January 3, 2021 – Second Sunday after Christmas
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A message from the Rev. Helen Smith
Happy New Year! Our worship resources today are provided by the Rev. Harry Bradley, formerly of Knox Presbyterian Church, Agincourt, and now retired. We are grateful to Harry for providing these resources for us. May they gather us together around our common faith and ministry.
Rev. Helen Smith
The Call to Worship
Spoken by One / Spoken by All
At several points in the worship service, Rev. Bradley uses a call and response structure. The minister speaks the words of One, shown in normal text, and the congregation responds with the words of all, shown in bold text. As here, the sections where this applies are prefaced with the “Spoken by One / Spoken by All” heading.
Call to Worship based on Isaiah 60:1–3.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Alleluia! Amen!
God’s light of merciful love comes to us in the birth of Jesus, the Christ-child,
and the darkness of the world cannot overwhelm this gift.
As the wise men long ago, search for this gift of God’s love in Jesus
until you pay homage when he is found.
Together, we worship God.
Book of Praise – 172 “As with gladness men of old”
- Video with on-screen words; very minor differences from the hymnbook.
- Words (1859) by English hymnwriter William Chatterton Dix (1837–1898); tune (“Dix”) written in 1838 by German composer Conrad Kocher (1786–1872), and adapted for the hymn in 1861 by English organist William Henry Monk (1823–1889).
- Video by the Chet Valley Churches, Norfolk, England.
O Lord our God, your glory shines as far as the east is from the west, from the north to the south, so that all people may see and be radiant, so that every heart might thrill and rejoice. Guide us on our journey in Christ. Overwhelm us with the joy of your abiding love. May we enter into your Presence and pay homage to him whose infant arms were already reaching out to the ends of the earth that all might be gathered in.
We pray, O God, that the light of your abundant love would shine into our lives, chasing away the darkness that obscures our walk of faith. We confess that sometimes the things that we say or do are not well thought out and end up doing more harm than good to others and ourselves. Sometimes, in the face of injustice in our world, we choose to remain passive while others suffer and are oppressed. When we are fearful and protective of our own prosperity and security we do so at the expense of the poor and the powerless in our neighbourhoods. When we become aware of the cries of those who have few resources and are in need of help, we close our ears or cover our eyes pretending that these unfortunate situations do not exist.
Forgive us, we pray, when we choose to hide in the darkness of this world more than loving the light of your righteousness made known to us in Jesus Christ. Judge us with mercy, we pray, and extend your grace to us. Strengthen our faithfulness to you and to all who are precious in your sight. We offer these prayers in the name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the world, our Light, who invited us to pray together often, saying [together],
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.
The Assurance of Pardon
Spoken by One / Spoken by All
Friends, God is for us and not against us. For that very reason God sent the Son into the world–not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. We declare the good news of the Gospel.
In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven and set free to live a new life in him.
The Peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Book of Praise – 173 “We three kings”
- Video with on-screen words; minor differences from the hymnbook.
- Words and music written in 1857 by American minister and hymnwriter John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1820–1891).
- Video by the Chet Valley Churches, Norfolk, England.
Prayer for Illumination
Spoken by One / Spoken by All
O God of wonder, as that ancient star arose and guided the wise men illuminating the place where Jesus was, so now may the light of your Holy Spirit shine in our hearts and minds as the Word is proclaimed.
Guide us again to Christ, and direct us in new paths of faithfulness. In Christ Jesus we pray. Amen.
“Who are these Wise Guys and Why do they Matter?”
Almost every Christmas presentation of Jesus’ Nativity — from the common Sunday School pageants to the most artistic nativity scenes — seems incomplete until, near the end, three noblemen enter into the manger scene with their camels. Dressed in the finest clothes or their parents’ bathrobes, bringing expensive and exotic gifts to be laid at the foot of the child’s rough crib, they bow in worship of this newborn king. These visitors from afar are the stuff of myths and legends. Over the years, these foreign travellers have acquired races, names, and social rankings that are more imagination than history. We presume that there were only three exotic visitors from the “east” simply because three gifts — gold, frankincense, and myrrh — are mentioned though the gospel writer, Matthew, never mentions how many made this journey.
