The Holy Habit of Worship
Morning Service led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from Luke 4, verses 14-21
Worship: Finding Your Home
Many years ago, when I had just started training for the ministry, an elderly organist told me what he thought was most important about a church service. “So long as you start with a good hymn and finish with a good hymn, everyone will go home saying it has been a great service.”
Thanks. I SO needed to hear that. I am struggling through years of training just so that people can sing their favourite hymns (which they could do with or without me). It took me a long time to forgive him….
But what does make a great act of worship? So much of it is about personal taste, isn’t it? Some people love ancient music and high church ritual; some love lively worship songs and informality; some prefer total silence. Some, like that organist, think the music is the most important part of the service; some say it is the sermon; some think it is the level of comfort of the pews; some think it is all about the people you are worshipping with. Despite my belief in and commitment to church unity, I can never visualise a time when all Christian people of every tradition will worship God together in exactly the same way. It is just not going to happen. We are all different.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus has just read the holy scriptures to the congregation in his local synagogue- their place of worship. Everyone is looking at him, waiting for him to start speaking. He says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In other words, “this ancient text is actually all about you and about what God is doing right here, right now.”
That, to me, is the definition of good worship: receiving a word, a message, an inspiration that is all about you, where you are and all about what God is doing, right here, right now. If worship does not achieve this, what is the point of it?
We can go to a concert to hear good music. We can go to football matches to sing lively songs and wave our arms in the air. We can go to the pub to spend time with our friends. We can go out into the countryside to sit in stillness. Worship is first and foremost about encountering God. It is for those who realise their need of God. It is for people who want God to be involved in their lives. It is for those who want to see the world as God sees it. Whether through music or ritual, prayer or preaching, friendship or discussion, their eyes will be fixed on God and they wait to hear what He will say because they trust it will be about them and about the place where they are right here, right now. And if an act of worship, no matter how carefully prepared or beautifully produced does not achieve that, even in the smallest way, then it is not authentic worship.
Psalm 19 begins with a hymn of praise for the glories of the natural world. The natural world is undeniably beautiful and awesomely intricate. Many have seen this as proof that there is a Creator; many have seen it as proof that there is not, given the cruelty and unpredictability in nature. It was the theologian, Sara Maitland, who commented that, from the perspective of the Dodo or the Brontosaurus, the whole show looks like hell on wheels.”
To me, the real worship begins at verse 7, where we acknowledge that the law of the Lord marks the way that leads to life. The Psalmist is not only referring to the Ten Commandments here (Thou shalt/thou shalt not). The” Law” in Jewish scripture was the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. It is a collection of stories, poetry, history, pilgrimage, teaching, all to do with the ways in which ordinary people encountered an extraordinary God.
These people were living in a beautiful world but also a dangerous world. There are tales of earthquakes, volcanoes, a great flood, a devastating famine. Yet these people were also highly gifted. They were physically strong, they thought creatively, they shaped themselves into communities where the gifts of some would complement the gifts of the others, they learned how to use the natural world to produce food and to build shelters.
But they also got a lot of things wrong. There were family feuds; betrayal and dishonesty; hatred, jealously and violence; sexual promiscuity, abuse and exploitation. There were some huge mistakes made but the one message running through these books is that God never turns his back on the human race, no matter how badly they behave. Over and over again, God reaches out to human men and women and offers them every possible help in living well and in maintaining a beautiful world.
“So, the law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The teachings of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.” As we learn how to walk with God, how to receive from God, our lives will be better and our world safer. For nature is not “naturally” good. It can be cruel and unpredictable. Neither is human nature “naturally” good. Left entirely to its own devices, a child is far more likely to grow up bad than good.
We knew that long before William Golding wrote his horrific
novel, “Lord of the Flies” in which a group of decently brought up schoolboys, stranded alone on a desert island gradually evolve into the cruellest and most destructive wild beasts.
The frightening thing is that we can go wrong, sometimes almost without realising it. The Psalmist asks, “who can discern their own errors?” It is always so much easier to see where other people are going wrong rather than where we are making mistakes.
And when we realise that yes, we have messed up big time, who will want to help us? Who will be able to help us? Only God has power enough to forgive, as in sorting our lives out and helping us to start again.
