Worship: Finding your strength
Morning Service led by our Minister.
This sermon is taken from Jeremiah 17, verses 5-10, 14-15 and Luke 6,verses 17-26
Worship: Finding your strength
We are what we worship.
Do you remember how, in the story “A Christmas Carol,” the ghost of Jacob Marley has chains around its legs? And when you look closely, you can see that these chains are made of cash boxes? In life Jacob Marley had been obsessed with making money. You could say that he “worshipped” money, which is why, in death, money is seen to have become his chains. He is sent back to warn his business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge that he is forging exactly the same chains around his own legs. He just cannot see them for the moment.
It is an eerie tale and other writers have written similar horror stories, where men and women who have worshipped such things as gold, money, power, revenge, knowledge, pride, greed end up with these false gods turning into millstones around their necks or chains about their feet. We are what we worship.
And the really scary thing is that the people in the stories have never noticed what it is that they are worshipping; what it is that is turning them into the person they are, until it is too late. Much earlier in his own story Ebenezer Scrooge is warned by the woman he loves that “another idol (that of money) has displaced me” but he refuses to take her seriously, even when she leaves him. He thinks that she is the crazy one.
Ironically, even the practice of worship itself can take the place of God in our faith. How many congregations have you heard of who have fallen out over music, flower arrangements, the way Communion is served, chairs-or-pews, the version of the Bible read in church? How many of us assess the worth of an act of worship by the number of people present rather than by whether God has spoken to us?
We are what we worship. So, what might be the chains which you are forging?
We are not having a good morning here. Moving on from Marley’s ghost, we come to Jesus’ sermon and I for one, found that very hard to listen to.
Jesus has just appointed his twelve special disciples. His ancestors had been the twelve ancient tribes of Israel, so, it was thought, he appointed twelve men to be the founding fathers of the “new Israel.” It was the start of the new people of God and the kingdom of God on earth. The chapter which follows might be called the ‘inaugural sermon” of the new movement: a call to understand what the kingdom of God is really all about and how they must live as citizens of this kingdom.
So off he goes-you heard what Jesus said- and this particular passage might be summed up as poverty good/wealth bad. Hunger good/ food bad. Weeping good/laughing bad. Rejection good/popularity bad. Great…..
Here, in a nutshell, you have all the things people do not like about the Christian faith.
In the first place they call us killjoys. We do not like to see anyone enjoying themselves or doing well for themselves. We prefer people to be down because then we can hit them with God.
Second, they call us hypocrites. What we are telling people is that God really loves you because you are poor and sad. God does not love me as much as he loves you because I am rich and happy. So, there is no need for me to do anything to help you. Be glad in your pain and your poverty because they are signs of God’s love.
Third, they accuse us of undermining people’s self-esteem. It is as though we are encouraging people to be pathetic because God actually likes sad, pathetic, victimised people. Don’t try to do anything to get yourself out of poverty or unhappiness. Just keep on playing the victim because that is what God wants. Oh dear….
It was George Caird, eminent scholar and former minister of the URC, who came to my rescue. Commenting on Jesus words, he said, “Only in the presence of a magnificent banquet is the hungry man more blessed than the well fed.”
He is right, isn’t he?
If you can imagine a huge table spread with all the food you like best….. imagine yourself looking at that table when you have come from eating a big meal and you are feeling full…… now imagine yourself looking at that table when you have not eaten all day and you are really hungry……. Which IS the better state to be in? Jesus is not condemning those who have eaten a good meal. He is simply stating the obvious truth that they will not get as much joy out of the banquet as the person who is really hungry.
The banquet Jesus is presenting here is that of the kingdom of God and yes, only those who are fully aware of their crying need for God will welcome this kingdom with shouts of joy and open arms. Only those who have recognised their former gods as worthless will be hungry for the true God. In Luke’s Gospel, when people are described as “poor” he is not talking only about those with no money. “Poor” can also mean lonely, without family, oppressed by injustice, condemned as social outcasts- whether through physical or mental illness; sinners who have messed up their lives and cannot get free. Any and all of these people can be described by Luke as “poor” because their lives are cramped and constricted; they are searching for something better. So yes, blessed ARE the poor, those who hunger, those who weep, those who are told they are crazy because they are ready to recognise the worth of the kingdom of God.
Whereas those who think they are OK; those who are ready to settle for the gods of wealth, health and happiness- they just cannot see the point of it. They can manage perfectly well without God, thank-you.
It was not that Jesus was anti wealth, health and happiness. He just asked people to get them in proportion. At the end of “A Christmas Carol” Scrooge is a transformed man, but he still has most of his money. He just does not need that money to prove anything about himself to himself. Money is no longer that which he worships.
Jeremiah was trying to be good minister to people who were in a bad place. His people had turned away from God and had “worshipped,” that is, focussed all their energies on such things as political power, economic prosperity, physical pleasure, luxurious lifestyles, even an elaborate system of temple worship.
