Worship, wonder and transformation

Sermon for 13 July ’08

Last week, I said:

We are made to relate to God, the great Source of all life and goodness. Sin has spoiled that, but God has acted to restore us.

Worship is the primary way we relate to God: firstly, through gathering to worship with other Christians, publicly and openly; secondly, praying alone or with others in the family or in home groups. It is God who calls us to worship; and when we worship God, we open ourselves to an encounter with God—an encounter that can have, and is meant to have, life-changing consequences.

It’s dangerous to worship the eternal God, because God can step into our lives and change us. Do we come to church with any sense of awe? Any sense that God might transform us?

Annie Dillard, a wonderful American author, once wrote (“An Expedition to the Pole”, in Teaching a Stone to Talk) these words about people like us getting together on a Sunday. She asks:

Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Worship is an encounter with God, and any encounter with God is meant to be life-challenging and life-transforming. Can it be like mixing up a batch of TNT? Where will it end? What will God want to do with us?

There are some classic pictures of worship in the Scriptures. Some are in the Book of Revelation, scenes of awe and wonder where the redeemed in heaven sing songs like this: (ch. 15.3-4)

Great and amazing are your deeds,

Lord God the Almighty!

Just and true are your ways,

King of the nations!

Lord, who will not fear

and glorify your name?

For you alone are holy.

All nations will come
and worship before you,

for your judgements
have been revealed.

Isaiah’s vision of God in the Temple is another classic picture of worship. It’s in the first few verses of Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

We’ll look at this passage some more in the next few weeks. For now, I want to say that the pictures of the people of God at worship that we have in the Scriptures are scenes of wonder and transformation— and yes, confusion. Encountering the living God is not necessarily a comforting experience.

Sometimes, we come to church hoping that God will turn on a new light for us. And nothing happens. Sometimes, we come out of duty, or just to see our friends, and God’s Spirit breaks into our lives. Sometimes, we trudge along for months on end and then suddenly!—we’re set on fire. We have a moment of transformation.

What do we expect here in the Centenary suburbs? It’s a pleasant area, but it ain’t heaven. This is a good church building, but it’s not the great Temple of Jerusalem that Isaiah knew. So, what can we expect? Can we expect to be in awe of the great God? Can we expect our lives to be changed? One thing’s for sure: If we don’t expect these things, we’re in real danger of stopping them happening.

It’s important to expect something to happen when we answer God’s call to gather in worship. It’s necessary, expecting God to work is our part of the deal. We’ve produced that Short Guide for Daily Prayer recently; we’ve been talking about daily prayer, daily worship, so that we can begin to build habits of prayer, habits that form us into people who expect God to work. But I don’t want to sound like it’s all up to us. It’s not.

We come—together—before God—for one reason. That reason is to glorify the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit as a community of God’s people, as a body of Christ, as a fellowship of the Spirit. We come to give God the worship that is our due. That’s it. We don’t come to be entertained (for ‘worshiptainment’!), despite what many churches may offer these days. And we don’t come just to be informed; we come to be transformed.

You see, when we glorify God in our worship, another thing happens. We are formed by the Holy Spirit as a body of Christian people. And the same Spirit transforms us as disciples of Jesus Christ.

We come expecting God to work; we become the Church here today, we glorify God together—and God carries out a great transformation within us. God makes us people of purer faith, wider hope and deeper love.

Can we walk that journey? It’s what God is calling us to, a challenging, transforming life that leads—wherever God takes us.

Annie Dillard was right: We should wear crash helmets in church. The door stewards should issue us life preservers and signal flares, and lash us to our seats. We may find ourselves in deep waters, in uncharted waters, even here in the familiar streets of Centenary!

As the worship of heaven pictured in the Book of Revelation says, God alone is holy, and God’s judgements have been revealed. When we meet with the Lord, we become aware of our sin, as Isaiah did; but We are also aware that God’s judgement is in our favour, it is to set us free, because God’s judgement is already in Christ’s favour. And we belong to Christ.

In the next few weeks, I want to look at the transforming dimensions of worship some more, by looking at what we do Sunday by Sunday—gathering together as Christ people, hearing and responding to God’s Word, celebrating Holy Communion, being sent out into the week as by the power of the Spirit as disciples of Jesus. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are too.

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