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“How Will We Worship?”
Matthew 2: 1-12
January 2, 2022
Before Christmas, I was visiting some of the classrooms in our Early Learning Center, and I noticed a big, blue poster mounted outside one of the classrooms. The teacher evidently had taught the children about this passage, because the heading at the top of the poster said, “If I were a king, I would bring Jesus....” and then beneath that were the children’s responses. Melissa said, “A baby chew toy.” Ruby responded she would bring a blanket. Keegan said, “A baby bear.” Dawson: “A crib.” Hansel: “A toy race car!” Karisma: “A jump rope,” Aadhira: “A backpack.” Summer: “A baby book.” Silas: “A baby chair,” and Mateo, “Flowers.”
I love these sweet and sincere responses. Gifts from the heart of children to the heart of God.
This passage inspires us to think about our own gifts to God. The Magi followed the star, and when they found the Christ-child, they bowed in wonder and worshipped him by offering the best gifts they had. How will we worship Christ our Lord?
On this Epiphany Sunday, we celebrate the manifestation of God in Jesus Christ, the revelation of the divine. Epiphany, of course, has another meaning: we say that we “have an epiphany” when all at once, we perceive something! One of those “ah-ha” moments, when the lightbulb appears over our heads, and suddenly, we see.
In our lives as Christians, the Epiphany that came into the world in Jesus Christ continues to come to us, when we see the new things God is always doing, and we are called to share the light we have received. A new year lies before us. Where will the light of Christ lead us?
As we have noted before, this is a crucial time for the worldwide church. Even before the pandemic, church membership and worship attendance in the U.S. were declining to unprecedented lows. We should be concerned about this not because we are fixated on numbers, not as a matter of self-preservation, but because behind those statistics are people who desperately need to know the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Compounding those trends, of course, are the complications of Covid. But these challenges also bring opportunities: opportunities to evaluate what we are doing as a church, opportunities to recommit to mission, opportunities to see the new things God is doing, opportunities to truly be the body of Christ for our time.
A wonderful resource for us in the Presbyterian Church USA is the Vital Congregations initiative. Begun long before the pandemic, this initiative studied churches that are vital----that is, alive and lively, strong and vibrant. Researchers discovered seven characteristics that consistently appear among vital churches, seven marks of vital congregations. They found that by focusing on these things, other churches could also become more vital, more alive, more filled with Christ’s Spirit.
Our church shares many of these seven characteristics, and the beginning of this new year is a good time for us to learn more about these seven marks and work to ensure they are deeply engrained in our identity and practice. Our new year’s sermon series is called, “Shine the Light!” and for the first seven Sundays of this new year, we are going to look at each one of these seven marks, ----which, providentially, tie in beautifully with the lectionary scripture texts for these Sundays.
Here are the seven marks of Vital Churches:
Today we are going to think about Spirit-Inspired Worship.
The PCUSA studies found that Spirit-Inspired Worship is different than worship that is “self-gratifying,” worship that is “stale ritual divorced of meaning, or consumer entertainment worship.”
That calls us to ask ourselves, “How Will We Worship?”
Our lectionary text for this Epiphany Sunday casts light on that question. Our passage from Matthew’s gospel depicts two responses to the birth of Christ. One response is the way of the Magi, the wise men from the east.
The Magi are mysterious. We don’t know much about them. They speak only one sentence, in verse 2, and their silence enhances their aura of mystery.1 From their home in the east, these scholars of the skies saw a singular sight: In the heavens, a new orb appeared! The text does not tell us how they knew the star’s significance. We are left to speculate about their study of the prophets, and their long journey from their home somewhere described simply as “the East.” So much mystery surrounds them, and in mystery and wonder they journeyed to the light, and when they found the Christ-child, they bowed down and worshipped him.
In contrast to the Magi, the other main person in this passage is Herod. Herod was the king of the Jews, a ruler appointed by the Romans to oversee the land of Judea and the Jewish people. When Herod heard the news, the passage tells us, he was frightened.
The dynasty of the family of Herod lasted from 37 BC to 70 AD, and it was a dynasty marked by fighting, power struggles, feuds within the family and among those closest to it.2 When these strangers from the east came saying a child had been born king of the Jews, Herod saw this as one more threat to his rule.
Unlike the Magi, Herod did not deal in the dimension of mystery. He saw only hard, cold realities. He took the news literally, and was “frightened” of a king who might supplant him. He feared losing power, position, wealth, influence. There was no room for curiosity or wonder. Or worship. Only fear.
Fear can cause human beings to act in ways that are unhealthy, and that is as true in the church as it is in society. In times of uncertainty and rapid change, it is easy to turn inward; it is all too easy to follow the path of Herod, trying to hold on to the status quo, protect position and power, and focus on self-preservation. When we do that, we are torn away from worship of the one, true God to focus on self-made idols; we make idols of stability or structure or tradition, thinking they will save us, and when we do that, our worship becomes self-gratifying, stale ritual devoid of meaning.
Only when we focus on Christ, only when we keep our eyes fixed upon the light he shines, will we find the ground of our being. It is only in worshiping the one true God that we are able to keep from falling when all around us is in motion.
Our worship needs to rise from the Spirit of Christ within us, and that means that each of us has a responsibility in preparing for worship. I know you have heard before that a mistake some congregations make is thinking of themselves as an audience and the pastor and worship leaders as performers. In fact, God is the audience, and all of us are participants. All of us come before God to offer our thanks and praise, to be in communion with God and with one another, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit, equipped to go out and shine Christ’s light in the world.
Since March 2020, worship has happened in new and different ways. Some of us worship online, while others gather in the sanctuary, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, we all are united as one body of Christ to worship God together. We have learned a lot of lessons through all of this, and in the coming year, we will continue to refine how we worship. As we do that, I want to challenge you to remember this passage, and think about how to make sure that our worship is Spirit-inspired rather than self-gratifying. Before coming to worship, center yourselves on Christ. Be open to new ways of doing things. If you are worshiping online, remember that you are not watching worship, like watching a TV show. You are participating in worship. You are worshiping. Pray for the leading of the Holy Spirit. Pray for the worship leaders and all of those worshipping wherever they may be. Pray for those God may be leading to our church for the first time, and pray that we will shine the light of Christ for them and for all of us.
The light that broke into the world with the coming of Christ continues to shine upon us. Epiphany moments come to us, enabling us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to see--in the light of the star--the new things God is doing. Like the Magi, if we follow where Christ’s light leads, our journey of wonder will end in joy. When the wise men followed the star, it led to Jesus, and “they were overwhelmed with joy!” Matthew tells us, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage.”
The good news that we celebrated during Advent and Christmas does not end when December is over. Christ remains God with us, each and every day. Will we make room in our hearts to worship him?
Tom Long, former professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, told a story about a small church having its annual Christmas pageant. The boy who played the innkeeper was “an awkward young man,” Long described, not at all comfortable with being in the spotlight. He had just one line in the entire play. When Mary and Joseph arrived at his door, he was to tell them there was no room for them and to send them on their way. So as the play went on and Mary and Joseph appeared at his door, he did what he was supposed to do; he spoke his one line, very quickly, “There is no room for you in the inn.” But as Mary and Joseph turned and walked wearily away, the innkeeper became suddenly transformed, “Wait a minute,” he called out to them. “Don’t go. You can have my room.”2
How will we worship Christ the Lord? On this Epiphany Sunday, let us make room for him in our hearts, and like the kings of old, let us offer him our very best. When we worship him, his light shines upon us, and his light shines through us! In this new year, may we continue to follow the light of Christ and see the new things God is bringing forth! Amen.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church