MP3 Audio: WS330326_Dn-Joseph_Three-Wise_Men.mp3
This homily was preached on Sunday morning, January 5, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
Wise men, Gentiles, came from the East, from beyond the borders of Israel, from beyond the borders of God’s chosen people, so that they could worship Christ the King.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is One.
It’s very interesting who we do see at the Nativity and shortly thereafter. It’s also interesting who we do not see. It’s like a little church. God Incarnate is there at the center, Jesus Himself. The Saints are there: Mary the Theotokos, St. Joseph the protector. The angels are there singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace and goodwill toward men,” announcing to the shepherds that Christ has been born. We also see other people there.
We don’t see the high priest. In fact we don’t see any of the Levitical priests. We don’t see any of the Pharisees or the Sadducees. All the people that most would have expected to be there were not there.
Now does that mean that all the Jews failed to recognize Him? No. Mary was a faithful Jew. Joseph was a faithful Jew. You don’t see any of the religious leaders there, but you do see some blue collar workers, some shepherds, been sleeping outside with the smelly sheep. The angels didn’t bother telling the high priest what was going on, or the Levites, or the Pharisees or the Sadducees. But they appeared to the shepherds. And the shepherds showed up to worship.
The religious leaders were nowhere to be found at the Nativity. And yet, these uncircumcised Gentiles from a pagan land find their way to the Christ-Child and they worship Him as King. Over and over throughout the Scriptures, God makes it very clear that He has a chosen people, a people that has been set apart, to give them abundant gifts of the knowledge of His ways, of His worship, of His salvation. And multiple times throughout Scripture, He also goes to great lengths to step on our toes just a little bit, and remind us that the boundaries of His people is not necessarily the same as the boundaries of salvation.
When did the Israelites become so very angry? The very first years of the Church, they became so angry, and the person speaking reminded them that there were many widows during the famine in the time of Elijah. And yet, Elijah didn’t go to any of the Jewish widows; he went to this widow in Zerephath outside the bounds of Israel.
We go in Scripture and look for the first picture of the Eucharist, this first picture of bread and wine being used in conjunction with the worship and the blessing of God. And then we see in Genesis 14, Melchizedek, the very king of whom we are reminded in the New Testament that Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek. And yet right here, in the book of Genesis, Melchizedek is a king, but he’s not a descendant of Judah. Melchizedek is priest, and he’s not a descendant of Levi. But he’s no pagan priest either. It says in Scripture that he is priest of the Most High God. He doesn’t receive Abraham’s blessing; he is the one who blesses Abraham.
We look at Naaman the Syrian at the time of Elisha. Naaman the Syrian traverses from afar covered in leprosy. And Elisha tells him, “Go dip yourself seven times in the filthy, dirty waters of the Jordan. You know you’ve got some clean pools over there in Syria, but no, you need to go dunk yourself in the dirty Jordan.” First he’s miffed, he’s upset, but he finally agrees to do it. And the seventh time that he goes down and comes up in this early picture of baptism, not only is his flesh cleaned, but it also says that at that point he believed, he had faith. You are given the idea that he trusted in Israel’s God. And yet, did being dunked in the Jordan, did that make him a Jew? No. He still was a Syrian. He still was a commander in Syria. In fact, he even goes to Elisha and says, “Please forgive me.” In so many words, he says, “I don’t believe in the pagan gods that they worship over there in Syria. This pagan god Rimmon, I don’t believe in him. But they have this temple, and part of my duties is helping out the king over there. There’s going to be times that I’m going to have to be in there. Please forgive me”. And Elisha says, “Go in peace.”
Now there’s this great tension here, and its easy to fall off the road in either direction. We could fall off in one direction and say, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter. Eh, you could serve Israel’s God, you could serve Rimmon, you can serve Baal, you can serve Ashtaroth. It doesn’t matter. How about Molech? Lets sacrifice our kids!”
No. There’s never even a hint in Scripture that Rimmon is God, or that worshiping at the temple of Rimmon is true worship that God accepts. No, worshiping Rimmon is worshiping demons. And yet here’s this man that lives in the land where that’s who everybody worships. He wasn’t circumcised, he wasn’t part of Israel, he wasn’t part of the boundaries of God’s chosen people. And yet, did salvation come to his house and to his heart? Yes. Salvation came to him even though he was outside the bounds of Israel.
