A Pattern for True Worship
Rev. Rolf Preus| Matthew 2:1-12| Epiphany, 2002
Is there a right way and a wrong way to worship God? Yes, there is. The right way to worship God is according to the truth. The wrong way to worship God is according to our own lights. On this Epiphany, when the church confesses Jesus as the Light that has come to shine God’s grace upon us, it is only appropriate that we consider how the Magi, or Wise Men, worshipped the new born King of the Jews. Their worship sets a fine pattern for Christians of every generation to follow.
God did not give to the New Testament church detailed instructions on how to worship as he did for his church of the Old Testament. We aren’t bound by various days, seasons, or places. When I was a boy, my dad used to serve at congregations that had pastoral vacancies. I remember one congregation that worshipped in a room at the local fire station. A movable altar and pulpit were put in place, along with folding chairs. Of course, everything was removed after services were over. During our Lord’s conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, she tried to bait Jesus into an argument about whether the Jews or the Samaritans worshipped on the right mountain. Jesus replied: “the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father . . . the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Worship is never just going through outward motions. It is always a matter of the heart. Only those who have the Holy Spirit living within them and moving them are capable of true worship.
While this worship is always an inward thing, there have always been clearly identifiable outward signs of the true worship of the true God. God is the only one who can see the sincerity or hypocrisy of the human heart. The whole world can see what the outward signs of the true inward worship are. We leave it to God to ascertain whose worship is and is not genuine on the inside. We look to the Magi or Wise Men to see what true worship looks like on the outside. It involves four identifiable features. First, it is according to God’s word, the Holy Scriptures. Second, it is sacramental. Third, it is Christ-centered. Fourth, it involves the offering of the fruits of faith.
The Magi couldn’t have found the new born King of the Jews unless the prophet Micah had said that he was to be born in Bethlehem. Without the written word of God we cannot know where God is or how to worship him. You cannot find Jesus your Savior without the Bible. The chief priests and scribes of the people who were later to turn against Jesus, denounce him, and agitate for his crucifixion weren’t so utterly devoid of spiritual discernment that they did not know the Bible is God’s word. The first thing we need to know about true worship is that it is based on what the Bible says about God and about his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. The Church doesn’t decide for herself where Jesus may be found. She looks to the written word of God. She looks to the Bible. The Magi were led by the words of the Holy Scriptures to Bethlehem where they found their Savior and worshipped him. Just so, we are led by the Sacred Scriptures today to find Jesus and worship him.
Not only is true worship biblical, it is always sacramental. True worship has always involved outward signs. This is because God has always chosen to deal with people through outward signs. Consider Adam and Eve. He gave them a sign in the Garden of Eden. It was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was a beautiful tree. It was a sign of God’s faithfulness. When they ate of that tree contrary to God’s clear command they denied God. On the other hand, when God clothed them with animal skins he gave them another sign: that by the shedding of blood their sins would be covered. God appeared to Moses in the sign of a bush that burned without being consumed. God showed his presence to the children of Israel during their wanderings in the Sinai wilderness by the sign of a cloud by day and a fire by night. The sign of circumcision was for the Old Testament church a sign of God’s faithfulness. God has always dealt with his people through signs.
A sacrament is a sign that God himself chooses and to which God attaches the promise of grace. It is God who chooses to deal with us through sacraments that he chooses. It was God who sent the star. God set the star as a sign to guide the Magi to their Savior, Jesus. The star arose in the East. So they traveled westward. But the star disappeared. It did not guide them to where the Infant was until after they had learned from the Holy Scriptures that he would be born in Bethlehem. This is a very important lesson for us. Only the Scriptures can determine for us when God attaches his promise to a sign. Only God can institute sacraments. The church may not do so. She may only receive in faith the sacraments that God himself institutes. When the church presumes to establish her own sacraments, she disobeys God and she sets her word as equal to or even greater than God’s word. This is a serious matter.
For example, while the Bible teaches that the holy ministry is divinely instituted, the Bible doesn’t teach that ordination by a bishop loyal to the Pope at Rome is the only way a man can enter into the office. But the Roman Catholic Church insists that their so-called “sacrament” of ordination is necessary for a man to become a pastor and administer the sacraments of Christ. In fact, while most Roman Catholic priests would be far too polite to say so openly, their official doctrine is that when your pastor consecrates the sacramental bread and wine at this altar those elements remain only bread and wine. Why is that? He hasn’t received an ordination of which their church approves. They make God’s sacrament depend for its validity on an ordinance that they have invented. Our pastors are called and ordained and follow Christ’s institution when administering the Lord’s Supper. Yet Rome denies that we have the true Lord’s Supper because we refuse to submit to their man-made rules about what constitutes ordination into the holy ministry. Thus a human ordinance sets itself up against a divine sacrament.
