Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Ministry of all Christians, VII: Expressions of the Heart

Exodus 20:8-11
1 John 2:3-14
Matthew 4:1-11

“We believe divine worship is the duty and privilege of [all] who, in the presence of God, bow in adoration, humility, and dedication.  We believe divine worship is essential to the life of the Church, and that the assembling of the people of God for such worship is necessary to Christian fellowship and spiritual growth.”  ¶104, Article XIII, Book of Discipline 2012

Yet another Pew Research poll indicates religion in general is becoming less and less important to Americans – arguably the most blessed people on this planet.  We already know of this decline because we’ve heard it a thousand times and because it is too easily seen even among the people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” – even among many who claim Christianity.  We may even be experiencing it ourselves to one degree or another when “coming to church” is more of a habit than a genuine anticipation of something wonderful. 

Yet whether we as a people are becoming less religious is a much more complicated matter than whether we consider ourselves believers because belief and intentional, formal worship are more intimately connected than we may be willing to admit.  And if worship is not so important to us that we can take it or leave it, then we are compelled to ask exactly what is important to us.  And to ask within the context of Jesus’ encounter with the evil one in the wilderness.

It is too easy to puff oneself up and disavow “organized religion” as if we are somehow above it all; or criticize worship music that is not quite to our personal liking; or slander a preacher with whom we disagree (or just don’t like), or adversely judge a house “full of hypocrites” as if they are truly beneath us.  Christian bashing has become in many circles the “popular” thing to do – even among Christians. 

There may be legitimate complaints against Christianity or the Church in general, but I tend to think “turn-the-other-cheek Christians” (and there are some!) are just easier targets for social bullies.

Self-righteousness has always been a problem, but it has lately become very trendy, very chic.  Agnosticism implies a deep, philosophical thinker; and atheism is even trendier still because this implies a free thinker, very independent, logical, rational, enlightened ... intelligent.  Yet there is a much deeper element involved in purposefully gathering for worship that we as professed believers do not often consider.  In fact it is so overlooked as to be completely taken for granted. 

One writer put it this way: “Some may say, ‘I can worship God better by myself in the woods or by the lake.’  Perhaps you can.  And God forbid that any of us should be denied our private encounters with God!  But the test of whether any experience of God is genuine or is simply an aesthetic high is whether [that experience] inclines you to obey God.” John Piper

The writer’s observation is perfectly consistent with St. John’s own words: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God … by this you may know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:1-2). 

However, this is not strictly about intellectual “belief”, a conclusion one can draw with the human mind.  It is entirely about whether the Word of God has become the Living Word in us and with us in our daily living and are not just “words” written on some pages in a book covered with dust in our homes.  There are many other ways to unpack St. John’s statement, but essentially it boils down to whether an experience with The Lord is about The Lord and His higher purposes – OR – about His stamp of approval on our personal desires.

This takes us back to that fundamental component of discipleship: the profound difference between mere “belief” and earnest “faith” – that necessary component of worship.  We’ve explored the potential dangers of mechanical responses and lifeless doctrine that lacks outward expression – that danger being the difference between only “saying” something (“I love The Lord and my brothers and sisters”) and actually “doing” something (“I make time to worship The Lord with my brothers and sisters, come hell or high water”).  For the affirmation of what is Truth is found not in what we say (“talk is cheap”), but rather in what we do.  “Saying” something requires no real effort, and “click and share” on Facebook requires even less effort, but “doing” something demands a real investment of time and energy and selfless devotion.

The difference makes me think of a cartoon I saw recently of a solitary person sitting in a funeral home chapel.  The casket is up front, and the funeral director is in the back speaking to his co-worker: “The deceased had over 4,000 Facebook ‘friends’.  I don’t understand why only one showed up.”

We know why even if we won’t admit it.  There is a deep and wide gulf between claiming a relationship exists – and being actively engaged in that relationship.  Worship is an essential part of that relationship with The Lord AND within His Body the Church.

The value of worship is not measured by the quality of the music or the preaching or the appointments of the altar and sanctuary.  It is not even about the beautiful stained glass dedicated to some long-forgotten saint.  The genuine value of worship – as with the value of all doctrine – is measured by the response to The Word, a willingness to “go and do likewise”, a resolve to “go and sin no more” (rather than to try and redefine sin), and an eagerness to not only be filled but to willingly empty ourselves with the sure confidence of faith in knowing we will be filled yet again “with good measure” (Luke 6:38). 

Worship of The Lord our God is the measure of Christ Jesus who “emptied Himself” in giving so fully (Philippians 2:7) to the higher purpose of The Father and not for personal fulfillment or even spiritual satisfaction.  So the value of worship is not measured by the professionalism of the worship team but in what we are willing to invest in worship ourselves.

Worship is not just a thing we do on Sunday morning only up until the noon hour (and heaven help the preacher who does not respect that stroke of 12!), and then go about our business as if nothing happened.  Because if it is true that we can leave worship and go about our business as if nothing happened, then it may be truly said that nothing happened.  There cannot be a more empty feeling.

There is a very real, rather than an abstract, component of Jesus’ encounter with the evil one in the wilderness we must not only heed but embrace.  There is no way – NO WAY – to withstand the devil’s seemingly innocuous and innocent offers (such as bread when we’re truly hungry or the “American Dream” by way of what the “empire” will legally allow or the culture demands); no way to discern temptation if we are not fully engaged in and with the Body of Christ in worship, in fasting, in Scripture study, in mutual accountability, and (not or) in fellowship.  In fact everything the tempter offers to Jesus in the wilderness?  We call them “blessings”!

Why do we worship?  Why is our official position that worship is necessary rather than optional or a nice thing to do once in a while?  While it is true that being in church no more makes one a Christian than being in a carport makes one a car, it is equally true that whatever love we may have for The Lord is entirely dependent on our willingness and eagerness to worship The Lord, giving Him the time He so richly and infinitely deserves, AND doing so with others who need us as much as we need them.

Attending to worship and the sacraments and Scripture study and fellowship is not about being “religious” at all; it is about being faithful.  It is entirely about faithful expressions of what is within us.  With our hearts.  With our prayers.  With our fellowship.  With our singing.  And with our tithes and other offerings.  It is the difference between saying we love Jesus – and doing the loving thing.  It is about admitting we need a Redeemer and then worshiping the One who has actually redeemed us.  It is about worshiping the One who will save “those who endure to the very end” (Matthew 10:22).

It is about giving thanks constantly to the One who can, by His own Word and the fullness of His Being, send the tempter back into the wilderness where he belongs.  For it is our Lord Jesus who commanded: “Away with you, Satan!  For it is written, ‘Worship The Lord your God, and serve only Him’.  Then the devil left Him, and suddenly angels came and waited on Him.”

It is the power of the Most High God and His redeeming love expressed in Christ Jesus we come to acknowledge, to seek, to find, and to embrace.  It is the fullness of the Body of Christ which prepares us and strengthens us for the challenges and temptations we will surely face in the loneliness of our own wilderness.

The only way worship has no value is when we fail to add value to worship.  Our God has given us every reason to worship Him – in Christ Jesus, the Living Word.

In the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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