worship

Why Stop?

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (NLT)

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.

“On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do.

“Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.”


Is the idea of a Holy Sabbath day even important anymore?

After all, we Christians certainly have shifted the meaning of “Sabbath” a lot, going so far as to change the day. When Moses gave the people of Israel this commandment—the fourth of ten commandments and the last one specifically defining how we are to relate to God—they were thinking of Saturday. With a few exceptions, those of us who call ourselves Christians think of Sunday when we think of the Sabbath.

The reason for the shift in days is obvious. Jesus’ resurrection happened on a Sunday, and as more and more non-Jews came to follow Christ, Sunday became the logical day of worship for us. The Israelites spent the Sabbath day remembering how God saved them from slavery; we remember how Jesus Christ, God among us, saves all of humanity from sin and death.

In recent decades, European and North American Christians have shifted seismically in how serious we are about Sunday as the Sabbath. In my own lifetime lived in the Southeast United States, I have seen Sunday move from being a quiet day when most stores and restaurants were closed to a day when pretty much everything is open, Chick-fil-A and a few other retailers being notable exceptions. Ball teams even hold practices and games on Sunday mornings, something that would have been unthinkable or even unconscionable in the South 30 years ago.

The Sabbath of Others

About ten years ago, I asked a very bright young adult in my congregation why churches have such a hard time getting people under the age of 30 into worship. He looked at me wryly and asked a question:

“What are you going to do after church is over?”

“Well,” I said, “We will probably go out and get some lunch.”

“Who do you think cooked the lunch, cleaned the tables and got the restaurant ready?”

Duh. Of course. Who is most likely to be working on Sunday mornings? Young people just starting out in the labor force.

Those of you who go out to lunch after worship may not like me saying this, but we Christians who care about reaching teenagers and young adults are shooting ourselves in the foot every time we eat out on Sunday. The same principle applies any time we take up an activity that may impact working people’s ability to worship.

We’ve still not answered our first question, however: Is the idea of the Sabbath important? If you take the Bible seriously, it’s hard not to say yes.

S-T-O-P

Through the law, God established some underlying behaviors and principles that simply are good for us—we follow them and prosper in our relationship with God, or we ignore them and slip into confusion and misery.

God’s idea of the Sabbath can be summed up in one short word: “Stop.” I’m not talking about stopping and freezing like a statue. The Sabbath is more of a contemplative stop.

If you’ve ever read any survival books, you may have learned that stop is not just a word, it’s an acronym: S-T-O-P. When lost in the wilderness, this acronym defines a pattern you should follow. First, the “S,” which stands for—you guessed it—stop. Second, you think, going over where you’ve been and what has happened since you began your journey.

Third, you observe: Are you on a trail? Are you near water? Can you hear road sounds? Is night coming soon? What are you carrying?

Fourth, you plan what to do next. In one of my survival books, there’s a picture of a hunter who got lost, panicked and froze to death in the snowy woods. When would-be rescuers found him, he was next to a pile of dry brush, a box of dry matches in his pocket. Obviously, he didn’t S-T-O-P.

God offers us a Sabbath so we don’t go through life running in panic like a lost hunter. We stop to be with him. We think of him in prayer, worship and fellowship. We observe the tools God has given us, in particular his holy word, and where we are in our Christian journey. And then we plan how to move forward.

And yes, as part of our Sabbath, we go to church on Sunday. We S-T-O-P together. After all, there’s far less danger of getting lost as a group. And even if we do find ourselves a little lost, it’s so much easier to get back on the right path as a group.

The Habit of Worship

There is a basic principle regarding worship attendance that has been repeated for years. I cannot find who first came up with it, but after leading churches for 15 years as a pastor, it sounds right to me.

If you miss church three weeks in a row, there’s about an 80 percent chance your worship attendance will become very irregular. To get back to your original attendance pattern, you have to make the decision to show up for worship at least three weeks in a row.

Judging from the book of Hebrews, irregular attendance has long been a problem for Christians. In the tenth chapter, the author writes this:

Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

Ironically, when you miss worship, you’re also missing a lot of the good work that happens on the Sabbath. God may have told us to take the day off, but it doesn’t mean he’s taking the day off.

We meet God in worship to be changed into the holy creation he intended us to be. We meet God at church to be healed spiritually, emotionally and even physically. We meet God on Sunday so the week to come can be lived fully in God’s light, be it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday.

