Epiphany Sermon

January 6, 2008

“True Worship” St. Matthew 2:1-2


Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”


They say that religion and politics don’t mix, but people mix them up all the time.  Take King Herod as an example.  Jesus was no threat to his rule.  Jesus did not come into this world to challenge Herod’s power.  But Herod couldn’t think in any other terms than temporal, political terms.  He told the wise men that he wanted to worship Jesus.  That was a lie.  He really wanted to murder Jesus to eliminate him as a political threat.  But Jesus was no threat.  Herod did not understand this because he could conceive of no other kind of power than human power.  He could understand no other kind of kingdom than one visible to the eye with the trappings of power that politicians of every age admire.


People have always used religion for political purposes.  Candidates advertise their faith to get votes and then run away from whatever confession they hold when it will cost them votes.  Of course it is a political plus to be known as a person of faith.


God rules the nations of this world by means of the law.  But the government of the Prince of Peace is by means of the gospel.  When the various governments of this world mete out justice by putting robbers and murderers in jail they are doing God’s work.  When the military protects a nation from foreign threats, it is doing God’s work.  To be able to live in safety and peace is a blessing from God.  Bad government causes poverty and scarcity.  An ordered liberty is a gift from God.  So we pray God for the rule of law and for good government.


But the government that Christ came to establish is not a government of the law.  It relies on no armies, policemen, guns, or prisons.  It levies no taxes.  Christ’s government is the authority of God himself to change a sinner into a saint by forgiving the sinner all of his sins and reckoning him to be righteous.  Christ’s government is the power of the Holy Spirit to establish a living faith within the heart that was dead in sin.  Through this faith God justifies sinners.  He declares them to be righteous.  He thereby makes them fit for heaven.  St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle Lesson: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith.”


Those who trust in Christ’s redemption are justified by God.  God declares them to be righteous.  He forgives them all their sins.  This is not to any degree dependent upon their works.  As St. Paul goes on to say: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”  The government that Christ came to establish is God’s gracious rule over us.  It doesn’t depend on what we do.  It depends on what Jesus has done for us.  It is through faith that Jesus rules over us by his grace.  The Holy Spirit elicits faith in our hearts by means of the gospel and the sacraments.  This is a government of pure grace.


The governments through which God rules the nations of the world do not govern by means of eliciting faith in the government.  They do not govern by grace.  They govern by coercion.    


The government that Jesus came to establish governs faith.  There was no law that could have compelled the wise men to travel hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles bearing expensive gifts for the newborn King of the Jews.  It’s not as if some potentate issued orders that could not be disobeyed without paying a fine or suffering imprisonment.  They went of their own accord.  Why?  They wanted to worship Jesus. 


We see evidence of the true worship of the wise men.  They brave a long journey.  They bring gifts fit for a king.  But these are only outward indications of an inner faith.  Faith cannot be seen.  True faith is true worship.  The greatest worship we can offer up to God is to believe what he tells us.


The wise men believed God.  They went to Jerusalem because that was the logical place to go.  It was the holy city.  It was the location of the temple.  It was where one would expect to find the King of the Jews.  So they went to Jerusalem to ask where the King of the Jews was.


When the wise men learned from the Bible that the Savior was to be born in Bethlehem they traveled to Bethlehem and God provided them with the guidance of the same star they had been following.  The star led them to Jerusalem and to the Bible.  The star then led them to where Jesus was.  It served as a divinely appointed sign.


If we want to find Jesus we look to where the teaching of the Bible is purely taught.  We seek out the pure gospel.  If we want to find Jesus we look to where the divinely appointed signs identify him.  He is with us in our baptism.  He is with us in his holy Supper.  We look to Jesus where Jesus is to be found.  He promises to be present where his gospel is purely preached and his sacraments are rightly administered.  So that’s where we go.