But the critical difference behind that, and just saying that all religions are okay, the critical difference is this: Salvation did not come to him through the religion of Syria, through the temple of Rimmon, through that pagan demonic god. As circumstances would have it, he was born out there. He had the life that he had. He lived where he lived. But in his heart, whom did he have faith in? He had faith in Israel’s God. And it is only through Christ, only through Israel’s God that we find salvation.
What makes some people uncomfortable, is that the salvation given by Israel’s God sometimes extends beyond the borders of Israel. And so we come to the New Testament, to these three kings: Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior. They traveled for months from foreign lands. They were Magi, very likely astrologers. They didn’t have what Israel had. They didn’t have the books of Moses. They didn’t have the Psalms. They didn’t have the Prophets. They had so little, comparatively. And yet with what little they had, just looking up at the stars, God saw their hearts. God saw their willingness. God saw their faith, and He used a star to bring them and to lead them to Bethlehem so that they could see the God who created those stars! And so with what little they had, being outside the bounds of Israel, being ignorant of the Scriptures, they find Christ.
And yet so many religious leaders in Israel had so much. They had the Scriptures. They even understood what the Scriptures said. It says right here in our reading today, in the Gospel of Matthew, that they knew that Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. They already knew that! Herod didn’t ask the Magi. Herod asked the religious leaders right there in Jerusalem, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” They said, “Well, according to Scripture, He’s going to be born in Bethlehem.” They knew it ahead of time, and they still missed Him!
To whom much is given, much shall be required. There are going to be some people disappointed on judgment day. They are going to say, “Well, I know I had this Bible, but I had other things to do. I know the dust collected up on it because I didn’t open it often, I didn’t really study it, but I just figured it’s other people’s job to just tell me what it means. I don’t really need to dig into it myself.” And God is going to say, “I gave you so much. I gave you the Scriptures. I just handed it to you!”
These three guys didn’t even have that, and they still found Christ. They still found the True Way. What excuse do we have if we are given so much, and we still just set it off to the side? They spent the equivalent of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars traveling for months, over hundreds of miles, long arduous journey, just to worship the King, just to worship Christ. How many of us won’t drive 5 miles or 50 miles because we’re a little sleepy, a little under the weather? We just don’t “feel like it” this week. We need to learn from these three men who had so little, and yet did so much. We need to learn, I believe, at least three things:
The first is the one that we’ve been talking about. Yes, the boundary of God’s people is well defined. There are definite ways God set up that you either were or were not part of Israel. And if you were Melchizedek, if you were the three Wise Men, if you were the Roman Centurion that Jesus said had great faith, just because you had faith, just because you believed in God, believed in Christ, did that make you part of Israel? No. It did not. In Isaiah where God says to Israel, “I am your husband,” He says that to Israel. He doesn’t say that to every nation on earth. He doesn’t say that to every religion.
But just because the boundaries of His people, His bride, His chosen ones are well defined, does that mean He is unable to save those outside those boundaries? No. He can do whatever He wants.
The second thing is the meaning of worship. Would everybody here agree that these three men knew how to worship? They knew the meaning of worship. They gave Jesus their presence, they gave Jesus their worship, and then in that context of being present and worshiping Him, they gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, giving Him their presents, like I said a little bit ago. It is important to leave our homes and to travel to the place of worship, to come to Church, to come together and to worship Him. We don’t just stay at home and say, “Well, I know God is omnipresent, He’s everywhere, so I’m just going to stay here. I’m not going to go to the place of worship.” What if the wise men had done that? What if they said, “Ah, we see His star in the East. We believe that there’s a king that’s going to be born over there, but that’s just too long of a trip.”
This isn’t just a half-hour drive to church, or an hour drive to church. This is a nine-month journey at great expense just to worship the King. They gave Him their physical presence at the place where He–not they–chose. They didn’t stay at home out there in Persia and say, “Well, Jesus, we’re interested in worshiping you, but you need to find some way to have Mary and Joseph and the Baby come to Persia because that’s where we are. You need to come to where we are.” No, God chose the location. The star pointed the location and they came to the place where He chose. That should be our attitude. Find the place where God has set up and then we give our presence there. Then they explicitly give worship, it says they fall down before Him.