Once we’ve considered the importance of the Sabbath, I suppose we’re left with some additional questions. What happens if I miss the Sunday when God intended everything to change for me, my spouse or my children? What do I lose if I fail to stop on the Sabbath where God waited for me?

We should never let the frenzy of work and play separate us from the gifts God offers us when we stop.

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How to Praise

Just because we’ve finished our series on Revelation doesn’t mean our visions of God must come to an end.

Psalm 97 hearkens to a more primitive time for the Hebrews, when they contended with the notion of other gods around Yahweh and them. And yet, amid this ancient concept, there is a notion of something to come, something that will spread salvation and holiness far and wide, something we experience today.

The vast majority of this Psalm is simply praise in its purest form, a declaration of who God is. The psalm is one in a series declaring God’s kingship. Associated with that declaration are images fitting the ruler over all: dense smoke and fog to conceal his deadly purity, a mighty throne, and fire falling like lightning to consume whoever opposes this great king.

The Psalm calls us to ask ourselves a serious question as we gather in worship. Can we truly say, “The Lord reigns!” It goes on to speak of idols and “ungods,” to quote Robert Alter’s translation. Ungods now would be those things, forces and people other than God who would set themselves up as being of primary importance in our lives. Our idols seldom take the form of statues made of wood or metal anymore, but we have them, just the same.

Also implicit in all of this talk of consuming fire is a call to holiness, to a kind of conformity so unpopular these days, even within the church.  As Christians, we of course like to emphasize God’s love, but in the process it is easy to forget God’s desire for our thoughts and actions to be a miniature reflection of his. We are, after all, made in his image.

We cannot earn salvation or holiness—yes, faith in Christ is what saves us from sin—but as saved people we have to acknowledge that our thoughts and actions often need correcting and shaping. Just because we think it or want it doesn’t make it right.

To quote the German theologian and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

I’ve stood in the spot in Flossenburg, Germany, where the Nazis hung Bonhoeffer for his opposition to the great evil that had consumed both his nation and his church. To actively plot against such evil, knowing the kind of death those actions could bring and did eventually bring, required tremendous grace and discipleship.

Thank God for the Bible, where God’s will is revealed through study! Thank God for the Holy Spirit whispering to us in confirmation of what is written in the Bible, strengthening us to contend for the truth!

Let me suggest a question to ask ourselves before we pass through the door separating the narthex from our dedicated worship space. “What in my life is separating me from God?” If we find we have a specific answer, it does not mean we have to turn and leave. After all, grace calls to us.

It does mean we need to put that sin aside in our hearts right there. Then enter and acknowledge who God is, praise him mightily, and leave ready to do whatever else is necessary to eliminate this idol. “O you who love the Lord, hate evil!”

Much comes from such introspection and confession. We are made ready for all sorts of changes, including new life with God. “Light is sown for the righteous,” we are told.

We can hear that verse in so many ways. Christ’s burial was light being sown, and on Easter Sunday that light burst forth. Eternal life was once again available to even the worst of sinners. Light truly does overcome darkness.

And light was not merely sown for a moment in time, but in all time, including our time. We’ll talk more next week—Pentecost Sunday—about the direct experience of God, and what is sown in us when we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s influence.

In the meantime, let us continue to praise God, in the process growing into the people and church God would have us be. The Lord reigns!


The featured image is Hai Knafo’s “Starlight Sower,” 2013, inspired by Psalm 97:11. Made available for general use under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Worshiping What We See

When I introduced this series on Revelation last week, I told you there would be symbolism. Lots of it.

This week, we’ve skipped past the letters to the churches—they in and of themselves are worthy of a sermon series—and returned to scenes of heavenly worship. Revelation 5:11-14 concludes some of the most powerful worship imagery you will find anywhere in the Bible.

In chapter 4, John begins to paint this astonishing, brightly colored portrait of worship with a view of God, who is the audience for all worship. Well, John attempts to give us a view of God, anyway. He is like a man who has stared into the sun and then, fully dazzled, tried to describe what he saw. His symbols reflect the nature of God, holy and burning inside against sin, but surrounded by an emerald rainbow. This last touch brings what New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger once described as a soothing sense of mercy to the overall impression.

Remember this one important fact about biblical symbolism: Whatever you “see” barely begins to describe the reality of what is most true and real. When God burns against sin, it is a fire we can never come close to imaging; when God offers mercy, it abounds in ways beyond our comprehension.

