Worship Is a Gift from God
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is the church festival known as "The Epiphany of Our Lord." We don't use the word "epiphany" too often, but it's a great word for an "ah-ha" moment, when things become clear for you. "Epiphany" also is a technical term for the appearance or manifestation of God on earth. Both uses of the word apply to today's Gospel reading. The baby Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises that God Himself would come forth as a king to shepherd His people, Israel. When we see the Magi worshiping Jesus, we have an epiphany, an "ah-ha" moment, and we recognize Jesus as God of gods and Lord of lords.
When the Magi went into the house "they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him" (Matthew 2:11). In Matthew's Gospel, that word translated as "worship" can only have God as its object. No good Israelite would ever condone the worship of anyone except the Lord God Himself. Satan, on the other hand, would have people worship him instead of God. After Jesus was baptized, Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, saying, "I will give you all the kingdoms of this world if you bow down and worship me." And Jesus replied, quoting the Old Testament, "You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only you shall serve" (cf. Matthew 4:1-11). Worship must only be directed to the Lord God, Yahweh, and Matthew would have us see that the worship of baby Jesus was indeed worship of the Lord.
The true identity of Jesus is the main point of today's Gospel, but it's easy to get fixated on the Magi and think that their worship is the main feature. Jesus doesn't do anything in the story, except sit there in His mother's lap. On the other hand, the Magi traveled from afar, bearing gifts fit for a king, inquiring from Herod, and following yonder star. What gifts are more renowned than the gold and frankincense and myrrh they offered Jesus? I'm sure plenty of preachers have used this Gospel reading to say, "Look how valuable the gifts were which the Magi brought to Jesus. Now you should do likewise. Open up your checkbooks and worship the King!"
But to preach that way would be an abuse of this Gospel reading. It would turn this story into a morality lesson instead of truly good news for us. Look more closely at the text and you'll see that the Magi aren't even the main characters; they are just actors in a drama which was written, directed, and produced by God the Father.
For starters, God sent His Son to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. That's a part of the story the Magi contributed nothing to, isn't it? In fact, the Magi wouldn't have come to worship the King of the Jews unless God called them by the star, and then they ended up going straight to the mortal enemy of Jesus, wicked King Herod, who pumped them for information about this king. These so-called wise men were duped into believing that Herod had noble intentions, and if God had not warned them in a dream not to return to Herod, they would have handed Jesus over to His executioner!
But despite the Magis' lack of wisdom, God used them to provide an epiphany to us about who Jesus is. And He gave these Gentiles the opportunity to worship King Jesus, who would save Jew and Gentile alike from their sins by dying on the cross. The worship of the Magi was actually God's gift to them; it was their privilege, for their benefit.
But I'm not sure that's how the Magi viewed their worship of Jesus. We should realize that the Magi were only privy to a small part of God's plans for Jesus. They didn't know the whole story of what Jesus would do in His life and death. The text says that they came seeking the King of the Jews, not seeking God, so they could not have worshiped Jesus in the same sense that we Christians do. On top of that, the Magi were Gentiles, which means that their religious background was pagan.
Paganism of all sorts teaches that worship is about doing something for your god's benefit. The crassest forms of paganism think their offerings can appease an angry god's wrath. More commonly, pagans require that you follow a certain set of rules in order to please the god and turn away his anger. In every case, paganism revolves around the idea that you've got to do things for a god in order to have a right relationship with him.
If you think that your worship of God in the church puts you in good with Him, then you're acting like a pagan. If you think going to church is something you've gotta do to please God, then you're acting like a pagan. Paganism is all around us and in our midst. None of us is exempt from the temptation to go pagan, as evidenced by the fact that we so often view coming to church as something we do for God, or as a chore we've got to do each weekend, as a responsibility we've gotta fulfill, as a burden we must bear.
Repent. God gave the Sabbath day to the people of Israel as a day of rest, not a day of slave labor. He offers the same thing to us in the Divine Service each Sunday. The Lord draws us here to give us rest and refreshment for our souls. Our souls, which weary themselves by taking on the burden of our sins, need the rest provided here in the Divine Service.
