Sermon Series: Vital Elements of Worship

September 17th, 2012

4 Week Series

Week 1: Passionate Worship

Isaiah 6

Worship, very simply, is not for us. Worship is a gift that we give to someone else. Worship is for God. The origin of our word worship is similar to the word worth. We think about what something is worth, its value. In Revelation, one of our great sources of teaching about worship, we hear the refrain: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (4:11).

Worship is for God. But we can lose sight of this truth. Sometimes a new person will come up to me after the service and will say, “We’re church shopping.” What I hear is the refrain from the old fairy tale: “This soup was too hot. This soup was too cold. This soup was just right!”

We form opinions about all of life; we are comparison shoppers, and we make most of our decisions in this way. This has spilled over into worship over the past two decades. Some observers have described this as the “worship wars”: contemporary versus traditional, my favorite style versus your favorite style, and music often becomes the scapegoat in all of this.

Now there is profound worship in any style, but going down the road of style leads us to the wrong place, because it places everything in the context of my preference or your taste. Worship is unique in that it is not about your preference or mine. It is something else altogether.

It’s not for us. It is for God. It is the offering of our very best selves to God. There is a deep biblical tradition of worship, of giving our best offering, our first offering, the first fruits of the harvest, to God. Christians worship on the first day of the week. Sunday is the first day, not the last day. God’s people were instructed to give of their first fruits to God. Worship is an offering of our best selves, our real selves, to God.

We see a rich picture of what worship looks like in the sixth chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah is in the temple, overwhelmed with the beauty and glory of God, and he hears the voices singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is filled with his glory” (v. 3).

This is nothing other than an experience of praise. Then something happens. After praise, if it is authentic worship—an experience of the holy—we see ourselves in a different way. Isaiah makes a confession, an acknowledgment, a true statement about himself. “Woe is me, I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips and I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (v. 5).

When we worship God, we are somehow changed. This is not the purpose of worship; it is not about us, but by experiencing God we are transformed. Then there is good news, an intervention: “our guilt is taken away, our sins are forgiven.” The God of the Bible is powerful and mighty, holy and beyond us, but at the same time gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love. Our guilt is taken away, our sins are forgiven.

But that is not the end of worship. Worship is more than a relationship between God and the individual. When worship is authentic, when it is an experience of the holy, there is unfinished business. God has our attention.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, whom shall I send, who will go for us?” Isaiah responds: “Here am I, Lord. Send me.”

If we have entered into the world of the Bible we are a long way from church shopping; we are a long way from sizing up the deity that matches our temperaments and tastes, our styles, and status. The roles have been reversed, the world has been turned upside down, and all of a sudden we are a part of someone else’s agenda. Worship is all about praise, confession, and forgiveness, and from worship there flows the desire and the call to reflect God’s glory beyond the temple, outside the sanctuary into the world, and so there is the invitation: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then there is the response: “Here am I; send me” (v. 8)!

Worship is not about us; yet when we have worshiped the biblical God, we are transformed, we have begun to experience the new creation, and we are filled with a deep desire to reflect God’s glory in the world. Without worship, everything else is threatened. We see our gifts as our own possessions, the world as a resource to be used, our neighbor as competition for the goods that we would seek for ourselves, and the truth as whatever spin we can put on it.

Without worship, we easily deceive ourselves and ignore others. Without worship, we can wander off into all kinds of places, and none of them is the destination that God wants for us.

Passionate worship changes all of life. I will confess to you that I consider worship to be something of a miracle. Sometimes someone will make a comment like “our attendance was a little down this morning.” My thought is usually “I am just amazed that anyone comes to worship.” Why would anyone leave the comfort and warmth of their bed on a Sunday morning, put expensive gasoline in their cars, search for a parking place that sometimes is some distance away, drink coffee that may not be as good as you make at home, sit in a room that is usually either too hot or too cold, sometimes next to people you don’t even know? Why would people do this?

It makes no sense, unless there is a God who is real, who is above us and beyond us but also beside us and within us, who created and sustains all things, who is worthy of our worship.

