October 21, 2007
New Clothes: Worshiping God
When our children were small, it was sometimes hard to get their attention. On occasion, I remember taking their little faces in my hands, looking them straight in the eye, often while their little eyes were darting all over the place, and saying, “Look at me.” It seems that worship is much the same; God takes our faces in His hands and directs our gaze so that we can look deeply into His face and hear His voice.
Somehow, discussions about worship quickly deteriorate into preferences over the style of the music. I have heard comments following a particularly festive time of singing such as, “Wow, we really worshiped today!” As if times of silence and lying prostrate at the feet of God would somehow not measure up. Or comments like, “I didn’t get anything out of worship today,” as though worship is a thinga commodity to be consumed like going to a concert or a movie where you didn’t particularly like the ending. Or, “I reached that worship space today,” as if worship “is a musical journey into the lap of God.” (Ron Rienstra actually says that worship is not a musical journey into the lap of God.)
Often we can get sidetracked by our own preferences and forget that worship is not something that we thought up to make ourselves feel good, but a gift of God, a vehicle by which we renew and enact our relationship in corporate conversation with God. Through it, we allow Him to take our little faces in His loving hands and to gaze at who He is.
The third Core Value of the Brethren in Christ Church is about worship: We value heart-felt worship, that is God-honoring, Spirit directed, and life changing.
True worship is God Honoring
God is honored when we praise Him for who He is. Many of the biblical words that are translated as “worship” are related to the actions of worship. These words describe bowing down or kissing toward. They are actions of honor, awe and submission. Some of the Old Testament prophets railed against empty ritual, empty action. Worship without a real sense of gratitude, awe, and honor due to God from those in submission to Him is empty and not true, not authentic, not heart-felt. The actions of worship need to flow out of the heart.
We Honor God through Jesus
Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria took a significant detour when she tried to divert the conversation about living water, and her own sin, toward the places of worship.
The Jews and the Samaritans had an ongoing disagreement about the proper place to worship God. Imagine them fussing over their own rightnessit reminds me of some of the things I often hear people fussing about in relation to worship today. Jesus moves the conversation from the place of worship to the manner of worship. He says, “…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” For the Jewish people, the temple in Jerusalem was the proper place to meet with God. In the gospel of John, Jesus proclaims himself to be the truth and points to himself as the new place of worship. In John 2:19 we read Jesus’ words, “destroy this temple (meaning his body) and I will raise it in three days.” In John 4:20-23, Jesus begins to make this transition more clear. Jesus is the new way of meeting, the place of relationship and encounter between God and people. Jesus is now the temple. True worship of God is in the truth, through Jesus who is made real to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. “For through him [Jesus Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Eph. 2:18). In the words of David Peterson, “…the exalted Christ is now the ‘place’ where God is to be acknowledged and honoured….The Father cannot now be honored unless Jesus is given all the honor due to him as the Son.” (Engaging With God, p. 100)
Do we believe that Jesus is present and active with us, or merely a concept that we talk about? Worshiping through Jesus honors God. Jesus, Himself, in perfect obedience to His Father, is the perfect worshiper of God. He, Himself, is our worship leader, leading the procession, bringing us to the feet of the Father.
We Honor God by Telling His Story
If you study the stories of worship in the Bible, what the similarities are striking. In the Old Testament, the people of God were instructed to sing psalms, read the law, give sacrifices and celebrate feasts as actions of relationship and meeting with God. Acts 2 tells us that the early church, in the name of Jesus, and with glad and sincere hearts, sang hymns, read the scriptures, prayed, and broke bread together.
We are to honor and glorify God in spirit and in truth. We do that by praising Him for what He has done and who He is, responding with praise and thanksgiving. I remember when Pastor Bob Ives and Pastor M. J. Davis retired from Grantham Church. We honored them by telling stories, and making memory books of how they had impacted our lives. The pastoral staff even made up a song to honor them. Likewise, we praise God by celebrating and proclaiming His nature and story.