Some people make a big deal out of the fact that in this kind of a Church, you’re up and you’re down, and you’re up and you’re down, and you’re doing prostrations and you’re kneeling and you’re crossing yourself and lifting your hands. You know, this is not calisthenics, this is not aerobics. Why are we doing this in Church? I love Jesus in my heart; isn’t that good enough? Of course it is good enough if you are physically unable, and all you can do is just bow your head, that’s great. God sees that. But as far as your willingness goes, I have never met somebody who is willing to bow their heart to Christ who is not also willing to bow their knees to Him. The heart and the body follow each other. You are one person; you are not two different people. And if your heart truly is willing to bow before Him, then so are your knees.
The Wise Men fell before Him! And they worshiped Him with all their hearts. And then they brought Him gifts. I’m going to repeat that because I want this to sink in. They brought HIM gifts.
See, there are a lot of people who are willing to come into the presence of the King, so that they can ask for something. How many times have you heard somebody visits a new church and walks out and they say, “Well, I didn’t get anything out of that.” Or maybe you have even gone to the same church for years and years, but you go one Sunday and just didn’t care for the music much, didn’t care for the sermon much, and you leave and you say, “Ugh. I didn’t get anything out of that service.” Where did you get the idea that you are supposed to? Where did you get the idea that that’s what you’re there for? Liturgy means “the work of the people” . . . “litourgia.” Worship is where YOU give to Him.
Now, is there anything wrong with asking for something? No. You can ask the King for healing. You can ask the King to help you with your finances, to help you with your marriage. Is there anything wrong with getting emotional, good feelings, uplifting mountain-top experiences? There’s nothing wrong with that. But none of those things are worship. It’s wonderful for you to ask for healing and for God to give it to you. It’s wonderful for you to get wonderful emotionally high experiences when you are in His presence. But worship comes from an old word: Worthe-ship. It’s you proclaiming and demonstrating the worth of the One you have come to worship.
I was surprised the first time I noticed several points in the Psalms where God gives US worship, because He finds us so very valuable. And throughout Scripture over and over, we give Him worship because He is of infinite value. He is God. He alone is God. And how do you proclaim the worth? Well you give of your time. You give of your money. You give of your resources.
They have one of the most valuable things in the whole world: Gold! And they say, “You know what? I’d rather show honor to Christ than hold on to my money.” They have frankincense, a beautiful aroma. They say, “You know what? I’d rather show honor to Christ. This is for Him.” They have myrrh, also valuable. They say, “Instead of holding on to this, I want to give this for the honor and glory, to show the worth of Christ.” The worshiper’s heart is a giving heart.
Now, exactly what did they give? They give gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold symbolizes that Jesus is King. Frankincense is incense that you burn in worship to God. Frankincense shows that Jesus is God, is deity. And myrrh is used to anoint and to prepare the body of the dead. For He is the King, and He is God, and He came to die.
These three gifts also signify the types of gifts that we today in the Church need to be bringing to Christ, if we wish to consider ourselves worshipers:
Gold. This one is not too hard to figure out. Are you supposed to give your money to the Church? Yep. But not for the reasons that you’ll see on TBN. You see, the true Church does not say, “Well, you just give your $20 as a seed-of-faith gift and God will turn it a thousand-fold, and you’ll be driving around in a Cadillac and wearing gold jewelry.” No, no, no, no, no! No, the Church says, “You need to give your money to Christ for the same reason that they gave their gold to Him.” There was no promise made to them that, “you give your gold to Christ and you’re going to get more when you get back to Persia.” No. They gave their gold to Christ because Christ was of greater value to them than all the money in the world.
It is by giving your money to Christ, to the Church, that you show–you demonstrate–that Jesus means more to you than your pocketbook. If you are absolutely unwilling to do it, if you are absolutely unwilling to give your money to the Church, you are not being a worshiper. I don’t care how well you chant, how well you sing, how much you enjoy the smell of incense, giving of your labor and giving of your money, you are literally giving of yourself to support the work of God. And since I get absolutely no salary for what I do, I can say this without worrying about it. There is not a single penny that I get because we give our money to the Church or because anybody else gives their money to the Church. This is not something that you do because your pastor happens to say it. It is something you do because you are a worshiper, because like the three wise men, you are bringing your gold that you have earned with your sweat and your tears, and you are laying at the feet of the manger and saying, “This is dedicated to God.”
The frankincense. This is the right worship. This is the pleasing aroma of our prayers. Not only do you give you labor and your money to the Church, but you also give prayer and right worship to the Lord. You don’t worship Him in any way that you please. You don’t worship Him in any way that you see fit. But you give Him the type of worship that He has shown us, the type of worship that He showed Moses on the mountain, the type of worship that we see in Revelation in the New Testament, the type of worship where we come together as a group. We pray as one. We are in the presence of the Saints and the angels. And the incense and our prayers rise up to the very throne of God.
