This week's Bible Study - December 21, 2014

Overcoming Obstacles to Worship

Background Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12 

Quotes of the Week:
The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.

This lesson will discuss two primary topics and several sub topics. The primary Christmas story involves the Wise Men and their worship of the newborn king, although there is much discussion about when this event took place and placing the Wise Men at a manger scene is likely in error. The other primary topic involves some thoughts regarding our own relationships and perhaps it can serve each of us a time for a year end self assessment. These may seem to be two totally separate and distinct topics, but there are certainly some truths from the story of the Wise Men that can be applied to our relationships in some manner.

As we approach the Christmas holiday and a new year, it is good for each of us to think about how we approach God. We need to realize that true worship is worship that is acceptable to God. In another study that Berkley and I have been leading in the book of Exodus, God clearly defines for His people the elements of true worship. This included the giving of the 10 Commandments and was at least partially further defined by Moses in the book of Exodus. Although worship has changed over the centuries, you will find that worship in many churches is often a result of church tradition, and is done because that is the way it was always done. On one extreme, some churches are tied to the way they always have done things (so that you would feel comfortable if you were going to church in 1920). The same hymns are played and the interior of the church looks much like it used to years ago. On the other extreme, some churches have been more focused on novelty, entertainment and attention grabbing worship that is much more in line with what you might find at a rock concert. When we are going through the motions because that is how we have always done it or are focused primarily on drawing a crowd, the true essence of worship often gets lost, or at least distracted. At times, the problem is more personal, as we might find ourselves more self absorbed or distracted about other things going on in our lives than being focused on worshipping God. That is not worship. Worship involves all of our heart, mind and spirit and even the best worship service will be less than intended if you leave part of 'you' at home.

This might also be a good time for us to look at our relationships and identify if and where we might need to make some changes. You will notice in the story that the Wise Men went to a considerable effort to find the new King. Our pursuit of our Lord and worship is certainly at a different level than our relationships. However, at times, we all tend to take our relationships for granted, and certainly many of us need to put more into relationships we have with our family and friends. Relationships can become stuck and if it becomes a game of who blinks first, our relationships and associated quality of life is diminished. Benefits of a relationship may be lost for years, which will impact joy that we may have had as well as potentially impacting many others indirectly. I'm sure that we could each stand to consider the people in our lives and identify if there may be some action that we need to take to show them that we value their relationship.

( Matthew 2:1-6 )

In this passage, we are introduced to the Magi, commonly known at the Three Wise Men, or, as in the song "We Three Kings". For simplicity, the term Magi will be used throughout the rest of this lesson. The actual number of the Magi is in question, although we know there were three gifts that they gave. We don't know the names of these men, their professions or much else about them. We do know that they were Gentiles and not Jews, but even so, they must have had some knowledge of the prophets. These men came from afar and spent considerable effort to find the 'king of the Jews'. We live in an age where we can board an aircraft and fly to most places in the world within a few hours and even faraway places in less than a day. We also know that our lives are busy and that we don't really have the time to drop everything to act as these men did. In fact, if we required such effort today, the inconvenience that it caused and the potential conflict we might face would cause many of us to stay at home and 'not bother'. While we don't have to travel for days, weeks, months or years, as these men may have had to do, seeking God should not be dependent upon our circumstances, waiting for the right time to truly seek Him.

Don't you find it interesting that the Magi were looking for the king of the Jews, and the Jews seemed to be oblivious to it all? It was clearly written in Scripture that the Messiah was to come, and where He was to come. I find it remarkable that the Jews knew Scripture much better than most of us do today, and yet they didn't seem to have a clue or even care that they should be looking. The Magi, on the other hand, saw his star when it rose, and began their long trek. Perhaps they knew something of Scripture, but surely not as well as the Jews knew the Biblical truths. Even so, they still sought to find and to worship this King.