Several years ago, I taught a Sunday school class here on worship. I asked the question, “Recall for us a significant spiritual experience that you have had.”
Members of the class related a wide variety of experiences, but what struck me about the re-telling, was how the emotion of that experience was brought into the present as these stories were told. One woman, with tears in her eyes, related the last precious moments with a loved one as they experienced the crossing over into eternal life with the singing of hymns and prayers. Worship involves proclaiming the great story of God and there is power in this re-telling.
The story of God includes the biblical record from creation, to salvation through Christ and looking forward to the end of time. We are in that story, so that what we celebrate together includes the stories of the Christian Church from the first century on and includes testimonies of God’s work in our own lives and His work in the world. We stand in the present, recalling and celebrating the work of God, and bringing that into our present experience. We also look forward with joy and anticipation to the day when God’s work of re-creation through Jesus will be completed, and we bring that experience into the present.
As in a conversation, there are two sides of worshipour side and God’s side. As we, with “glad & sincere hearts” honor God and proclaim Christ and His Story, God is faithful to do His part. He ministers His grace to us and is actively present.
Do we really believe that the dynamic risen Christ is among us?
True Worship is Spirit-directed
It is easy for us to get caught up in time and place. Our lives are regulated by our daytimers, PDA’s, cell phones, appointments. Corporate worship is a scheduled thing in a particular place. And yet, Jesus announces to this woman that we are to worship in spirit. God is spirit this describes the nature of who God is. God is not limited to matter. The character and nature of God transcends space and time. Jesus calls us to a place outside of our physicality to a place where our spirits touch the Spirit, the otherness of God.
True worship involves our spirits reaching out to touch a God of Spirit who is already reaching for us. It does not necessarily mean our emotions, which we know can be unreliable. But it does mean the spiritual discipline of being open to the movement of the Spirit of God. It means responding to the voice of God in matters of expression, confession, and obedience. Following the direction of the Spirit may not be a “feel good” experience. Matthew 4 reminds us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into forty days of temptation in the desert. Are you open to the voice of the Spirit of God in worship? Do you act on those promptings deep in your soul; do your respond, or are you afraid of what other people might think? Do you have a practice of “quenching the spirit” and no longer feel this movement within your soul?
When we fell into sin, God provided the way back to Him by reaching out to us with his two hands. He reaches out with His Son, Jesus Christ, so that we can be made right again and know who God is. (Jesus says in John 17, if you know me, you know the Father.) And with his other hand, He gives the Holy Spirit who guides and helps us in our prayer. Who, when we are not able to pray, brings our feeble prayers to the feet of God in words that we cannot express, and God pulls us to His heart. This is the truth about our triune God whom we are to worship in spirit and in truth
God’s direction is intentional
God is intentional, not random. Throughout the biblical record we can see a God who is intentionally seeking and providing the way for people to have a relationship with Him and to express that relationship in worship. As such, He is the initiator of this relationship.
God creates Adam and Eve and walks with them in the garden
God calls Abram and sets him on a course that changes history.
God calls Moses out of a burning bush and gives him a mission
God calls to Mary and sets her apart to be the mother of Jesus
Jesus calls disciples to follow Him
When the woman arrives at the well, Jesus is already there waiting for her. Jesus could have taken a different way, come at a different time, or decided not to engage the woman in conversation. I suspect that Jesus intentionally, strategically arrived at the well, and waited for the woman. When you arrive here on a Sunday morning, do you imagine that Jesus is already here waiting for you? No…..let’s not move on so quickly….. Do you really believe that as we gather together, the risen Christ is among us, expectantly waiting for us….for you? To hear your praises, your prayers, your struggles, your questions? We don’t have to conjure Him up, beg Him to arrive, or worse, announce that we are here, so, “God, ruler of the universe, it’s your turn now to show up, because we have somehow carved out an hour for you in our busy lives.” Are you expectantly looking and watching for Him, embracing Him as your Lord?