There are other mysteries, easier to gaze upon but nearly as perplexing. It is debatable who the 24 elders surrounding the throne represent. Perhaps they are 12 patriarchs from the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the New Testament, standing as witnesses to the covenants God has used to bring sinful humanity home. What is important is that even though they have crowns given to them by God, they cast them down in worship, remembering the source of all goodness and power.

And then there are those peculiar beings called the “living creatures,” six-winged and full of eyes. They are your eternal choir directors, leading worship in heaven. No need for preachers here; what preachers declare on earth will be fully evident in heaven. I guess I’ll have to learn to sing.

Perhaps strangest image is the one called “The Lion of Judah.” Surprisingly, he appears as a seven-horned, seven-eyed lamb with all the markings of having been slaughtered. This, of course, is another image of the Christ, very different from the image we had last week. His description initially makes him seem weak, but he is the only being in heaven able to open a scroll with seven seals.

All these “sevens” are marks of God’s holy completeness—remember, numbers in Revelation always have a symbolic meaning. The scroll itself is a symbol of God’s will fully expressed. Only Jesus could unroll it. That is, only Jesus could grasp the full intent of God’s will. Only Jesus could go to the cross and carry out a plan of sacrifice, a sacrifice good enough for all people, giving those who believe eternal life.

We also see something particularly glorious and meaningful to us now, right now, as we worship where we are. For we participate in this vision, too. We are told that in the heavenly worship, there are bowls of incense, which represent the prayers of believers worshiping on earth.

I find that image particularly comforting. Think about it: All your fears, all your worries, all your desires, all your pleadings, all your cries for justice, all your pleas for mercy and forgiveness—all of them make their way into worship in heaven. Heaven and earth come together in worship.

I don’t know how you each individually feel about worship. Some of you look forward to it, craving it each week. Some of you, I suspect, find elements of it or perhaps all of it boring. I’m sorry I cannot bring you the creatures and the millions of angels and the slain lamb in full each Sunday. But I do pray you can close your eyes now and then, open your hearts, and sense something greater than the world we plod through each day.

This portion of Revelation is a call to us to fully embrace what’s going on in any kind of worship. We participate in a greater glorification of God, and we prepare ourselves for the day when we are in a doubtless, overwhelming kind of worship, the kind of experience we will never want to leave.

I pray we walk away from this earthly worship with a sense of hope and of a great victory still to come.


The featured image is “Homage to the Lamb,” a folio from the Bamberg Apocalypse, c. 1000.

 

Worshiping with Abandon

John 12:1-8

It’s not difficult to discern that Mary—the sister-of-Lazarus Mary—did something strange and even shocking when she used a small fortune in perfume on Jesus’ feet.

If you see Christianity as a straitlaced, rules-oriented faith, and you would rather hold on to that view, you might want to avoid a story like this one altogether. The characters in this story had been swelling with emotion for days, and Mary finally exploded in an act of love that defied logic and propriety. The only speaker of earthly logic in this story was Judas, who was a few days from falling under Satan’s complete control, ultimately participating in Jesus’ death.

Siblings and Friends

Bible readers will remember Mary and her siblings Martha and Lazarus. There is a story in the tenth chapter of Luke where Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as Martha worked in the kitchen. When Martha complained, Jesus said Mary had “the better part.”

John tells us all three were Jesus’ friends. It’s likely their home in Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, was where Jesus stayed when he drew near to the heart of Judaism. They also may have been wealthy, and because the sisters are described as living with their brother, they either were young and unmarried or widowed.

The described volume of nard, probably spikenard from India, was worth about a year’s wages to a common laborer. It is unclear why Mary had it. In a world without secure bank accounts, it might have been a compact way for her to maintain some financial security. She may have intended it for her wedding night—the Song of Solomon demonstrates that nard’s warm, musky, intense smell was associated with sex. And, as is clear from the story, it could be used to prepare a loved one for burial.

For whatever reason Mary owned it, the nard represented her concern for the future.

