Sacramental Worship: Learning from the Wise Men
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We learn a few things from the coming of the wise men. First, we learn what brings them to worship Christ. Second we learn how they worship Christ.
First, what brings the wise men to Christ? Well, the star of course. But what is the star? Surely the wise men didn’t just see a star and then learn only from the star that the king of the Jews was born. No, they also had the Scriptures to tell them of the king of the Jews. How did they get the Scriptures? When God punished his people by letting Nebuchadnezzar destroy Judah and Jerusalem, starting in 599 BC, he brought them to Babylon for seventy years of exile. During that exile the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel lived among the people. From these prophets we can be sure that the wise men of Babylon and Persia would have learned the Scriptures.
How can we be so sure of that? Because Christians tell their friends and neighbors about Jesus. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew the difficulties and joys of telling others about Jesus.
In any case, the Scripture that the magi from the East would have known was from Balaam’s unwilling prophecy about Israel in Numbers 24:17
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
and a scepter shal rise out of Israel;
The one Balaam saw was Jesus. He is the scepter who would rise out of Israel when a star arose. But the magi were probably also familiar with this prophecy of Jacob in Genesis 49,
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the rulers staff from between his feet,
until Shiloh comes;
and to him shall be the obedience of the Gentiles.
There’s a scepter again. That means a king, because kings hold scepters. Shiloh means “man of peace.” Jesus is this man of peace. He is the new scepter of Israel, and he is shown to the nations, to the Gentiles, with a star.
Now, to this star God attached his Word. Without the word of God from Numbers and Genesis, the star wouldn’t have meant anything to the Magi. It would have been an interesting star for astrologers to look at, I’m sure. But they couldn’t have known where to go looking if they hadn’t had the Word attached to the outward sign of the star.
But the Word wasn’t complete until they came to King Herod, whose scribes told the magi that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. They quoted the prophet Micah, whose book the magi evidently didn’t have,
But you, Bethlehem Ephratha,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
The Magi learned from the Bible that the King of the Jews would also rule over the Gentiles, that He would be true God from everlasting, and that He would be born in David’s city, Bethlehem. The star led them to Jesus. The scriptures led them to Jesus. Without either one they wouldn’t have found Christ.
What brought the Magi to worship Christ? It was a sacrament. It was the word of God attached to an outward element or sign. That’s the definition of a sacrament. Now, the word sacrament is not in the Bible, but neither is the word Trinity or incarnation or a lot of other very wonderful words that are helpful to explain things in the Bible. The Word sacrament explains to us how God brings us to worship Him. He always calls us to Himself with his Word, and in every age this Word is attached to an outward sign.
In the Old Testament God gave Abraham and his descendents the sacrament of circumcision, so that his promise to him about Christ might be engraved in their very flesh, a constant reminder of his promise. An Israelite boy entered into the kingdom of God through this sacrament. Christ fulfilled this promise and did away with circumcision. Instead, he gives us the sacrament of holy baptism, which is how he makes us born again.
He attaches to the outward element his Word. The outward element is water. The word is, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” So then, those who are baptized have in their baptism God’s constant promise that his name is on them, which means they are born again, his children through faith in Jesus.
In the Old Testament there was also the sacrament of the Passover. The last of the Ten Plagues God sent against Pharaoah and Egypt was when the Angel of Death came by at night and killed the first born son of every family. Israel was spared because they practiced the Passover. Each family took a lamb, without blemish, and roasted it without breaking a bone. They would paint their doors with its blood, so that while they were eating the Lamb the Angel of Death would pass by when He saw the blood. The sacrament saved them from death, and so the celebration of the sacrament brought to them the promise of the forgiveness of sins that Christ, the Lamb of God gave them. The promise was that they were saved from death. The sign was the spotless Lamb and the blood.
Christ fulfilled the Passover by offering himself as a spotless Lamb in our place, as John the Baptist identifies him. Not one of his bones was broken. Luther describes the spiritual truth of the matter by pointing us to the cross:
Here is the true Passover Lamb,
Of whom God’s Word attested.
He hangs upon the cross’s stem –
In fervent love is roasted.
See, His blood now marks our door;
Faith points to it, Death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us.
The sacrament of the Passover was replaced by the Sacrament of the altar, where Christ’s words, This is my body, given for you; This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, are attached to bread and wine.. The Word joins to the elements of bread and wine. In this sacrament Christ feeds us with the body and blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This is why we sing the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God before communing every Sunday.
What does all this mean? It means that God has never chosen to deal with his people apart from sacraments. As soon as man fell, God promised Christ would come and crush the devil’s head, and then he killed a lamb and clothed Adam and Eve in it to confirm his promise. He gave them a sacrament. He gave Noah an ark with the grace he found in the eyes of the Lord. He gave Abraham circumcision with the promise that the Savior of all nations would come from his loins. He led the people of Israel out of Egypt with the sacrament of the Passover, and then led them through the wilderness in pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Now we have the water attached to the promise that we are God’s children, the bread and wine attached to the promise of the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s body and blood.
By behaving in this way, God shows that his promise is never far from his creation. We don’t need to reach so high in our thoughts to find God, as if only the more intelligent will find Him. No, God brings to nothing the understanding of the wise by making the mystery of the Gospel simple. The true wise men, the Magi, were called out of darkness to find the Christ child by means of the Word of God attached to the star. God deals with us through sacraments.
