Sermon: Because Of Bethlehem: We Can Worship God
Scripture: Luke 2: 13-15
Date: December 3, 2017
Last week we began thinking about who we are and who we can become because of what happened in Bethlehem surrounding the birth of Jesus, more than 2000 years ago. Because Bethlehem is an invitation to each one of us to journey there again and again and experience the birth of Jesus for ourselves. So last week we said that Because of Bethlehem we can see God face to face, we can know that God is with us no matter what, just as Mary did as her newborn lay in a manger in a stable cave. This morning I want to focus on the Angels and how Because of Bethlehem WE can worship God. We no longer needed priests or even Angels to worship on our behalf. Which brings us to the Christmas story. Because of Bethlehem I think mankind’s understanding of Angelic beings changed forever. Of course, when the story begins, the Angels serve as messengers as they often do, speaking on behalf of God, more in the mold of the Old Testament concept. And so they appear to Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds to speak essentially the same message. “Don’t be afraid because we are here to tell you that God is about to enter into your world in the person of a baby that you Mary will deliver and you Joseph will receive and raise, and you shepherds will bow down and worship. But Because of Bethlehem, God no longer needed to send Angels to speak for Him. With the birth of Jesus in our midst, God would now speak directly. And the purpose of the Angels becomes one of worship and adoration. Because God came in human form, all the barriers between God and man were broken down. Because of Bethlehem we can directly relate to God. No intercessors needed. Because of Bethlehem, we see shepherds and kings and angels coming to worship the newborn King. And all Heaven and nature sings. Everyone that comes to Bethlehem comes to worship and praise God. In the angels we see our true purpose – to worship and praise God. John in Revelation states it this way: “Day and night they never stop saying Holy, Holy, Holy.” Because of Bethlehem we can truly worship God. And so those who came to Bethlehem came not to anoint a king, but rather to worship a baby, to worship God. Now you may be thinking that there was certainly worship before Jesus was born. The word worship means: “to ascribe worth to someone or something.” Before Bethlehem the purpose of worship was to somehow make humanity worthy. And so the emphasis was on our sacrifices not to proclaim God worthy but rather seeking forgiveness and atonement, and ritual cleansing in order to be made worthy in the sight of God. But Because of Bethlehem the way we worship changed. The focus was no longer on our worthiness, but rather on the understanding that only God is worthy to be worshipped. And so Luke tells us that the Angelic Chorus came to the lowliest, most unworthy people, those who would never have been deemed worthy to even enter the Temple much less participate in worship, the shepherds, and the Angels came worshipping and invited the Shepherds to go to Bethlehem, just as they are, find the baby, and do what? Worship Him. Now I can just imagine the Shepherds looking at one another and thinking if this child is truly God, we are not worthy to approach Him at all. They were dirty and unkempt. They must have smelled like the sheep they tended. But Because of Bethlehem humanities long quest to somehow become worthy enough through law and ritual to approach God is over because instead of us trying to find God, God found us in Bethlehem and came to dwell among us, to be with us. In the fourth chapter of his gospel, John says that Because of Bethlehem “God is actively seeking people” rather than the other way around, and why is He seeking people? John says “God is actively seeking people to worship Him.” That is essentially the reason for Bethlehem. The reason that Jesus was born in that stable in Bethlehem and not anywhere near the Temple. Because of Bethlehem, all creation, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels and even Kings, can worship God not because we are worthy but because He alone is worthy. Worship is not for us, it is for God. And Because of Bethlehem we no longer need strive in vain to be worthy to worship, because it is through our worship the one who alone is worthy comes to dwell with us. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Because of Bethlehem the only sacrifice that God requires is our sacrifice of Praise and the Psalmist tells us that God dwells in our praise. Our praise celebrates that Because of Bethlehem, God is always with us when we are praising Him. And so the Angels came to Bethlehem to worship. And in doing so revealed our ultimate purpose. So what can we learn about how to worship from the Angels.