Statements of Faith

I mentioned before that these characters, particularly Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, were likely overwhelmed with emotion. Just a few days earlier, Jesus had performed his most astounding miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

As you may recall, Jesus deliberately dallied in going to his friends despite knowing Lazarus was sick, telling his disciples this event was occurring so “the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb four days. In the exchange that occurred between the sisters and Jesus, one thing becomes clear. They believed in Jesus fully. Martha went so far as to call Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus, moved by Mary and Martha’s pain, then proved he has power over life and death by calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

We need to keep all that context in mind to understand Mary’s seemingly wasteful activity. She was riding an emotional epiphany—she and Martha had a better understanding than anyone in the room what it means to be friends with someone who has power over life and death. Their beloved brother had been restored. They had experienced the pain and stench of death, and Jesus had replaced all of that with hope and joy.

An Act of Worship

When Mary poured out that overpowering nard and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, Mary worshiped. There really is no other word adequate to describe her actions. And in her actions, we are reminded why we worship.

Yes, she was thankful, enormously thankful. Yes, she was filled with a sense of love for Jesus. She may have even hoped to love him as his wife—the act of letting down her hair to wipe his feet was undeniably sensual.

There’s more going on here, however. I think this woman who had sat at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching knew in some way that salvation for everyone—life from death—was in the works. And knowing this, Mary dropped to her knees before our savior and worshiped, abandoning any concerns or cares she had for this world. She poured out her future on Jesus’ feet, knowing the work he would do as Messiah would provide any future that really mattered.

As we draw near to Holy Week, to Good Friday and Easter, can we learn to abandon ourselves so? Can we learn to trust so completely?

Those who do so will find true worship, and the scent of eternity will be on them and all who gather around.

A version of this article first ran here March 19, 2013.

The Cure for Doubt

John 20:19-31

Nonbelievers aren’t the only ones with doubts. People who call themselves Christian sometimes have doubts about Jesus, the resurrection, and how it all applies to them.

It’s not surprising we can struggle in such ways. The Easter story lives on the edge of fantasy—a man most undeniably dead leaves his rock-sealed, heavily guarded tomb and appears to hundreds in an indestructible state. Even more remarkable, we are to understand this event as a mere beginning, a foreshadowing of a radical change in creation that eventually will result in our own transforming, death-defeating resurrections.

Our doubts arise for a simple reason. Despite the promises of the Easter story, the world keeps smacking us around. We lose people close to us. Worry about the immediate future overwhelms us. Sometimes we simply experience intellectual doubt, our rational minds telling us to stick to what we can see as the basis for reality.

In today’s resurrection story in the Gospel of John, we find the disciple Thomas very doubtful. Thomas had seen the man he called teacher, Lord and master crushed by the power of the world, and he quickly fell into a rigid cynicism. Even when his fellow disciples excitedly told him they had seen the risen Christ, he was not impressed.

Let me see the hands, he said. Let me stick my fingers in that horrible wound in his side. I wonder if we’re supposed to read his words with a tone of bitter sarcasm. “Look, they riddled him with holes, including a spear-sized one running through his lungs and heart,” I hear him saying in the deepest, darkest corner of his soul. “You really think he is walking around?”

Thomas had to wait a week, but Jesus accommodated his request, appearing for his wavering disciple’s sake. Touch the wounds, Jesus said. Believe.

We see Thomas’ doubt cured. I believe that in this story we also can find a cure for our own doubts.

Even if we don’t see Christ physically present, our doubts can be relieved by an inner experience of God. That idea certainly fits with today’s story. Even the disciples needed to experience something more than the physical Christ to grasp the truth of Christ’s resurrection. This is why we have this account of Christ breathing on them, providing an early Pentecost, an experience of the Holy Spirit to sustain them.

The risen Christ breathes on us, too. We simply have to put aside doubt long enough to open ourselves to a similar encounter with the Holy Spirit, that aspect of God resident in Christ.

I am perplexed by how resistant people are to the simple acts that trigger the experience, even people who have long called themselves Christians. When I spend time with Christians struggling with doubt, I find they have a basic problem: They’ve forgotten how to spend time with the one who gave them their first taste of eternal life.

We encounter God most directly by spending time in prayer, learning the stories of the Bible, and worshiping so the Holy Spirit can work in us and through us as a group.

I know. I sometimes sound like a broken record with all this talk about praying, reading our Bibles and going to church. It is the Methodist in me. We suffer needlessly when we fail to methodically use the means God has given us to draw near him. When we do draw near, we allow God’s Spirit to whisper to our spirits.

Those who spend significant time in such activities can testify that the ensuing experience is as good as seeing Jesus in the room. Christ breathes on us, and doubt flees.