Week 2: Breathing in Grace, Breathing Out Praise

Psalm 150

In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, there is a wonderful word, ruach, which can be translated as breath, spirit, or wind. In Genesis 1:1, God’s Spirit moves over the face of the watery chaos and brings forth life. In Ezekiel 37, God’s Spirit is breathed into the valley of dry bones, and there is life. In the New Testament, the Greek word is pneuma. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “the wind blows where it chooses” (John 3:8). In John 20, after the Resurrection, Jesus comes to the disciples and breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. . . .” And in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, there is a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and everyone is filled with the Holy Spirit.

God’s Spirit dwells within us, as close to us as our next breath. To live is to breathe. The psalmist says, to breathe is to praise God. It is an imperative. We are created for the praise of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks: “What is the chief end of [humanity]?” The answer: “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” I think of the great hymn of Isaac Watts and John Wesley, based on Psalm 146, “I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath.” All of this leads to the climactic Psalm 150: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

To breathe in is to receive the grace of God. To breathe out is to offer praise to God with our words and with our lives. We inhale, and we exhale. There is a natural rhythm. In the same way that music has beats and measures, our lives are measured. There is evening and morning, each day measured. There are six days of work and one day of rest, each week measured. God has ordered our lives in such a way that we give and receive, work and rest, inhale and exhale.

This is God’s intention. But our human temptation is to live outside God’s will for us. We do not live measured lives. We do not live ordered lives. We sometimes live hurried and chaotic lives. Yet this is not God’s purpose for us. We were created to receive grace and to offer praise. But at times we forget to praise. When Israel violated the Sabbath, the people sinned in two ways. They neglected their essential need to rest— Exodus 31:17 has been translated, “On the seventh day God rested and caught his breath” (Herman Gunkel and Mark E. Biddle, eds., Genesis: Mercer Library of Biblical Studies [Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997], 116). They forgot that God had liberated them from slavery. Many of us, even the most sophisticated among us, can become enslaved to destructive patterns of living.

Years ago I read about the experience of a group of world-class climbers who had died on Mount Everest. An interesting comment was made by one of the expert guides in that field. “Most of the people who die climbing Mount Everest,” he said, “make it to the top. They die on the way down. They discover, after they have made it, that they do not have enough oxygen to get down the mountain. Or they make bad decisions, critical errors, because of the lack of oxygen.”

This is a parable of us. The spiritual life is our oxygen. We may get everything we want in this life and die in the process. Lack of spiritual insight may lead us to choose things that are not really important in place of what is nearest and life-giving to us. What is God’s order and design for you? Listen to the way 2 Timothy 3:16 is translated by Eugene Peterson: “Every part of scripture is God-breathed and useful in one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way” (THE MESSAGE).

In worship that is shaped by the Scriptures we begin to understand that praise is an essential experience for God’s people. This has a number of practical implications for us. In worship we discover an order and a design for our lives that we ignore at our peril. If our lives are cluttered or overwhelmed, we need to reorient ourselves toward God, who grants each day to us as a gift. God wants us to have times of rest, renewal, catching our breath. In the wholeness of creation there is the rest of God. We were created to praise God. When our hearts and minds and spirits are oriented toward God, we are not so critical of others, not so weighed down by everyday life.

In our New Testament, our primary manual for worship is the Revelation. It is a like a doxology that gathers together all that came before it. Many misunderstand Revelation, or avoid it, but it is really the experience of John of Patmos, who is “caught up in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (1:10). There John is given insight in the midst of great suffering. There is resonance between Psalm 23 and Revelation 7:17: “He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3), and Revelation 7:17: “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Because John has been shaped by the reading of Scripture, he sees the glory of God, which is finally the one and only purpose of worship. This also happens as we read the Psalms, intended to teach us that a life of praise occurs in the midst of very difficult experiences. The Psalms can be read as a long roadmap that passes through illness, loss of possessions, physical danger, depression, isolation, pain, fear, grief, and anger, on the way to this conclusion, this doxology, Psalm 150: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” (v. 6)!

