[Jesus said:] For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (NRSV)
Note: Today is the First Sunday of Advent, officially the beginning of the new church year, so in the Children’s Message I wished the kids a Happy New Year and talked to them about Advent, and how it is similar and different from the “other” New Year. That ‘set up’ the sermon…
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ, our redeemer, and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
Any of you ever make any New Year’s Resolutions to get into shape? Were you planning to run? Lift weights? Use the machines at the gym? Regardless of which of those you choose, you are going to be more successful getting into shape if you work on strengthening your core as well. It’s those back and abdominal muscles that support every kind of activity we do. Core exercises are not glamorous. They require effort. We are going to have to break a sweat if we are going to increase our core strength. Doing them well, with precision provides a lot better results than sloppy technique. But even then, it isn’t sufficient to do 20 push-ups with perfect technique. We have to do them on a regular basis. Core exercises are part of a whole-life physical fitness plan.
There are some core exercises to do routinely if we want to be spiritually fit as well. Spiritual fitness requires that we have our priorities in order, that we value the important stuff—the stuff that matters in the long run, that we have a clear sense of the difference between right and wrong, that we have set some standards and live by them, and have a sense of where God fits into all of that. Worship is a complete set of core exercises. Good worship works on all of the spiritual muscle groups and engages all the senses; the various areas a person needs to attend to, to maintain spiritual fitness. This Advent and Christmas, we are going to spend some time working on our core exercises of worship. We are going to pay attention to our preparation, our technique, and our consistency. I have chosen some other scriptures besides the passages from the lectionary that will help us guide our way. But first, I want to set the stage.
Today’s topic is “Why Do We Worship?” The topics after this will be “Encountering God in the Word”, “Encountering God in the Sacraments”, “Responding to God in Prayer and Praise” and finally, “Worship and the World,” which will be the first Sunday after Christmas.
You might be asking, “Why do this at Advent?” I’m glad you asked. During Advent we are preparing ourselves to receive and to worship the newborn king. What better time than Advent to be examine how we worship and why! Now, a little word about the ‘how.’ I am not here to dictate your style of worship. There are lots of options as to format, music types, and duration. It is my opinion that variety is better than a single style, but it isn’t about my opinion. We are here to talk about the PROCESS and CONTENT of worship. We are here to talk about the PURPOSE of worship.
Awhile back, I asked in one of the Friday email announcements if any of you would be willing to tell me why you attend worship. I heard back from a bunch of you. For those of you that responded, thank you for that. I was intrigued by your responses. My dad always said, “Never assign another to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself.” So I need to tell you why I attend worship. I attend worship because God is in it, to be sure, but the thing that really keeps me coming back is that I find myself in it. I find my true self, not the self I think others expect of me. I find the me God sees when I immerse myself in the word, when I receive the absolution, when I partake in communion, when I surrender in prayer. I can let go of the world’s judgment that I have internalized and come to believe in God’s love for me. I can meet God all over again, and readjust my perceptions to see my self, my neighbor and my world as God sees us all.
All of that is really cool, but it isn’t all there is. All of that only works if you guys are here… You might be thinking, “Of course, Pastor Karla, you can’t lead worship if there is no congregation to lead.” But that’s not it. It is true, I need you, whether I am leading worship or sitting as part of the assembly. It is the difference between worship and devotions. Worship is communal. We do it together. Devotions we do on our own, maybe sitting in a comfy chair with our Bible and a cup of coffee, or maybe out hiking up a trail where you can take in the beauty of God’s creation. Either way, it is just you and God. That’s devotions. Worship is different. There is no worship without the assembly. There is power in numbers. Jesus promised that where two or three are gathered there he is in our midst. We come together to sing and to pray and the Spirit moves among us. The very act of breathing at the same time is a unifying force. While we sing together and recite the creed in unison, we pause to breathe at the same time. We experience on a cellular level that something special is going on. Our bodies KNOW that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are sustained and strengthened in the most basic ways. We share the peace. We take communion together. We are served by other members of the congregation. Congregational worship is a powerful thing.
I will be honest with you. I have had those days when I don’t feel like attending worship, but I have learned in my life that when I least feel like going to worship with God’s people is when I need it the most. It is when I have the most to gain.
And now for why you told me you attend worship: It’s how we can show God by our actions that we are committed followers and that we love God; we come for the fellowship, for the inspiration, for the accountability; we come because we need to be reminded of God’s love each and every week, because we want to be part of something meaningful that makes a difference in the world; we come because this is one of the ways we are connected with those who have gone to be with God before us, and we come because this is the launch-pad, the time to get re-energized for serving God during the week. I think that about sums it up. Those are some very good reasons.