Given that they were looking for the king of the Jews, the Magi went to Jerusalem to see the current King Herod, so that he could share the birthplace of this baby king. This might seem to be the place to go, but, unbeknownst to the Magi, Herod had a very unstable past. Herod was half Jew, and he was insanely jealous of any potential future kings, specifically any would be king that was fully Jewish. Herod was a loose cannon who executed suspected rivals, including his own family. The people were very disturbed when Herod played his bloody King of the Hill. Obviously, the Magi didn't realize that Herod would not appreciate the birth of this king. Do you know of any people today that are like Herod? While they may not execute others, they surely would never bow or go to any length to allow anyone else to remove themselves from the role of being ruler of their lives (or the lives of others).

Herod certainly hid his angst from the Magi, and went to get his smart guys (chief priests and teachers of the law) to ask them where the Messiah would be born. Interestingly enough, they knew the answer which once again makes you question how the Magi sought the Messiah and the Jews didn't. We know that they were expecting an earthly king, and you would have to suppose that they must have thought or at least considered that this baby could potentially be born to a royal family. It is interesting that they were so close to this event in history and that they knew details of what was to come, yet they missed it. We are often like these leaders, in that we can be so close to things today, perhaps having factual knowledge but not being able or willing to accept.

( Matthew 2:7-8 )

Herod called the Magi to meet with them in private. Isn't it interesting to see that he didn't want this information to get out? Can you imagine the uproar that would have caused if the nation heard of the birth of this baby that was at least potentially prophesied by Scripture? Even seeing Herod meeting with them would have caused people to question what was going on. Herod found out from the Magi when the star appeared, and determined approximately when the baby was born. He sent the Magi to Bethlehem with a request to notify him when they found him, so that Herod could also go worship. He wanted them to believe that they were receiving the blessing of the king and that he wanted to support them.

There were several obstacles that the Magi faced in their pursuit to worship this baby king. To begin with, they were following a star. I can easily get lost with a map or having my smart phone giving me directions. Additionally, when they got to Bethlehem, they would have to find the child. On top of that, they were dealing with Herod who would have just have likely executed them as much as help them. When we are going to worship, what obstacles do we face? At times, we find ourselves to be indifferent and going out of obligation. We end up going because that is what we are supposed to do. We are often distracted, thinking about what is for lunch or other plans for the day or week. In the Christmas season, people are often thinking about company that they are expecting or potentially travelling somewhere else or last minute shopping and so forth. At other times, we can be very self centered, and instead of listening to God speak through worship and the teaching of a pastor, we find ourselves being critical of what was said or perhaps upset in regards to the style of worship.

In our world today, most of us don't face obstacles in getting to worship, and most of us don't have to hide the fact that we are believers. While others may disagree with our beliefs, at least currently we don't fear for our own personal safety. However, there are places where the obstacles in even getting together with other believers are huge. Yet, in many of these places, the number of churches is rising and more people are being saved. I find it interesting to realize that many of these folks in very dangerous places see no obstacle as too big to keep them from worshipping. When we compare and contrast that to the experiences of many church members today (sometimes including each of us), we take so much for granted and often will find no excuse as too small to avoid worshipping with others.

( Matthew 2:9-12 )

The Magi got the required information from the king and they went on their way. They had received direction from wise Biblical scholars that could point to the location and they continued to follow the star. They didn't question what they had heard and they didn't question the existence of the star. When we are seeking direction, we often turn to many different places. Sometimes we keep looking until we get the answer we want. Many Christians spend a lot of time in Christian book stores, where you can find a plethora of books based on Biblical principles. However, we must realize that the truth is found in Scripture and you can sometimes find differences of interpretation on passages. Although this lesson and others on this site are intended to help in individual or group Bible Studies, the truth is found in Scripture, which is living and breathing on its own, as opposed to interpretation (ours or any others).

When the Magi had seen the star and found the house where the child was, we read that they were overjoyed. We need to remember that true worship invokes joy in the heart of the worshipper. Do you experience joy when you worship? For reasons mentioned earlier, worship can become rote and it can seem that we have forgotten the joy that comes along with worship. When they saw the child, they bowed down and worshipped him, showing true humility. Humility is not just shown in outer posture, but also in inner attitude. When we are truly humble before God, we ourselves are deflated and God is elevated.

