With Reverence and Awe 8/22/10

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Luke 13:10-17, and Hebrews 12:18-29

Time with the Children: Jeremiah’s Call Story
From Faith Element’s Media and Youth Sessions
See: Video of Akeelah and the Bee

I.                   Worship and Keeping Sabbath

Both of our passages from the New Testament bring up the theme of worship and what is appropriately contained within worship.  This presents with an amazing and wonderful opportunity to reflect upon how we worship and why we do so.

Hebrews 12:28-29: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

In Luke, Jesus heals a woman in the temple on the Sabbath and when questioned, he points out that the leaders even take care of their animals on the Sabbath, surely, someone who has suffered for eighteen years deserves to be healed (Sabbath or not) so that she too can praise the God of her salvation.

Where two or three are gathered together (Matt 18:20)

We worship on Sunday, the first day of the week.  In the Jewish faith, the Sabbath begins at sundown (the beginning of the day for them) on Friday evening and concludes with the setting of the sun on Saturday.  Observing Sabbath in their tradition is a spiritual practice, a sacrifice similar to fasting in which they abstain from working as best as they are able.  Christians observe the Sabbath too, although it is a practice that is often ignored in our fast-paced, production-oriented culture.  Perhaps because of that, it is even more worth the asking:  What is Sabbath? 

It is not simply resting or getting ready for the coming week.  “The practice of Sabbath … is about realignment.  It is about taking ourselves out of the human system of accumulation, self-protection … and placing ourselves under the influence of God’s rhythms, God’s priorities, and God’s direction.  It’s not about getting back into the fray, but about living with a whole different value system … it is this gracious kingdom alone that is unshaken.”[1]

Being a Sabbath Keeper requires more than just a day of rest on the first day of the week – which might be good news for those of us who have trouble slowing down for even an afternoon –instead, keeping Sabbath requires the efforts of our whole lives.  As the writer Alice Walker observed, “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”

Worship: Where must it happen?  When?  Why?

With all the debates various churches have had about worship and how to do it properly, we find ourselves asking all sorts of questions like: does our worship appeal to younger and older individuals?  Should we use more contemporary music or none at all?  How should we serve communion?  Does there have to be an offering taken up each worship service?  Should people have an opportunity to participate more fully in worship?  How do we best include children?

They are the essential who, what, where and when questions of worship.  The thing is they’re not essential.  The only essential question that we need to ask ourselves (and will lead us to our answers to all the other questions) is why.  Why do we worship?

I’m not sure there is just one answer to that question, but my immediate “pastor’s response” is to say that we worship to remember the great faithfulness of God and the promises God has given us.  We worship together in order to tell the stories of a faith that is beyond ourselves in scope and importance, but in which we participate.  We tell the great story of God’s love for us and we participate, hopefully and joyfully, in that love to create the kind of world God has called us forth to work for and enjoy.

II.               Myths of Worship

There are some base assumptions about worship that I think our passages speak to today.

1.     Worship is Private

Worship may be personal, but it is never private.  Worship is a social activity.  There is a reason that we gather in two’s or three’s or more and that is for the purpose of sharing our faith, sharing the trials that test our faith and the experiences that strengthened our faith.  We speak of our love for God and our desire to be faithful.  We shake hands or hug, or smile or nod at one another – glad to see each other because it is a sign that we are not alone- we are together in our faith experiences.

Without each other, we are ingredients and not the bread and body of Christ.

The flip side of this is that we worship in order to not be alone, and that is a wonderful byproduct of worship.  It is a horrible thing to feel alone and lonely.  This is why a great theme of the Bible is reaching out to the outcasts, the widows, the orphans, the people who need love and support.  But while worship is a social activity, that is, something we do socially; it is not a social event.  It is not a time to gossip, to schedule a business meeting, or to make sure we tell that one person something during the worship service before they disappear after the service.

This is a hard thing for us to balance when we pass the peace of Christ.  Passing the peace is, of course, a greeting.  But it is not intended to be the beginning of a long conversation.  It is, instead, a desire to know that the other person is important to you and important to God.  It is an affirmation of faith between two individuals.  Of course, in a congregation as loving as this, people sometimes feel the need to greet as many people as possible.  This may feel like a disruption to the worshipping activity of the morning, but I urge us to remember that we come together to worship together.  Without each other, we do not have a congregation or a community; we would not be the body of Christ but the individual ingredients separate and alone.  It takes the mixture of all of us to make the bread.  I encourage you to be intentional about passing of the peace next time that we do.  Look at the other person fully, make eye contact, and truly see them as a child of God.  You may greet fewer people this way, but you will truly be passing peace.

