Isaiah 60:1-3 Matthew 2:1-12
Who ought to worship? Everyone ought to worship. (We all know this much. Everyone ought to worship.) Still, the Christmas carol, Angels, from the Realms of Glory, speaks of different sorts of people who ought to worship. It speaks of angels and shepherds, sages and saints.
I: -- Today we are going to start with the shepherds. Shepherds were despised in 1st century Palestine. The social sophisticates in Jerusalem and other city centres of urbanity looked upon shepherds as uncouth, since shepherds worked with animals. Shepherds were also regarded as dirty. Sheep, after all, have very oily fleece and the shepherd has to handle them; besides, sheep poop everywhere. Shepherds were also looked upon as less than devout. It was awkward for them to get to all the church services as expected, since their animals were forever getting lost or falling sick or breaking a leg or having obstetrical difficulties.
Like all people who are despised for any reason, however, the shepherds were also useful to the very people who despised them. At both morning and evening services in the temple, the cathedral of Jerusalem, an unblemished lamb had to be offered up to God. High quality lambs, therefore, were always in demand. Temple authorities had their own private flocks just outside Jerusalem, in the Bethlehem hills. The Bethlehem shepherds looked after both their own flocks and the flocks of the temple authorities, always looking out for the perfect lamb to be sacrificed in the temple. These shepherds, despised as they were, were ordained by God to be the first people to behold the Lamb of God, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. They were the first to hear the good news, gospel, of Christmas: "For to you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord."
I understand why the shepherds were the first to hear and see, apprehend and know, believe and trust. The shepherds were first in that like other people in general who come from the south side of town they arent taken in by the smokescreens and false fronts that middle and upper class people love to hide behind. People from the south side of town see it the way it is and tell it the way it is.
My first day on the job in Streetsville (I came to the congregation in 1978 and remained for 21 years) I arrived early at my office and waited for the church secretary. Promptly at 8:30 a.m. the secretary, a large, imposing woman, loomed in the doorway to my office, looked me in the eye and said, "Im married to a truck driver; you get it from me straight." That was her first utterance. Her second was like unto it: "Theres a toilet between your office and mine, but its noisy, if you get what I mean." Is there anyone who wouldnt get what she meant? Right away I knew I was going to get along with this woman. Because she, married to a truck driver, was utterly transparent and non-duplicitous, frontal, she spared me untold grief over and over in congregational life.
She and I had much in common, not the least of which is the simple fact that we both live in the shadow of a dog food factory. And theres nothing wrong with this. After all, Moses was minding sheep when the Lord God accosted him and the world was different ever after. Gideon was threshing wheat when he was summoned from heaven. Elisha was ploughing a field when he was named successor to Elijah. No congregation can afford to be without shepherds and all those like them.
This being the case, why do we see so few of these people at worship in virtually all the churches of historic Protestantism? Roman Catholicism has always been able to attract people from the whole of the socio-economic spectrum, from the most affluent to the most materially disadvantaged. To be sure, the Protestant churches do see some of the latter; Protestant congregations aren't completely homogeneous. Still, we see far too few. Their absence dismays me, since I have found that these people have no difficulty with me, at least. Several years ago a man with a grade ten education chuckled, "Victor, we can always be sure of one thing on Sunday morning: youll never be over our heads!" Such people live in Toronto in large numbers. But they are proportionately underrepresented in virtually all Protestant congregations. Why? Can any of you enlighten me? Their absence haunts me. For shepherds have been summoned to worship Christ the new-born king. And if they do worship, theyll be the first to see and seize the Lamb of God who takes away their sin too.
II: -- Sages ought to worship as well. To be sure, the hymnwriter insists that where sages are concerned "brighter visions beam afar"; brighter, that is, than the sages contemplations. I agree. But to see Jesus Christ as brighter, even the brightest, is not to say that lesser contemplations arent bright at all and arent to be valued. They are bright, and they are to be valued. To say that Gods self-disclosure in Jesus Christ supplies what no sage will ever arrive at is correct; but to say that because Gods self-disclosure is this what the sages are about is worthless this is wrong. To say that the event of Christmas gives us what no philosophical exploration will ever impart is not to say that philosophy (or another scholarly discipline) is therefore foolish and useless. The uniqueness of the Christmas event never means that intellectual rigour isnt a creaturely good, a creaturely good that gives God pleasure.
Philosophy is an academic discipline that I cherish. Please dont tell me that philosophys significance is measured by the old question, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Philosophy, after all, taught me to think, and 90% of good preaching is just clear thinking. Moreover, insofar as philosophical enquiry is the exploration of what is there is an intellectual excellence to it that we ought not to slight, for God takes pleasure in any human excellence. (Lets be sure of something else: God takes no pleasure in mediocrity of any sort.)
Jesus Christ is truth. I am glad to affirm this. He is that "brighter" luminosity that sages are summoned to worship. But to say this isnt to say that the contemplations of the sages are inherently vacuous and invariably useless, let alone evil. Because the church has undervalued the sages contemplations the church has largely abandoned the arena of intellectual endeavour. At one time the thinkers inside the church could out-think the thinkers outside the church; at one time. In my second year philosophy course the professor, a man who made no religious profession, had the class read both Bertrand Russell and Thomas Aquinas. Russell is an atheist; Aquinas, a Christian and the greatest philosopher of the middle ages. Its easy to see why an agnostic or atheist professor would have us read Russell. But why Aquinas? Just because that professor wanted us to appreciate the intellectual power of the "Angelic Doctor", as Aquinas was known in the 1200s.