In reality, as believers in Christ, He is already with us, among us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Remember the picture of the prodigal son? After squandering his inheritance, he returned home embarrassed, dirty, broken. I imagine he walked hesitantly, wondering how he would be received, when off in the distance, he notices movement. A person running toward him, arms open. Imagine the joy and relief when he realizes that this is his father running to welcome him home. Our Father meets us in worshiparms open to receive us, dirty though we may be, tired or exhausted. He is grinning from ear to ear anxious to renew our relationship that has been dirtied by the world. Do you really know and have you experienced that the risen Christ is among us?
True Worship is Life Changing
When the woman arrived, she came needing refreshment. Jesus offers her the ultimate refreshmentliving water.
Worship is a gift of God, sometimes called a graced-event. Certain conversations and perspectives can make it seem that we think of worship as something we thought up. Or, that it is a thing that is restricted to a particular place, time period or generation. Perhaps you love the ancient prayers of the church. Or maybe you can really get into the latest cutting-edge Christian bands that are out there; maybe you are a David Crowder fan. Maybe you love when Lois lays into the organ with a particularly powerful prelude. All of these expressions can be helpful and inspiring, but they are merely vehicles for the voice and presence of God, and our response to Him. Worship is not the music. It is God who gives the living water that the woman so desperately needed, and that we also desperately need in our lives.
In this passage, Jesus lets the woman know that he knows all of her dirty laundry. Like the woman, God also knows us through and through, and yet He has sought us out to be His worshipers. Not only that, but because He knows who we are, He knows we are not capable of making ourselves worthy. We are human; we can have great intentions; but, there is nothing we can do in our own strength that can make us good enough to approach this holy God. We can’t sing loud enough, lift our hands high enough, pray long enough to make ourselves worthy. It is only through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that we have a relationship with God and participate in worshipthis graced-event. This conversation is an expression of relationship between God and his peoplean enacting of our privilege as believers in Christ.
The woman’s encounter with Jesus opened her eyes and brought a dynamic change to her life. A true encounter with God, is life-changing In the Old Testament, when Moses met with God, his whole countenance was changed. I’m not quite sure if it was exactly like the Hollywood movie version, but we are told “his face was radiant.” In Isaiah 6, we read of Isaiah’s encounter with God as He was given a vision of heaven. Sometimes we sing the song “Open the eyes of my heart Lord….I want to see you, I want to see you.” The text is from this passage in Isaiah where he saw the Lord high and lifted up. The result was that he did see God and was powerfully convicted. He cries, “Woe to me, I am ruined, I am unclean, my eyes have seen God.” This was not exactly a “feel good” moment. Following his confession, his lips are touched with a burning coal as his sin is forgiven and taken away. What was Isaiah’s response? Did he merely move on to the next commitment on his list or go off to take his Sunday afternoon nap? The scriptures tell us that God asks the hard question, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” And Isaiah answers, “Here am I, send me.” Isaiah is sent to do the hard task of a prophet, not very popular in those days.
I am not quite sure that the bouncy spirit of the song so familiar to us reflects the powerful encounter upon which the text is based. As we sing, are we willing to be struck down and touched with a burning coal? Are we expectant and ready to encounter God? Remember that David’s encounter with God sent him off on a dance of utter abandon and praise!
Blinding light experiences with God in worship do happen. But more often, communities of faith experience gradual transformation into the likeness of Christ. As we come together to honor God through Christ, and expectantly ready to follow the spirit’s direction, we will be changed. Over a period of time, we are nourished in worship. We learn to know God in all of his fullness and see Him differently. We also see ourselves in the light of the truth of God and the world around us in very different way.
In order to know God in all his fullness, we rely on God’s revelation through the Bible, and also through the church. For this reason, worship at Grantham church includes a variety of scripture readings, ancient and contemporary creeds, global resources, musical and other artistic expressions, testimonies, and prayers.