Over the centuries these noblemen were given names and representing different foreign nations:
Melchior, a Persian scholar; Gaspar, from India; and Balthazar, a wise man hailing from Arabia. With the gifts presented being three in number, the assumption was that there were only three who endured this long quest searching for the child in the faraway Roman province of Judea. Eventually, the Christian Church elevated the status of these wise men from noblemen to the high office of being “three kings” from the Orient that we continue to sing about in the familiar carol of praise in the time-honoured song, “We Three Kings.” All of these traditions remain more fiction than fact.
All we have to go on is that the term “magi” — a word that has its origins in the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism — is used by Matthew for these seekers. These were people who dedicated themselves to studying the stars We should be careful not confuse them, however, with what we would call today “garden variety astrologers.” They were the mathematicians and scientists of the ancient world. These magi asked the questions about the meaning of certain signs they observed in the skies, and then looked for the answers. The “wise men” were the intellectuals of their day.
It is likely that these “magi” were men of great wealth in order to make such a long journey possible. As well, to travel such a journey of hundreds of miles through desert and wilderness would require abundant supplies and resources to ensure a safe trip that would last for months. And they were likely men of some influence to be welcomed into King Herod’s palace, although there is no indication they were kings. As for the timing of their arrival in Bethlehem, it appears that Mary, Joseph and their child were living in a house in Bethlehem by then, and from Herod’s decree to slaughter the infant males, we may deduce that Jesus could be nearing two years of age at the time of their visit.
Of course, although there is no mention of these non-Jewish visitors from the east in Luke’s birth story. In Luke’s gospel, Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, travel to his ancestor’s home town of Bethlehem to be enrolled in a Roman census that is never mentioned in Matthew’s story. Nor do we read of a brilliant star that led these wise men to Israel’s capital of Jerusalem–a place where a seeker could expect to find out about a “newborn king of the Jews” — or the manipulative plot of an angry jealous King Herod to rid himself of any kingly rival. Instead, the writer of the Christian gospel we call “Luke”, we have angel choruses proclaiming “Good News” to lowly shepherds caring for their flocks on nearby hillsides. Joseph returning to his ancestral home in Bethlehem finds the small village overcrowded with other pilgrims who are gathering for the Roman census. In spite of the church’s attempt to harmonize Luke and Matthew’s stories of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth into one neat pastoral scene, the two accounts of Jesus’ birth share very little in common other than to agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a small village south of Jerusalem. It may well be that the two writers were drawing from two different versions surrounding Jesus’ birth, or that how Matthew and Luke presented how God’s Son, the promised Saviour, entered into our world were not merely history; rather, each author reshaped the story of Jesus to present a message for their own contemporary Christian communities. In a sense, Matthew, as well as Luke, desired to provide what we may call “interpreted history” making Jesus’ birth relevant to their own listeners. So we are left to ponder not only who these wise guys are, but why are they included by Matthew.
The question remains: Why do they matter? To answer this question, we must understand that in Matthew’s mind he was not likely too interested in the “details” surrounding these wise men. These “wise men” were employed as actors or “props” on the “gospel story” stage. The true focus of his stories surrounding Jesus’ birth — indeed the message of his whole gospel—is on who Jesus of Nazareth truly is. The notion of a bright star announcing the birth of a new king is a supernatural act that had been used in other ancient birth stories to indicate the birth of someone important, such as an Emperor. These wise men see the sign and they journey to the Jerusalem palace, the most natural place to go in searching for a newborn king of the Jews. It seemed a logical place to start. Their reception in the courts of Herod the Great were not as welcoming as these seekers may have desired or deserved.