Their nation had become weak and decadent. Powerful enemies had taken over their land and carried them, with Jeremiah, into exile. Some of these people did listen to what Jeremiah said and did admit that they had gone wrong. They started saying prayers again and asking God to get them out of this pain and misery.
So- why did nothing appear to be happening? Why was not God coming to their rescue? Why were they not miraculously restored to their own country and to a life of peace and prosperity again? To be honest, Jeremiah is struggling with this one, too.
But I think, in chapter 17, he is beginning to see where the problem lies. His people think they are worshipping God again, but they are not. The whole focus of their dreams, their hopes, their lives remains physical power and prosperity. They want to get back to exactly where they were before and OK, maybe they will try to get to church a bit more often.
But this is no good, says Jeremiah. “Cursed are those who trust in mortals…’ strong words but we can see what he is getting at. If all your hopes for inner peace, for personal fulfilment, for real joy are focussed on what other people can do for you, you will be let down. Because even the most loving, the most capable, the most powerful of human beings are just that-human beings. They get things wrong. They get hurt themselves and this clouds their judgement. They cannot help being motivated by a certain degree of self-interest. We cannot expect them to be super-human.
“But blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water…it does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”
Life is hard. It can throw some really bad stuff at you. And we are also quite capable of sabotaging our own lives. The Bible never denies that and nor did Jesus. Trees are as susceptible as we are: under threat from drought, high winds, too much heat, too much cold. But what will save a tree under threat are its roots, if they are deep enough and planted in the right place. They won’t save the tree from being attacked by heat or drought, but they will keep it alive and fruitful.
Jeremiah’s people needed to get grounded and rooted in God as God, not as some divine tool to be used to get them what they really wanted. The knowledge of God, love of God and serving of God needed to be the centre and focus of their life. For only then could they be people of God even in a foreign land, amongst sneering people. Only then could they be people of God even when life was throwing bad stuff at them. Only then could they bear the fruits of love, courage, forgiveness, peace, strength even in a bad place.
And, when they did get back to the peace and prosperity of their own country again, their lives would be on the right tracks. There would be less danger of them going wrong because we are what we worship and they would be worshipping God.
We are still left with a question though, aren’t we? We have seen how frighteningly easy it is to believe that you are worshipping one kind of god when in fact you are worshipping quite a different one. And going back to Jacob Marley and his cash box chains, if the only time you get to see what it is you have actually been worshipping is after you are dead, that is not a great deal of comfort…….
But Jesus’ strong words about Blessings and Curses are not threats or promises of what will happen after we are dead. They are an invitation to get involved in what is happening right now. They are an invitation to recognise what it is that makes you hungry, really hungry; an invitation to reach out for that which satisfies deep hunger and an exposure of everything which looks like the bread of life, but which is not, quite. Elsewhere Jesus offers himself as that bread of life. “All who come to me shall never be hungry.”
If you were here last Sunday, you will have seen the Beavers acting out the story of Peter’s miraculous catch of fish. (They strung out the line of fish all down the centre aisle). For years Peter had dreamed of catching so many fish that he could live in a huge house and have lots of luxurious possessions and marry a glamorous woman. His life, his thoughts, his ambitions, his hours of work all reflected this focus, this worship. Then, when he got all those fish, he found he did not want them after all. Even the things that amount of money could buy were not enough to satisfy that deep hunger he found within himself. In Jesus he recognised the bread of life and Jesus became that which he worshipped. Peter still caught fish from time to time. He still ate them, probably even sold them. But, like Scrooge with his money, Peter no longer needed the number of fish he caught, the money he could make from them and the things he could buy with that money to prove anything about himself to himself.
And here, I think, we have the vital clue as to what it is we worship. So many of us have this deep desire to prove ourselves- to prove that we are valuable, gifted, worthwhile human beings. And who are we trying to prove this to? Our families? Our partners? Our friends? Our neighbours? Our colleagues? I don’t think so. Not really. I think the person we are trying to prove ourselves to is- our self. We are the ones who need convincing of our worth. Even a world famous, brilliantly successful celebrity can still hate themselves.
So the question to ponder is what it is in our lives that proves to ourselves that we are worthwhile, valuable men and women? And the answer to that question will show you what it is that you worship.
In Jesus Christ we have nothing to prove. He said that anyone who came to him, he would not turn away. You do not have to prove anything to be part of the kingdom of God.
In Jesus Christ we have everything to gain. In him we find our right to be called God’s children. In him we can put down deep roots of faith that will hold us when hard times come and amaze us at how much good fruit we can produce even when life is dry and dreary. In him we trust for everlasting life; full forgiveness; bread for the journey; healing for the soul; love for the community. He is worthy of our worship; the offering of our lives.