Each generation writes its own chapter of music for the life of the church. Each generation has its own context and has experienced various aspects of the nature of God. In order to have a large view of this almighty God, it is important for us to experience these various generations of the church and to embrace what they knew. We have the advantage of thousands of years of this experience to draw upon. Depending on the time period, culture and world situation, various eras of church history focused on different theologies of who God is. Some today struggle with hymns laden with Thees and Thous, or language that might be difficult to understand. Some older hymns only use masculine pronouns. While this can be troublesome for us, this language does tell us something about the church from these times. When we sing them, we bring their experience into our own time, into the present and see with the eyes of saints from long ago. These expressions are testimonies to a God who is spirit, who transcends time, and we know that we experience the same God today.
What is our own chapter of song today? Certainly contemporary song is filled with global expressions of faith. Our access to the experience of peoples from different parts of the world intersects with our own. A dear friend of mine from a small Mennonite church in Paris told me that when we, as North Americans, sing the songs of those from other cultures, we validate the important gifts of those composers and peoples to the world church. It doesn’t matter if we do it right. But when we sing these songs together, and struggle with the language, we remember that worship is not about “me” or about Grantham Church. We begin to gain a small understanding of people in other places who struggle on deeper levels. Worship is about a God who calls all people and nations into his divine embrace. We are part of something much larger than our narrow slice of life or of our own unreliable emotion at a particular place in time.
This generation has also embraced the gifts of women and is conscious of this with more inclusive language in song and hymn texts. These texts help us embrace our sisters in Christ and highlight the mothering and nurturing aspects of our comprehensive and inclusive God. We also have many new songs that speak of the role of the church in building the kingdom of God and being God’s ambassadors in our world. There are texts of justice, peace-making, and wise use of resources. As we share in these songs together, we place them alongside the songs written hundreds and thousands of years ago, along with biblical psalms set to new and old tunes. What a wonderful palette of experience and richness. These texts that we sing celebrate the grand story of God, honor Him, and shape our understandings.
Do you feel that our worship, or your worship, is stale, ordinary, not inspired, boring, roteyou are not “into it?” What are your “if-onlies”?
If only they would sing more hymns. If only they would have more drums or electric guitar. If only Karen wouldn’t talk so much, or if only Karen would give more instructions. If only we could get out on time, or if only Terry had more time to preach. Or, if only the choir would sing more, or if only the song set was longer and more exciting, or more prayerful. If only the songs were faster, or slower. If only we had more videos, or the brass choir played more. If only Terry would tell more jokes if the second service was edgier or the first service more refined.
Do you really believe that as we gather for worship, the risen exalted Christ is made present among us?
True worship is not a thing that the people up on the platform dish up. Worship, in the words of Robert Webber is a verb; it is what we do together. It is God-honoring, spirit-directed and life-changing. It is a dynamic, real encounter between God and his people. We honor God by worshiping Him through Jesus who is made present to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Spirit, our hearts are filled with gratitude and thanksgivingfull hearts that call us to our knees, prompt us to shout out loud, cause us to leap to our feet in testimony, to dance in the aisles, to clap our hands, to lift our voices strong and loud. That causes us to stop in awe and silence, cast down to our knees, even lying prostrate on the ground.
Would you be embarrassed?
God has called us to heart-felt worship, our highest callinga graced- event. God meets us here, taking our little faces in His loving hands, directing our eyes from darting all over the place, and turning them to gaze into His. To see who He is, and how, through Christ and the Spirit we are drawn into the loving embrace of God. And God is faithful, to renew, encourage, transform us into the likeness of Jesus. And all of this is not just for our own fulfillment and enjoyment. Having encountered the living God, we go, changed and ready to do the work of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Almighty and gracious God, we are awed that you desire relationship with us. Forgive us for the times when we take for granted this gift of free worship. May we be faithful disciples, honoring You above all else and ever more sensitive and aware of the presence of Christ among us. May we increasingly know the movement of the Spirit within us and respond with gratitude and boldness. May we be runners with the woman of Samaria, leaving this place to tell others of all that we have seen and heard. In the strong name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.