Week 3: Washing Your Hands

Mark 1:4-11

As a pastor, I visit in the hospitals, on average, a couple of days a week. Over the past years visiting in hospitals has changed. For one thing, people do not stay in the hospital for very long. When I began in the ministry twenty-five years ago, people would stay three to five days; now they are in and out in twenty-four hours.

There is also a great deal more privacy for a person who is hospitalized, which is good. Again, I can remember walking into the hospital and going down the list of everyone who was a patient. Federal laws prevent that from happening now. Another change, more subtle but just as significant, is the presence of hand sanitizers on the door of every hospital room. This has become the norm, I realize, although, until recently I had never given it much thought. That changed when I read an essay about washing your hands in the New Yorker. It later became a part of the book, Better, by Atul Gawande (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007), a young physician in Boston, a Harvard professor, and a writer.

Last year two million Americans were infected with viruses in hospitals; 90,000 died. Can you guess what might be the single most powerful factor in preventing the spread of infections? Getting people who work in hospitals to wash their hands. Studies show that people who work in hospitals wash their hands about one-third or one-half as often as they need to (Better, 14–15). This is a problem that calls for a response. The solution lies not in a major scientific breakthrough or a profound intellectual idea. It is a simple, everyday ritual practice: washing your hands.

Christians believe that we live in a world that is infected, and the root issue is human sin. Theologians have argued about whether the infection is passed genetically from parent to child, or whether we are socialized into the environment of a sinful world. Christians differ about particular kinds of sins. The early church fathers even came up with seven deadly sins. But most agree that sin is a reality. Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked that “the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine.” (as cited in William H. Willimon, Sinning Like a Christian [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005], 10).

Because we are aware of the sin that is out there and the sin that is in here, we have worked on this problem in a variety of ways. Monks and nuns have been sequestered in cloistered environments to keep them away from the sins of money, sex, and power. But sin makes its way into the monastery. Some Protestants put their clergy on a pedestal; the laity get their hands dirty in the kingdom of the world, the clergy live in the kingdom of God. But scandal after scandal reminds us that this is not quite truthful.

We are all sinners, the apostle Paul tells us. But like those doctors and nurses who work in Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, we resist change. And yet, we are human beings; we as Christians have a deep need to change. The discipline of washing ourselves, cleansing ourselves, found its way in our most basic and fundamental practice: baptism.

It helps to remember the baptism of Jesus and its implications for our own baptisms. The baptism of Jesus is recorded in each of the four Gospels, and there are slight variations in each telling of the story. Matthew gives more of the details surrounding the baptism—John’s sense of unworthiness, for example, but also John’s conflict with the other religious leaders. John’s Gospel links the baptism of Jesus to the confession that he is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Luke seems to connect the baptism of Jesus with his genealogy, traced back to Adam, as if to associate baptism and our need for cleansing with our common humanity. Characteristically, Mark’s telling of the story is the briefest. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. The heavens open, the light shines, the dove descends, the voice of God speaks, “This is my beloved son; I am pleased with him.”

And so even the story of Jesus begins with a story about a washing; a cleansing. Of course Christians have also believed that Jesus was the One who was without sin, and this led to an appropriate question: “Why be baptized?” Well, Jesus was baptized for our sake; as he passed through the waters he stands with us, he identifies with us. He is fully divine but he is also fully human, the creeds affirm. In his baptism, Jesus gives us a practice, and in his entire life he responds to one of our greatest needs: to be washed, cleansed, renewed, all for the flourishing of life.

What helps us most may not be a tremendous breakthrough in research or the grasping of a complex insight, but a simple spiritual practice. This practice of washing our hands, of remembering our baptisms, can be profoundly helpful.

It can also be threatening. We are, all of us, in need of the cleansing grace of God. Christians around the world differ about who can eat at the Lord’s table, who can be married, who can be a minister or a priest, and so on. Baptism is the one act that seems to place us, every one of us, on a level place. In our baptisms we are the same.

This was a powerful reality for the first Christians. At each point along the way God uses water to create us, to recreate us, and to sustain us. It really is what makes us different; not our spiritual superiority in relation to others, but our need for grace and renewal. To remember the baptism of the Lord and our own baptisms is as simple and profound a ritual practice as washing our hands.

