This past Sunday our churches observed the Epiphany of Our Lord. Epiphany has a fixed calendar date of January 6. As I would guess a sizable majority of our congregations do not have a yearly festival service on Epiphany, this was an awesome opportunity. Our congregations had the opportunity to sing the queen of Lutheran chorales, Philipp Nicolai’s majestic hymn “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright.” Even greater, we enjoyed the Scriptures from Matthew 2, how Magi from the East came to worship the Christ child. We ponder the star, their journey, how they worked around King Herod, and we treasure this message. The Christ child is revealed as Savior of the nations, as these mysterious but learned men came from the East to worship him.
Worship is a major theme of the Epiphany Gospel. It was the intent of the Magi from the start. As they told Herod the king, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Though he was disingenuous, Herod too knew this was all about worship. “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him,” he said.
When the Magi arrived at the house to see Mary with the child, the Gospel writer put it in very concrete terms: “they fell down and worshiped him.” And how can we forget the gifts? They gave him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These were precious gifts, costly gifts, and the giving of these treasures was part of their worship. The Magi teach us that to worship this child is a precious thing. It is not too much to travel great distances, to risk the plots of violent men, and to give him of our very best.
As I considered these things in the wake of our own Epiphany worship, it brought to mind a vexing problem of present-day American Christianity – the phenomenon of church hopping. As many have observed among the Millenials especially, fewer and fewer are committing to local congregations, preferring to hop from church to church, hoping to gather ever new spiritual experiences. Especially as American Evangelical culture continues to marginalize the institutional church and long-standing American church structures, church hopping has become mainstream. Those more cynical among us have actually come to expect it of our young people, rather than retain optimism that they remain faithful to our Lutheran confession and the congregations in which they were raised.
Having preached on the Epiphany Gospel, a curious question popped up in my mind: Do church hoppers give of their treasure as the Magi once did? I don’t claim to know the answer, and I do not intend to pry into anyone’s check register, but it does make me wonder. Theoretically, one could give of their treasure to different churches from week to week. But does that actually happen? Would you give to Jesus consistently when the church you go to is constantly changing? These are challenging questions which must be dealt with. The Magi show us that giving is a real part of our worship, a part of our worship which should, in fact, give us great joy.
As New Testament Christians, we know that our Lord Jesus has promised to work among us mediately. He has given us his means of grace, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar where he gives us his very own body and blood to eat and to drink. In these means of grace, Jesus gives us the fruits of his cross and passion. Through the mediated call of the church, Jesus sends pastors to preach the Gospel and administer these means of grace. When we give Jesus of our treasure as the Magi once did, we do so to support this ministry. This ministry happens in real brick and mortar churches where there are real needs. Our churches need consistent maintenance, utilities, and the means to support the pastor’s family. In congregations which function correctly, these needs are satisfied by the consistent offerings given in our worship. The offerings which even pay for a church utility bill are precious in God’s sight, even as the Magi once gave the Christ child gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
For those who are not committed to a local congregation, it is difficult to fathom how they are supporting this ministry which our Lord Jesus has established. While giving like this may not appear glamorous, these souls are missing out on something special. Each one of our congregations is a special place, wherever the Gospel is purely preached and the Sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution. There the grace of God overflows, and we are blessed to be part of a body of special people, like-minded people who will help bear our burdens and share in our joys in ways which the rest of the world is unable. When we are part of congregations which are committed to our Lord Jesus and one another, our weekly offerings are not a burden. They are worship and joy, given in the spirit of the Magi who held nothing back when seeing the Christ child.
For me, I enjoy visiting other congregations of our fellowship from time to time. This can be quite edifying and good. We should even relish those opportunities when they come our way. But the modern-day church hopping without commitment is a sign of the decay of our culture. It is a spiritual immaturity born of the consumerism of our age. If every Christian were to practice it, no congregation could survive. So for you who remain faithful, defend your congregations. Promote your congregations. Be positive and encourage the young to commit and even give generously as the faithful Magi once did. As long as our congregations are doing the work which our Lord Jesus gave us to do, we have no reason to be ashamed.