The Magi gave the child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are common gifts given as baby gifts today, right? Actually, these gifts seemed to be of little practical use to Mary, Joseph or the baby, but they had meaning to the Magi. These gifts were standard to honor a king of deity in the ancient world. In Isaiah 60, the restoration of the city of Jerusalem is prophesied and in verse 6, it said "all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense". According to Biblical scholars who have studied these gifts, gold was a precious metal and represented the kingship of Christ. Frankincense was a perfume or incense that was a symbol of his priestly role and myrrh was oil used for anointing and was often used in embalming, symbolic of his death. No mother would appreciate a gift symbolic of death upon arrival of their baby, as a baby is born to live. However, Jesus was born, with the purpose to die.

The Magi had been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned to their country by another route. One other aspect of worship is obedience to God's plan. Of course, we don't often hear God speaking to us in our dreams, but when God has spoken to us through His word or through other means, we need to be willing to follow Him. We obviously will all find times when we have gone our own way, but, over time, we learn that God's way is the best way. The Magi risked more at this point, regardless of how they handled the situation. If they had gone back to Herod, they would have disobeyed God and likely would have been executed, once their information was obtained. But, even in going another route, they ran the risk of upsetting Herod to the point of being chased and executed.

Many aspects of true worship were shown in this story regarding the Magi. They took the time to seek the baby king. The same applies to us that we need to seek to be involved with others in worship. However, involvement (or attendance) in worship can become an obstacle in itself, if all it becomes is a checklist of something you have to do. The Magi were focused on seeking the king. When they found the king, they were joyous and focused on worshipping the baby. When we worship, we need to engage our minds, so that we aren't just going through the motions. We can read in Scripture that God speaks in a still, small voice. If you are always on the run and you don't take the time to slow down to listen to God, you may very well miss what He has to say. We need to concentrate so that we are sensitive to even the slightest tug that he gives. One other aspect is that of commitment. The Magi were committed to finding the baby king. It is amazing to think of believers who face persecution, yet they still are committed to meeting one another for worship and studying God's word. On the other hand, we find many believers who, rather than facing obstacles, are looking for excuses to not have to worship with others. Are you committed to worship?

Part Two

It is important that we truly seek God not only at this time of the year, but throughout the year and throughout our lives. Our relationship with God is truly the only relationship that you are guaranteed to have in this life from the time that you accept His Son as your Lord and Savior until the time that you pass away. You are sure to lose family members, friends and others throughout the course of your life. None of us are guaranteed another day, week, month, year or more with others in our lives, so we should be careful when we take others for granted or let relationship problems fester. We can be thankful that the primary relationship for a believer should always be with our Savior and He will always be with us.

It is also important for us to do some reflection in regards to human relationships that we do have. As I write this, there are many families that are intact and seem to have great relationships throughout. There are people who have many friends that they can turn to in the times of happiness or distress, knowing that they will be supported. At this time, they are not personally dealing with illnesses or major problems internally and if this describes you and 'yours', count yourself as blessed. On the other hand, there are many who find themselves in broken families or have broken relationships with family members and / or friends. They are many with terminal diseases and others who are experiencing loss of relationships for one reason or another. At some point, we all will personally encounter some of these issues or losses in our lives. During the holidays when others are experiencing times with families and friends, there are others who have lost loved ones or have estranged relationships with those who should be near and dear to them, yet for some reason are not. I believe that there are some points from this lesson regarding the Magi that may be wise to consider.

There are many reasons why people are estranged from loved ones and friends. It generally is not one single reason that has contributed to the problem. There are cases where abuse has occurred that to even think about restoration might put one's life in danger. There may be other reasons that some relationships are best not restored, but in most cases, I feel confident that there are people who have distanced themselves from others and find themselves in a stalemate of sorts, for no good reason. It is as if both sides are waiting for the other to take the first step and some are seemingly unwilling to put any personal effort into reconciliation.

