GMF Dec.27, 2020 Mt.1-12, Jn.4:19-24, 39-42
Most people who have been “exposed” to the “virus” of what passes for “Christian” teaching around this season could quote the “story” of the “wise men” almost word for word.
We are learning more than we ever wanted to know about “exposure” to a “virus” in these days, and it may seem strange to you to connect that with what has become known as the “Christmas story”. But consider for a moment the varied common reactions to the present pandemic.
Some folks consider it a fabrication to be ignored.
Some are terribly frightened, and go into a panic mode.
Some take it seriously, and order their lives accordingly.
Is that not an odd parallel to the varied reactions one sees to much New Testament teaching?
There is even a parallel to the “vaccination” situation, in which a “light dose “can keep you from getting “the real thing”! “Just raise your hand!!” or “Walk down the aisle!” to join the “in-group” and escape dire consequences!
Matthew’s account does not include much detail. He simply introduces the arrival of “Magi” – although the only other NT uses of the word magos refer to false prophets and “sorcerers” (note the similarity to the word “magic”) — as being “from the East” – an area known for occult practices. So these were probably astrologers — they were “following a star”. That is what astrologers do. The classical lexicon describes them as “the priests and wise men in Persia who interpreted dreams; an enchanter or wizard.”
Through the intervening centuries, legends have added names, ethnicities, and personalities that never appear in the Biblical text. The idea that there were three men probably came from the listing of three gifts, although the wealth required for such lavish gifts would imply an entourage of servants, as well.
But their motivation for this trip, by their own testimony, is simply “We have come to worship him!”
What did they have in mind?
I don’t know how many printed cards or form-letters we have received, over the years, from all varieties of “churches” that we have visited, bearing some variation of this standard message:
“We were delighted to have you worship with us today.
We hope you enjoyed the service, and that your needs were met.
Our church offers many exciting programs for all ages.
Please do not hesitate to call on us for your pastoral needs.
We hope to see you again soon.”
Such drivel is immediately consigned to our recycle bin. Yet another group has demonstrated its total ignorance of
(1) what “worship” is about,
(2) what “church” is about, and
(3) how easy it is to identify phony “hospitality”.
Whether they loudly thump their Bibles, quoting chapter and verse, or scarcely open its pages at all, does not seem to make any difference! Although their stated agendas may label themselves “welcoming, accepting, liberal” (translation: “You can do (or be) whatever you please –anything goes here!”) or “conservative, faithful, Bible-believing” (translation: “You gotta behave (and/or think) MY way!”), their attitudes are identical. Jesus (not surprisingly) said it best: (Mt.15:9, Mk.7:7), “Your worship of me is empty; you are teaching as ‘doctrines’ the commandments of (mere) men!”
We may be forgiven for imperfectly understanding the concept of “worship”. The English word has, after all, been used to translate no less than a dozen different Greek words – NONE of which, however, makes any reference to sitting in the audience of a lecture (scholarly or otherwise), a political speech (of whatever persuasion), or a professional concert (vocal or instrumental , classical, “traditional”, country, “gospel”, rock, rap, or anything in between)! None of them provide any clue to what sort of “needs” are supposedly to be addressed. “Enjoyment” is likewise totally absent.
Because, to put it most simply, “worship” is not about you or me, either our “needs” or our “enjoyment”!
It is about the OBJECT of our devotion!
When the Magi spent weeks or months, or perhaps even years making their way across hostile deserts to “worship” before the King they had sought, do you really think their aim was to acquire some sort of a “warm fuzzy feeling”? I doubt it. Their tenacity and subsequent openness to guidance reveals rather a DELIBERATE EXPRESSION OF FEALTY TO AN ACKNOWLEDGED SUPERIOR!
That, incidentally, is also precisely the “pledge of allegiance” that Satan demanded of Jesus, using the same word, in the temptation accounts (Mt.4:9-10 and Lk.4:7-8), and what Jesus flatly refused to give, with his unequivocal reply that one’s allegiance is due only to God!