Many Protestants do the same thing. Some Protestant churches deny to infants the sacrament that Christ instituted and then administer instead a rite that God did not institute. They bless or dedicate their children to God instead of doing what God said should be done. Yes, Jesus most certainly did bless the little children. But he didn’t command his church to do so. He instituted no sacrament of blessing or dedication. He did institute the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It is up to God, not the church, to institute sacraments. It is God, not the church, who joins the sign to his gracious promises and thus gives us sacraments.
God calls his church together by the washing of Holy Baptism. God feeds his church with Christ’s body and blood in his Holy Supper. These are divinely instituted sacraments in which God himself joins a visible sign to his gracious word. Just as the star led the Magi to the manger, so Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper lead us to Christ. More than that, they bind us to Christ. They join us to Christ. They give us communion with Christ. We should not look for Christ apart from our baptism. We should not neglect the Christ who gives his body and blood in the Supper. God himself has joined signs to his promises in Christ and so we seek Christ, as the Magi did, by seeking the sign God has given.
And this brings us to the third and most important feature of true worship. It is Christ-centered. In fact, worship is impossible apart from Christ. Apart from Christ we are nothing but sinners who fall short of God’s glory and stand condemned by God’s law. Apart from the blood of Christ, shed on the altar of the cross to pacify God’s wrath and purchase our freedom from the curse of the law, we remain cursed, condemned, and without hope. When we have Christ, we have forgiveness of all our sin, peace with God, true light, and the guarantee of eternal life. Worship that excludes Christ is false worship.
We know little about the Magi or Wise Men. Perhaps they were astrologers who hailed from Persia, what is today called Iran. Maybe they were Wise Men – philosopher-scientists – from Babylonia, what it today called Iraq. Who knows? We don’t know how many there were. Three is only a guess – based on the number of gifts they gave to Jesus. There could have been a dozen of them. What we do know about the Wise Men is that they traveled a long way to see Jesus. They could have stayed at home. They could have prayed all alone in their houses. They could have offered praise to God without travelling one mile. But they didn’t. They had to go to where Jesus was. They traveled many hundreds of miles. Their journey wasn’t a matter of days. It was weeks, perhaps even months. They had to go to where God had revealed himself. They had to go to Jesus.
God the Son had just assumed human flesh and blood in order to redeem all human flesh and blood. The Wise Men were wise enough to see their need for forgiveness. They were sinners in search of a righteousness that would make them fit for heaven. They lived among idolaters who worshipped various false gods. They lived among the sexually immoral, the vainly materialistic, and pleasure seekers who cared mostly about doing what feels good to do. Things aren’t so much different today for us. We are influenced by our culture to fall into and follow our lying hearts. We need Jesus. We need his righteousness to cover our sin. We need to be justified by God. That is, we need God to forgive us all of our sins and to regard us as saints. We need this, and only Jesus can meet this need. We need to go to where Jesus is. Only there can we worship God. Non-Christian worship is false. It sets human sin before God as if God should honor it. It offers God bribes, lies, and false promises, as if God is some kind of fool who can be conned by sinful men. The only worship that is truly worship – that means ascribing true worth and glory to God alone – is the worship that looks for God in Christ. True worship sees God in the manger. True worship sees God nailed to the cross. But since God is no longer in the manger and God is no longer hanging on the cross, true worship today seeks Jesus in the pure preaching of his gospel and in the right administration of his sacraments. True faith relies on the true word of God, trusts in the signs or sacraments that God gives, and receives God’s verdict of acquittal by trusting in Jesus who won that precious verdict for us all.
And then true faith offers itself back to God in concrete giving. True faith knows what is precious in God’s sight. It surely isn’t gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But faith is. The faith that God has elicited, established, nourished, and preserved in our hearts is more precious than the finest gold or the costliest perfumes and spices. These gifts were the confession – the concrete affirmation of faith – that the Magi needed to offer God. Their gold confessed that Jesus was the King of kings and Lord of lords. Their frankincense confessed that all prayers to God the Father must ascend to the throne of grace only through Christ his only begotten Son. Incense is symbolic of prayer. Their myrrh confessed that Jesus would die for them, and they brought the spice to anoint his body in the grave.
We confess the faith by coming to church for God to give us forgiveness through his gospel and sacraments. We confess the faith by telling anyone who asks us what we believe about Jesus and why we believe it and why he or she should believe it too. We confess the faith by inviting friends and family to church to meet the Jesus whose blood has redeemed them and whose Spirit would call them to faith and keep them in faith. We confess the faith by giving offerings of money, a portion off the top of what God has first given to us. This gift acknowledges that we need Jesus more than we need our money. God accepts these fruits of faith and he cherishes them and blesses them. The God who withheld nothing from us that he loves, but gave his dearest Treasure, condescends to accept from us our unworthy offerings. He makes them worthy. He does so by making us worthy. He does that by justifying us, by reckoning to us the pure obedience of his Son even as he reckoned to his Son all of our sins. True worship is when we believe this.
May the God who has called us to this faith keep it alive and well through the word and the sacraments he has graciously given to his church on earth.