Sunday, 22 January 2017

On the work of reconciliation

A sermon preached at Bury St Edmunds' Churches Together Service to mark the beginning of the week of prayer for Christian Unity, January 2017

There is something very special about services like this.
Opportunity to gather together as Christians from different churches in this town.

Although it does remind me of the committee set up to decide what denomination God would be when he returned. The Catholic said he would definitely be Catholic because they were the true church. The Methodist spoke of how he would be Methodist because of the singing. The Baptist said that clearly he would be Baptist because they were so right on believers baptism. And the Anglican after a long silence said, ‘But I don’t really understand why he needs to change?’

Many different things we disagree on: styles of worship, attitude to tradition, liturgy, how long sermons should be! Different attitudes to our sources of authority – Bible, Church, experience and reason – and we will all combine them in different ways. We will have different views on politics, Brexit, human sexuality, pacifism, the environment, Trump (his election does make the game of top trumps slightly awkward and a bit political!).

But I hope that there is something that we do agree on:

And that is that at the very heart of the communities where we worship, and at the very centre of our individual lives is faith in Jesus Christ, who loved us, was crucified and who rose from the dead.

We are Christ-ians. We are the people of Jesus Christ. And we have gathered because of him, around him and to meet him.

1.      We are people who have a shared motive.

Paul writes, ‘For Christ’s love compels us because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died, and he died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again’. (2 Cor 5.14-15)

And I would hope that we are people who are beginning to be motivated, ‘compelled’ by the love of Christ

Jesus loved us and he died for us.

He is the good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep.
He is the woman turning her house upside down to find the lost coin.
He is the Father who runs to his younger son and who, if you notice from the passage, goes out to the older brother.
(I wonder if there is a bit of a Trinitarian structure there)

Jesus, the eternal Son of God, left heaven and came ‘out’ to earth to die for us, even to become sin for us (v21), because he loved us.

He looks at us, at you, and he sees deep within you that kernel, seed of God createdness, the image of God, of who you were truly made to be. And he delights in that, and he longs for you to be set free from all that is preventing you from becoming that person; and he desires deep intimacy, the closest of friendship, with you.

But it is our pride and fear and hate and self-centredness and perverted desires and prejudice and unforgiveness that have built up a wall that separates us from God.

If we think about the story of the Prodigal son, and we assume that the Father represents God and the sons represent us, then it was the younger son’s desires for a life that was lived apart from his Father, it was his rebellion against the Father, that destroyed his relationship with the Father. He believed that the Father was the one who was preventing him from having a good time.

But the older son was equally cut off from the Father. It was his pride which destroyed his relationship with the Father. He is so obsessed with his status and his rights and his stuff. In his own mind he thinks that he deserves it, he has worked for it and his younger brother does not deserve it. He does not realise that everything that he has and in fact everything that the Father has is his (‘all that I have is yours and you are always with me’), as a gift.

St Patrick got this; he was captured by grace. He wrote in his confession, “And I am certain of this: I was a dumb stone lying squashed in the mud; the Mighty and Merciful God came, dug me out and set me on top of the wall”.

We’ve built up the wall. We’re cut off from God. Some of us are like the younger son, far off, in a state of rebellion against God, eating pigswill. And some of us are like the older son, cut off from God by our morality and our attempts to justify ourselves. We cannot receive the free gift of mercy.

But Jesus, in his love for us, on the cross, paid the price for our sins. He smashed the wall down. He runs to greet the one who has rebelled but who is turning back. He goes out to the one who refuses to come in.

I have here a piece of concrete. It comes from the Berlin Wall. From 1961 to 1989 this was part of the wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin. They said that they built it to protect their people and keep the West out. In fact, what it really did, was keep their people in. It was a prison wall. It separated families and it divided a nation. And then, in November 1989, it was torn down, block of concrete by block of concrete.

The death of Jesus broke down the wall that separated us from God - so that men and women could come to know God. It is when we realise just what it cost God to ‘go out’ to us who refused to ‘come in’, that we begin to realise the depth and the extent of the love of God.

