St Barnabas and St Michael’s 4th July 2010
What for you makes a good service of worship?
Maybe it’s the numbers – feeling like you are part of a large crowd gathered for a common purpose.
Maybe it’s the music – and that sense of uplift you get as you sing your favourite hymns.
Maybe it’s the enthusiasm – of people who clearly who want to be there and who expect to meet with God.
Maybe it’s the teaching – and the satisfaction of hearing God’s word properly taught and preached.
Maybe it’s something supernatural – like prophecy and the sense that the Spirit is at work, moving in a powerful way.
Well, in Jesus’ day, large crowds of people regularly attended the religious festivals. You get a sense from reading the gospels, for example, that the Passover was an important and exciting occasion in the annual calendar of festivals. And as we know, the whole edifice of Jewish religion was supported by elite groups of people who devoted their whole lives to correctly teaching and preaching the law of Moses, and making sure it was honoured and upheld. Yet when an unknown person in the crowd asks Jesus in Luke 13:23, Lord, are only a few people going to be saved? His answer is to all intents and purposes an emphatic “Yes”.
Or again in Amos’ day, large numbers of worshippers regularly flocked to the religious centres of Bethel and Gilgal and Beersheba. The people willingly and enthusiastically brought forth their offerings, as we saw back in chapter 4. As they gathered, professional harpists strummed out the latest worship hits which everyone sang along to. And – as we shall see next week – there were plenty of prophets on hand to pass on a warm word of encouragement from the Lord. Yet what was God’s verdict on their worship? Amos 5, verse 21: I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.
So what was the problem with all this worship that was being offered in both Jesus’ and Amos’ day? After all, on the outside, it appeared mighty successful. It was popular, it was noisy, it was times exciting, it was practised with great gusto and enthusiasm. No question of struggling for numbers on a Sabbath morning, or the preacher striving (and failing) to wake the dead in his sermon. This was lively, cutting-edge worship, at its best culturally relevant and meeting people’s needs for significance and belonging. So why wasn’t the Lord pleased with it?
Well, if you’re a parent or part of the education system, I guess you are very familiar with the idea of learning outcomes. The idea is that if, for example, you teach maths then at the end of term your class will be able to do their multiplication tables. That is the learning outcome by which you will be judged as a teacher. Of course you might decide as a teacher that learning how to multiply is a bit boring, really, and you could choose to do something completely different. So that term instead you get the whole class to study Doctor Who. You get the children to make a Tardis out of cardboard, the girls dress up like the doctor’s assistant, and the boys work out the best way to resist a dalek attack. No doubt everyone will have a lot of fun in the process. You will probably show that you are an enthusiastic teacher well able to motivate others, and you will have lots of street cred in the playground. But as a teacher you will still be judged a failure. Why? Because all your effort and input has not produced the required learning outcome, namely that your class can do the 10 times table.
Now I gave this morning’s sermon the rather provocative title down with religion and if you’ve head anything of my preaching and teaching over the past few years you will know that I have a certain kind of antipathy towards formal religion. Because the problem with so much of our worship is that we judge it by external criteria – how many people are there, how good the music is, whether it did anything for me. And just like the people of Jesus’ and Amos’ times we lose sight of the real purpose of worship, which is to open ourselves up to God and to allow Him to work in us and through us.
The apostle Paul writes these words in Romans 12:1-2: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. That, you see, is worship. It’s about offering ourselves, body, mind and soul, it’s about being transformed, it’s about learning and living by the good, pleasing and perfect and will of God.
And it’s once you understand that, you then begin to see worship, including and especially the stuff we do on a Sunday morning, in a whole new light. Not that things like numbers or quality of music or the standard of preaching are completely unimportant. We all know the difference here, for example, between a service when there are twenty people present and when there are thirty. But ultimately when we understand what worship is really all about, we will judge what we do together by some very different outcomes.
Let me suggest three to you. The first one is Are folk seeking to know Jesus better?
Back to our reading from Luke’s gospel, and verses 23-24: Someone asked him (that is Jesus), “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Now Jesus here doesn’t explain the meaning of the narrow door, but it becomes clear from other parts of Scripture that Jesus referring to Himself. For example, in John 10:9 Jesus says, I am the gate (or if we translate it literally, I am the door); whoever enters through me will be saved. It’s an astonishing claim and it’s one we don’t really have time to go into properly here. But if it is true that Jesus is the way to salvation, if it is through Him and Him alone that we can know the Father’s mercy and power and love, shouldn’t the goal of our worship be to know Him better?
The trouble is, we don’t like to associate worship with effort. If we’re honest, we like a nice, cosy faith where Jesus is just there in the background, ready to be called upon when needed. Jesus’ words here are a reminder to us that our faith has to more active than this. Indeed the word he uses here for making an effort is the same one that gives us the English word “agonise”. And I would suggest that one mark of a healthy, growing church is that folk are making Jesus a priority even when it causes inconvenience to themselves.