When they arrive looking for this child with this good news no such child is found in the palace. Herod “and all Jerusalem with him” are both mystified and upset at this unexpected news. History reveals that King Herod of Judea, known of as “Herod the Great” for his many architectural achievements such as rebuilding the Temple Wall in Jerusalem or the construction of the palace at Herodia on the shores of the Mediterranean Seas. Herod was also known as a ruthless dictator. Herod reigned over Judea by the power given to him by Caesar in Rome, but as history records, Herod held onto his power by having little qualms in killing his own family members. No rivals were allowed. In an attempt to discover where this rival king was living, Herod employs his own chief priests to study the Holy Scriptures and to help these visitors to find their way. Eventually, the wise man’s caravan made its way to a tiny village of Bethlehem where, in a peasant home, they are ushered into a simple home where they finally discovered this “newborn king” they searched for all these years: “[A]nd they knelt down and paid him homage.” [Matthew 2:11a]
Allow me to suggest at least three possible “answers” to help us understand why the Christian evangelist, Matthew included this story of the wise men in his Gospel.
Firstly, these “magi” seeking Jesus were non-Jews, or outsiders. Biblical scholars have long recognized that of all the early Christian gospels, Matthew’s appears to be most familiar with the Jewish scriptures and culture. Possibly, the Christian community he was proclaiming the Christian message to were largely those who had their roots firmly in the Jewish faith. At the time, however, when the gospel was composed one of the bitterest conflicts engulfing the early Christian churches was whether or not those presently outside of the Jewish faith, particularly those who had no background in the God of Abraham, were to be included. Hardliners argued that converts from the non-Jewish world first had to become Jewish before they could accept Jesus as risen Lord. Others, notably missionaries like Paul of Tarsus, were open to establishing Christian congregations outside the boundaries of Judea especially among Gentiles who were equally welcomed in this new community of God’s love in Christ Jesus. For the wise men to be the first in the gospel to seek for and to discover the long-awaited Christ-child was Matthew’s way of suggesting that the Mission of the Christian community was to break the traditional boundaries that held people back into old categories and to understand their role as sharing this light of God with new people in new ways. The proverbial “doors to God’s compassion” were thrown open to all — Jews and non-Jews — as they accepted the Way of Jesus the Christ! Matthew indicates from the beginning that the gospel of Jesus was to be taken to the ends of the earth! Not surprisingly, Matthew closes his story of Jesus with this same message. In what we now know of as “The Great Commission”, Matthew concludes with the risen Jesus sending his followers out to share the “Good News” with new “wisemen” when he writes,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19f.)
The danger was that the Church became focused on maintaining membership in an exclusive club rather than following God out into new and open-ended mission.
In many ways, Herod’s reaction and the people of Jerusalem’s response to the news of the wise men’s search causes concern than jubilation. When there is an established order any unexpected change will cause anxiety, uncertainty, and downright fear. Change is rarely accepted easily. It often means a dramatic shift of focus and allegiance. Surely, after holding onto to the power granted to him by the Roman Emperor, Herod would not let go of his control without a fight. Consequently, even the suggestion that a new rival had been born within the bounds of his kingdom meant that Herod had to act quickly. He employed his best priest of the Temple and scholars of the scriptures to scour the many prophecies along with the interpretations to help these wise seekers to locate more precisely where the birth had occurred. So, Herod refuses to consider that maybe his life needs to change. Cleverly, he speaks to these wise men encouraging them to go and see if their quest is true. If so, they are to return to Jerusalem so that King Herod could then go to this special child “and pay him homage.” (Matthew 2: 8b) Of course, this is not a genuine interest in surrendering one’s power to another king; it is another one of Herod’s schemes to “keep the status quo” by getting rid of any change.
Herod’s scheme, of course is reflected in the power structures of the Christian community today who give verbal agreement to the possibility of God acting to renew and make change to attract outsiders today, yet, in the end, the same people of God who desire change will only do so if it is to their benefit and things pretty much stay the same. While we profess with our lips that we are open to change and truly desire to “pay homage” or worship the Christ-child, in fact, we are more inclined to hold onto those “traditions” or power structures that we currently control than to surrender our familiar ways to God’s unexpected and uncertain plans. For example, people who are not yet part of the Christian community come to us looking for guidance to find the “answers” to their many questions only to encounter resistance to their new and innovative ways by demonstrating their reluctance to change past traditions with the seven most deadly words in the church today: We have never done it this way before!