Week 4: Let Every Soul Be Jesus' Guest

Hosea 11:1-11; Luke 15:1-2

The book of Hosea is a meditation on the love of God for God’s people. But this is no typical love story. In this story, God commands that a prophet marry a prostitute and have children with her. The first three chapters describe the relationship between Hosea and his wife, Gomer, which is a parable for the relationship between the Lord and Israel. It is a long and rocky relationship, with anger, bitterness, and self-destruction. It is a miracle that the relationship endures; but relationships do endure. This is the story of a love that will not let us go.

In the eleventh chapter, the perspective shifts slightly from husband and wife to parent and child. Israel was adopted out of Egypt to be the Lord’s child, Ephraim. We might think that Israel would display gratitude for this act of rescue and salvation; but no, Israel calls upon other gods, bows to idols, gives credit to other benefactors.

In the parable, God is somewhat bewildered. “Who taught Ephraim to walk?” God asks. “I did. I took them in my arms; I healed them; I was compassionate; I bent down to them; I fed them. Not those others. Me” (see vv. 1-4).

You can hear the resentment and the hurt; can’t you? Ephraim represents the entire northern kingdom of Israel, God’s own people. “They are determined to run away from me,” God says, “backsliders. They’ve gone to the far country, Assyria, they have returned to Egypt where they were slaves.” We can hear, in the parent’s voice, if we listen closely, something deeper: “Why would they do this to me?”

If you were this parent, what would you do? The story of Hosea is a parable of God’s relationship with God’s people, and therefore, with us. Here are the words from the mouth of this bewildered parent: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim [cities that shared the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah]? (v. 8)?

Notice what has happened: The child turns away from the parent, but the parent turns toward the child. God turns toward us: “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim, for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (vv. 8-9).

Keep this parable in mind as you consider a simple idea in the New Testament. Jesus is mixing with the people, all kinds of people, and the scribes and Pharisees are murmuring: “He welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2).

These two passages of Scripture lead us into the very heart of God, into the nature of salvation and the experience of grace. God’s compassion grows as that of a loving parent. Jesus welcomes sinners.

The sign of God’s compassion is that the relationship endures. The sign of Jesus’ reception of sinners is that he eats with them. The sign of the relationship is the meal. A sacrament, defined in the early church, is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. How do we know that we are in a relationship? We come to this meal, we eat together, and it is grace.

Jesus’ life and ministry was a gift of grace; we see this throughout the Gospels. Jesus takes the loaves and the fish and feeds the multitudes. He tells a story about a dinner party and those who respond to the invitation and those who do not. In his life and relationships, Jesus was always reaching out to others. At times some complained about this. The cultural idea was that the righteous associated with the righteous; the clean ate with those who were clean and did not associate with those who were unclean. But a physician goes to the sick, Jesus reminded them. The Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.

The core question is simple: how can a holy God be in relationship with an unholy people? How can Jesus (God forbid) eat with sinners? From a human point of view, it makes no sense. From a human point of view, there can be no relationship. But the prophet reminds us that God is God and not human; God promises not to destroy God’s people in anger. (see Hosea 11:9). Holiness does not destroy sin; through compassion, it saves. Perfection does not destroy imperfection; through love, it heals.

I think God must wonder, “How do I get this message across to my people, that I love them, that I want this relationship to endure, that I am the One who gave them life—not those other gods—that I want the best for them?”

And God’s answer comes to us through the life of Jesus: “We will sit down together at a meal. My son, Jesus, will preside. Jesus will eat not just with the worthy people but with the unworthy, not only with the righteous but with sinners, not only with the faithful but with the unfaithful, not only with the older brother who has done everything right, but with the prodigal son who has done everything wrong” (see Luke 15:11-32).

God seems to be saying, in the words of one of the faithful servants of God (Charles Wesley, who would come along much later):

Come, sinners to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest, Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind. (“Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,” st. 1)

Come, sinners to the gospel feast. Sinners—that’s all of us.

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