Today is the second Sunday of the month of January.  You all knew that.  What many may not know is that in many eastern orthodox Christian churches today is the day to celebrate Jesus’ baptism.  In many western churches, today is the day to celebrate the Epiphany, that is the day that celebrates God incarnate, meaning made flesh, in Jesus Christ.  This day is often associated with the day the magi came to visit Jesus and so in some churches today is called Three King’s Day or Little Christmas.

In case you did not know, we, Baptists, like to be different. Other than Easter and Christmas, we tend to avoid acknowledging religious feasts, special days, or much of anything else.  While respecting that Baptist distinctive, I nevertheless believe starting our time today with the visitation of the Magi would be profitable to us.

But in keeping with the Baptist traditions, I would like us to look at the Magi in a slightly different way that may be more relatable to us. Let’s look at a couple of passages about the magi from the Gospel of Matthew.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-2).  The magi came from well outside Judea, travelled many miles, for one purpose, worship the child, Jesus.  The Greek word Matthew used for worship was προσκυνέω, proskyneō, which means to kiss the hand in reverence, or to fall on one’s knees and touch the ground with great reverence or kneel in the presence of God.  Matthew would use the word, proskyneō, 13 times in his gospel account of Jesus, 3 times more often than any other gospel writer.

Matthew’s desire was that his readers would come to see that Jesus was and is worthy of worship.  Jesus was worthy to be adored by the magi even as a newborn simply because he was born by God’s command.  And so, the magi endured the difficulty of hundreds of miles of travel so that they could worship Jesus in person.

Not long after the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, the magi were on their way to Bethlehem.  Matthew wrote, “9 After they (the Magi) had heard the king (Herod), they went on their way, and the star they (the Magi) had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they (the Magi) saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they (the Magi) saw the child with his mother Mary, and they (the Magi) bowed down and worshiped him (Jesus)” (Matthew 2:9-11).  The Magi were overwhelmed with joy that after long last they could worship Jesus. Worship was the Magi’s purpose. Worship was their driving force, and engaging in worship brought the Magi joy.

The Magi in many ways represent the first Christian church of Jesus Christ.  A Christian Church is a gathering of people dedicated to the primary purpose of engaging in the worship of God through Jesus Christ.  What do we know about this first congregation, we will call them the First Congregation of the Magi?  The First Congregation of the Magi consisted of only a few members but the commitment level among the members of the First Congregation of the Magi was very high. The members of the congregation volunteered to be part of that church.  No one forced them to get out of bed and journey together.  The members of the First Congregation of the Magi got together because they wanted to do so and each member of the congregation was necessary and an encouragement to the other members.  The First Congregation of the Magi were generous givers.  In fact, they gave more money for the celebration of Jesus coming into this world than any other group.  The congregation was united in and by worship, and in and through worship the members of the First Congregation of the Magi found overwhelming joy. 

That is what I see in the Magi and I find that we are not much different than the First Congregation of the Magi.  We are small.  The commitment level is high.  Our congregation is formed of volunteers.  We give more money than most to support missions and the celebration of Jesus coming into the world.  We come to be united in worship.  But a key question remains open in our comparison with the First Congregation of the Magi.  “Are we joyful as the First Congregation of the Magi was when and because we worship Jesus?”  Matthew was pointing out that when worship is done for the right reasons then joy comes to us.  The relationship between worship, joy, and inner peace was an important theme for Matthew’s story of Jesus.

What else did Matthew have to say about worship and joy?  The next scene of worship, proskyneō, that Matthew described occurs in Chapter 4 of the gospel bearing his name.  Jesus was in the wilderness engaged in spiritual battle with the devil himself. Matthew wrote, “8 Again, the devil took him (Jesus) to a very high mountain and showed him (Jesus) all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 ‘All this I (Satan) will give you (Jesus),’ he said, ‘if you (Jesus) will bow down and worship me (Satan).’  10 Jesus said to him (Satan), ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matthew 4:9-10).

The interaction between Jesus and Matthew revealed some important things to us about worship and joy.  First, we can worship anyone or anything.  In Jesus’ case, Satan knew Jesus worshipped his father, God.  Satan offered Jesus the world if Jesus would switch the object of his worship from God to Satan.  So, worship can be applied to anyone or anything.  Jesus was free to worship God or Satan.  And so, we are free to worship whatever or whomever we want.

The second thing we learn from the exchange between Jesus and Satan is that while worship is to be offered freely, worship must be reserved to God alone.  Jesus said, “It is written,” meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, we would find the words or thoughts, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him” (Matthew 4:10).  Jesus was quoting the words found in Deuteronomy 6:13 which reads, “13 Fear the Lord your God, serve him only” (Deuteronomy 6:13).  Worship in Deuteronomy is coupled with fear in the sense that worshipping other than God would not yield joy but leave us disquieted even fearful.

We see this interplay between worship something other than God and an absence of joy or inner peace at the very first instance of worship in the Bible.  We see this interplay through the life of Cain.  Cain and his brother Abel worshipped God by each giving an offering. Abel’s offering was well prepared and generous.  Cain’s offering to God was done out of a sense of obligation, not out of a desire to be with God.  Cain’s offering was meager.  God honored Abel’s offering but did not honor Cain’s offering.  The reaction of Cain to his worship of God is telling.  “So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:5b). Cain did not want to worship God and so Cain deprived himself of joy.  Instead of joy, Cain’s emotions became sour.  Cain chose to take his sourness and express it as anger.  God’s Word is telling us that there is no joy and no inner peace when we choose to worship something or someone other than God.  In worshipping other than God there is sourness and anger.