Secondly, Matthew wanted those in the early Christian movement to know that the “good news” of God is discovered in unexpected places. God is at work in places and situations that many who sit in our pews weekly neglect to look. Too many congregations today are suffering from church myopia or “near-sightedness.” We focus on how to get people into our safe areas such as our church building so that we can convince those who are presently outside the Church that we have what they need to know inside our Church. We want to convince people outside that once they come inside, they can discover God at work. Not so, says this story. When the wise men went to the “expected place” —Herod’s court—to find this “newborn king” all they received was schemes from those “in the know” about God in an attempt to contain and control God to meet their ends, and not the other way around! Matthew’s message of the “good news” of Jesus is outwardly focused. Very often, we witness God at work leading people who are looking for “answers” in life in the most unusual places. David Rhoads, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, explains the need for us to look for God working in places that we would otherwise ignore. He writes,
“In order to recognize true epiphanies, we can beware not to equate epiphanies with human successes — possessions we accumulate, achievements that bring us notoriety and admiration, victory over another. Rather, biblical epiphanies usually emerge from deprivation and places of marginalization — an impoverished nation recently conquered, a peasant from Galilee, a Jew who used to persecute Christians, the crumbling of dreams. At the absolute center of our faith is a crucified man who redeems the world…
They also lead us to see everything differently.”
Lastly, in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth, when we think of the “gifts” that these wise men bring before the child we remember the three that are mentioned; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We have no difficulty understanding the gift of gold. It is the gift worthy of a king indicating the wealth of royalty. Frankincense is perfume that priests used in religious rituals for the purposes of purifying. Later tradition would link this gift up to Jesus’ priestly role. Myrrh was an exotic substance used in burial practices that was a foretaste of Jesus’ death.
There is, however, a fourth “gift” of the magi that usually passes by without any notice. Thomas Troeger, of Yale Divinity School, notes that even before these exotic gifts are offered the first response upon seeing Jesus is that “they knelt down and paid him homage.” Some versions of the scriptures translate the Greek word proskyneo more broadly as simply “worship”, but the Greek word used by Matthew is more specific. To pay “homage” is an act of will, a response of bowing before a sovereign or king as one who is greater than oneself.
This response of submitting to Jesus is the leitmotif or the reoccurring theme of Matthew’s gospel. The end of the journey of the wise men speaks of the end of the journey for all believers. As Thomas Troeger says:
“…the magi announce the reason for their long journey. ‘[We] have come to pay homage’… ‘journey’ is a primal metaphor for the life of faith… since proskyneo was commonly used to describe the custom of prostrating oneself at the feet of a king. The physical posture dramatically expresses the idea of giving not just gifts, but our entire selves to Christ.” It is only after they give their lives to Jesus that the treasures that they possess are given. As Troeger reminds us: “Only after this act of worship, only after giving themselves completely to Christ, do they present they present their material gifts.”
In ways, these seekers are models of ourselves, and a call to understand the self-giving worship of the wise men as examples of how we are to approach the crib of the Christ-child as trusting disciples each day.
The Church season of Epiphany begins on January 6th. The weeks of Epiphany celebrate the revelation of God’s “light” or manifestations of God’s “Good News” into the world. In many ways, Matthew’s story of these travellers from faraway places is an appropriate transition story from the coming of God’s merciful light in the birth of Jesus and the sharing of the light in the homage that is shown by the wise men In particular, as followers of Jesus the Christ, the Church is reminded that it has an outward focus. It is a time to explore what it means for us to be a part of God’s outreach to the whole world. It is understanding that primarily the reason we gather for worship weekly is to prepare us to go out and discover where God is manifesting Christ in our larger community. It means living our faith so that those who are not Christians will be exposed to the light of Jesus that shines through our daily living.
- “We three kings”. Words and music written in 1857 by American minister and hymnwriter John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1820–1891). This jazzy arrangement copyright © 2021 by Rachelle Risling; used by permission.
- Performed on the keyboard by Rachelle Risling, GCPC Music Director.