In this lesson, we learned of the Magi who put considerable effort in finding the baby king. What effort are you willing to expend to restore a relationship? Some people think that passage of time will magically fix problems, but if nothing is done in that time, nothing will ever change. Five years of no effort in healing a relationship only means five years has past, with nothing accomplished. Getting past hurt in a relationship can be hard, but we need to ask ourselves if that hurt is worth ending a relationship or not. Many people are nursing imagined wounds or are holding onto something from the distant past that keeps them from doing anything to restore a relationship. Are you one of these people and what effort are you willing to expend for that relationship?

The Magi had to do things that were inconvenient to their lives, and put themselves in the way of potential conflict in their search. Whenever you are going to attempt to restore a broken relationship, it will seem inconvenient at some point and may cause some level of discomfort. Nobody likes to feel uncomfortable, but if you are not willing to deal with discomfort, you will never really solve anything. Are you willing to be uncomfortable and risk your own situation to restore a relationship? If you believe that you will fix a damaged relationship without experiencing some level of discomfort, your relationship situation will likely not only not get better, but may very well get worse.

The Magi ran into some resistance with Herod, who wanted to thwart their plans or at least use what they found to bring damage to a situation, accomplishing his own goals. Sometimes, what stands between you or I restoring a relationship with someone else is a modern day version of Herod. For some people, they will exert such effort to keep control of a situation, trying to engineer everyone around them to keep status quo and relationships between others severed. At times, you may find that you have to stand up to somebody else in order to restore a relationship with another person. Unfortunately, there are many parents that have experienced issues with each other and may attempt to coerce their children to choose one side or another. That is grossly unfair to their kids. We need to encourage relationships between parents and children, as well as between siblings and others in families, even in the case of broken families. When you find people that make it clear that you are either for them or against them, you will find someone who is like Herod, trying to engineer the behavior of others around them. If someone tells you that you have to side with them or you are against them, are you going to cower to them or will you take a stand?

We need to know that in the context of relationships, everyone sees the situation from their own point of view. If we discount what others have experienced, we will have many problems in restoration of relationships. In 2006, Clint Eastwood directed two movies showing different perspectives of the same historical event, Iwo Jima. Flags of Our Fathers showed the American stance, and Letters from Iwo Jima highlighted the Japanese stance of the same situation. Even within those movies, you can see situations that have vastly different perspectives of what actually happened. Have you ever considered that perhaps the person on the other side of an estranged relationship has their own perspective, which may be just as valid as yours? Are you willing to consider that there might be a different point of view from yours and will you give any credence to that? Have you even asked?

Sometimes, problems in relationships are almost encouraged by others who do know the truth in a story that has been 'publicized' (unfortunately), but are unwilling to step forward and say anything. It is unwise to get in the middle of relationship problems between other people, but at some point, when you begin to see increasing damage based on lies that have been shared, these problems become a form of cancer, impacting many other people. Ask God to guide you in the event that you can have some impact to help another's relationship problems.

There will always be problems in relationships between two people, as we all are human and are prone to mistakes. However, if we are solely focused on finding the problems, as some type of excuse so as to not repair a relationship, we will always find those excuses. Repairing a relationship requires looking past some failures and being able to look forward to what God can do in lives. So many people are externally painting a joyful face over the holidays, but inside they are broken in many ways. This isn't to say that they don't have a thriving relationship with God, but they have lost their joy around others. I've heard it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile, and this seems to hold in relationships that are broken. Often, when we know we should make an effort to restore a relationship, it is harder to keep holding a grudge than it would be to accept some amount of discomfort and seek the joy that can be found in a restored relationship.

Obviously, there are books upon books written on relationships. It may take multiple sessions with a trained counselor to get past some problems in relationships. If you seek to restore relationships, often it will require the help of a mediator or counselor. There are certainly many more points than those written above, and each of these points could have been taken into much more detail. This lesson is not so much about what you need to do to restore a relationship in your life, but to help you to come to the realization that you may need to do something. Will you let another year go by and find yourself at the same place, with the exception of being one year more bitter and making the job of restoration even harder? Or, will you seek to do what you can do to restore the broken relationship that comes to your mind right now? Our prayer is that we all will see where God leads and allow us to do our own part to seek restoration. Obviously, you cannot make someone else do anything, but you can pray that God will be at work in the lives of those around you. What will you do?