I suspect there are some other reasons out there, if we are to be really honest… maybe you come to please your spouse or your parents. Maybe you attend out of habit. Maybe you are here because you don’t know what you believe any more but you are hoping your former certainty will come back if you stick with it. Maybe you are here because you would be ashamed to not be here. Or maybe you there are a whole host of other reasons, but I can say one thing for sure, no matter what your reasons for showing up, God’s reason for showing up is you.
God’s reason for showing up is you.
God loves you. God is excited that you are here. The Spirit shows up here each and every Sunday to touch your heart, to move among you, to propel you to faith and action.
Worship, as we know it, is part of a long tradition. Our Lutheran worship style is not all that different from how it was in Martin Luther’s time. Even the most contemporary worship style has its roots in the distant past. We are connected with those who came before us in worship by this continuity. Justin Martyr was a convert to Christianity in the second century. He provides us one of the earliest accounts of worship customs after the letters of Paul and the book of Acts. Justin Martyr wrote:
“And on the day named after the sun all, whether they live in the city or the countryside, are gathered together in unity. Then the records of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for as long as there is time. When the reader has concluded, the presider in a discourse, admonishes and invites us into the pattern of these good things. Then we all stand together and offer prayer. And, as we said before, when we have concluded the prayer, bread is set out to eat, together with wine and water. The presider likewise offers up prayer and thanksgiving, as much as he can, and the people sing out their assent saying the ‘amen’.” **
There is more, but you get the idea. From the beginning God’s people have gathered to hear the scriptures read and reflected on, to sing and to pray, to share table fellowship in communion. Justin Martyr went on to tell about taking up the offering in order to aid the orphans and widows, the sick, the outsider, those who are in prison and others who are marginalized and without resources. He wrote about taking the elements of the service to those who are not present. So church isn’t just about those who are here, but those who are not here and can’t be for whatever reason.
So why is it that sometimes we can feel something happening to us in worship and sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we are lifted by the power of the spirit in very tangible ways, and sometimes we feel flat, let down, unfulfilled. There are lots of reasons, but none of them matter all that much. The key thing to remember is that our experience is not the key thing. Not everything that happens to us in worship happens to us on a conscious level. The parts of worship that resonate on a deeper level are sometimes not part of our lived experience. Sometimes we are completely unaware of what is happening to us in worship, so it is important to remember that our experience is not the bottom line of why we worship. God is the bottom line. God’s love is the bottom line. God’s love is what said “Every opportunity will be made to save the world.” For God SO LOVED the world that Jesus was sent that the whole world might be saved. People, left to our own devices, are bound to walk into condemnation and death, judgment and hopelessness, but that is not the last word. God’s love is the last word, whether we feel it or not.
And then remember that not everything that happens in worship is about us. Sometimes the Spirit is working in someone else and us being present is just part of the whole picture.
So we gather. We pause to praise God; to sing and pray and hear the Word. We take communion and we rejoice in God’s love. In the letter to the Colossians we hear this advice about worship: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” (Colossians 3:16, NRSV)
Gratitude is central to worship. We have SO MUCH to be grateful for. We thank God for God’s goodness and grace. And in addition to that, we thank God for each other, for this church—these people. Look around you. These are the people God has given us to be church with. We are thankful for our many blessings and for the lessons we have learned as well as those we have yet to learn.
And finally, just a little word about technique. How we attend to our worship, whatever the style, makes a difference in how we receive the benefits worship has to offer. Being completely present is a discipline. It is easy to allow our minds to wander off. It takes some effort to focus, to be aware of all that is here, to enter into the experience with gusto. You will have a different experience if you sing and pay attention to the lyrics, if you pray along with the assisting ministers instead of just listening to them praying, if you look your neighbor in the eye as you offer them the peace of Christ. It seems like a small thing, but it makes a world of difference. For the rest of the service, I invite you to pay special attention to your form and technique as you do each of the exercises of worship. And then do it again next week; and the next and the next. You might not notice a change each week, but if you note how you feel about worship now, and where your faith level is today, after a year of consistent practice, you will see a difference. It doesn’t even take a whole year. You can see progress after three months. Try it. And invite a friend to try it too.
In fact, this is the perfect time to invite a friend you haven’t seen around here in a while to come back to worship. Advent is the perfect time to invite someone who has never been part of the church to come check it out. In the silence we’ll have in a few moments, Think about someone you haven’t seen lately and decide to give them a call. Pray for the opportunity to invite someone you know to come to worship with you.
So let’s recap: Why worship? Because God has called us.
Why worship? Because we need each other.
Why worship? Because there is more going on than meets the eye.
Why worship? Because God is in it.
Silence for reflection…
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
**(Translation from Gordon W. Lathrop, Central Things: Worship in Word and Sacrament, Augsburg Fortress, 2005, pp. 79-80.)
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.