What is worship? That was a question I was asked at a job interview, which, frankly, I made a bit of a mess of answering… This is one of my attempts at a better answer!
Worship; Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29
What’s the point? Why are we here? Why are we bothering? Don’t worry, this isn’t an existential crisis from your new vicar. No, it’s far more serious that that. It’s the challenge that the passage we heard from the letter to the Hebrews lays down to all of us.
This is one of the final images in the book and the author probably wants to leave his readers and hearers with this in their minds. The mountains, the author is saying, are two ways in which we can approach God. The first mountain is a scary, unwelcoming place, a place of “darkness, gloom and storm” The sight was so terrifying that Moses was trembling with fear. The commands that God issued were so hard that the people begged God to stop.
Why did God appear like this? Partly, I think because the Israelites were in danger of taking God for granted. They had been freed from slavery in Egypt and had been brought on a journey towards the promised land. And our reading from Exodus told of an early part of that journey towards freedom. It also reminds us that the Israelites had already seen the power and terror of God in his dealings with the Egyptians. And yet, still, the Israelites took God for granted. They grumbled and complained and turned away from God.
So, God appears at Sinai almost as a powerful, impersonal force. The Israelites, God’s chosen people, are kept at a distance from God to remind them of his holiness and their unholiness and unworthiness. Everything about it says “Stay away! Don’t come near!”
That’s the first way you can approach God. And people still think like that. I’ve I was part of a small team who went to a Mind Body and Spirit fair. That where there’s people selling crystals, and claiming to read auras, and talking about spirit guides and angels and things like that. We spent the day there giving away things, talking to people about how they could meet with God and offering to pray with them. And two things in particular struck me. The first is that everything costs, everything is for sale, nothing is free. The second is that, as we were talking to the stall holders, what we met was that some of them had a feeling that they weren’t good enough to encounter Jesus directly. It wasn’t that they didn’t particularly believe in God or Jesus. It was more that they felt they were unworthy to have anything to do with him. They didn’t feel they were important enough, so they wanted to deal with angels and spirits instead. It’s this sort of attitude that is one of the motivations behind the letter to the Hebrews, showing that angels are messengers and servants, nothing more, nothing less. But, the stallholders felt that they weren’t important enough to meet with Jesus directly.
But part of the mystery that God has revealed to us is that he loves each one of us, and that through Jesus, he has made us worthy to come to him. And another part of the mystery that God has revealed is that he has given us the Holy Spirit to help us. To help us know the mysteries of God’s love and power for ourselves, and to help us make known the mysteries of God’s love and power to other people.
And that’s a challenge to us. How much do we and how much does our worship give off the sense that God is how the Israelites encountered him at Mount Sinai. How much does the message that we broadcast, however unconsciously, say “Stay away! Don’t come near!”. That’s one of the challenges for us from this passage.
Because those stall holders aren’t alone in having picked up the message that somehow they’re not ‘good enough’ to even think about coming to God. When we were trying to arrange to have a stall at that Mind, Body and Spirit fair there was some concern amongst the organisers because of their previous dealing with Christians who had spent their time telling people why they were wrong, rather than about God’s love and God’s power. They’d heard the message of ‘Stay away! Don’t come near!’. They hadn’t heard the message that they could do anything about it. They hadn’t heard the message that we can meet with God. Not because we’re good enough or because of what we have done, but because God is loving enough to want us to meet with him. That’s what we celebrate when we worship him.
The invitation of God is one that we hear throughout the Bible. Like for example in Psalm 34 “Taste and see that the Lord is good”. The invitation of God is to come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. We are all invited to the everlasting celebration of God’s grace, the everlasting experience of joy at knowing him and of being a member of his family. We are welcomed to celebrate with God himself, with thousands upon thousands of angels, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Grace, relationship and joy are at the heart of this wonderful, personal, attractive picture of what God is truly like.
And that’s another challenge to us. How much do we and how much does our worship give off the sense that God is how we can and will encounter him at the heavenly Mount Zion? How much does the message that we broadcast say “Come and belong, Come and celebrate, Taste and see that the Lord is good”? That’s another of the challenges for us from this passage.
Because our worship together on a Sunday morning, or whenever else, is partly about equipping us for our worship during the rest of the week. Because, we’re called to live our whole life in worship of God. Not just Sunday morning, but Monday morning, Friday night and all the rest of the time too. Our whole life is called to be part of those heavenly celebrations, now. We are called to celebrate along with God’s messengers, the angels, to be angels, messengers, of the living God. To celebrate God’s love in all that we do. That’s a challenge to seek the power of the living God, to seek his Holy Spirit, to ask him to help us celebrate along with the angels, to ask him to help us to keep going through the tough times, to ask him to give us the grace and power that we need to get through the challenges that we face.
And that’s one of the things that our worship on a Sunday morning needs to do. It needs to help us meet with God, to celebrate again all that he has done for us. It needs to help us to seek again the power of his Holy Spirit, so that our lives can be lived in worship of him. It needs to help us be disciples, followers, of Jesus, living and working for his kingdom coming to earth.
