The following message is based on Matthew 2:1-11 and presents the subject of worship, taking the example of the Magi. Their example reminds us that worship is an action of adoration directed to Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. It was delivered on Christmas Eve, 2012 at the Central Schwenkfelder Church.
When we reflect on the original Christmas story, many images come to mind. We think of the manger or stable, because Mary and Joseph could not find a room at the inn. We think of the shepherds who obeyed the call of the angels to come and find the Christ child. And of course, there are the wise men. Magi, as they’re known, with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
During this season of Advent, we have been studying those gifts which money cannot buy, that cannot be secured with a credit card or purchased online; those things that are spiritual in nature, which God affords us through Christmas. Not meant as an exhaustive list, we first looked at forgiveness of sins, then joy; and yesterday assurance. Tonight we look at a special gift as we focus on Matthew’s account of these men from the East, the Magi, as they are known, to see the significance behind their visit. Let us look at the gift of worship.
What is worship? Is it a noun? Is it a service with an organ, hymn books and such on Sundays? Or is it a verb, an action word? Maybe most people would assume the former. But A.W. Tozer, popular 20th century pastor and writer, defined worship as something that we do when he said this: “Worship is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient Mystery, that Majesty which philosophers call the First Cause, but which we call Our Father Which Art in Heaven. My aim this afternoon is to remind us of what worship is and why we are here. It centers on the gift of Jesus. We see a great example of worship in the actions of the Magi.
These were a group of men that traveled from far away. They came from the East. They probably traveled from lands as far away as Babylon, Persian or the Arabian desert. These Gentile men were influenced by the Old Testament prophecy that a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel (Numbers 24:17). From the Jews in their land and their own interest in the stars, they knew that they must follow this star that had been so prominent in the night sky. After days of traveling through the Middle East, they finally reached the birthplace of the king. This particular star would later rest above the town of Bethlehem, where they were probably met by the shepherds, telling them of the angel’s message. So when they saw the star they knew they had arrived and “…rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
Now look at what these sojourners do when they come upon Christ who was just days old at this time. Verse 11 tells us that “…they came into the house and saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Mary and Joseph had moved from the stable and are now in a much more comfortable place. The Magi are let in and they pay their respects to the baby Jesus. Now we are not to think that they worshipped Jesus like Christians worship Him today. The NRSV simply says that they “paid homage to Him.” They certainly recognized him as a monarch. They knew this little one was the sovereign of Israel, but did they know that His reign occupied the kingdom of God? God uses their gestures to show us the significance of Christ. These gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, were no doubt signs of respect and reverence in the ancient Near East.
What is their significance? Gold has always been a very costly item, the most precious of metals, and at one time measuring the true value of any monetary system. Frankincense was thought to have been a glittering odorous gum obtained by making incisions in the bark of several trees. Myrrh was a much valued spice and perfume found in Arabia and a few other places. Psalm 45:8 tells us of the dress of the king: “All Thy garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia;” In other words, all three of these gifts were expensive and given by the Magi to the newborn King.
Matthew 2:11 states: “And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshiped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.” The Greek term is proskunew which means: “to fall down and worship, to prostrate oneself before, do reverence to, or welcome respectfully. The Persians had a custom of prostrating oneself before a person and kissing his feet, the hem of his garment, the ground, etc. before their deified king.
This reminds us that true worship involves self-abasement, self sacrifice, and self-denial. It has nothing to do with the right genre of music or a sermon that happens to be entertaining. Although God did not call us to be boring, we who participate in worship (the entire congregation) must keep in mind that God is the center of attention. Worship is an action directed towards Him. It is not an event that we attend like a football game or a hockey match. It involves adoration, praise. It is not entertainment. It is more than just a service; it is a lifestyle. The attention is on God!
Every person is religious; we all worship something. For some, it may be an image; for others, it may be themselves. Still for others, it may be a drive for success, the accumulation of wealth. And there are those that worship pleasure, the satisfaction of our appetites, whatever that might be. I recently asked a college-age friend of mine what were the idols on his campus. He said: “gold, girls and glory.” As I said yesterday, God has created each of us with a hole in our soul that can only be filled by Him. We might try to fit other things in there, but we will never be truly satisfied unless we come to Christ and are reconciled to Him.
One of the interesting things in this story is that the title that the Magi gave Jesus, is what would later hang above Jesus’ head as He hung on the cross: King of the Jews. As a type of irony, to prove God’s endorsement of His one and only Son, He was called “King of the Jews” at His birth and at His death!
In contrast to the Magi, you have Herod. King Herod was not really concerned about the birth of Christ, as you can read later in his slaughter of the innocents. He was probably disturbed out of insecurity and jealousy. Herod was a ruthless king. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian writes this epitaph: “A man he was of great barbarity toward all men equally, and a slave to his passions…”
What can we learn from such things? Certainly this: that those closest to the means of grace, and those that should have the best understanding of God, are sometimes far from Him. And those that we might least suspect would have a desire for him, are sometimes the hungriest. The magi, traveled from far away to worship the King of the Jews. The whole of the Scribes and Pharisees were close by, yet showed no desire to investigate the birth of Christ. And even when they were exposed to Jesus’ teaching, never responded in as much to leave their own comfort zone, and yet they knew the most.
Some of us who have attended church all of our lives run the risk of losing our passion for Christ. We think that we’ve “heard it all before.” We might be the most susceptible to “missing the boat.” Then there are those that have lived apart from Christ all of their lives. When they hear the gospel for the first time, it appears as how it was meant- revolutionary. J.C. Ryle, English pastor of the late 19th century said: “Let us beware of resting satisfied with head-knowledge. It is an excellent thing, when rightly used. But a man may have much of it, and yet perish everlastingly. What is the state of our hearts? This is the great question.”
Christ is worthy of our worship, just as He was worthy of theirs. He is Lord and king and we must recognize Him as such. Back then the Magi gave Him gifts. Jesus then gave His life. Today, He asks us if we would give Him our lives. Communion is a symbol of that exchange, where we recognize His gift and we offer ourselves back to Him. The bread represents His body. The cup represents His blood. This is why belieivers often recite the Apostle’s Creed on communion Sundays, a statement that provides a summary of what it taught in the New Testament. Communion is also a time of confession and rededication. As we partake of the symbols together, let us remember all that Christ has done for us.