And Jesus died for me.
But Jesus also, on the cross, died for you. He died for the Catholics, for the Methodists, for the Reformed, for the independent and non-denominational fellowships, for the Pentecostals and Baptists and Salvationists and Quakers. He even died for the Anglicans.

We are told that ‘one died for all’ (v14,15). So, that also includes Moslems and Hindus and Buddhists. It includes the ‘don’t knows’ and the ‘can’t care lesses’. It embraces the atheists. Verses 14 and 15 are a universalist text. They are not saying that everybody is saved: God respects each person’s decision, even if accepting it means breaking his heart, but they are saying that the love of God is universal. It is for each person.

And it is that which must motivate us: Not just the love of Christ for me – but the love of Christ for you.

Why are you so precious and valuable?
Why do I need to take you seriously?
Why should I be prepared to lay down my life so that you might be reconciled to God?

Not because I love you. But because Christ loves you.

And that leads me on to my second thing that we have in common (and I am only going to mention two!)

2.      We have a common task.

‘And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5.19)

The story goes that a young man applied for a job as an usher at a theatre. The manager asked him, "What would you do in case a fire breaks out?"
The young man answered, "Don't worry about me. I'd get out OK."

That, I’m afraid, is what we often think about our faith. It is personal and between God and me. And I’ll be OK, and that is really all that matters.
But that is not OK. We have been given a commission, a task: to be reconcilers. To reconcile men and women to God.

Look at the passion of Paul in these verses. ‘We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God’. (2 Cor 5.20).

Listen, he is saying to us, if God loves people, if God so longs for people to come to know him, to live for him and with him, and if Christ was prepared to die for them – what are you going to do about it?

Evangelism, the sharing of the good news that because of Jesus’ death, our friends, our family, our colleagues can know that they need no longer live for themselves, but for God, and know intimacy with God is not something to be left to those of us who are on the lunatic fringe of the church.

You certainly don’t need to do it our way.
You are very right to be wary of a glib or exploitative message.
But if we have even begun to grasp the eensiest-teensiest bit of the love of God for all people, then you like Paul will implore people to be reconciled to God.

Last year I had the privilege of visiting Tony Rutherford in the last week or so of his life in the hospital. He had quite an amazing journey. Every time I went, and it wasn’t the medication, he would be saying ‘wow!’ ‘wow!’ ‘wow!’. And then he said, ‘I have let people down. If I had known it was as amazing as this, I would have told everyone about Jesus’.

This really is something that we do better together (to use a phrase that is slightly out of fashion) rather than on our own.

One of the things that is quite remarkable about Bury St Edmunds are the number of initiatives run by Christians from different churches working together – seeking to bring reconciliation to people. I think of, and forgive me if I don’t mention you, Bury Town Pastors, CAP (and the job club), Storehouse and Gatehouse, Bury Drop in, Sporting 87, Bury Christian Youth, Traidcraft, the St John’s Centre, Christian Aid, Crossways. And this year there is the ‘Who Cares’ initiative, when we are all encouraged to ask our people, and to ask those with whom we come into contact, a very simple question, ‘What hurts the most?’ – and it would be great to see you at the launch event in St Mary’s on 25 February.

And it is also when we work together that we can bring greater pressure on the council or pool our resources so that there is adequate provision for those who are homeless, or who struggle with mental health issues, or who have been rolled out of the safety net onto the floor. And I really do pray that as Christians in this town and region we will be known as people who do care, who tear down walls, who go to people who are outside and who actively look for what unites rather than what divides.

But I also pray that in all these works of reconciliation, as we bring people together, we will not lose the sight of the need for that greater reconciliation that Paul writes about so passionately here: the reconciliation of a human being with God. It would be so great if every church represented here was running a course for enquirers – and if you are not big enough to do that on your own, to go into partnership with someone else. And it would be fantastic if we were each praying for the neighbouring churches course.