And this is worship: coming to the source of life, of healing, of wisdom, of strength and opening ourselves up to God. What is going on in my life right here, right now? What is going on in our world right now? And what are You trying to tell me? That is worship as we need it and as God wants it to be.
In the story of Nehemiah, his people had finally been allowed to return to their homeland and to the religion in which they had been brought up. When they heard the words of the Law again, they shouted for joy and then they cried for joy. They had come home. They had found their place of safety and structure after years of wandering and exile. I sometimes hear people today, who have returned to church after a long time away say that it feels like coming home. And that is lovely. And that is why I chose today to preach on worship as a means of “finding your home.” In worship we meet with the God who has known us and loved us since before we were born. In worship we receive help, healing and guidance from the Father who has always been there for us. In worship we come to recognise our unique place in the world as God’s children; that we belong here. Worship is “finding our home.”
Perhaps the one danger with this lies in assuming that home is a place where nothing challenges you and nothing changes. Nehemiah’s people wanted to go back to the good old days before the exile. But it was those good old days that had partly been responsible for the break-up of their country.
As the people waited for Jesus to speak in the synagogue, they were expecting him to reassure them that they too would soon return to the good old days before foreigners had invaded their country. Did he say that? I think not….
Is home a place where nothing is ever changed or challenged? Ask that question of anyone who has lived with teenagers and you know what the answer will be.
Home, if you think about it, is the place where we learn how to live with other human beings who will not always think the same as we do. Home is the place where we have to share our space with people who do not always want to live as we do and do not place their socks where we think they go. Home is the place where most of us first learn that maybe the world does not revolve around us after all. Home tends to be the place where we first learn that fire burns and that cats scratch. Home, ultimately, is the place we are equipped to leave for the big, wide world.
Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, in which the ministry of God’s Saviour is described: to proclaim good news to the poor; proclaim freedom to those who are imprisoned; restore sight to the blind; set the downtrodden free and proclaim that now (not back in the good old days; not sometime in the future but right now) is the time of God’s favour.
This ministry is designed to meet every human need. It is inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. When Jesus spoke that day in the synagogue, he had just come out of the desert where he had been wrestling with false ideals of what the Saviour of the world should be: it was not just about meeting people’s every physical need; it was not about proving oneself by crowd-pulling stunts; it was not about taking over the world by force. It was about bringing people to God.
And Jesus Christ could do this, but many people rejected his ministry because deep down they did not want God. They were afraid of God. They wanted to live to their own agenda and hear only what they wished to hear. They wanted a god who would back up the half-truths, the illusions by which they wanted to live.
“Home,” for them was a shelter from the big wide world where they could live and think and speak unchallenged and this was how they wanted their worship to be. Their worship could be wonderfully executed but, as Jesus pointed out, it could mean nothing and change nothing.
Jesus could not and would not be the Son of God they wanted. His message was that the reality of God was standing right there before them; that the truth of God was right here, confronting them; that the time to meet with God was right here, right now.
“And what ultimately matters,” wrote Rowan Williams, “is desire for truth, whatever the cost; but that desire is only met in the face of the true God and in letting him tell you your story.” This was what Jesus set out to do and not everyone was ready for him.
The “home” we discover in worship may be a place of change and challenge; a place of disturbance as much as comfort. But it is true to say that the best of homes remain what we might call “safe places.”
Places where we do confront the truth of who we are but assured of a love that will not make excuses for us if we have messed up, but that will understand.
Places where we are challenged in our thinking, our believing, our behaving but also find immense strength there to support us and wisdom to point us in the right direction.
Places where we can explore who we are and what the world is and not be slapped down if our thinking is not the same as other people’s.
Places you can walk out of in a temper but be welcomed back with open arms. Home ultimately is the place we are equipped to leave for the big, wide world, just as, after church we go out hoping to be better equipped to take God’s Word into the world, but we leave home, knowing that God goes with us. We are never alone.
Jesus stood up in the synagogue and said, “Today, these words of holy scripture have come alive for you in the place where you are right now.” May this be true for each one of us here today.
May these words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.