2.     Worship is Quiet

The passage in Hebrews says to worship the Lord “with reverence and awe.” We often equate reverence with quiet and awe with dumb-struck silence.  One of our passages in next week’s Kid’s Service, however, is the song and dance that Miriam and Moses share after crossing the Red Sea.  There are multiple Psalms about making a joyful, boisterous noise of thanksgiving to the Lord.  Worship can be quiet and contemplative.  Worship can also be loud and celebratory.  Congregations that have troubles with understanding this often exclude children from worship so that they will not ‘interrupt’ or ‘disrupt’ the service.  That does not seem to be an issue with this congregation, and you have certainly welcomed my children with arms wide open.  And I also have to say that you have been very good sports about trying new things in worship with me.

Develop in Me a LongingI ask you, Lord Jesus
to develop in me, your lover,
an immeasurable urge
toward you,
an affection that is unbounded,
a longing that is unrestrained,
a fervor that throws discretion
to the winds!
The more worthwhile our love
for you,
all the more pressing
does it become.
Reason cannot hold it in check,
fear does not make it tremble,
wise judgment
does not temper it.
–Richard Rolle

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” –Proverbs 1:7

Worshipping with reverence and awe comes from something very deep within us – the twin flames of desire and fear.  I imagine this is exactly how Moses felt staring at the burning bush – a desire to know and be known by an intimate and challenging God.  How can a bush burn yet not be consumed?  How can we worship God without being fully lost in God’s spirit?  The deep desire and fear within us is the birth of awe and reverence: the understanding that God is present in a way that we do not/cannot understand.  You can feel this reverence in worship (I hope!), but you can also feel this when you are outside of church.  When you are doing something that you love, when you are talking with someone you love, when you see something good happen in the world – this can be worship just as much as our words and music can be.

3.     Worship is Not Work

Perhaps because we worship on the Sabbath, we sometimes think that worship is not work, that worship is to be restful.  And it certainly is sometimes.  But worship is worth nothing if it does not have the full participation of the congregation.  Worship can be healing and life-altering, but only if you are willing to crack yourself open to God’s spirit … and that is not an action for the faint of heart.

If you had asked me before I came to this church if I would anoint with oil and lay on hands during a service, I would have told you no way.  I am a very practical sort of person, and I have inherited much of my father’s cynicism about the way that the world operates.  But here we are a year later, and I have indeed done such a service and found it to be a great blessing both personally and for my congregation. 

III.           Sabbath Keeping Today

Amazing things happen when you are bold enough (fool-hardy enough?) to claim God’s presence, love, and healing.  It is also somewhat alarming for us staid, sensible Reformed Presbyterians to experience a lot of upheaval in worship, but what I love about the call story of Jeremiah is what I love about worship as well.  God does not accept our human limitations as something that can hold back the work of God.  Worship can be meaningful for introverts and extraverts in different ways.  We can be called to worship in radically different ways within the same congregation. 

“The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote, ‘A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity.’  By that definition, I have a hard time counting many free beings among my acquaintance.  I know people who can do five things at once who are incapable of doing nothing.  I know people who can decide what to do without being able to do less of it.  Since I have been one of these people, I know that saying no is a more difficult spiritual practice than tithing, praying on a stone cold floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row.”[2]

The practice of keeping Sabbath is working to understand and appreciate the gift of our own limitation.  Let us resolve ourselves to make sure we do not limit worship’s opportunities and powers because of our personal fears and misgivings.  Let us practice Sabbath as a congregation and align ourselves each week with God’s rhythms, God’s priorities, and God’s direction.

 God of the unshakable kingdom, shake us up.  Help us to find the heart of worship in our hearts and in the heart of your church.  Help us to remember that the church exists to support, nurture, and teach the faith.  Being the church is a calling – one that this community accepted over 150 years ago.  Give us your words to speak, as you did Jeremiah.  And may our worship be filled with reverence and awe that touches the heart of every person here each and every week.  Amen.

[1] John van de Laar in his lectionary notes at http://sacredise.com/lectionary

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.


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