From “The Duty of Public Worship,” Sermons for the Church Year (1875)
But if we would make the right use of [Epiphany], we might learn of the wise men, not only how thankful we ought to be to this our God made man, made a little vhild for us, but also in what way, especially, He expects us to show our thankfulness. It was not enough for the Wise men, having seen Christ’s Star in the east, to believe and lift up their hearts; there was something more, something outward to be done: they had to come and worship him; they had to take a great deal of trouble, to put themselves to inconvenience, to be absent from their homes, and interrupt their ordinary employments, for a considerable time. And what to many would be harder far than all this, they had to do something in open sight of men, which was very much out of the common way; something, which was sure to be noticed and pointed at, as a strange, odd, unaccountable step for persons, especially of their condition, to take.
No doubt there were neighbors at hand, who would say to them, or to others concerning them, “How can any one be quite sure that this star means all that it is said to mean? And supposing it should mean it, what difference can your going to worship the young Child make? Why cannot you worship him as well at home? If he is God, as you say, he can see into your hearts, and will know just as well what your good meaning is towards him, as if you made ever so many journeys to wait upon him. And then what is to become of your wisdom and knowledge and all your studies in the stars and other works of nature? And what is to become of your affairs and the affairs of your people, kings as you are, and so much looked up to by everyone? Will it not all go on the worse for your giving up so much time to the visiting of this young child?” Thus the wise men’s neighbors might have talked. “Keep yourselves at home then and, if you like, worship him in spirit; but do not be disturbing yourselves and everyone around you with anything so unusual, so unaccountable, as this journey.”
If there were any, so to remonstrate with the wise men, they knew better than to attend to such talk: they had their answer ready, and it was a short and simple one: “We have seen his star, and we know that we must go and worship him.” And their faith was greatly rewarded…
Now do you not at once see, my brethren, how nearly we are concerned in all this? For we too have the star in the east: Christ’s tokens have shone upon us, and that exceeding brightly. From our very babyhood, as long as we can remember, we have been told of this young child and of Mary his mother: our catechisms have told us of him, we have been taught to name him in our prayers, and to bow at that Most Holy Name: we have seen his house with the sign of his cross upon it, far unlike all the other houses around us, and his day far unlike all the other days of the week. We have been taken into that house, and told how to behave there, because he is there. We have been taught something of the Holy Bible, his book, and how unlike it is to all other books: We have all our lives long been used to the sights and sounds of Christmas, the carols, and the green boughs, and all the rest. The time would fail me to tell the hundredth part of the tokens that are around us, that we have really and truly seen that star in the east, Christ present by his Church and all his visible tokens here on earth. Indeed what else do we mean when we profess and call ourselves Christians, as we all. undoubtedly do, and should think it hard if we were not so accounted of?…
Worship, in short, is owning him for our King and our God, not in thought only, nor in word only, but in outward actions, such as our fellow creatures can take notice of. This he expects of us all, to come and worship him: not only to pray, not only to exercise ourselves inwardly in good, dutiful, religious thoughts, but to render him homage in the sight of men and angels; to confess with lip and knee as well as with heart, that “we have none in heaven but him; neither is there any upon earth that we desire in comparison of him.”
This is a distinct duty, and cannot be satisfied by any devotion which is only between God. and ourselves. As our king, he expects that we should wait upon him in public, and tender him our reverent adoration in the presence of all his people, angels and men. But this we cannot do, except we come where angels and men are assembled around him, their God: and where is that, but in his own place, the Church?
Thither we must resort, as the Israelites resorted to Jerusalem: wilfully to stay away from Church, is to fail in dutiful acknowledgment to our great and holy king. This should be considered more than it is; it will help us all to understand better, why holy men and holy women have at all times made such a point of coming to serve God here in his own house. We have known, for example, aged persons and others, who had become so deaf that they could not hear a single word, how they have come religiously into the congregation, and have done their best to join in the service. Why? Might they not as well have said the same prayers and read the same lessons, to themselves at home? No, they knew it would not have done as well, for there would have been no public worship: their light would not have shone before men: they would not have been giving the same glory to God, nor bearing the same witness to Him in sight of their fellow men. Thus a great part of their duty to him would have been left undone.
And alas! my brethren, is not the same duty far more inexcusably left undone by the many, who can hear, who have their health, who live conveniently within reach of the Church; and yet allow themselves, Sunday after Sunday, to neglect the great duty of coming to adore our Savior? They little think Whom they are affronting, to whose whispers they are listening: least of all did they think, the first time they lightly permitted any foolish trifle to keep them from God’s house, what a grievous chain they were beginning to forge for themselves, the chain of a bad miserable habit, incurable save by the special grace of God. No one would believe, till he had seen or unhappily tried, how fast, how fearfully fast, the custom of not going to Church will form itself in a man. It seems such a simple easy action, for a person, when his time comes, to prepare himself and go to his Lord’s House. But those, who have long left it off, are suffered by Almighty God, in just judgement, to sink into such sloth and cowardice, that they feel as if they really could not break the chain, and once more draw near to him. But he is at hand to help them, and they may and must break through to him. They see his star, and they may and must come and worship him, if they would not have him count them rebels and enemies.
You, my brethren, who have come here to worship him, may yet have need to be reminded, why he requires it of you to do so. Not merely for the edification and comfort which you may find here, not even for the spiritual grace which you hope to be blessed with in partaking of God’s most holy Sacraments, but mainly, as I said, for this reason also, that it is an acknowledgment which Christ, as your great King, expects of you. Bear it in mind, and spread the thought of it as well as you can among your brethren (alas! too many), who are now so ignorant or so careless of it. Say to them as one said of old, This is where “the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord; to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.” Say to them, you have seen his star as well as we: why will you not come with us and worship him? Instruct them, that although the Lord does not now call us all to worship Him in some one place, as at Jerusalem, or at such or such a mountain: yet wherever we are, he appoints us a place where we may come and “worship him in spirit and in truth”; not the less in spirit, because our bodies also worship him; not the less in truth, because we worship him in open communion with his Church, which is the truth and reality of all the old prophecies and parables.
John Keble (1792-1866) was an Anglican priest, theologian, and poet, one of the principal leaders of the Oxford Movement, Anglicanism’s nineteenth century Catholic Revival. He is best known for The Christian Year, a popular set of devotional poems that inspired support for liturgical renewal, and for his 1833 Assize Sermon, widely regarded as the spark of the Oxford Movement. He was among the principal authors of The Tracts for the Times, a series of 90 pamphlets that announced the Oxford Movement’s aims to the wider Church. His Sermons for the Church Year was a posthumous connection of sermons that he preached at All Saints’ Church in Hursley, Hampshire. Keble is commemorated on March 29 on the liturgical calendars of many Anglican churches.