First, we learn that the deepest desire of creation is to worship. If you think about it all of us, whether we are in or out of the church – worship something. We all have things we find to be worthy of our praise and adoration and devotion. When I was sixteen my parents bought this little beauty (SHOW PICTURE) or I guess more accurately something just like it. My beautiful 1971 Plymouth Cricket. Now supposedly they bought it for my mom and I to share. But it was a four speed with a stick shift in between the two front seats, and my Mom had never been able to master using a clutch and manual shift car. So I was the one who drove it. And I loved that car. I gave it my praise and devotion. I was so proud of it. I kept it cleaned and waxed so that it gleamed in the sun. I put in an eight track tape player and speakers with something called a subwoofer (many of you remember those but some of you younger people may need to google it.). And I put a leather cover on the steering wheel for no other reason then I thought it looked cool. And I drove it everywhere. I even had the nerve to drive my idol to church. And though it had bucket seats in front and a back seat that barely fit two, it was not unusual for 6 or 8 of my friends and I to squeeze in and head for a basketball or football game. I loved my Plymouth Cricket and it never proved to be unworthy of my love. Even when I would get busy with other things and neglect it’s care, it would always prove worthy. I drove it for my last two years of high school, and then stuffed most of my belongings into it and drove off for four years of college and the first couple of years of marriage. But as the years passed the body began to rust through and the upholstery began to tear and the engine began to lose power. And finally it stopped running. And the mechanic told me that it would take more money to fix it then the car was worth. And my beautiful Plymouth Cricket was no longer worthy of my love. You see all of us have things we worship, objects like my beautiful Plymouth Cricket, professions, jobs, people, even the Green Bay Packers, or the U.K. Wildcats, but all these are lesser gods that will eventually prove to be not worthy of our love and praise. But that night the Angels sang about a God who Because of Bethlehem would now be with us forever. Because of Bethlehem we have a Lord and Savior that is always worthy, no matter what, worthy of our praise and adoration even in a lowly stable, lying in a manger. And so shepherds and wise men and Angels came to Bethlehem to worship Him. To celebrate God with us, Emmanuel
Secondly the Angels tell us that Because of Bethlehem we worship by giving our all to God in praise. The Angels offer a concert of praise. The writer of Hebrews says this: “through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God our praise – the fruit of our lips that openly profess His name.” And the Psalmist says “Shout to God with joyful praise. Make a joyful shout to God, all creation.” The Methodist movement began because John Wesley found worship in the Anglican Church to be lacking of joyful praise and he wrote, “When you worship sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it’s being heard than when you sung the songs of Satan.” And in response his brother Charles began to put the Gospel to what were probably the very tunes that John had in mind when he talked about the songs of Satan, songs you would here in the taverns rather than church. He claimed those for God so that those outside of the church could lift their voices – the voices that the church had silenced – in praise and worship. But the church branded the songs as too common and even blasphemous and sinful and called Wesley and his followers “shouting Methodists” and worse because of their boisterous approach to worship. And they banned them from the churches. Luke tells us that the Angels came and sang a new worship song for the Shepherds. They sang “Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth for all those pleasing him.” And in response the Shepherds couldn’t wait to go to Bethlehem and see and worship. You see, when we worship like the Angels, powerful things happen and we inspire others to go to Bethlehem and “see”.
And then from the Angels we learn that we are to worship in community. Before Jesus, worship was a very individualistic, impersonal experience. The Temple consisted of several courtyards that you moved through as you approached the Altar. And each courtyard was more restrictive then the next as to who could continue that approach until finally you came to the courtyard of the priests and the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God, in the center of the Temple. A dark veil separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and only on the Day of Atonement. It was He alone that could truly approach God and worship on our behalf. In fact the Holy of Holies was such a restricted place that before the High Priest entered a rope would be tied around his leg in case he should die while in there, his body could be pulled out without anyone else having to go in to retrieve it. But when Jesus went to the cross, the veil of the Temple was ripped apart and Because of Bethlehem everyone could worship. Worship happened in the midst of community. And so Luke describes a multitude of Angels who came to Bethlehem to worship the newborn messiah, and implies that there was a group of shepherds (even though shepherds were usually loners) that went to Bethlehem to see and worship. The writer of Hebrews describes the worshipping community that was born in Bethlehem that night when he writes: “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but inspiring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.” Because of Bethlehem we can worship together in community and so inspire one another in our love and praise.
And then finally Because of Bethlehem we worship with our whole lives. Because of Bethlehem worship is not just something we do, it is what we are. We are made to worship God in all that we do and say. That was the Angels purpose as the multitude sang for the baby Jesus and it remains our purpose in life. And so every time we show that God alone is worthy of adoration and praise, we worship Him. Jesus did that by hanging out with the unclean, and the poor and the lepers. Those who were denied the privilege of worship by the church. And John Wesley worshipped with the miners and farmers, those who the church deemed to be unworthy and he echoed the words that Jesus spoke as he ascended into heaven that the disciples were to go to the entire world praising him and Baptizing in His name, when he proclaimed “the whole world is my parish.” But because of Bethlehem the one who is worthy makes us worthy to live a life of praise and glory. A life of worship no matter what. And powerful things happen when we worship. Lives are changed. Peace settles in our heart. And with our lips and our actions, worship.
Max Lucado shares this story:
“On Christmas Eve 1915, the whole world was at war. And near the little village of Lavewntie in Northern France the regiments of the German army and the English army faced off against one another. Bombs shook the ground all around them and the frigid temperatures had driven each army in to their trenches and fox holes. The soldiers were young, homesick and scared. The battle ahead promised to be relentless and bloody, as they fought for that little village. Bethlehem seemed farther away than usual on that Christmas Eve.
But then in the dark night from the German trenches and foxholes came the sound of men singing an English Christmas Hymn:
Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.
And then from the English side, a German hymn. And all through the night in the dark of that Christmas Eve they worshipped God through song. They put down their weapons and for a few hours they worshipped together. When the sun started to rise on that Christmas Morning all over the battlefield soldiers stepped out of their trenches and began to greet their enemies. They shook hands and exchanged gifts of food and other treats and even helmets and pieces of their uniforms. For a while that Christmas morning enemies put aside war and shared the promise of peace. And the battlefield became a Holy place. And it all started with worship.
Because of Bethlehem Angels and Shepherds and Kings came together to worship. And the promise of peace was born in hearts once more and hate gave way to an eternal chorus of praise. I pray that the miracle of Bethlehem may happen again this year and that it may begin with us as we worship and praise together.