And the greatest sacrament of all is Christ Himself. The Bible calls him the Word made flesh. He is the Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing, as O Come all Ye Faithful puts it. He is our epiphany in our darkness, and how?
He is a Word that has always existed, and has always been faithful to his promises, who was with God in the beginning and has always been God himself, joined to our flesh and blood. You cannot find the Word of God apart from flesh and blood. There is no god apart from the Word made flesh.
And that is comfort for us who live in our flesh every day. Our flesh failed this past week. We didn’t love as we should have. We doubted God. We didn’t call on his name when temptation came. We didn’t rush to His Word when we felt our anxiety. We didn’t pray and believe that God was going to answer us. We gave in to temptation. We are weak. We are sinful. We deserve God’s punishment, and we can’t do anything to change that. We need what the wise men needed. We need a God who comes to us in our need.
What drove the Magi to travel hundreds of miles through cold Middle Eastern winter nights? It was that God had finally found them. The gods of Babylon were liars. They said that sinful pleasures would make them happy, but they left them only with unsatisfied desires. They said that they could figure it out on their own, but everything they learned about themselves showed that they weren’t the captains of their own fate. They needed the true God, not a god who was far away from who they were. They needed Jesus.
And so God called them out of darkness, as he calls you too today. Do not take this call for granted. There were millions of people living in Persia and Babylon in the days of Herod the King, but only a few found Christ in a manger. There are tens of thousands of people in Wylie, Texas, but only relatively few have found the pure preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments today. Instead they continue in darkness, either not finding another Christian church at all, where we hope our friends might find some morsel of the true Gospel amid the dark errors preached there, or they avoid trying to listen to God altogether. They go hunting or camping or they sleep in, or they go biking or on a family trip, or they read and enjoy the morning, setting time aside for themselves, trying to fill their needs by worshipping mammon and the joys of this short life, finding all sorts of excuses, but their excuses only deepen their darkness.
But the wise men teach us what true worship is. It is being those weirdoes who follow a star on the basis of a book that nobody believes in except for those kooky Christians. It’s clinging to God as he shows himself to us as a little baby, as He shows himself to us as a man nailed naked to a stalk of wood. It’s abandoning all our own efforts at figuring God out through the Law and our own thinking, and finding God in weakness and poverty and pain and need, because that’s where sinners like us need to find God. We need this sacrament of sacraments, this eternal and divine Word joined to the element of our flesh and blood. When we grasp the promise of this Savior, then we know that what lacks in us abounds in Christ. Then we know that what is wrong with us is not wrong with Him, but he makes us right, not by giving us anything to do, but by doing everything for us; not by helping us become better people, but by making us into a new people, his people, who have been set free by his blood, cleansed in it of all their idols and sins. That is how this King rules over us. His scepter is his cross, the forgiveness of our sins.
And so we worship Him. We call him who he is. We give him our gold, our money, the precious things we have, because this confesses that He owns everything we have. He is our King, as the wise men knew. Not Herod, not the United States government, Jesus is our king. We make sure to give him our money because it is a confession that we are not ruled by our money and this world’s goods, but by Him who died and rose to makes us kings with Him in Heaven.
Just as God comes to us with the Word attached to a sign, so our confession and praise to Him is attached to signs as well. We confess that He is our king and we attach to our confession our gold, our money.
We worship Him. We call him who He is. The wise men give him frankincense. This was a costly incense that was used in the worship of gods, but the wise men give it to Christ to call him their only true God. Now, if we started burning incense in here that might make a lot of us sneeze, so we should look rather at what incense represents. It represents prayer, as the Scripture says, “Let my prayer rise before you as incense.” So when you pray to Jesus out loud with your family, alone with yourself, corporately here with your brothers and sisters in the divine service, you are confessing that Jesus is your God, who hears you, and answers you, and is going to give you what you ask for, according to his promise, “Ask, and you shall receive.” You only pray to God – that is your incense. Your confession that Jesus is God is attached to your act of prayer.
We worship Him. We call Him who He is. The wise men gave him myrrh. This was to anoint his body for death. When a man was buried he was wrapped in myrrh. The wise men knew that Christ had come to die for them. So you also confess that Jesus died for you, and you attach to your confession your own dying to sin. You die to yourself. You take up your cross. Everyday your body has desires that want to be gratified, and if they are it will hurt your neighbor. It will draw you more deeply into loving yourself. These desires can be base like greed or lust. They can seem reasonable like pride and being dissatisfied if you are not recognized for your hard work and accomplishments. They can be stubborn and unforgiving, because your spouse or your parents or your boss have exasperated you or done you wrong.
You confess that Jesus died for you by repenting of your own sin first. You die to yourself and you forgive your neighbor because God in Christ forgives you. That is your myrrh. You attach your own death to your confession that Christ died for you.
And then you look at your worship and you realize that your money is never enough, and your prayers are never enough, and your repentance and your love for others is never enough, and then what do you do?
You follow the star. You follow your baptism back home, back to God your Father, and your mother the Church. You come back to God’s promises to you, where Jesus receives sinners; you kneel before him here and receive what is his greatest desire to give you – his mercy and truth; because it is believing the Gospel and receiving forgiveness from Jesus that is greater than gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is the highest worship of all. Amen.