Two members of KBF — my home church in Tokyo — died recently. Pastor Gaius Berg remarked, “for 12 years we had no funerals, this year we have had three.”
On December 7, 2014 my wife Nancy spoke at KBF. The death of church members and the hope of Christmas are woven into her message. I trust that Nancy’s Advent message “We Have Come to Worship Him” is an encouragement to many.
Scripture Passage: Matthew 2:1-12
A few weeks ago, Gaius Berg (Pastor at KBF) called our attention to some road signs. Today, I want us to begin by thinking about this sign.
Few of us would knowingly choose to travel a rough road. Certainly, Eri and Hideo Makishima did not choose the rough road of cancer. Nor did our brother, Masamichi Imai choose the rough road of paralysis and cancer. Maybe you find yourself on a rough road, not by choice, and bumping along, seemingly without hope.
You are not alone!
Eri and Masamichi… did not travel the rough road alone…their family, friends, and church family all walked alongside them praying, loving, cheering and supporting them in numerous ways.
Most importantly, Jesus Christ, who DID choose to walk the rough road with us here on earth, walked beside Eri and Masamichi…and is walking beside you and me now. Eri desired to get well, to live longer here on earth. But her hope wasn’t in health, it was in Jesus. There is HOPE – HOPE in Jesus Christ and His love demonstrated on the rough cross.
We want to look at the passage of Scripture from Matthew and learn from these WISE Men, who chose to travel a rough road just to worship Jesus, and see how this story applies to our lives of worship today.
Sadao Watanabe Print, Photo from CIVA
Just 12 verses contain all that we know about these travelers, creating more questions than answers. There is much Matthew doesn’t tell us, but what we ARE told is that the WISE Men “came to WORSHIP the King.”
Let’s look at WHAT MATTHEW DOES TELL US or can be discerned from what he wrote…
The WISE Men are a striking example of faith as they had confidence in Whom they sought. They had never seen Him prior to their journey, but they believed that the one they sought was the promised Messiah and journeyed in that confidence. They had no miracles other than the “special star” to boost their confidence, and probably not much teaching to persuade them, only their faith and belief in the prophecy and its fulfillment. All too often we or those with whom we are sharing the Gospel want “proof” or answers before we will step out on faith. The WISE Men are an amazing example of both faith and humility as they “fell down and worshiped” a young child of whom they knew very little and whom they had never met.
The WISE Men are also an example of Joy. Matthew tells us that, “When they saw the star come to rest over the place where Jesus was, they were overjoyed.” Other translations say that they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
John Piper highlights that, “This is a quadruple way of saying they rejoiced. It would have been much to say they rejoiced. More to say they rejoiced with joy. More to say they rejoiced with great joy. And even more to say they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And what was all this joy about? – they were on their way to the Messiah. They were almost there. I cannot avoid the impression then that true worship is not just ascribing authority and dignity to Christ; it is doing this joyfully. It is doing it because you have come to see something about Christ that is so desirable that being near him to ascribe authority and dignity to him personally is overwhelmingly compelling.” (John Piper)
The WISE Men must have been exhausted from their long, hard journey on rough roads, probably discouraged after their encounter with Herod, and possibly nervous about meeting this new King Whom they had been anticipating for so long. And, yet, they were overjoyed to know that their journey was over and they would finally meet the Messiah to worship at His feet.
How do we enter into our times of worship? Among other passages, Psalm 100 encourages us to “enter His gates with thanksgiving in our hearts and enter His courts with praise.” I know that when I have the most Joy about spending time with Jesus is when I have been intentional about thanking Him for the good as well as the difficult things in my life. When I am grumbling about things or feeling ungrateful, there is an obvious lack of joy. Focusing on Jesus, not on ourselves, not on the rough road, praising Him with a thankful heart, having a sense of expectancy about what God will do in us…these are the things that will transform our worship experience and enable us to “rejoice exceedingly with great joy.”
The WISE Men followed the unique path set out for them to “come to worship Him.” If you remember the Manger Scene, the WISE Men differ from the Shepherds in various ways, including their path to worship Jesus. (Yes, I know the WISE Men weren’t actually there at the time of Jesus’ birth, but they always seem to get in the Manger scenes!) The Shepherds heard the angel’s announcement and hurried to the manger to see for themselves what had been proclaimed. The birth of a King was not even on their radar and they were taken by surprise at the news. In contrast, the WISE Men had been studying and preparing for years. They were waiting for the news to come that the King was born. Their hearts were prepared and yet it took them a long time to actually get there, most likely traveling on rough roads.
As I think back on our 27 years as missionaries in Japan, we personally don’t have any experience of someone hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ and immediately “coming to worship Him,” like the Shepherds did.