And then finally, the myrrh. You have not fully worshiped if you’ve just given your money to the Church and if you’ve just given right prayer and right worship to the Lord. You also have to be mindful of death. It a crucified, dead body that we look at every Sunday morning. Now, that is a body that rose again from the dead. It is a body that conquered death. But it is a dead body nonetheless. For it’s after He said “it is finished” and gave up His spirit that His side was pierced. And if you look on the crucifix in front of the Church, He is crucified, and His side has already been pierced, and it is bleeding. We are acknowledging the death of the Lord. We are honoring Him for it, and we are entering into that ourselves.
We all say that we want to be Christ-like. Well it’s easy to want to be Christ-like, when He is the King on the throne, when He is riding the white horse and He has the vesture that says “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords”, and He is riding into triumph. It’s easy to want to be like Christ then. It’s easy to want to be like Christ when He is rising from the tomb, when He is ascending into Heaven, when He is sending the Holy Spirit upon the Church in great power and glory. It’s not difficult to desire Christ-likeness in those cases. But what about this case, the one that is set right before us every Sunday, the case of His humble, sacrificial death? Do you want to be like Christ when He is being beaten and mocked, and spit upon, and crucified, and killed? You see, you cannot be like Christ in the resurrection, if you are unwilling to be like Christ in His crucifixion.
You can work so hard with your hands for the Church, you can give all of your money to the Church, you can worship in the right way and pray in the right way, and if you lack love in your heart, if you are unwilling to die for His sake daily, humble yourself and die to self so that you can serve your wife, serve your husband, serve your children, serve your parents, serve the other people in your Church and in your community, if you are determined to put yourself first and your own wants first and your own needs first, and you are unwilling to die the death of humility and sacrifice and service, then you have not truly worshiped.
The wise men teach us that the boundaries of salvation are not coterminous with the boundaries of the Church. The wise men teach us what true worship looks like. You bring your physical presence, you worship from the heart, you give of your labor and your money. You give right worship and you’re mindful of the humility and the sacrifice of death that is required.
And then third, and finally . . . Do you ever look at icons that are made of the Three Wise Men? That icon is often called “The Adoration of the Magi”. See, this was not just an intellectual exercise. It was not just academic. It was not compulsory. Nobody made them do it. No, this is the adoration of the Magi. It says in Matthew that they fell down before Him! This was from the heart. They loved Him! They didn’t give their gold to Christ because they felt obligated to, because their pastor told them to. They didn’t give the frankincense because somebody beat them over the head and said, “You better worship Him right or you’re gonna get it.” They didn’t give the myrrh grudgingly. Everything that they did, they did out of adoration, out of love.
Now, remember 1 Corinthians 13. If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I’m just clanging cymbal, a sounding gong, just making noise. If I give all that I have, all that I posses, every penny in my bank account to the poor but I don’t have love, it’s worthless! If I even sacrifice my very body to martyrdom, to the flames and I don’t have love, it counts for nothing.
You can be in the Church. You can partake of all the Sacrements. You can give right worship. You can give every penny that you have. And if you don’t do it with love, if you don’t do it with adoration, if it’s not from your heart, then you’re not of the Kingdom of God. It’s not just in the outward actions. It’s here, in the heart. Do you love Jesus more than anything? Are you willing to lay down your life for your wife? Are you willing to lay down your desires for your husband? Are you willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of raising up a godly seed, a godly family, godly children unto the Lord?
It is important that the wise men traveled as far as they did, even though they were outside the bounds of Israel. It is important that they worshiped correctly. But it’s that last point, the fact that it was the adoration of the Magi, the love of the Magi for Christ. That is the only thing that gives meaning to any of the rest of it. You can travel the world, you can give all the gold, frankincense and myrrh that you can amass; if you don’t do it for love for Christ, love for God, and love for your fellow man, then it’s all in vain. That needs to be the lesson that we learn.
We do need to follow Christ. We do need to use right worship. But never, ever, ever forget that the heart of the matter, the spirit of it, is that you do it with love, with humility, with self-sacrifice, giving of yourself even unto the point of death if necessary, so that you can serve Him, so that your spouse can be drawn closer to Him, and so that your children will be raised up worshiping Him as their God too.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, our God is One.
This homily was preached on Sunday morning, January 5, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.