the Magi: On Worship
At the beginning of this new year, we’re beginning a series of 5 sermons looking at the 5 declarations of our vision statement. You can find those declarations every week on the top of the notice sheet.
And the first is about worship:
‘We seek to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit’.
And our passage today is appropriate. It is the set passage for the Epiphany. Epiphany means the making known, the revealing, of the truth about Jesus and about God.
It tells us of the wise men. They are not kings. They are probably not called Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. Sorry! We are not even told that there were three of them, although there were three gifts.
But this is a passage that teaches us about worship
Worship in Matthew is significant. It is what the third, final and climactic temptation is about in Matthew. Jesus is invited to worship the devil, and he replies that we are to worship God alone. Later, when Jesus walks on water in Matthew 14, we are told that his followers worship him. And at the end of the gospel, when they see the risen Jesus, they worship him.
And worship is significant in this passage. The wise men say in v2: we have come to worship him. In v8, Herod tells them, tell me where the baby is so that I can come and worship him. And when they find the baby, in v11 we are told that they worship him.
And so Matthew puts worship right at the beginning of his gospel. It is what we are about. The Westminster confession (1646) asks: What is the chief end of man? And the answer given is that man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
We exist to worship God, to give him glory, and when we worship God we recognise reality as it is, and we are living in the way that we were made to live.
That is why we put worship first in our vision statement.
And there several things I note from this passage.
1. Worship is a response to the goodness and mercy of God.
Romans 12.1 Paul writes, ‘I appeal to you therefore .. in view of the mercy of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’. The word to note is the word ‘therefore .. in view of the mercy of God’.
Our worship of God is a response to what he has done.
We see that here. The wise men see the star. They know that God has acted. He has sent the one who will be king of the Jews. And they respond to the action of God.
We do not come to church and worship in order to get God to like us or be good to us. God is not some maniacal potentate who sits up there and who needs to be flattered or to have his ego boosted and who will then be nice to us.
We don’t declare that God is utterly truthful and faithful and righteous and just and merciful and wise and powerful and eternal in order to make God feel good. We declare it because it is our response to the God who is utterly truthful and faithful and righteous and just and merciful and wise and powerful and eternal.
When we worship we declare what is true.
And we worship God because he is God. Almighty who is beyond space and time, who does have all power and authority, who is the creator of all things, the sustainer of all things, and the judge of all things. But we also worship him because he is Immanuel, ‘God with us’. He has come to live among us. He stripped himself of his power in order to show us his love. In the words of one of the prayers that we use at this time of year, ‘he shared our humanity so that we might share in the life of his divinity’.
And our worship is a response to the God who has revealed himself, who loves us, and who gave himself to live among us as one of us.
2. Worship follows on from our listening
If worship is a response, then it has to be a response to the God who has made himself known.
He speaks to the wise men in a way that they understand. They see a star and they understand the star. But the star only gets them so far. It only gets them to Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem, in order to encounter Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, they need to listen to the scriptures, the bible. Because it is the bible, the prophecy from Micah, which directs them to Bethlehem.
If we are to be a people who worship, then we must be a people who listen. Worship really should begin when we silence ourselves, and we silence other voices and listen to God.
That is why we do encourage people to put aside time daily to listen to God: to read the bible, to pray, to meditate on the great truths of the faith.
And although our phones and tablets offer a fantastic tool that help us to pray and read the bible – and I’ve recommended a new app from the Church of England called Time to Pray – they also make it very easy for us to be distracted. And if we are going to use them then we need to be disciplined. And if we can’t be disciplined, we need to find other ways to listen to God: to go back to that earlier technology: paper and books!
There are so many voices that are speaking to us. And we need to allow the word of God to come and live in us. We can begin to understand how God works, learn about God’s ways and learn the promises of God – and even if God seems remote and distant, we hold on to them. And it is as we allow the word of God to come into us, to live in us, to shape us, so we will – as a natural response – begin to worship the God who has revealed himself to us, who has spoken to us.
3. Worship involves seeking
The wise men come to worship! They come from the East to seek Jesus.
I wonder how we came to church today? Did we come really seeking to worship? It is very easy to come because it’s my job, or it is what I do on Sunday, or to meet people, or because the vicar has told me I have to, or because I am in the band or choir, or because I am on one of the rotas, or in order to listen to the singing or the talk.
But I wonder how many of us came here today because we are seeking to worship: we have come – not for ourselves - but because we are longing for that encounter for God.