To take a practical example. This week is a GIFT Group week. GIFT groups are occasions where we come together to learn more about God and to Grow In Faith Together. We have three groups, on a Wednesday and a Thursday evening, and on a Thursday afternoon. What, I wonder, would it take for you to come along to one? Maybe have tea earlier, or do the housework at another time, or arrange to see a friend on a different day? Surely if out faith is that precious to us, we should be making some effort to grow and deepen our relationship with Jesus. Or, in the words of Amos we read last week to seek the Lord and live (Am 5:6)
So the first outcome of worship should be this: are folk seeking to know Jesus?
Secondly, are folk living out their faith?
That is a question which comes out from Amos 5:23-24 when the Lord tells the people of Israel: Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Because while it might be fun singing the all the old favourites, or belting out the latest worship hits, all the music will be just empty noise unless those worshipping have heard and heeded God’s call upon their lives.
So what might it mean for justice to roll on a like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream? Well, I realise justice and righteousness are long words, and they can have lots of different shades of meaning. But what they boil down to in essence is this: that God is fair. At least, I hope you can agree God is fair. We may not always understand the way God works or discover His purposes, but the idea that God is fair is, I trust you can accept this, fundamental to our worship.
Of course, you might well ask how we know God is fair. The short answer is that He has given us of His Son Jesus Christ. We can see God’s justice and righteousness, for example, in the way Jesus treated everyone with dignity and respect, even tax collectors and prostitutes, or the way He refused to be influenced by the rich and powerful. And as we shall see in a couple of weeks time, Jesus showed the justice and righteousness of God supremely through His death on the cross, and the way He offers to all the prospect of salvation.
But there is a second question beyond this, namely: how does the world know God is fair? And the short answer is by God giving us to the world. We are to be the very body of Christ reflecting the same attitudes and actions of Jesus who walked this earth so many years ago. We are, as we heard from Romans 12 earlier, to be so moulded and shaped by our worship that not only we ourselves know what God’s good, pleasing and perfect will is, but that we seek to put God’s will into practice day by day, hour by hour. And the way I understand Amos’ beautiful image of justice rolling on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream is of an army of ordinary people so filled with the Holy Spirit that they flood their local community with acts of loving kindness so that others find life and growth and transformation. How far, I wonder, do we fulfil Amos’ vision?
So the first outcome of worship: are folk seeking to know Jesus?
The second outcome of worship: are folk living out their faith?
And the third: are folk whole-hearted in their devotion?
Now I don’t know how much you remember about the Israelites’ journey through the promised land, but I guess most of us have heard of Moses going up onto Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments. And what were the Israelites doing while Moses was away up the mountain? It would be good to report that they were praying and fasting, perhaps, or solemnly offering sacrifices before the Lord. But that’s not what happened. Instead Aaron collected all the gold ear-rings from the people, made them into a calf and said, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt. (Ex 32:4).
To us I guess it sounds a strange and frankly rather stupid thing to do. But think about it for a moment. When push comes to shove, where do we really place our security? In the property we have bought as a nest-egg for our retirement? In the career path we’re pursuing? In the fate of the England football team? I believe sometimes we are so anxious to show Christians are “normal”, ordinary people we do indeed get conformed to the pattern of this world. We claim to be different, we tell others the difference Jesus makes to our lives, but in reality folk see that really have exactly the hopes and dreams as them.
Amos’ rather odd words in verses 25 and 26 are in point of fact an accusation to the people of his day that they are no different from their ancestors who made the golden calf on Mount Sinai, and they are quoted in Acts 7 by Stephen when speaking to the Jewish religious authorities of Jesus’ day. They remind us that faith and trust in the Lord is not a part-time hobby, or another worthy cause, but an act of complete surrender to the one who has loved and saved us in His Son Jesus Christ.
You see, the many people who in our passage from Luke fail to gain entry in God’s kingdom are not people who ignorant of Jesus. They are people who have shared food and drink with Him, and sat under His teaching. Nor as members of God’s chosen people are they unaware of the Lord’s demands for justice and righteousness. But they have refused to give themselves wholeheartedly to God’s service. And, because for them the trappings of religions matter more than faith in Jesus and true worship, their final destiny, according to Jesus, is that they are excluded from God’s presence. Forever.
So let’s revisit that opening question: what makes for you a good service of worship? I hope you can see by now that the real measure of worship is not so much what goes on in the main gathering, as in the ongoing effect on the people who go out to live and serve the Lord day by day. That people are making every effort to get to Jesus better. That people are living out their faith and showing God’s justice and righteousness to others. That people are whole-hearted in their devotion to the Lord. Because that, in the end, is how the kingdom grows. By a few ordinary people giving themselves wholly to the Lord, by being like that mustard seed which eventually turns into a tree, or the yeast causing the dough to rise. That’s what worship is really about.
So what response do you need to make to Jesus’ and to Amos’ message this morning?