It was the worst day of the year—snowy, windy, and cold. I’d agreed to meet my friend Duke for lunch at a restaurant in Grand Rapids. He excused himself early, telling me that he was driving to East Lansing to watch the Spartans play football.
I could hardly believe my ears. What in the world could possess anyone to sit outside in the frigid cold to watch football? Why not stay home and watch the game in the comfort of a warm living room?
Duke explained that he had season tickets, and that he’d never missed a game yet. I could only marvel at the devotion of this man to Spartan football.
Don’t hear me wrong. When we point out that there are affinities between devotion and worship, we are not implying that Duke worships the Michigan State Spartans.
Nevertheless, the example is instructive when we turn our attention to worship, as we are about to do this morning.
We pointed out last week that Christmas is about nothing if not worship. When the shepherds found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger, they stayed long enough to behold him, to contemplate him in wonder and amazement.
The hymns that we love to sing during the Christmas season exhort us to do the same: “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord,” to cite a line from an old classic.
Today the wise men continue the theme: “We have observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Matt. 2:2). To “pay him homage” is an unfortunate choice of words. The original here literally means “to fall down on one’s knees.” In the Jewish mind, prostration is proper only in the worship of God. Far better then to render the verse simply as: “We have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
Our Gospel lesson, which we are borrowing from Epiphany, which is always on January 6, gives us an occasion then to expand our understanding of worship.
We’ve already remarked that worship and devotion are alike. But to return to our example: what is it about the Michigan State football team that inspires Duke’s devotion?
Now if you knew Duke, you’d soon discover that he is a man of profound gratitude. He has fond memories of the years he spent at Michigan State as a student, and is profoundly grateful for what the school gave to him. His devotion, then, can be explained, at least in part, by his gratitude. He expresses his gratitude by supporting the team.
Our lesson mentions nothing about the gratitude of the wise men. But they are a following a star that appeared to them. The star is a symbol of wonder, of curiosity, of that restless search to know, that characterizes human beings.
I remember how our dad used to lay out a blanket under the summer night sky and invite me and my brother to gaze at the stars with him. He knew enough astronomy to point out the constellations most visible to the naked eye and name them. He wanted his children to share his wonder.
The wise men are scholars of the stars. Historians of the ancient world tell us that at the root of the ancient study of the stars lay the conviction that there is this symbiotic relationship between the human world and the stellar world.
Today we know this as astrology. If astronomy is the study of the laws or movements of the stars, astrology was the study of the message of the stars’ movements for directing human affairs (Frederick Dale Bruner).
The two disciplines of astronomy and astrology, now rightly separated, were combined in the ancient world.
These men had long peered into the great book of the heavens, searching for an answer to their questions—they had restless hearts—and at long last the light appeared. They saw it as a portent to signify that a great event had happened, the birth of a special child, a king, and the star beckoned them to venture out to go and find him.
Could the wise men have had a presentiment that in the seeing of the star their search is about to rewarded? As it is written, “Whoever would come to God must first believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6). And if in fact they had this presentiment, would they not have been profoundly grateful?
Wonder and gratitude are closely related. And both are related to worship, as we have been trying to make the case here.
The wise men arrive at Jerusalem, but they have not yet reached their destination. They want further clarity, and so they go first to consult with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
Their inquiry troubles King Herod, who calls together the chief priests and scribes of the people to determine the birth and origins of the Messiah (Matt. 2:2).
Israel places no confidence in astrology. Indeed, her prophets criticized those who did (cf. Isa. 47). But the “star in the East” which guides the wise men, resonates with the Messianic promises in her Scriptures. A star will come forth from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel” (Num. 24:17). No doubt this must have come to the minds of the priests and the scribes as they searched. But they cite a passage from the prophet Micah (5:2): “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
This episode in the drama perhaps yields a general principle for us. Experience of the world can be a source of knowledge of God, as it was for the wise men. But experience alone is not enough. It has to be tested and confirmed by Scripture.
In this regard, author Frederick Dale Bruner rightly points out that the star does not lead the wise men directly to Christ. There is an intermediate stop in Jerusalem, where the Scriptures are opened. Only then is focus given to the star’s light and clarity to their search. To be sure, the star reappears, but only after the Scriptures say “Bethlehem.”