- Audio recording copyright © 2021 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
We remind everyone that we must continue to pay our bills; in the absence of Sunday worship, you may sign up for pre-authorized remittance (PAR), donate online, or drop off your offering envelope in the mailbox at the church. Do not leave a cash donation unattended in the mailbox; instead, please call the office (416.261.4037) to ensure someone will be there to receive it. The building will be checked daily for mail and phone messages. If you are not comfortable leaving an envelope, you are welcome to contact the office (once again, 416.261.4037) and someone will pick up your offering.
The Prayers of the People (Thanksgivings & Intercessions)
Spoken by One / Spoken by All
Glorious God, you led people of wisdom to seek Jesus, your Holy Child, born of Mary. Overjoyed at last that they found the reason for their quest, with all that they were and possessed, these seekers, knelt before him surrendering their own lives to him in worship. O that we would have a similar experience as we receive this holy gift of God’s Christ-child. As we draw near to his place, might we come with our questions, our hopes, our fears, and trust that as our relationship with Jesus grows stronger, they will be answered or satisfied. Help us to know that we will be welcomed as we are and yet, under his Lordship, Jesus will call us to become his presence in our neighbourhoods. With each new day might the spirit of Christ inspire us to be willing to share the light that we have received with all whom we meet who are on their journey of faith to help guide their way forward.
With the boldness and confidence of God’s children, let us pray, saying, Gracious God, Lord of light,
hear our prayer.
Loving God, in Christ you embrace people of every nation and make them members of the same body, sharers in the promise of the gospel. For the holy church of God, that through its faithful witness the wisdom of God in its rich variety be known in heaven and earth, Gracious God, Lord of life,
hear our prayer.
Loving God, you judge the people with righteousness and the poor with justice. For nations, rulers and authorities to forsake violence and be guided by the light of truth, that goodness and righteousness may flourish and justice abound in every land, Gracious God, Lord of life,
hear our prayer.
Loving God, wise men from afar came to visit the holy family and found a place of rest and worship. For our city of Toronto, for our community in the area of Scarborough, and our neighbourhood of Guildwood, that we may be a community of hospitality, joyfully welcoming the stranger and sheltering the refugee, Gracious God, Lord of life,
hear our prayer.
Loving God, you defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and save those who are oppressed in our society and world. For those who suffer the cruelty of poverty, and all who work tirelessly to right the wrongs of economic injustice and hardship, Gracious God, Lord of life,
hear our prayer.
Loving God, you take pity on the weak and provide comfort to those who have suffered loss. For those whose bodies are weakened by disease or whose spirits are assailed by illness or who are fearful of the dreadful news of COVID-19 spread, we pray that they may be restored to wholeness of life, Gracious God, Lord of life,
hear our prayer.
As we have begun a new year, loving God, we pray that we would always sense your caring and comforting presence leading in our lives each day of the coming year. When we are only able to perceive the obstacles and obstructions in our pathway, open up our eyes and our hearts to comprehend the new challenges and possibilities that lie ahead. With 2020 now behind us, we pray that you will inspire us to new confidence and walk with us each step of the way through the year 2021. Gracious God, Lord of life,
hear our prayer. Amen.
Book of Praise – 174 “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness”
- Video with on-screen words exactly as in the hymnbook.
- Words by Irish Anglican priest John Samuel Bewley Monsell (1811–1875), first published in 1863. Music (tune “Moredun”) by English organist and composer Henry Thomas Smart (1813–1879). Words and music in the public domain.
- Vocals and keyboard performed by Rachelle Risling, GCPC Music Director.
- Video recording copyright © 2021 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
Follow the star, seek Christ’s light. Kneel before him, offering the treasure of your life; and share with others the wondrous gift of Jesus the Christ: Light in the darkness.
God, ruler of heaven and earth, dismiss you in peace;
Jesus Christ, light of the world, uphold you in love;
the Holy Spirit, revealer of God’s mystery, lead you in truth,
today and always.
Copyright © 2021 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church
Last updated on 2021-01-08 at 13:45 – minor typos corrected.