It was unfashionable to say this, although in an increasingly aggressive secular state I am not so sure now, but it really is at the heart of what it is all about. God loves people; he delights in them, and he longs for intimacy with them. And when a person is reconciled to God, they then begin to have the resources to be reconciled to others. And we are God’s ambassadors charged with the task of teaching Jesus and urging people to be reconciled to God.

It is why Jesus came ‘out’ from heaven; it is why he died on the cross and this is the shared task that is at the heart of our unity. 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Why the Bible is so important.

The second declaration on our vision statement is that we seek to teach the Bible in a way that is relevant to everyday life.

I would like to look at the passage that we have had read from 2 Timothy. It is a letter written by Paul, an experienced minister of the gospel, to Timothy, a younger man who is pastor of a church in Ephesus. And our verses today tell us why the Bible, why Scripture, is so important.

Of course, we must remember that when Paul speaks to Timothy about ‘Holy Scripture’, he is primarily speaking of what we know as the Old Testament, the first two thirds of our Bible. However, some of the earliest writings of the first apostles had also come to be recognised as ‘Scripture’. So, for instance, Peter writes to a congregation about Paul’s writings. He says, ‘His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures’ (1 Peter 3.16).  And very quickly the Church came to accept the books that we have in our New Testament as Scripture.

So what Paul writes of Scripture here, can be taken to apply to the whole of what we have as our Bible.   

And Paul urges Timothy to continue in what he has learnt and become convinced of (2 Tim 3.14). And Paul urges him to continue to be committed to Scripture.

And he gives him 4 reasons

1.      The Bible is God breathed (v16)

We need that conviction today. When you pick up this book, you are picking up the word of God. We often say it at the end of a Bible reading: ‘This is the word of the Lord’.
This is inspired – literally ‘breathed in’.

That does not mean that this is auto-writing.
Some people would try to persuade us that they are channels for someone who has died, and that they are writing down the very words that these people are giving. They put a pen in their hand, their brain in neutral and just write. Apart from being wrong – the Bible makes it clear that we must not even attempt to get in touch with the ‘other side’ – God does not work that way.

He doesn’t override our feelings, intellect and decisions. He works through our feelings, intellect and decisions.
So these are the words of God – and we can see through them to God - but they are also the words of Paul – and we can see through them to the person of Paul.
We can see the heart of Paul, the passion of Paul. We can also see his frustration or anger or disappointment or brokenness.
God does not override Paul’s personality or circumstances.
He uses Paul’s personality and circumstances.

It is like what we believe about Jesus.
We believe Jesus was fully 100% human. When you look at him you see a human being living a perfect life. But we also believe that he is 100% divine. When you look at him, you see 100% God. So with the Bible. It is 100% the words of Paul and Peter and Matthew and Luke and Isaiah. But it is also 100% the word of God.  

This is no ordinary book. When the Queen was given a Bible at her coronation, the moderator of the Church of Scotland said to her, “Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.”

Now I know that there are many who would challenge that. They would argue that science has disproved the Bible, that we can never know how to interpret the Bible, that it is sexist or homophobic or seditious. For 70 years it was banned in the former Soviet Union. It is still a banned book in North Korea, in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen. And people have constantly tried to discredit the Bible: they misquote or take verses out of context and try to show how foolish or unacceptable they are.

And I would never deny that there are challenges. There are bits of the Bible that are hard to understand. There are teachings that challenge the thinking of our contemporary society. And we need some humility in this, and recognise that people have used the Bible to justify things that we now realise the Bible can never be used to justify: things like the crusades, the burning of heretics, slavery or apartheid or the justification of turning women into objects who are there to satisfy men. And people have handled the Bible in an offensive way – even though the Bible itself teaches us to treat all people ‘with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3.15).

St Augustine said, “The Scriptures are holy, they are truthful, they are blameless.… So we have no grounds at all for blaming Scripture if we happen to deviate in any way, because we haven’t understood it. When we do understand it, we are right. But when we are wrong because we haven’t understood it, we leave it in the right. When we have gone wrong, we don’t make out Scripture to be wrong, but it continues to stand up straight and right, so that we may return to it for correction” (Sermons 23.3).