In contrast, more like the WISE Men, it has been years of the Holy Spirit preparing the hearts of people to be ready to “see the star” so to speak, and then begin the long journey towards Jesus, finally falling at his feet and worshiping Him as King.
Just as each person’s journey to Jesus is unique, what happens in our hearts as we worship is unique. God speaks to us and works in our hearts in various ways. Again, we see a similarity and a difference with the Shepherds and the WISE men. Luke 2 tells us about the Shepherds:
After the Angels appeared and told them about the Savior who was born…”they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (Luke 2:16-18)
The shepherds were moved and motivated to boldly “spread the word.” They had been changed from quiet, peaceful shepherds tending their flocks by night, into bold witnesses for Jesus. In essence, they went home “by a different route.” In the case of the WISE men, after worshiping Jesus, they did NOT spread the word, but quietly went home by a different route…they had heard the Holy Spirit and changed direction because of Herod’s evil plans.
Japanese artist, Watanabe Sadao playfully depicted the WISE Men returning to their country in a boat to symbolize their returning by a different route from which they had come.
Our worship should do the same thing in us…as we hear God’s voice, through His Word, songs, messages, the whispering of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and wise counselors, we should be changed and go home “by a different route.” Sometimes our route is different from what we had anticipated because of other people’s issues, like Herod’s insecurities about another King usurping his throne. There are times to persevere and not let other’s issues deter us from a certain path, but at other times we need to listen to wisdom (from God and others) that might tell us to go “by a different route.”
I remember a message a couple of years ago that Pastor Martha Berg shared about getting rid of the “clutter” in our lives so that we could focus on God and what He wanted for our lives. It was a time when I was trying to do well at 4 different major responsibilities, but my family and the jobs were suffering. Through Martha’s message and the prompting of the Holy Spirit (and my husband’s urging), I realized that day that I needed to take a “different route.” I prayerfully chose not to renew my term of ministry with two of the jobs. I had a huge sense of relief and peace at journeying by this “different route” as I knew it was where God was leading me.
As the WISE men waited for the sign of the King’s birth, we can assume that they were also preparing. It would not have been easy to come up with the costly gifts that they brought for Jesus unless they had been saving their money, thinking ahead (and listening to the Spirit’s direction) and preparing those gifts. They brought offerings uniquely intended for Jesus:
Gold – a gift “fit for a king”, it was symbolic of Christ’s royalty and divinity – God in the flesh or “Emmanuel”, God with us as we sang this morning.
Frankincense was used to worship at a temple where it was burned as a pleasant offering to God. It was also a symbol of holiness and righteousness.The gift of frankincense to the Christ child was symbolic of His willingness to become a sacrifice, wholly giving Himself up, analogous to a burnt offering.
Myrrh is an aromatic spice and its oil was used for embalming the dead. Myrrh symbolizes bitterness, suffering, and affliction. The baby Jesus would grow to suffer greatly as a man and would pay the ultimate price when He gave His life on the cross for all who would believe in Him. The prophecy in Daniel 9:27 told of the Messiah being “cut off” or killed which may have prompted the WISE Men to bring Myrrh as a gift.
“The Anointed One will be killed, appearing to have accomplished nothing.” (Daniel 9:27)
The WISE Men are a model to us for offering our best, our whole selves to God in worship. Psalm 116:17 reiterates the idea of thankfulness being a vital part of our worship:
“I will sacrifice a thank offering to you and call on the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 116:17)
The WISE Men were a splendid example of spiritual diligence and hope.
The WISE Men had open hearts and open minds. They knew the prophecies. They are known as “Magi” or “WISE Men”. They probably came from the orient where the Jews had spent seventy years in the Babylonian captivity. During this period, the Babylonians and Persians probably learned of the promise of the “Messiah” from Daniel the prophet who had lived amongst them. In Daniel 9:25, Daniel prophesied about both the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming of the “Anointed One.” That would explain why the WISE Men went to Jerusalem looking for “The King of The Jews”.
The WISE Men had heard stories about the promised Messiah, but, for them it wasn’t just a story passed down, it was truth waiting to be fulfilled. The Jewish priests and teachers of the law that Herod inquired of would have also heard or read the prophecies about the Messiah, but they weren’t interested or expecting anything to actually happen. With the WISE Men there was awareness and anticipation. They were keenly aware of the prophecies and had most likely studied and calculated the stars and constellations. But their awareness didn’t stop with knowledge, they were anticipating the fulfillment of those prophecies. Anticipation involves waiting with expectancy. Expectancy is thinking or hoping that something, especially something pleasant, will happen. This type of anticipation is really the underlying meaning and heart of this Advent season.