Much creativity has also been propagated regarding the supposed “significance” of the gifts the Magi are said to have brought along, none of which seem really appropriate for a standard “baby shower”. Centuries of interpreters have put out complicated theories about the esoteric or prophetic significance of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” and neither we nor they have any evidence to either support or reject what may well be mere flights of fancy. One very simple possible explanation has been universally overlooked. All of these items were highly valued, very expensive, and most importantly, VERY PORTABLE (a small quantity had enormous value.) Not only had the Magi themselves travelled a great distance, but the little family was about to undertake a long journey into Egypt, where they sought for protection from Herod’s jealous rage. Might this choice of gifts have simply been God’s very practical provision for their practical physical needs?
Sometimes “foreigners” can see things that “locals” can’t. (The local folks weren’t looking for stars!)
Sometimes, too, caring people can unknowingly provide for needs of which they, or even the beneficiaries, are unaware. The perspective contributed by committed people of varied backgrounds and experience can have tremendous value.
In the interest of time, we will pass over the detour to Jerusalem (where one would have logically expected a King to be) and Herod’s tragic duplicity. Suffice it to notice that AFTER THEY HAD WORSHIPED, the Magi did NOT return to Herod as he had ordered them, but took another route home, in obedience to a dream, which they understood to be divine instructions.
Of the multiplicity of Greek words translated “worship”, most appear in the New Testament only a few times, with varied
“flavors”. By far the most frequent is proskuneo, which ALWAYS appears in the ACTIVE form, never passive: It refers to deliberate ACTION, not observation. This is another place where the observation made by Solomon last week regarding both “hope” and “contentment” being ACTIVE words is vital. Worship was never intended to be a spectator sport. Although a form of proskuneo is also simply a formal greeting, it usually represented bowing in respect to a superior, submission to political conquerors (for which the common societal alternative was often execution!), or of people begging for Jesus’ attention and healing, and their gratitude for his touch. Worship is going on all the time, in the Revelation, in the joyful scenes around the throne, celebrating Jesus’ final victory.
Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria –another foreigner – (The New Testament is much kinder to “foreigners” than are many churches!) — casts more light on the subject of worship. It is by far the longest discussion in the New Testament that repeatedly uses the word “worship”. After she recognized that Jesus had more than the ordinary gossip/knowledge of her immoral lifestyle, the woman decided he must be a “prophet”, and changed the subject to the accustomed geographical notion of “worship.” ( It is not unusual to try to conceal a moral failure with a theological argument!) Jesus gently corrected that idea, and explained that “worship” has nothing whatever to do with geography, but only with the attitude of the worshipper – the INTENT and CONTENT of the worship – “in spirit and in truth.” In other places, worship is mentioned as a response to Jesus’ healings, and various forms of obedience to his instructions.
Too often, that Samaritan story is told with the omission of its RESULTS! The rest of the story, in vv.39-42, describes the “many from that Samaritan city” who “became faithful” because of the woman’s testimony, and Jesus’ subsequently staying and teaching there for a couple more days! This is the response reasonably to be expected of genuine worship!
One more original word also needs attention: It appears only in James’ letter. Perhaps James was there, in Samaria years before, and had witnessed that encounter: he does not say. He uses the word, threskia , which is only once translated “worship”, against three times “religion” – when he declares (Jas.1:26,27) that “Religion/worship that does not extend to caring for the needy is utterly USELESS!” – Even phony! This practical caring is presented, not as the cause, or even the content, but as the EFFECT or EVIDENCE of genuine worship!
A cursory survey like this cannot possibly produce a neat definition of as far-reaching a term as “worship”. That is the assignment of a lifetime! One can, nevertheless, glean an assortment of elements that MUST BE INCLUDED in such a definition:
*Worship may involve either a single individual (Mt.8:2, 9:18), or a group assembled for that purpose (Rv.4:10)
*The focus is on the one who is worshipped, not the worshiper. (Jn.4:23, Heb.1:6, Rev.15:4)
*Location is altogether irrelevant (Jn.4:21)
*Worship is the appropriate response of gratitude for being included in Jesus’ Kingdom (Heb.2:28)
*NO faithful messenger of God – human or supernatural — will ever accept any hint of worship directed toward himself (Rev.19:10) The faithful do not “bow down” before anyone or anything but their one true Sovereign!
“Enjoyment?” “Exciting programs?” “Pastoral needs?” I don’t think so.
The barest beginning of an understanding of genuine Christian worship might be simply:
To declare our admiration, devotion, and absolute allegiance to our King, and
to report for duty in his service –
Either one without the other is empty.
May we help each other to learn faithfully to worship! It may well occupy the rest of our lives!