We really don’t need to defend the Bible. Spurgeon said, “Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a lion! Unchain it and it will defend itself.”
And my challenge to people who have heard all this horrendous stuff about the Bible is very simple. Read it for yourself. Begin in the New Testament. Read one of the accounts of the life of Jesus.
And when you read, pray; ask God, if he is there, to speak to you through the words.
And don’t read it to pick holes in it; don’t read it as an academic exercise; read it – even if you don’t believe it – as if it were the lively oracles of God. Read it with humility. Read it as if it were ‘God breathed’

2.      The Bible can make us wise for salvation

The Bible does not save us.
Possession of the Bible does not save us – not even of one of those really big old family ones!
Knowledge of the Bible does not save us. There is the story told of the person who, on his death bed, was found reading the Bible and making notes. He said he was cramming for finals.
Being able to quote various verses, or list the books of the OT and NT, or quote the Bible, or know who Karen-Happuch is, will not save us. But if you tell me at the end of the service, it would impress me!

The Bible does not save us. But the Bible makes us wise for salvation.
What saves us is when we listen to the message of the Bible, and put our faith and our trust in the person who the Bible is all about, Jesus Christ.

So, for instance, after his resurrection, when Jesus appears to his followers (they can’t believe that he has risen from the dead), he says to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24.27)

This was a really big thing in Jesus’ teaching. We need to be aware of this. Many of Jesus’ opponents were Bible people. They knew their Bibles. They studied their Bibles. They could quote their Bibles. But Jesus challenges them, ‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5.39)

The Bible does not save us. But it is important because it does make us wise so that we can come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. 2 Timothy 3.15 tells us that it makes us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

3.      The Bible equips us for every good work.

‘All Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man or woman of God is equipped for every good work’ (v16-17)

God, in his word, in the Bible points us to Jesus. He speaks of his coming. He speaks of his kingdom and rule. He tells us his plan and the way that he works. He tells us of Jesus, who he is, the sort of life that he lived, his teaching, his suffering and death and resurrection, his giving of the Spirit, his living in and among his people and his coming again. He tells us of his desire that all people, from all nations, of all creeds, will come to know his love for us.
And God, in his word, the Bible, shows us our brokenness and our need for Jesus to do good works; And as we realise that we cannot do any good work in our own strength, he invites us to come to the One who can help us.
And God, in his word, the Bible, teaches us what the good works are that we are called to do: how we are to live as his people under his rule. It shows us the good life, the way of wisdom: the way of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
And God, in his word, the Bible, gives us examples of people who have done good works. He tells us of men and women who put their faith in the word of God, even in the face of awful opposition. He warns us of the sort of temptations that we will face. He encourages us to continue to be faithful.

And God, in his word, the Bible, reassures us. He speaks of his love and forgiveness, of how he chooses nobodies like us and uses failures like us. He reassures us of his presence and of his power at work in us and for us.

The Bible is described as a hammer and a fire. It breaks open lies and falsehood and shows evil to be evil. (Jeremiah 23.9)
The Bible is described as a rock. A rock on which some stand, and some stumble (1 Peter 2.8)
The Bible is described as a mirror (James 1.23). You read it and you begin to see yourself as you really are, in the light of God.
The Bible is described as a lamp (Psalm 119.105). It shows the way to go, and how to live.
And the Bible is described as a sword (Ephesians 6.17; Hebrews 4.12). We do not have physical weapons in our battle against lies and half-truths. The only thing we have is the Word of God. And all we can do is proclaim the truth.

But that is enough. It is all we need to be equipped to do every good work.

4.      The Bible changes how we live

Paul urges Timothy to hold on to Scripture. ‘As for you’, he says, ‘continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it’. (v14)

I think he is probably speaking of himself and the others from whom Timothy heard about Jesus. In 2 Timothy 1.13, Paul writes, ‘What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus’.

