Monday, September 29, 2008

passionate worship (isaiah 6)

Robert Benson tells the story of growing up next to his father’s father, who lived next door to him. Or he writes, “we lived next door to him. He got there first. Not only did we live on the same piece of property. We went to the same church. It was the church his father had helped to start, the church where my father grew up, the church where my folks got married, and the church where my grandfather was the songleader.”

About once a month his grandfather and grandmother would take the whole family out to lunch on Sunday. This was always fun, with the exception of one bad part, and that was question time. Benson remembers that it was always the same question, and he always dreaded it. His grandfather would cock his head back and look straight at him. “Boy”, he would then say, “what did you get out of the service today?” Benson remembers:

“I was a teenager, and most Sundays what I got out of the service from up in the balcony where I sat with all my friends was very different from what he got out of the service up on the chancel in the song leader’s chair…In about eight years of Sunday lunches, I do not think I ever got the right answer, not as far as he was concerned. It bugged me to death. I was one of those very eager and likely annoying kids who sat in the front row in school and who always had their hand up from Monday through Friday because they knew the right answer to the teacher’s question. It made me crazy not to know the right answer when my grandfather asked me the Sunday question”.

Years later Benson was having a conversation with a pastor friend of a far more liturgical church than the one he had been raised in. The pastor was talking about Bill, a man in the church who was complaining about so much liturgy in the service. It was more ritual and formality than he was used to. Benson sometimes had the same thought, although at the time he was falling in love with the worship.

“I do not like all of the rigmarole,” Bill said. “I don’t get it. Just sing a couple of the good old hymns and preach me a good sermon and let’s go home”.

The worship is not for you, Bill, the pastor told him. It is for God. On Sundays we put on the best possible show for God that we know how to do. We are doing so in the way God’s people have always done it. If you get something out of it, Bill, that’s fine. But if you do not, that’s okay too. It isn’t even for you.”

Sometimes I will talk to a friend somewhere who is thinking about changing churches. Or someone will tell me they have changed churches because they were not getting anything out of the sermon anymore. Or the service “just isn’t doing it for me anymore”.

All these years later, Robert Benson writes, I finally have a good answer to my grandfather’s Sunday question. “Boy, what did you get out of the service today?” “It was not even for me”, he writes, “I wish I had known to say.”

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, about its value. In the Revelation, one of our great sources of teaching about worship, we hear the refrain: “You are worthy, O God to receive glory and honor and power for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

Worship is for God. But we can lose sight of this truth. Sometimes a new person will come up to me, in the atrium after the service or in the inquirer’s class and they will say, “we’re church shopping”. Or, someone recently became a member, and they will report, “we shopped around”. And there is an implication, which runs parallel to the children’s story:

This soup was too hot. This soup was too cold. This soup was just right!

We all form opinions about all of life, we are, if we are citizens of the U.S., 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, a friend says, 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, my taste. Worship is almost unique in that it is not about your preference or mine. It is something else altogether.

It’s not for you, or me. It is for God. It is an offering, it is the offering of our very best selves to God. And there is a deep biblical tradition of worship, of giving our best offering, our first offering, the first fruits of the harvest, to God. For this reason there has always been a connection between worship and economics. This has been a tumultuous, even historic week from an economic perspective. It calls for our prayer, our concern, our attention, our support of one another, and our faith. We may also, as Christians who worship God, choose to somehow connect economics and worship.

Christians always worshipped on the first day of the week. Sunday is the first day, not the last day. This makes a big difference. God’s people were instructed to give of their first fruits to God. If we give to God out of what is at the end of our expenses, our needs and then our wants, the economy does affect the church. If we give to God out of what is at the beginning of what we receive, the economy has less effect on us. Worship is an offering, of our best selves, our real selves, to God.

We see a rich picture of what worship looks like when we open our Bibles to the sixth chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah is in the temple, overwhelmed with the beauty and glory and awesomeness of God, and he hears the voices singing,

“Holy, Holy, Holy, the whole earth is filled with his glory”.

This is nothing other than an experience of praise. And Isaiah is caught up in the great mystery: this God who is above and beyond all things is at the same time near, close at hand. Worship begins with praise. We begin our worship by processing to the throne, offering our gifts, our selves to God, whom we know through the cross, the sign of God’s power and love for us and for all people.

In the temple Isaiah is caught up in praise. And 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 acknowledgement, 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.

When we worship God we are somehow changed, this is not the purpose, it is not about us, but by experiencing God we are transformed. And 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, even a transaction between God and the individual, or even God and the believer. When it is authentic worship, 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? And 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, passionate worship is all about praise and 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 call, the invitation, “whom shall I send, who will go for us?
And then there is the response: Send me.

Worship is not about us, it is not even for us, and yet if it is the worship of the biblical God, when we have worshipped we have been changed, transformed, and we have begun to see the world as a new world, even a new creation, we begin to see, in the words of NT Wright, the overlap of heaven and earth, and we are filled with a deep desire to reflect God’s glory in the world. The Disciple Bible Study has a good way of phrasing this: the inward mark is holiness, the outward mark is compassion. Passionate worship, as we will see in a couple of weeks, leads to risk-taking mission, and, a few weeks later still, extravagant generosity.

But worship is central, it is crucial. Without worship, everything else is threatened. We see our gifts as our own possessions; we see the world as a resource to be used; we see our neighbor as the competition for the goods that we would seek for ourselves, we see 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, the very thing we are doing right now, to be something of a miracle. Sometimes someone will make a comment to me like “our attendance was a little down this morning”. And my thought is usually “I am just amazed that anyone comes to worship.” Why would anyone leave the comfort and warmth of their own 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 they don’t even know…why would people do this?

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

So, maybe today you get home, you are talking to your children, or your husband or your wife, or a friend, and they say, “So…what did you get out of the service today?

And you answer, “It wasn’t even for me.”

Sources: Robert Benson, In Constant Prayer; N.T. Wright, Simply Christian.

Note: After preaching this sermon I was delighted to learn that the preacher referenced in the conversation was Russ Montfort. Russ was the legendary pastor of West End UMC in Nashville, and he and Ruth lead a remarkable Sunday School class in Providence with developmentally disabled adults.


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