This is the first in a 4-part sermon series entitle “The What’s? How’s? and Why’s? of Worship.” This series is intended to address how United Methodist understand the meaning of worship, and how we organize the Sunday worship service. It will also be an opportunity for Pastor Drew to share is vision for our worship life, as well as talk about where things stand with the development of a second worship service.
(Some of the ideas in the first two sermons of this series come from an article by Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., entitled, “Sermon Series: Vital Elements of Worship,” available online at www.ministrymatters.com.)
Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8
When you purchased the shoes you’re wearing today, how did you decide to go with that particular pair when you could have gotten any other pair of shoes on display? There must have been some criteria. How well did they fit? Where they the color you were looking for? The style you were looking for? Were they needed for a very specific event? There’s all sorts of criteria that go into choosing any number of things we buy, from clothing to cars.
How did you choose your doctor and dentist? How do you decide where to go on vacation? How do you decide between an iPhone or an Android? We spend much of our days evaluating whatever it is we’re doing and coming to some decision or choice based on whatever criteria is important to us.
As our church looks forward in light of Pastor Chris’s departure, we’re asking ourselves, “What are our biggest needs? Where do we most need a paid staff person”?
How about choosing a church? How did you decide on calling First United Methodist your church home? Some of you grew up here, and so this has always been your church home. But many of you are transplants. I know for a fact that quite a number of us are here because of what this church was doing for children and youth when your kids were school-aged. There are few of you who became a part of this congregation when the Baptist Church closed a number of years ago. Some of you are here because you identify with being a United Methodist, and this is the only UMC in town. No doubt there are other reasons you settled on this church to be your church home.
A very common activity these days is what’s called “church shopping.” Church shopping is no different than shopping around for any type of goods or service that’s important to a person These days it’s fairly common for people to shop for a church the same way they shop for a barber or a grocery store. The process is pretty straight forward: try them all out and see which one fits the best….see which one meets your most important criteria. Do they have a kid’s program? Check. Is their worship uplifting? Check. Are the regular attenders friendly and welcoming? Check. Is the coffee good? Check. Is the nursery easily accessible? Check. And so it often goes.
And I’ll be the first to say that such an approach seems natural. Why? Because you and I are so steeped in a consumerism way of thinking and viewing our world that we don’t even bat an eye at the notion of church shopping. Today, more than at any time in our history, we’re given a plethora of options from which to choose in almost any aspect of life. And we expect options, don’t we? And every business and organization is doing whatever they can to catch our attention and draw us to themselves. And today the Church in The United States is no different. Churches say it all the time: Come on in and give us a try. In some ways we’re like a car dealership. Give us a test drive and see if you like us.
And what is it we’re usually asking folks to test drive? Our worship. While there are a number of entry points into the life of a church, by far the most common is the Sunday worship service. That’s where churches that are on the ball are putting a lot of thought and energy into making the Sunday morning experience as enjoyable and memorable as possible – in a good way.
Here’s an interesting fact: I’m told that most first time guests make their decision to come back the next week within between 5-10 minutes of their arrival. In many cases, this is before the worship service even begins! And if they get their just a few minutes before worship begins, that decision is being made within the first few minutes of the service itself. Is it any wonder churches are rolling out the hospitality red carpet from the very beginning of the morning? If we know they’re making their decision about next week before the end of the first hymn or song is done, we probably want to make sure their experience is very positive up until that point, right?
Well, to answer my question: yes….and maybe not. Yes, we absolutely want to provide a worship experience that’s positive, uplifting, friendly, inspiring, etc. But—and this is where things become very challenging—if we’re not careful, we can get sucked into a way of thinking that is out of whack with a biblical understanding of worship. Yes, we live within a culture of consumerism, and we know that unchurched folks are naturally going to see us as one of many choices to “consume.” But that doesn’t mean we have to totally forget what this is all about in the first place.