When I was growing up, my personal plan for my life was to get through college, get married and have lots of kids. I did want to be a missionary, but the other things fit into that goal as well. Graduated from college – check. Got married to Paul – check. Went to graduate school to prepare for missions – check. But after a few years of marriage the rest of “my” plan came slowly to a halt as it became more and more clear that we would have difficulty getting pregnant.
My time of anticipation of having children – “waiting with expectancy” – was full of tears, doctor visits, tears, prayers, pills, injections, surgeries, tears, bargaining with God, temperature charts, depression, dashed hopes, and more tears. It was not a very pretty 10 years of my life. There came a point when my time of waiting was devoid of expectancy – I had lost hope because my hope was in the wrong thing. My hope was in the the outcome that I wanted…a child.
At about the 10 year point of our marriage, when we had decided to stop trying medical intervention, I felt a great loss as my hopes were finally dashed and there was no longer a sense of anticipation…nothing to wait for. We spent some time grieving and then went back to the US for a short Home Assignment.
While visiting one of our supporting churches, we joined them for an all-church retreat. At the last meeting, the speaker was speaking from II Corinthians 12 where the Apostle Paul is talking about his “thorn in the flesh”. The speaker acknowledged that each of us has a “thorn in the flesh” that we have probably asked God (at least 3 times!) to take away. He gave us a moment to think about what that might be for us. I’ll give you a moment to do the same…what is the painful or distracting thing in your life that you wish God would remove? I knew what mine was! The speaker then said that Jesus’ answer to Paul is the same as to us…”My Grace is sufficient for you.” Or Jesus could have said it like this, “This is my Grace to you”, or “This is my gift to you”, “This is the best thing I could have ever thought of to give to you.”
At that moment, the eyes of my heart were opened and I saw Jesus standing before me lovingly offering me a beautifully wrapped present. But, I had been saying to Him, “No, no, I want the one over there with all the babies jumping out of it!” Weeping, I said to Jesus, “I am so sorry! I receive the gift you have for me as your grace.” And immediately, my heart, that had been hard and angry and bitter, melted into thankfulness and contentment.
My hope had been in having children, but God gave me hope in Him. Hope, not in what I could get from Him, or what He could do for me, but hope in Him. I could then say, “Lord, I don’t NEED a child, but if there is a child out there that you want to be in our home, we will gladly receive.” Nothing in our circumstances changed – we did not miraculously conceive a child days later or even years later. My heart was content and I was fulfilled with the life and ministries that God had given me.
Paul & Nancy Nethercott with Baby Naomi
It was 9 years later (the 19 year point of our marriage) that God gave us a baby through the gift of adoption and allowed us to become parents. Naomi was the blessing on top of the Blessing. I am so thankful that God gave me contentment and hope in HIMSELF before He gave me a child. Just as my hope had been on the wrong thing – children – and finally better placed in Jesus, Himself, I pray that your HOPE is in Jesus and not in something or someone else. Jesus’ Grace IS sufficient for all of our needs; it is sufficient for your “thorn in the flesh.” We can wait with expectancy and anticipation for what He will do in our lives if our hope is in Him and not in the outcomes we desire.
I think that the WISE Men had put their HOPE in the promised King, the Messiah, not in the star that they were waiting to appear. We can discern this because once they saw the star, they took Action. They actually made the long, hard journey…which probably took them two years. The WISE Men didn’t just see the star and say, “OK, now that we’ve seen the star we know the Messiah has been born. Check that off our research list.” NO!
They acted on the sign and the promise that it would lead them to the Messiah. They were intentional about going to worship Jesus. We, too, need to be people of action. “Worship is an ACTION verb.”
Worship is something we DO, and worship calls us to action. The “signs” and promises that we find in the Bible should lead us to action as we respond to God and obey the “signs” He gives us. What are the signs that God has placed in your life? Where are those signs guiding you? Maybe down a rough road? The sign of the star is not the thing that the WISE Men had put their hope in. Their hope was in what the sign was leading them down the rough road towards…the Messiah.
May we be like the WISE Men and boldly say, “We have come to worship Him!”
Nancy Nethercott serves as a missionary in Tokyo with TEAM. She loves to plan worship services, cook, and spend time with friends. Nancy has a Doctorate in Worship Studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, FL, and is the Worship Coordinator at Kurume Bible Fellowship in Tokyo.
I (Paul Nethercott) am a career missionary in Japan with TEAM. I help people connect with each other and produce media. Currently, I am producing 2 Criminals, a feature-length film inspired by the lives of two men I met while doing disaster relief work after Japan’s epic disaster in March of 2011. 2 Criminals is about a ruthless hit man and an arrogant thief for the yakuza (Japanese Mafia) who volunteer in Japan’s radioactive disaster zone and find redemption. It is a story of finding beauty in the rubble.