Advent is not just about acknowledging Jesus, but adoring him. Christmas is not first about witness, but about worship. So, come, all ye faithful. Come, joyful and triumphant. Let us adore our Christ.
But beware your standard of who can come in worship. At Jesus’s own birth, it wasn’t the squeaky-clean, religious elites of biblical faith who bowed the knee in worship. Rather, they bowed their back, and it was the dirty pagans who streamed in to adore him.
All Ye Faithful
We need look no further than the magi of Matthew 2 for our model of the “faithful.” To call them “three kings” is overstated. “Wise men” is positive spin. These guys are more like sorcerers. They are star-gazing, pagan astrologers, watching for who-knows-what in the skies, rather than the Scriptures, and God in his grace comes to them through the very channel of their sin. Even here at Jesus’s birth, he is making wizards into worshipers worldwide. Even from the priestly class of pagan religion.
Don’t miss the message of the magi: If such sinners as these can approach the Christ and fall down in worship, so may all. Pagan astrologers prostrate in adoration is a stunning emblem announcing that all sinners may come.
Joyful and Triumphant
You know the well-worn lines from Matthew 2:10–11. But let’s travel these trails again and see the magi adore the Jewish Messiah.
When they saw the star [resting over the place where the child was], they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Matthew piles up the joy language so that we don’t miss it. They didn’t just rejoice, but did so exceedingly. And added to that, they did so “with joy” — and even more, “great joy.”
Perhaps we would have thought of the shepherds in Luke 2 as the crazy emotional types, while these erudite pagan astrologers keep calm and collected. But the joy language explodes here in Matthew 2 with even greater gusto than Luke 2 when the angels announced “good news of a great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10) and the shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). Here our wicked wizards, Matthew says, “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
Come and Behold Him
And such explosive joy is not disconnected from their worship of the baby Jesus. Exceeding great joy is the stuff of true adoration. The essence of worship is not physical actions and mere motions of homage. At its heart, worship is in “spirit and truth,” as Jesus says in John 4 — true things about Jesus and a spirit of great joy about him — spiritually looking to Jesus and rejoicing exceedingly with great joy.
But what does it mean here that the astrologers “worshiped” this child? Did they know he was God in the flesh? Were they worshiping him as the God-man? They may merely be paying homage to one whom they anticipate will be a great earthly king. Maybe. Perhaps the magi heard from Jewish exiles in Babylon about the Balaam prophecy in Numbers 24:17, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
But it seems more is going on here. If by “worship,” Matthew merely means that they paid him homage, as subjects pay homage to their king, then it seems odd to travel so far and redundant to say “they fell down.” Falling down is the physical posture, but “worship” is what is going on in their hearts as they see this newborn king who will reign not only over Israel but the whole world, thus making them his subjects even though they aren’t Israelites.
We Worship All the More
At least in some sense, they are worshiping better than they know, and Matthew wants us to see that. In chapter one, he has already told us of the virgin conception and that this baby is called “Immanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23) and that he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). And in this Gospel, Matthew will unfold the surprising story of how this child born king will walk an excruciating path to his cosmic reign — a path literally excruciating, in dying odiously, and sacrificially, on a Roman cross en route to glory.
And since we Christians now know more, we adore him all the more, and come to Christmas with no less joy than these emotionally enthused magi. Our Advent worship is more that of these star-gazing “wise men” than it is that of the scrupulous Jerusalem religious elite, who know their Scriptures, but won’t bow their knee. We come as sinners, struggling, unclean, unimpressive, veritable astrologers.
But it doesn’t mean we come joyless here on this third Sunday of Advent. Rather, because he is marvelously merciful — because his advent is Grace Incarnate (Titus 2:11), because he came to seek and save lost magi (Luke 19:10), to heal the sick and call the sinners (Matthew 2:17), to serve the spiritually broken (Mark 10:45) and destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) — we come joyful and triumphant. Sinners come, even in star-gazing rebellion so great as ours, and we adore Christ the Lord with joy — rejoicing exceedingly with great joy.
Come, let us adore him.