Because the truth is, worship, very simply, is not for us. This statement, I know, flies in the very face of what I’ve been talking about up to this point. People church shop—even some of us—looking for right church, the one that fits our needs, the one that feels the best, because we’re of the belief that it’s here for our own benefit. But the fact is, Christian worship is not for us. Worship is a gift that we give to someone else. And that someone else is God. Worship, in the truest sense of what we do here on Sunday morning, is for God.
The origin of our word for worship is similar to the word “worth.” You and I often think about what something is worth, it’s value. In the book of Revelation, one of our great sources of teaching about worship, we hear this 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). God alone is worthy to receive our glory and honor and power. God alone is worthy of our praise, our….worship. Worship is for God.
But in our modern culture, where we come from the point of view that worship is for us, it’s easy to miss this important truth. And unfortunately, a consumer-based approach to worship has led to what’s often been called “worship wars” within the church. And not only within the Church (as in, the Body of Christ), but local churches, congregations. Congregations have split over infighting due to disagreements about the style of worship. We even use war language: traditional vs. contemporary; organ vs. guitars and drums; choir vs. praise band; your style preference vs. my style preference.
The reality is, there’s profound and life-changing 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. God-honoring worship is unique in that it’s not about your preference or mine. And that’s because worship is not for us. It’s for God.
Let’s quickly look at the opening verse of Isaiah 6 to get a rich picture of what worship looks like. Isaiah is in the temple, overwhelmed with the beauty, majesty, and glory of God when he hears the voices of heavenly beings singing: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” (v. 3)
Friends, this is nothing other than an experience of praise. It’s not unlike the experience of the shepherds out in the field on the night Jesus was born. According to Luke, “suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared, praising god and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2:14). Isaiah is caught up in praise, the first “layer” of worship.
But then something happens. After praise—if it’s authentic worship—there’s an experience of the holy, which is the next layer of worship. When we come into God’s presence, we see ourselves in a different way…through a different lens. In Isaiah’s case, he makes a confession. In light of being in God’s holy presence, he sees the truth about himself makes an honest statement about himself. “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips” (v. 5). In other words, I don’t deserve to be in God’s glorious presence.
I’ve heard it suggested that if Jesus Christ were to suddenly walk down the aisle of this church while we were worshipping, we’d be so aware of his holiness that we’d suddenly become very self-conscious about our own sinfulness in comparison.
Here’s the thing: when we worship God, we’re changed somehow. Being changed isn’t the purpose of worship; it’s not about us. But, by experiencing God we’re transformed. It’s a bi-product. When we come before God in honesty and authenticity (which is really hard to do), we get changed. And then something else happens: God intervenes with good news. Our guilt is taken away and our sins are forgiven. V. 6 reads, “then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and you sin in removed’” (vv. 6-7). God is powerful, mighty, holy, and beyond us. But at the same time he’s gracious, merciful, abounding in unfailing love, and close at-hand.
But it doesn’t stop there. In the reading, at this point Isaiah heard a question…and important question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And what’s Isaiah’s response? “I’m here; send me” (v. 8). This is the last layer. It’s a commissioning of sorts. It’s leaving the place of worship and going out to do God’s work, to be a servant, to take his message elsewhere.
Friends, if this is how we approach worship, we’re a long way away from church shopping. We’re a long way away from sizing up the deity that matches our temperament and tastes, our styles and personal preferences. If this is how we can approach worship, then we’re a part of someone else’s agenda. God’s agenda!
Worship is all about praise, confession, and forgiveness. And from worship flows the desire and the call to reflect God’s glory beyond the church building into the world. And so there’s the invitation: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
Worship isn’t about us. And yet, the good news is that when we do worship, we’re changed. We’re filled with a desire to reflect God’s glory to others. You see, without worship, everything else of 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’d seek for ourselves. But passionate worship changes all of that. It’s gives us a proper and healthy life perspective. And this is so, whether we accompany singing with an organ, piano, or guitars. It’s so whether we sing the Gloria Patri or a modern song of praise.
Let me close with a wonderful quote about the importance of passionate worship. The Rev. Kenneth Carter writes,
“Passionate worship changes all of life. I will confess 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’m 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 a 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’s 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 praise.”
To that I say AMEN!