Repent of thinking that worship is something you do for God, and recognize that worship is God's gift to you. The Divine Service is where He showers us sinners with His grace in the Word and sacraments. Every time we gather for worship, we participate in an epiphany of God's love and mercy in Christ Jesus through the Scriptures, hymns, sermon, liturgy, and sacraments.
Do you know why we Lutherans call our worship "Divine Service"? It's because God comes to us to serve us with His gifts. Jesus said, "I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). He continues to come and serve us today. So calling our worship "Divine Service" rescues us from the idea that worship is something we do for God. We are on solid Gospel ground when God is serving us with forgiveness and mercy.
Now it is true that we respond to God's mercy with praise, thanksgiving, and offerings, which is our service to the Lord by which we serve those around us, proclaiming God's goodness to them. But we must confess that our praise, thanksgiving, and offerings are always inadequate and tainted by sin. Still, the Lord is pleased with us because of Christ's sacrificial death for our sins, and so our service to Him is inspired by His service to us. God's Word works in us to produce gratitude and love. The Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, works through the Word to draw us to worship the Lord, which reminds us that we are totally dependent on God for physical and spiritual life.
Worship is God's gift to us, but like all other gifts, the Divine Service can be rejected or despised. When people willfully avoid coming to church, they reject God's presence and forgiveness in the Divine Service and show that their preference is for worshiping the creation rather than worshiping the Creator. There is no way to answer Christ's invitation to frequently partake of the Lord's Supper apart from the church.
I assume you know that, since you are here, but those of us who do come to church are by no means blameless when it comes to despising God's Divine Service to us. We often despise the gift of worship by daydreaming, or by resenting what God's Word teaches us, or by wanting to be entertained rather than fed with solid stuff, or by doubting that what God's Word says is true. But thanks be to God, worship is not for those who are perfect, but for sinners like us!
On the night when Jesus Christ was betrayed, He gave His disciples a memorial of His death by giving into their hands His own body and blood for the forgiveness of their sins. He Himself commanded that the church keep on doing this (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). In the Divine Service the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world proclaims absolution through His minister's mouth and then, as if that were not enough, gives us His body and blood for us Christians to eat and to drink. What, then, is worship for? It is for us poor sinners to receive the grace of God.
I'm not much for slogans in the church since you can't boil down God's revelation to five words or less, but if we did have a slogan for our church, it would be something like, "Where Your Greatest Need Is Met," or, "Forgiveness of Sins Distributed Here." Your greatest need in life is the forgiveness of sins that Christ earned for you on the cross and which He distributes here in the church in Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion. Those are means Christ uses to keep you in the Faith and to strengthen your trust in Him.
I think visitors to our Lutheran Divine Service puzzled by what they see and hear. For one thing, what is that guy doing dressed up in a white robe? Where else is it appropriate for a grown man to dress that way? And then there is the strange old fashioned organ music that doesn't sound anything like the popular music you hear on the radio. And people singing praises to a God who apparently isn't there. Bread and wine that is called the body and blood of the man Jesus Christ. Water that is supposed to wash away sins. A pastor's words of absolution that supposedly grant forgiveness. A sermon that is supposed to be received as if God were actually speaking. Those are seemingly unbelievable things. It takes the miracle of faith to believe them. On top of all that, your self-esteem gets shot every time you come here. Who wants to be told that they're a bunch of poor miserable sinners undeserving of God's love? What sort of person puts up with that sort of abuse, and keeps coming back week in and week out for it? Visitors must think we Lutherans are crazy.
But, my friends, there is nothing saner than attending the Divine Service every Sunday, or more often when the opportunity is there. Sure, each of us is a little crazy in our own way, but there's nothing crazy about gathering here to receive forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. So don't get discouraged because so many others folks you know aren't here; don't be deterred if others think you are foolish for spending time in worship and prayer, or if others think you are wasteful for giving money to support the Gospel ministry here. Don't be discouraged, but rejoice on this Epiphany day, for our Lord Jesus comes among us to offer Himself and all His love and forgiveness. He is just as present among us as He was when the Magi bowed low before Him. Even better, Christ is here for the forgiveness of our sins, and so we bow low before Him this morning to receive His goodness, and thank God for the gift of worship. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.