Years ago I overheard Emil Fackenheim, himself a marvellous philosopher, remark that Kierkegaard was the greatest thinker to arise in Christendom. I thought the statement was perhaps exaggerated Then I found others saying the same thing. Then I noticed that Ludwig Wittgenstsein, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century (together with Martin Heidegger); I noticed that Wittgenstein had said that Kierkegaard was by far the profoundest thinker of the 19th century. Will the profoundest thinker of the 20th century turn out to have been a Christian? And of the 21st? Not a chance. Why not? Because the church has abandoned the intellectual field. Fuzzy-headed feel-goodism is as profound as we get today.
At the time of the Reformation (16th century), those who had first been schooled as "sages" (i.e., humanists) before they applied themselves to theology also wrote theology that we shall never be without and provided leadership for the church. Those, on the other hand, who studied theology only without first drinking from the wells of humanism wrote no worthwhile theology and provided no leadership for the church.
Yes, sages should worship Christ the new-born king, since he is king and brings with him what the sages cant supply of themselves. But this is not to say that the sages' sage-ism is worthless. There is creaturely wisdom that is genuinely wise, even as the pursuit of that wisdom gives pleasure to God.
III: -- Saints too are summoned to the cradle. "Saints before the altar bending, watching long in hope and fear." The saints are those, like Simeon and Anna of old, who wait on God. The saints are always found "before the altar bending"; i.e., the saints worship, profoundly worship. They are always found "watching long in hope and fear"; i.e., the saints are both expectant and reverent. "Suddenly the Lord descending in his temple shall appear." Shall appear; shall continue to appear. In other words, the Lord who came once in Bethlehem of old comes again and yet again, continues to come. Insofar as any of us are found at worship, waiting on God expectantly and reverently, the selfsame Lord will unfailingly appear to us.
It was while Isaiah was at worship that the sanctuary filled up with the grandeur of God and the holiness of God and the glory of God. The glory of God is the earthly manifestation of Gods unearthly Godness. It all overwhelmed Isaiah so as to leave him prostrated under the crushing weight of God, only then to be set on his feet so that he might henceforth go and do what he had been appointed to.
It was while Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, was at worship that he was rendered speechless for as long as he needed to stop talking in order to hear and heed what God was saying to him.
It was while the apostle John was at worship, exiled for the rest of his life on the island of Patmos, that he was "visited" and wrote, when he had recovered, "His voice was like the sound of many waters, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength and when I saw him I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me saying, Fear not ."
What do we expect when we come to worship? Three hymns and a harangue? What if "Suddenly the Lord descending in his temple did appear"?
He who came once doesnt come once only. He comes again and again. As often as he comes the saints before the altar bending the saints at worship are overtaken yet again, and like John of old can barely croak, "His voice was like the sound of many waters, and his face like the sun shining in full strength ." The saints in any congregation today know as surely as the saints of old knew. And the saints at worship today declare, "Come with us and worship Christ the new-born king."
IV: -- What about the angels? Make no mistake: the angels are real. It is the height of arrogance to think that we are the only rational creatures in the universe. Who says that a creature has to possess flesh and bone in order to possess reason and spirit? The Christmas carol invites the angels to "proclaim Messiahs birth." Such proclamation, such witness, is precisely what scripture says angels are always and everywhere to be about. Such proclamation or witness is crucial. You see, because the angels are mandated to bear witness, specifically to bear witness to Jesus Christ, God will never lack witnesses who attest the truth and power of his Son and of that kingdom which the Son brings with him. To be sure, you and I are mandated to bear witness to all of this too. Flesh and blood witnesses like you and me, however, are sadly lacking in quality and quantity. Still, where we are deficient, the angels are not. Therefore I find much comfort in the angels. However much I may fail in serving and attesting and exalting Messiah Jesus and his truth, there are other creatures whose service and witness and exaltation never fail.
Listen to Karl Barth, the pre-eminent theologian of our century. A few years after World War II Barth wrote, "Because of the angelic witness to Gods kingdom we can never find intolerable or hopeless the apparently or genuinely troubled state of things on earth." Just before the outbreak of the war Barth had been apprehended at his Saturday morning lecture in the University of Bonn, Germany. He had been deported immediately from Germany to his native Switzerland. As soon as hostilities with Germany had ceased the cold war with the Soviet Union had begun. While there was no war, hot or cold, in Switzerland, Barth never pretended the Swiss were uncommonly virtuous. He readily admitted his own country financed itself by harbouring the ill-gotten gains (the infamous unnamed accounts in the Swiss banks) of the most despicable criminals throughout the world. Nevertheless, "Because of the angelic witness to Gods kingdom we can never find intolerable or hopeless the apparently or genuinely troubled state of things on earth."
V: -- Lastly, the Christmas carol invites us all, everyone, to worship Christ the new-born king. It tells us that this infant has been appointed to fill his Fathers throne. Since Christs sovereignty over the whole of creation is unalterable, acknowledging his sovereignty is not only an invitation to be received and a command to be obeyed; its the soul of common sense.
Our Lord is the new-born king. To be sure, the only crown he will ever wear is a crown of thorns. Finding no room in the inn and having no home in which to lay his head throughout his earthly ministry, the one house hell eventually occupy is a tree house, ghastly though it is. And of course the only throne he will ever adorn is a cross. Still, he is king. We mustnt allow the bizarreness of his royal trappings to deflect us from the fact that he is king. He rules, he will judge, and he can bless.
Then acknowledge him we must. The writer of our carol cries, "Every knee shall then bow down." Since everyone is going to have to acknowledge him ultimately, like it or not; since every knee is going to have to bow before him either in willing adoration or in unwilling resignation, it only makes sense to adore him and love him and delight in him now, together with sages, saints, angels, and by no means least, shepherds.
Victor Shepherd December 2000