I have a couple of cousins who are atheists and genuinely hate Christians.  I used to receive their daily thoughts on Facebook but eventually had to stop seeing what they posted because their words were vile, angry, self-centered, and judgmental.  Other than an occasional posting about their dogs, they are unable to express any sense of joy or inner peace.  They are sour and angry people.  There was no worship of God in their life.

God does not want us to be sour and angry.  We know this because God did not want Cain to live in a state of unsettledness.  God took the initiative and approached Cain about his lack of inner peace.  “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?’” (Genesis 4:6-7).  God wanted Cain in his presence and to have the joy Abel had.  God wants us to be in his presence and to be joyful about being with him.  He wants that so much for us that God willingly comes to us when we are feeling low, or sour, or angry and God invites us to have a change of heart by coming into his presence.

In Jesus’ encounter with the devil, we come to understand that we are free to worship anything or anyone we want.  We can worship God or Satan or nature or objects.  The list is endless.  But that same encounter between Jesus and the devil shows us that only the worship of God brings joy and peace into our life.  The worship of other than God brings fear, sourness, and anger into our life.

Jesus knew that to worship Satan would not only change him for the worse, doing so would also deprive humanity of coming into the presence of God through the worship of Jesus.  It was God who initiated the redemption of Cain to have a life of joy in the presence of God and to worship him.  It was God who initiated the redemption of all humanity to have a life of joy in the presence of God by sending his Son Jesus to lead the way.  Jesus rejected the worship of Satan and began his public ministry.  As Jesus’ became more known, people began to recognize the presence of God within Jesus, God with us, and the people began to worship God through Jesus.

Matthew shared that there were those people who worshipped Jesus as they sought redemption for themselves or their loved ones from the ravages of disease and even death.

  • A leper came to Jesus and worshipped him and asked Jesus to make him clean (Matthew 8:2).
  • A leader of the synagogue came to Jesus and worshipped him asking that his daughter be restored to life (Matthew 9:18).
  • A Canaanite woman came to Jesus and worshipped him asking that her daughter be healed of a demonic spirit (Matthew 15:25).

Each of these people desired to be in the presence of God and found that worshipping Jesus brought them to the throne of God.  They worshipped believing that do so would restore their joy.  What happened?  The leper worshipped God through Jesus, was healed, and his joy restored.  The father worshipped God through Jesus, his little girl was raised from the dead, and the father’s joy restored.  The mother worshipped God through Jesus, the girl was cleansed of the demonic spirit, and the mother’s joy was restored.  Worship and joy are coupled together.

Matthew highlighted the pairing of worship and joy in the beginning of the story of Jesus with the Magi.  Matthew showed that connection through the gospel and now Matthew would show it again in the final chapter of the gospel.

We know the story well.  Jesus was arrested and crucified upon the cross.  To Jesus disciples everything had gone dark.  The sense of being connected to God had disappeared.  There was fear and agony.  There was no joy.  The disciples not only lived each day in a seemingly endless grief, but they lived each day thinking about living each day in grief.  Then the women disciples of Jesus went to the hard cold tomb where Jesus’ body was placed to give care to his body one final time.

Matthew said that when the women arrived at the tomb, they encountered an angel who told the women Jesus had risen from the dead.  Matthew wrote, “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:8-9). 

The women arrived at Jesus’ tomb saddened and feeling very much outside the presence of God.  Then the received news from an angel, Jesus had risen from the dead.  Their emotions changed from sadness to fear caused by the appearance of an angel and joy that perhaps there was more to the story of Jesus. In the mixture of feelings, the women ran from the tomb to find the other disciples and in their running from the tomb so they encountered the living Jesus himself, God with us. Matthew tells us the women had one universal response to being in Jesus’ presence again, they worshipped him.  The women literally threw themselves at Jesus’ feet and did not want to let go.  The women were engaged in worship of Jesus and in doing so all despair was gone. In worship, all fear of these women was gone.  In worship, all the emotions of these women had been transformed into one remaining emotion, joy.

Now the women, and we, can hold onto our despair, our fears, our sourness, and our anger if we want.  God will not force us to receive joy.  We can even come to a time of worship and keep our hearts closed, our arms folded to our chests, and our minds upon the tasks that we might need to do, or our attention on the latest ding from our smartphones.  We can do that and walk away from this sanctuary as empty as when we came into it.  We can prevent joy from coming into our lives.

Or we can open our hearts, our minds, and our hands to worship God.  Genuine and unashamed worship of God makes us available to God in a way nothing else can do. Worship of God expresses our love of God and our desire for God to fill us with his presence.  Having God’s presence in us displaces or pushes out the lesser spirits we must contend with daily.  The lesser spirits of discouragement, sourness, anger, despair, grief, and fear cannot stand in God’s presence.  Those lesser and dark human spirits must flee in the face of God’s presence.  As those lesser spirits flee, God fills that space with joy.  When we have joy, we have inner peace.

The choice is ours.  The Magi made a choice and worshiped Jesus and were overjoyed. Jesus remained faithful in the worship of God and had joy.  The leper, the distraught father, and panic-stricken mother all seeking joy found it in the worship of Jesus.  The women who went to the tomb made the choice to worship Jesus.  They gain the presence of God and forever lost their fear. Cain held onto his lesser human spirits of anger and sourness and lost his joy forever.

I am glad you are here and that together we came to worship God. I pray that we all will leave this place with joy and seek God’s presence at every opportunity that we may worship him and preserve inner peace in our lives.  Amen and Amen.