on Worship

Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany: ‘the making of the light known’. Jesus is revealed for who he is.

But what makes Matthew 2 so appropriate for today, at the beginning of the year, is the focus that is on worship.

‘Worship’ is not a word that the New Testament uses often, and certainly not to depict an event. But here ‘worship’ does talk about an event:

The wise men say to Herod: ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We .. have come to worship him’ (Matthew 2:1)
Herod answers them, ‘Report to me, so that I too may go and worship him’. (Matthew 2:8)
When they reach the house, ‘they bowed down and worshipped him’ (Matthew 2:11)

Matthew is soaked in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament ‘worship’ is an event. It is what you do when you go to the temple, submit yourself to God and offer sacrifices to Him. And so when Matthew uses the word ‘worship’, he is not using it in the way that the rest of the New Testament uses the word. For John and Paul, ‘worship’ is about the offering of the whole of our lives to God.

When Matthew uses the word, he is talking about a particular event when people come to the new temple, to meet with Jesus Christ.

And so in Matthew 14:32, when Jesus has literally walked on water in the middle of a storm, we are told, "And those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly, you are the Son of God.""
And after the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, we are told: "When they saw him, they worshipped him." (Matthew 28:17)

And I would like to draw out three things from this passage about worship.

  1. Worship begins when we listen to God
The wise men listened to God.

God begins where they are. They were not Jews; they did not have the Bible. They were possibly Zoroastrians. But their faith had been shaped by the Old Testament, in so far as it spoke of a star which will rise in Judah. And so God speaks to them, albeit very obscurely, through creation and through their faith.

But what is important is that the wise men listen and they respond: they travel to Judea in order to find the king, and to worship him.

And as they journey they discover that their understanding can only get them so far. The star leads them as far as Jerusalem, as the court of Herod, but no further. That is when they need to listen to the Bible. In Jerusalem, Herod gathers together the chief priests and teachers of the law, and they consult the Bible. They read a prophecy of Micah, which tells them that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.

And the wise men listen to the Bible and the Bible leads them to Bethlehem.

That is also true for us. Our understanding, our reason will only get us so far. The universe, or multiverse, may tell us of the power and eternal nature of God, but it does not help us to get to know God. For that, we need to go to the Bible.

That is why worship begins with listening to God, and is a response to what God has done, and to what God has said.

This is why we are encouraging every member of our congregation this year to read the Bible.  If you're able to read the whole Bible in a year, that is fantastic. If you're able to read the New Testament in the year, that also is fantastic. If you are only able to read a few verses each day, but still give time to God, that is equally fantastic.

What is important is that we make time, preferably each day, to stop listening to ourselves, or the voices around us, and to consciously listen to God. Because that is the beginning of worship.

  1. Worship has to be personal.
 Herod says to the wise men, "When you find the baby, return and tell me so that I can worship him"

We know that Herod did not want to worship the baby. Herod wanted to kill the baby. He did not believe the prophecy; he certainly did not believe that this child was to be the ruler of the Jews. All he saw was a potential pretender to the throne, and he was going to nip this nonsense in the bud before it became a real threat to him.

But if we take Herod's words at face value, we have here someone who was asking the wise men to do all the work, and then present it on a plate to Herod. He says, ‘You’ve done the listening. You’ve done the camel riding. You do the finding. Then come back to me.’ It is the very patronising, ‘Well, you believe all this stuff. Remember me when you go to church – just in case!’

But, in the words of one of my favourite adverts, ‘it doesn't work like that’.

It reminds me of the story of the Australian vicar who was walking to church, and he passed a drunk sitting on a park bench. The drunk said, "Say one for me, Father". The vicar turned round and said, "Say one for yourself, you lazy coot".

You cannot have vicarious worship. You cannot have someone worshipping on your behalf. This is something you have to do for yourself.

Of course we wish to make our worship accessible to everyone; of course we want to help people as much as we can. But this is personal. If people are really going to come to worship, they have to desire to worship. They have to be prepared to listen to God; they have to be prepared to get on their camels and come.

Now I may be drawing far more from the passage than I should, but there can be a danger today that in our desire to attract people to church, we can make it too easy. The result is that we have attenders and not worshippers. We have people who come along to the services because of what it offers them, and not because this is something that comes from a profound listening to God. And we know when that is the case, when people say, ‘I’m off because someone has upset me, or because the vicar doesn’t know my name, or because I don’t like the music, or I’ve got something more interesting to do today’. It is the idea that we come along on a Sunday because we wish to be entertained. The service leader, the preacher, the prayer, the Sunday group leader, the welcomers and setters up and tidiers away can do the listening to God bit, and the rest of us come along to meet our friends, or to have the children taught.

No. Real worship has to be personal. It means that we have to be prepared to do the listening; and as a result choose to come to worship Jesus.

Having said that, I don’t want to be too hard on people who are here. If – in today’s world - you are making the effort of coming to church today, or of asking for your child to be baptised or of seeking a church wedding or of wanting your children to go to a church school, then something is going on in your lives. Somewhere you have heard whispers of angels, you have heard snatches of the good news, you have heard rumours of forgiveness, of right living, of peace with God, of eternal hope, and of joy. And like the wise men, you are looking.

  1. True worship is full of joy.
The wise men had heard about Jesus; they seek Jesus and now they meet Jesus. And they humble themselves before him, and they open their treasures for him.

We see here three marks of an authentic meeting with Jesus: joy, a submission to him and a sacrificial generosity.

Joy: They were overjoyed when they saw the star reappear. There was joy that their journey had come to its end, and there was joy that they had arrived at Jesus.
In one sense, for us, that will be at the end of our lives, when we do see him. But we can also meet with him here. And when that happens there may be fear, there may be weeping, there may be costly decision making - but there will also be joy. 

Submission: It is an amazing picture that we are given here. Some VIP’s come to see a baby. But they don’t coo; they didn’t ask at first if they can hold the baby in their arms. Instead they bow before the baby.
This is not the intimacy of Mary cradling the baby. This is the picture of subjects bowing before their sovereign.
And when we meet with Jesus, of course there will be intimacy, but there will also be reverence and submission. We are subjects coming into the presence of our sovereign and our God.

Self-offering: They ‘open their treasures and .. give’ (Matthew 2:11). These were astonishingly costly gifts.
And if we really do meet with Jesus then we will give.
We will give of our treasures – sacrificially. This is not the place to talk in depth about giving. But our personal giving does reflect what Jesus means to us. If we give £1 a week, then that is great – but (and this is completely between God and yourself. I don’t know how much people give) it does mean that Jesus, and his Church, mean about the same to you as a loaf of bread, a sausage roll from Gregs, a single download from iTunes or a newspaper a week. 

One of my children said, ‘But what if you don’t want to give to Jesus?’
The more that Jesus means to us, the more we will give to him.

So may I urge us to listen to God and to seek Jesus. Don’t think other people can do this for you. Pray for that personal hunger to know him; pray for that desire to meet with him; pray for that longing to worship him. And pray for those moments of epiphany, of revelation, of encounter, when he makes himself known to us and we respond in self-offering, submission and with joy. 

Of course we seek worship Jesus in our lives. Of course we worship Jesus when we meet together in his name, praise him, obey him and serve him. But there are moments for us, just as there were moments for the disciples in Matthew’s gospel, when – as we listen and respond to what God has said - we encounter Jesus in a unique way. And then we will worship him. 


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