My prayer is that we will people who come to church longing to meet with God, searching for him, seeking him. The Psalmist speaks a great deal of this longing for God: he speaks of how he remembers the joy of when he used to lead the people in procession to the temple (I guess he had a job to do), but now he says, ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God’ (Ps 42.5).
And can I suggest that as you come to church, in the car or walking or cycling, you prepare yourself: ‘I’m going to meet with people – and that is so important. I’m coming to do a job. But fundamentally I am coming to meet with God’. And if because you are doing a job and it is difficult to make that space for God – then could I urge you to come at some other time as well. Perhaps in the evening, or to the previous or next service, or to the Wednesday communion. And please don’t tell me that you don’t like the service. This is not about you and what you like. This is about coming to listen to and declare the praises of God.
4. Worship involves humbling ourself.
Often when we speak of worship we think of music. We speak about the choir or a band leading us in worship. We speak of our prayer and praise as worship. And they are – part of it.
But when Matthew speaks of worship, it is used when human beings encounter someone who is so much bigger than them. They realise that God cannot be controlled. This is the Son of God who walks on water. This is Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. And here they worship because they realise that the baby has come to be God’s King in God’s world.
And as they worship they bow down before him.
I wonder to what or to whom do you bow? What is the altar that you kneel before?
It could be the altar of money, or status, or comfort, or excitement, or sex, or power or routine. It could be the altar of a person: our partner or child or hero. It could be the altar of a sport or a club.
It could be the altar of freedom: I declare that I will bow to no person or to no thing.
I have spoken of the time when I was challenged about this. We were in Russia and talking about veneration of icons. I was saying that I struggled to bow before them. And Xenia said, ‘Malcolm I would find it hard to imagine you bowing to anyone or anything’.
But if you think about it, bowing before God makes a great deal of sense.
We become like the object that we worship. If I worship money, then I will become like money – cold and calculating. If I worship the body or the desires of the body, then I will always be wanting more and it will destroy me. If, like Herod, I worship power, it will lead to the sort of atrocity that happens here with the slaughter of the children.
But if I worship and fall down before the creator of all things, and if I bow before the one who is love, then I will begin to become like him.
5. Worship involves surrendering our treasure
The wise men do not give gifts. The passage is quite clear about that. They give him their treasures.
The first time that the word worship is used in the bible is when Abraham is about to offer his son Isaac to God in sacrifice. He really is prepared to offer God his treasure, the son who God has given him in his old age.
When we come to worship, what do we give: 50p, £1, £5 or £10, a tithe?
But that is not really worship. Worship is about surrendering our treasure: that could be, as it were for Abraham, our child. I am not suggesting that we need to offer them as a human sacrifice – God has made it clear that he will never ask that of us. But you know, our plans for them and God’s plans for them may be very different – and we need to recognise that ultimately they belong to God. For some of us it will be a girl friend or boy friend who is taking us away from God. For others, it will be a habit that is destroying us; Or it will be money which has too much of a grip on us. For some it will be your security and comfort, your career, or the dream of that job, or a desire to marry or have a child.
Later on, in Matthew’s gospel, we are warned not to store treasures on earth, and that where our treasure is, there will our heart be. You see when we present to God our treasure, we are offering to him the thing that is most dear to us. We are offering our heart. And in offering it, we are saying to him that he can take it – or use it in whatever way he chooses.
There is prayer of Metropolitan Philaret
O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You.
You alone know what are my true needs.
You love me more than I myself know how to love.
Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me.
I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation.
I can only wait on You.
Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy.
Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up.
I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways.
I offer myself as a sacrifice to You.
I have no other desire than to seek to fulfil Your will.
Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen
When we come to worship we are not offering God a gift, but we do lay our treasure at his feet.
6. Worship opens us up to the eternal
I think it is significant that God speaks to the wise men in a dream, after they have worshipped Christ.
And when we worship Christ, when we listen to his word, seek him with our whole heart, humble ourselves before him and offer him our treasure, then we will be in the right place to be open to the eternal.
So, for instance in Acts 13.2, we are told that it was while the believers at Antioch were meeting together to worship God and to fast, that ‘the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’.
7. Worship is closely connected with joy.
‘When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy’ (Matthew 2.10)
Peter speaks of how there are moments in our walk with the Lord when we ‘rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy’ (1 Peter 1.10)
And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that the reason Jesus suffered the shame of the cross ‘for the joy set before him’ (Hebrews 12.2)
For the wise men there was the joy that the journey was worthwhile. There was the joy that the message of the star and the message of the bible coincided – that all things hold together. And there is the joy of simply being very close to his presence.