So that’s some of the reasons why our worship needs to have a shape and have certain parts to it. We need to be reminded that our worship is about praising God, about coming to God to say sorry, about coming to God in prayer, asking him to help, about coming to God through his Word, about coming to God to be empowered and inspired by his Spirit. So, we need times of praise, we need times when we confess our sins, we need times of hearing the Bible, and of prayer. And that particularly includes the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus taught us, because that gives us the resources we need to pray. It teaches us how to pray and helps us to think about the things that what we need to pray for. And declaring together the essentials of our faith in the creed is about helping us to focus on those essentials, helping us to recognise what is important, and encouraging us to respond to that.
So, one of the things that we agreed to do at PCC is to set up a Worship sub-committee. Not very exciting you might think. Not a very good example of the awe and reverence and celebration of worshipping God with the whole of our lives that I’ve been talking about. But, actually, that’s sort of the point. Yes, it’s another committee, yes it’s another meeting. But God is at work in the ordinary and everyday. Our worship of God needs to include those committee meetings at work and church, those chats with friends, those times when the kids are yet again not doing what we’ve asked, or whatever else. That last one is the current challenge for me.
So the Worship sub-committee will help those of us who regularly lead worship here to meet with one another regularly, seek God’s guidance for our worship, be accountable to one another, think about how we can lead worship most effectively and so on. Because we’re called to worship God to the best of our abilities with the whole of our lives.
And that’s also why I think it’s helpful to have a shape throughout the year to our worship. So, the celebrations of Easter come after six weeks of penitence and preparation during Lent. The celebrations of Christmas come after four weeks of preparation during Advent. So that the contrast is greater, so that both the awe and celebration of approaching God can be felt, so that we’re equipped to deal with both celebration and sorrow, penitence and joy, in our own life journey.
So, we’re starting Lent this year with a communion service on Ash Wednesday. And there will indeed be an opportunity to receive the sign of the cross marked in ash on your forehead. As a reminder, a symbol, that the everlasting celebrations of Easter to which we’re invited calls us to worship with reverence and awe. So, do please come along and experience that. And they’ll also be special services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
So, then, What’s the point? Why are we here? Why are we bothering? The point is that we are invited to God’s everlasting celebrations, brought about because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus has opened up for us a new way to God and we are welcomed to be part of his family, and to know his grace and the joy that comes from that. As it says in the passage we heard Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant, whose blood speaks a better word that that of Abel’s. Abel’s blood cried out to God for judgement. Jesus’ blood cries out that we have been cleansed from our sin, so that we can serve the living God.
And I’m looking forward to finding out how we as God’s body here in Hartshorne can serve the living God together as a church. We started thinking about that at our last PCC meeting, where we thought about what strengths we have, what challenges we face, what problems we might need to overcome and so on. I believe that God is calling us to do new things to help build his kingdom here in Hartshorne. And I’m looking forward to finding out, with you all, what those things will be. That’s not always easy, but we need to spend time trying to work out, trying to discern, what God wants us to do.
So we’re going to need to wait, and wrestle, and listen. And to do that we’re going to need to spend time in prayer and time getting to know God better, through prayer, through sharing our insights together, through reading and listening to and studying the Bible. And as we try to find out what God is calling us, as his body here in Hartshorne, to do, we’re going to need to do these things together. How exactly is something that we’ll explore together.
But, we are called to celebrate along with God and his angels, we’re called to taste and see that the Lord is good. Psalm 34 also talks of troubles and fears, but assures us that God is with us in all this. We know that Jesus struggled and suffered and died, before rising to new life, so even as we worship God we know that there may be hard times ahead as well. But the promise of God is that he will be with us in and through those times as well.
There is also one important similarity shared by the two mountains, shared by these two ways to approach God. Both have a call to holiness. In both we encounter a God who is perfect, and who calls us to be perfect. Both call us to “taste and see that the Lord is good”. And as we taste and see that the Lord is indeed good, we need to allow that taste to permeate throughout our lives. But the promise of Jesus is that he will bring us to perfection. He will bring us to be the best possible versions of ourselves.
And this call and this promise, through the Holy Spirit, starts here, as we journey towards Mount Zion and look forward to our heavenly Jerusalem. We can start to know the grace and joy that being part of the family of God is about here and now. And we can start to welcome others to know the relationship we have through God’s grace, and the joy that that can bring. So, are we calling people to grace, relationship and joy? Because knowing God’s grace, having a living, growing relationship with God, and knowing the joy that that can bring flows out into the rest of our lives, through the power of the Spirit. And we can and should ask God for his Spirit, his help. Because knowing grace and joy and having a relationship with God is the point, that is why we are here, that is why we are bothering. We are invited to the heavenly Jerusalem, with thousands of angels in joyful assembly. And so, let us worship God with the whole of our lives, let us taste and see that the Lord is good, and let us show to others by our words and deeds that the Lord is indeed good. Amen.