April 22, 2018/Covenant Living: Worship Regularly
John 4:21-24 and Hebrews 12:28-29
There was a time – perhaps some of you remember from your childhood – that everyone went to church on Sunday morning. For one thing, there was nothing else to do. Houses of worship were the only places “open for business” on Sundays. Stores and shopping centers were shuttered for the day. Most restaurants were locked up tight. Sunday was reserved for church, maybe followed by a short trip to visit the grandparents or take a Sunday drive.
Gradually over the last fifty years, all of that changed. Now, the options for a Sunday morning are endless. For many people – maybe even most people – Sunday is a day off work, a day to sleep late, meet friends for brunch, read the newspaper, and later toss it aside for a quick nap. Sunday is a day to catch up on all of the tasks that you were too busy to handle during the week – laundry, grocery shopping, mowing, cooking, and planning for the week ahead. Sunday is a day to run to the mall, to check out the latest sales, to catch a movie, or to catch up with friends. Sunday is a day for classic soccer and touring sports and equestrian competitions. Church, which used to be the only game in town on Sunday, now must compete with a long list of other alternatives, many of which seem more attractive or fun or entertaining.
That may be why, in some churches, worship has become more focused on contemporary Christian music featuring guitar and drummer, on lights and sets and staging, on “speaking” rather than “preaching.” In many churches, the focus of worship has become, how can we keep people entertained so they will return Sunday after Sunday? How can we make worship “worth people’s while”?
Those churches seem to have forgotten the key focus of worship. Worship is not about entertaining the congregation. The purpose of worship is not to make us happy, or to fulfill us, or to keep our families together or to make us feel like part of a community. The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” It witnesses to the basic principle that “God created us to worship him. … Worship must above all serve the glory of God.”
“Not only did God create us to worship him, but God also commanded us to worship him.” And as much as the Worship Committee and Tim and I might like you to think that whatever happens here on Sunday morning is the result of our hard work, “Worship is the work of the Holy Spirit. … Christian worship is inspired by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, directed by the Spirit, purified by the Spirit, and bears the fruit of the Spirit. Christian worship is Spirit-filled.”
The Old Testament book of Chronicles addressed proper worship. Writing to the community who had returned to Jerusalem following the exile but who remained under the foreign rule of the Persians, the chronicler recognized that “worship … would provide the people with their sense of identity and connect them with the traditions of the past.” The very foundations of the world had changed for this people. Living once again in their homeland, standing once more in the shadow of the Temple, they needed to know, “Are we still the people of God?”
Centuries later, speaking to a Samaritan woman at a well, Jesus pointed out that true worship no longer centered on a particular place. True worship, Jesus insisted, would be “shaped by the character of God.” The writer of the letter to the Hebrews would insist that our proper attitude, as recipients of the kingdom ushered in by Jesus, was gratitude. The community of faith already participated in the benefits of this new age that Jesus had ushered in. In response, they should worship God “with reverence and awe.” “Access to God is lived out in worship, and worship that pleases God is marked by gratitude, reverence, and awe. … Reverence and awe remind us it is God we approach.”
Why do we worship? “Worship is the means by which the church in its present life draws near to God. Worship approaches God with confidence, knowing that in Jesus our priest we will find mercy and grace to help. This understanding infuses every word and act of worship with gratitude. But never [should we] forget that it is God we approach and that, therefore, the service is offered in reverence and awe. A service of worship is designed and implemented so as to be appropriate to the nature of God. … The image of a ‘consuming fire,’ while jolting and disturbing at first, reminds [us when we grow] neglectful, apathetic, dull of hearing, and indifferent toward [our] gatherings that [our] life of worship is not to sink into that same carelessness.”
Why do we worship? Because it is worship that draws us into the presence of God. It is worship that reminds us who we are and whose we are. The Book of Common Worship says:
Worship is the principal influence that shapes our faith, and is the most visible way we express the faith. In worship, through Word and Sacrament, the church is sustained by the presence of Christ. Joined in worship to the One who is the source of its life, the church is empowered to serve God in the world. In an age dominated by individualism and secularism, it is particularly important to embrace forms of worship that are firmly rooted in the faith and foster a strong communal sense of being united with God, with the community of faith in every time and place, and with a broken world in need of God’s healing touch. In other words, the concern for the reform of worship is, above everything else, a concern for the renewal of the church.
I would add that worship also offers the chance for renewal for each person. We connect body and soul when we come into worship fully present. The Rev. Margery Rossi of Peekskill Presbyterian Church in New York writes, “People can become conscious of where they are – the people around them, the smells, the soft clicking of the heating vent, the sound of children in the Sunday school room, the taste and texture of the Communion bread. Maybe they can notice the way their heart feels when there’s a moment of appreciative silence right after the choir finishes singing a beautiful anthem.”
Maybe you, like those returning exiles centuries ago, wonder, “Are we still the people of God?” Overwhelmed with the demands of modern life, laid low by the stresses and pressures of life, left despondent by the heartbreak of disquiet and disease and death, maybe you aren’t really sure what difference an hour on Sunday morning might make in your life. Maybe you’d rather sleep late, have brunch with friends, or catch up on chores. Maybe you’re just not sure why worship matters or why it should be a priority. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus makes it clear that God created us to praise him:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved (Eph. 1:3-6).
In our worship, we praise God. Through our worship, God builds up the church. “When in the worship of the church the word is truly preached and the sacraments rightly administered, then God calls, teaches, and leads [the] people into a new way of life.”
Praise be to God!
 Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship, 2
 Ibid., 5
 James L. Mays, Harper-Collins Bible Commentary, 313
 Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New International Bible Vol. IX, 568
 Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New International Bible Vol. XII, 159
 Ibid., 160-161
 Book of Common Worship, 1-2
 Leslie Mott, “Participating in the Worship Hour,” Presbyterians Today, April/May 2018, 36
 Old, 6