Our experience of the stars can help us raise the important questions. But it’s the Scriptures that lead us to Christ. God’s self-revelation in Christ completes our search.
The wise men resume their search. And at last the star stopped over the place where the child was. “And when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matt. 2:10).
Devotion, gratitude, wonder—these are words that help us understand what worship is. But to these we need to add another: joy.
“Joy is the serious business of heaven,” C.S. Lewis famously said. The great missionary Lesslie Newbigin found it strange that so many Christian conferences he attended were characterized by a pervasive mood of guilt and anxiety. Perhaps Presbyterians can relate to this. In so many of their gatherings people seem far too rigid and serious.
But how can this be when the whole thing we call Christianity began with an explosion of joy? After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, “the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the temple praising God” (Luke 24:52-53). Newbigin concluded from this: “it seems to me that the mission of the church is the communication of that joy.”
The wise men at last arrive at the home of the holy family. There they see the child with his mother. “And they knelt down and paid him homage” (Matt. 2:11). Again, the translation does not do the original justice. The original literally reads: “and falling down on their knees, they worshiped him.”
Here we have to add two more important words to help us in our attempt to understand worship. Worship involves recognition and response.
In the child the wise men recognize the object of their search. And the presence of the child, surrounded by divine glory, invites their response.
Some have wondered if modern men and women have lost the capacity to be moved by glory, by sublime beauty, at least enough to respond in a way appropriate to it.
For their part, the wise men respond by opening their treasure chests and offering their gifts to the Christ child. Here we may pause and ask about the significance of these gifts.
Poets and preachers down through the centuries have sought to plumb the deeper meaning of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh mentioned here. They’ve been united in the conviction that these must be symbols of deeper spiritual realities. Thus, gold is a symbol of royalty, a gift befitting a king. Frankincense is a symbol of worship, for it is only incense permitted on the altar in the temple worship of the people of Israel. And myrrh is a symbol of death and burial. For did not Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea use myrrh and spices to embalm Jesus at his burial? Here is a king worthy of worship who will die. The gifts together constitute a prophetic statement about a Messiah who suffers.
All this is more or less interesting, depending on your disposition or frame of mind. But it is secondary. More basic is this: these gifts are precious.
Is it not the case that gifts are an expression to the recipient of what he or she means to the giver? That is why choosing a gift for someone at Christmas can be fraught with danger. How will this person interpret my gift?
I recently read on a click bait article about a girl who dumped her longtime boyfriend because she found the gift he gave to her to be trivial. In the gift she saw reflected the low value she had in his eyes.
In the Old Testament, the sacrificial laws required of the people to bring the best of their flocks, herds and produce for sacrifice to God at the temple. But the people offered blind, lame and diseased animals for sacrifice. And this saddened God. In these gifts God saw, as it were, the low value that he had in the eyes of the people whom he loved.
When people are drawn to, find, and worship Christ, they also find it within themselves to give to him their best, to bring to him their finest treasures. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the measureless value of Christ, and we respond accordingly.
Christ is the object of our devotion. We venture out in search of what can satisfy, but come up empty. But when we find him, our hearts are at rest. And from a contented and grateful heart there springs the desire to give.
“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own county by another road” (Matt. 2:12).
In an order of worship, there is a “sending.” Worship nourishes us and builds us up so that we can go out into the world to witness to what we have seen and heard, as we remarked also last week.
The church wants to joyfully direct each man and each woman of this world to the light that shines over the child who born for the salvation of all. This is what it is to witness.
The church wants all peoples of the earth to encounter Jesus, to experience the wonder, joy, and gratitude that accompany a genuine encounter with him.
Like the wise men, so many people in our own day, in our own neighborhoods, have a restless heart that continues to search without finding sure answers. They too are characterized by this restless search to know, as we mentioned earlier. They too are looking for a light to show them the path to Bethlehem, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Let us allow the light of Christ to illumine our own lives. He is the true light that shines in the darkness. If we are plugged into him, we are able to bring his light into the lives of people.
To reflect Christ’s light is what we are called to do. How many people look at us, because they need Christ? And when they realize this need, then they can join us too as we take our place next to the wise men to worship the king. Amen.