True faith is always the gift of God.  People talk about faith as if one can simply conjure it up by some kind of spiritual exercise.  But such a view of faith is wrong.  When we look within ourselves to find true faith what else will we find within?  We will find sinful desires, selfishness, and pride.  We will find sinful folly that if trusted will yield only death.


Christ comes before faith.  There is no true faith without the true Christ.  This is why Christ must be proclaimed and confessed.  This is why the teaching of God’s word concerning Christ is so vital.  A false faith damns the one who holds to it.  Not everyone who is called Christian is Christian.


The most popular preacher in America is a man by the name of Joel Osteen.  Forty thousand people go to hear him preach every week.  His books sell millions of copies.  He is sometimes referred to as America’s pastor.  He was recently asked if a Mormon was a true Christian.  The context was the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney who is a Mormon.  Osteen replied:  “Well, in my mind they are. Mitt Romney has said that he believes in Christ as his savior, and that’s what I believe, so, you know, I’m not the one to judge the little details of it. So I believe they are.”


Now whether or not Mitt Romney is a Christian has no bearing on whether or not he should be elected president of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln are regarded by most Americans as good presidents.  None of them was a Christian.  God doesn’t need Christians to govern the governments of the world.  But the question posed to Osteen was not whether or not Romney would be a good president.  It was whether or not a Mormon is a Christian and he replied that since a Mormon believes in Christ as his savior we shouldn’t judge the little details.


The Mormon religion teaches that their god used to be a man who became god by doing good and that faithful Mormons can become gods also.  They deny the eternity of God.  They deny the Holy Trinity.  They deny that Jesus is true God and true man.  They deny the true God, the true Christ, and the true gospel, teaching a false religion of salvation by human works.  But because they can say that Christ is their savior the most popular preacher in America pronounces them Christian.


How can this be?  Faith is divorced from truth.  The true doctrine is simply despised and when the truth is despised there is no error so outrageous that it will not be embraced.  When faith is turned inward to reflect upon itself, Jesus is left out in the cold.  True faith is always focused on the true Christ.  The true Christ is the Christ who is true God and true man in one person.  The true Christ is the Christ who offered himself up on the cross to bear and remove the anger of God against this sinful world.  He is true God and true man.  He joins God and the human race together in his own person. The truth about Jesus is essential to true faith. 


Self-centered faith focuses in on worship for worship’s sake.  But if all kinds of worship were of equal value, why should the wise men have wasted their time following the star to where the Christ child lay?  The only true worship comes from true faith and true faith comes from the true gospel of the true Christ.


Does this offend the religious sensibilities of people of faith?  It most certainly does!  It offends those who would use religion as a means of self aggrandizement.  It offends those who use Christ as a good luck charm while promoting a religion that teaches sinners to justify themselves.  But for those who see their own sins when they look within for faith and who seek a gracious God upon whom to rely, the truth of Epiphany is a light shining in the darkness.  Jesus is the light of the world.  The world will try to twist him and turn him into something that he is not.  If political correctness requires it people will pronounce an antichristian cult to be a Christian church.  After all, who would want to judge the faith of another?


But only the true gospel can produce the true faith.  Looking within to find our authentic faith we have found deceit, insincerity, lust, greed, malice, and an unforgiving spirit.  We cannot afford to look within ourselves for assurance.  We look instead to the pure gospel we have been taught and we set our hope firmly on the God-man who suffered and bore divine vengeance against all sinners.  By his redemption, that is, by the blood he shed to set us free, we are forgiven of all our sins.  Because God says so we are justified by Christ’s blood.  We know this is true and we know that we are saints because God himself has told us so and has graciously enabled us to believe his gospel.


And so we express our faith, as did the wise men, with gifts.  What gift can we give to express this faith?  We give what is precious to us.  We give our offerings.  We give our praise.  We give our time.  We give our lives.  We come to where Jesus is and we worship him.  That’s why we’re here today.  And that’s why we will keep coming.


Rolf D. Preus


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