And in the first few verses we read today, Paul reminds Timothy of his teaching, way of life, purpose, faith, patience, love and endurance in suffering.

And so Paul is saying to Timothy: ‘Hold on to Jesus and hold on to Scripture, because you can see from me that this all works’. It is not an antiquated book that is really only of interest to historians. It is not a science textbook putting forward the latest theories. It is not a book of philosophical theory. It is important because it changes how we live. It is about living for God, putting him first, going where he wants you to go, trusting him, being oh so patient with people, learning to grow in love. And it is about living that way in the face of trials – many of which come because we are followers of Jesus.

And it works!


And Paul in 2 Timothy 4.1-2 urges Timothy to preach the word. To do it in season and out of season, literally to do it in good times and in bad times. He is urged to speak the words of God to his people to correct, rebuke and challenge, to encourage, to give careful instruction.

I am passionate about this, as you probably realise!
I was brought up going to church. But as an older teenager I began to realise that although I was a Christian, it was more a label thing and a social thing. I did not pray and I certainly did not experience God at work in my life. So I made a decision to start to regularly pray and to read and study the Bible. I read through Genesis, linking passages in Genesis with other parts in the Bible. I then read through Luke’s gospel, doing the same. There was no overwhelming experience that I had, but as I did that, I began to become more and more aware of the reality of God, and of the power of God at work in me and through me.

I would urge you to be people who love the word, who seek to get to know the word, who speak the word, who live the word. Our Church (with a capital C) needs men and women who are willing to preach and the teach the word. And sadly, in so many of our churches, it is not happening.

That is why this church unashamedly has a history, a tradition, a legacy of being a Bible teaching church.
It is why today we seek to be a Church which teaches the Bible. If we don’t do that, challenge me.
It is why small groups where we can come together to study the Bible and learn to apply it to our everyday lives are so important.
It is why we urge ourselves and we urge each other to spend time daily with the word of God – using the readings on the notice sheet, using Bible reading notes, using wordlive or Time to Pray or whatever. It is why I would encourage people to use approaches like ‘Dwelling in the Word’ – spending a week or a month or even a year on the same passage - or learning passages of the Bible by heart (why not start with 2 Timothy 3.16-17) and meditating on them during the day or when you are lying awake at night. It is why I would encourage people to go on more serious courses getting to know the Bible, maybe even taking out a year of your life to do so.

In the words of another preacher, and I quote,

“May I urge you – as I always have done, and always will – don’t just listen carefully to what the preacher says, but take time regularly to read the Bible at home as well. This is something I never stop drumming into my friends and acquaintances!
Don’t let anyone make excuses like these: ‘I’m too busy with politics .. I must get on with my job’.. What on earth are you saying? It’s ‘not your business to read the Bible’ because you’ve got too many other things to bother about? But that’s the very reason why you need to read the Bible!
The more worries you have, the more you need the Bible to keep you going!  .. Your wife or husband irritates you, you worry about your children, your enemies are waiting to catch you out, someone you thought was your friend is jealous of you, your neighbour spreads rumours about you or picks quarrels with you, your colleague acts behind your back, someone sues you, you suffer from poverty, you lose your nearest and dearest .. Where can you find a suit of armour, or a castle from which to defend yourself? Where can you find ointment for your wounds, but in the Bible?
Haven’t you noticed how a smith, mason or carpenter, however much is back is against the wall, will never sell or pawn the tools of his trade? If he did, how could he earn his living? That is how we should think of the Bible; just as mallets, hammers, saws, chisels are the tools of the craftsman’s trade, so the books of the prophets and the apostles, and all scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit, are the tools of our salvation” (From the sermon ‘On Lazarus’ (third discourse) by John Chrysostom, 350?-407, quoted in Lion Book of Christian Classics, p20)

Those words were spoken by a man called John Chrysostom, and they are as relevant for us today as they were for his listeners 1700 years ago.

Friday, 6 January 2017

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.