New Year – New Worship

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Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany 5-1-14

Epiphany is the time we think about the Magi visiting Jesus with their gifts. I always it connects nicely with the beginning of a New Year.

Usually I talk about the wise-men, neither kings nor Jews, most certainly not just three of them, arriving when Jesus would’ve been about two, having got lost and gone via Jerusalem. Of the symbolism of the gifts, or of Herod’s attitude and actions. But I’m not going into all of those things today.

I want us to think about how their journey might relate to our own. A suitable title for this might be ‘The Way’. After Jesus’ ascension, early church Christians were nick-named ‘people of the way’. Partly because they were followers of Christ who said He was the Way and partly because they were pilgrims on a journey through life. Last year on clergy retreat the Rural Dean showed us a film called ‘The Way’ not about the early church but about pilgrimage.

It's about an American ophthalmologist, Tom whose son had died during a storm in the Pyrenees whilst he was walking a Catholic pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Tom goes to France to retrieve the body but when he gets there, in grief and homage to his son, he decides to walk the ancient spiritual trail where his son died, scattering his ashes along the way.

While walking the Camino, Tom meets other pilgrims, people looking for greater meaning in their lives. Reluctantly he falls in with three of them: the first, a warm extrovert man from Amsterdam whose walking the route to lose weight for his brother's wedding and in the hope his wife will find him attractive again. The next is a Canadian woman escaping an abusive husband and doing the pilgrimage to quit smoking. The third’s an Irish travel-writer who always wanted to be a great author like Yeats or Joyce. He’s never written the novel he dreamed of and has been suffering "writer's block."

Themes of loss, community and faith made it good viewing for a gaggle of clergy and we required to discuss it afterwards. Personally I’d struggled a little watching it: not just because I’m not a great movie person but because all I could keep thinking about was it’s similarity to The Wizard of Oz. To my surprise I was the only one (of 9) who’d noticed this fact.

Most of you will be familiar with the story of the Wizard of Oz. Both this and the film The Way are about people on a ‘pilgrimage’. People searching for a supreme spiritual being and guidance. People wanting to improve themselves and/or release their full potential so that they might become better or more fulfilled people.

Both films end with the pilgrims desires met as they realize they have the power within themselves. They hadn’t known how to unlock it but their journey had proved to be the training ground for doing that. They learn a lot on the way about life, themselves and thus return from changed people.

Were the Magi on a similar pilgrimage? Undoubtedly they returned changed people (they went back ‘another way’). They went back, still people of alien culture to the Jews, but now believers that the baby they’d encountered was the King of the world, God. Their lives would never be the same again.

But there’s a profound difference in how this happened. The wise-men were not journeying to RECEIVE anything from their pilgrimage. It wasn’t a journey of self-fulfillment. They journeyed to GIVE not to receive. We know they gave costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh but actually they gave a whole lot more than that. In time, effort and the enormous cost of the travel. Most important of all, they gave their worship. This whole passage is about an act of worship.

Primarily the role of the church is to promote and offer worship so it seems appropriate at the start of a New Year to look and see how we might resolve to do it better.

The Bible says that worship is something we should do with all of our lives all of the time, not just in church on Sunday. In effect that’s what these wise-men did. Their journey serves as a useful picture for lifestyle worship.

Their worship was focused on Jesus so they go to where Jesus is. Prior to this, worship was an event at the Temple. Now Matthew’s talking about people coming to the new temple, to meet with Jesus Christ. The goal of the journey being to see him better and meet with him face to face. Herod tells the wise-men, "When you find the baby, return and tell me so that I can worship him".

But you can’t worship on someone else’s behalf. Worship is something we must do for our self.

Worship, the desire to meet with and offer praise to God means that we have to be prepared to get on our camels and come.

Their worship involved surrender to Jesus. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. Like their gifts what we surrender to Jesus is a sure way of revealing where our heart is. It’s not about the actual amount, but rather what it costs us. For some it might be the equivalent of a sausage roll in Greggs or a tune on iTunes? The wisemen gave a lot, things they valued and were precious to them - they left something of themselves with Jesus.

The wisemen, also didn’t think of their rank, their position in life. They submitted themselves to Christ by kneeling before Him. Today, worship has become something we do with the top half of our head but there is something to be said for involving our bodies in worship, in turning towards the reader as the Gospel is read, in lifting our hands in worship occasionally. Not thinking about what others think of us because we are submitting to him.

How does our journey to Christ, our worship compare with that of the wise-men?

Does it involve total commitment in wanting to see Jesus and in bringing ourselves, our gifts, our praise to Him in full submission?

Or is it more like that of the two films I mentioned. A journey to fulfill our selves and make us ‘better’ people. Sadly, for many, worship is something to come to in order to get something out of it. The focus being on what it does for them, ranging from appeasing their conscience because they’ve been obedient in coming, or from having a nice warm fuzzy feeling because they’ve felt closer to Christ.

Unfortunately these feelings are usually dependent on external things: is the music is to my taste, does the church looks how I think it should look with a big brucey-bonus if the temperature’s right!

The wisemen didn’t think about their surroundings: ‘crikey chaps, there’s no Bach this is no more than a hovel and it’s freezing cold!’

Totally ignoring externals, they recognized Christ and fell before Him in adoration. Real worship – the bringing and giving of themselves to Him irrespective of whether they felt good in return.

Many people come to church but never truly worship. They listen as songs are sung, or maybe sing them without thinking about the words, or the fact that they are actually singing TO God.

Worship is all about giving. I’m sure we’ve all heard a Christian complain, “I came to church and I didn’t GET anything out of it?”

That’s the problem. We aren’t here primarily to “get” something. We’re here to give, to give praise to God,

If we want to resolve to worship better (individually or as a church) we need to look at how did the wise-men get to the point of real worship?

The wise men listened to God. Its encouraging to know that God began where they were, which wasn’t in some holy state already. There’s hope of all of us! They weren’t Jews and didn’t have Bibles. God spoke to them through their work and creation.

What’s important is they listened and responded. On their journey they discover their understanding can only get them so far. The star leads them as far as Jerusalem, and that’s when they need to listen to the Bible. Herod gathers together priests and teachers to consult Scripture. According to Micah’s prophecy the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. The wise men listen to the Bible and go to Bethlehem.

Understanding, reason and science will only get us so far. The universe may tell us of God’s power and eternal nature but it doesn’t help us to get to know Him. For that, we need to make time, preferably each day, to stop listening to ourselves, or the voices around us, and consciously listen to God through His word, the Bible. That’s the beginning of worship.

The teaching of the bible is that Jesus is king. Like the wise men, we must bow before Him. Paradoxically, as we worship Him, as we bow before Him, we are set free. The wise men are wise precisely because they came and bowed before Jesus. In a Baptism service the second main questions asked is: “Do you submit to Christ as Lord?” Do you bow before him and give yourself to Christ?

New Year resolutions that help make us better/nicer people are fine. Other may benefit from them and we will too as we feel better about ourselves.

But if at the beginning of a New Year we take time to look more carefully at the story of the Epiphany we might see that our journey is the same as their journey. It involves researching and looking, travelling and hardship. It is costly and personal. We will invariably get lost on the way and need to consulting the Scriptures. Once we find the Christ we need to submit and GIVE everything rather than standing waiting to see what we can get from Him.

In the end the seeking and giving results in finding the truth that really sets us free to live new and complete lives that help us naturally become people with loving hearts, good thoughts and the courage to speak of our faith.

Like the wise-men we all have a long journey to make. I find it good at the start of a New Year to use the Covenant Prayer that’s on the Pew Sheet: something stronger than a New Year Resolution. Those of us who feel we can say it and mean it can say it gently together now. If you are not sure enough of committing yourself in this way please don’t join in now. Obviously you can take it home to think about and, if and when you are ready, can make the resolve at home.

A Prayer taken from the Methodist Covenant Service

I am no longer my own but yours. Your will, not mine, be done in all things, wherever you may place me, in all that I do and in all that I may endure; when there is work for me and when there is none; when I am troubled and when I am at peace.

Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded; when I find fulfilment and when it is lacking; when I have all things, and when I have nothing. I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you, as and where you choose. Glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. May it be so for ever. Let this covenant now made on earth be fulfilled in heaven. Amen.