Forgetting Easter

Several years ago, back when I could easily call myself a young adult, I awoke after sleeping in one Sunday morning and went about my usual routine. I ate a late breakfast, watched television on the couch, and wandered through the day carrying out some other activities that must have been fairly mindless, as I cannot remember them now. It was only later in the day, prompted by an item on the evening news, that I discovered something: It was Easter Sunday.

Realizing I had let Easter go by almost unnoticed left me more aware than ever of a strange, empty feeling that had been within me for awhile. Partly, I was nostalgic, missing the childhood connection to the day. My parents had always made sure my little brother and I went through the rituals that made Easter fun—the coloring of the eggs, the basket with the hollow chocolate bunny (one year the basket itself was made out of candy), the afternoon trip to Granny’s house. In my memories, Easter always happened on a warm spring day, although that couldn’t have been true every Easter.

I also sensed, however, that my emptiness really had little to do with my need for a chocolate bunny. There were other pictures in my mind, too, glowing pictures full of stained glass and candles, reminders of the mystery of Easter Sundays in church. Smells and sounds from worship remained alive in my mind, too, and they all came back to me at once.

"Resurrection of Christ," Michelangelo, c. 1532

“Resurrection of Christ,” Michelangelo, c. 1532

Those images, sounds and smells existed to declare a powerful message: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It’s a truth we should hear declared every Sunday, and it should be declared in an especially powerful way on Easter Sunday.

Yes, even for adults, the concept of the resurrection is a mystery. As a pastor, I try to explain as best I can that the resurrection is evidence sin and death have been defeated, and we have nothing to fear. But even the greatest theologians cannot fully explain the magnitude of what God is doing through the resurrection.

That’s a good thing; the mystery surrounding Christianity is evidence God, not humanity, is at work. We need to learn to revel in the fact God has done something inconceivably great and immeasurably loving through Jesus. Hey, that’s why we need the light, the smells and the music in worship. We’re trying to grasp a truth beyond words.

I say all of that to say this: Easter Sunday is April 5 this year. If you want to worship by coming to Luminary United Methodist Church, we’ll have a sunrise service outside (weather permitting) at 7 a.m., and worship services in the sanctuary at 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. No special clothes or fancy hats required—just come expecting God to fill the emptiness.

Grateful to the End

Luke 17:11-19

The lack of gratitude shown by nine of ten lepers remains astonishing. As I’m sure many of you know, lepers were complete outcasts, the walking dead of their day.

They could have been suffering any of a host of skin diseases. There was the modern-day leprosy, now known more formally as Hansen’s Disease, a bacterial infection that in Jesus’ day led to large lesions all over the body. Other skin diseases like eczema or psoriasis could get you labeled a leper, too.

And once you were diagnosed as such, you were to keep your distance from everyone else. The Mosaic law didn’t prescribe a precise distance, but some rabbis thought about 50 yards, half the length of a football field, to be acceptable.

That’s why lepers lived and traveled in groups. The only meaningful human contact they could have was with each other.

As we’ve seen in our gospel story today, one of these groups encountered Jesus, humbly cried out for healing, and received the sought blessing. The healing happened as the lepers made their way toward the priests who would declare them clean. But only one, seeing the healing, returned to thank his healer. Oddly enough, he was a Samaritan, a man considered by the Jews to be unholy simply because of his birth.

And just in case we wonder whether God really expects gratitude from us, God Among Us, God in Flesh, Jesus, commented rather directly on the situation. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Consider the healing they had received. It was more than just physical. They were restored in many other ways.

They were restored to family. Some of them may not have been able to draw closer than shouting distance to family for years. The close embrace of spouse and children likely was returned to at least some of these lepers. For the ones who did not have such relationships before going into exile, the promise of such happiness now was in their futures.

They were restored to community and all its benefits, including the ability to worship with others, earn a living, and benefit from the protection offered by the larger group.

They also were affirmed in a kind of righteousness many people would have assumed they lacked. One of the subtleties of the laws surrounding leprosy was that the isolation imposed on lepers had little to do with community fear of cross-infection. There’s a lot of evidence lepers weren’t always forced out right away—for example, people suspected of having leprosy might have been allowed to complete a scheduled marriage or stick around for the holy days before being formally inspected by a priest and declared unclean.

In other words, in Jesus’ non-scientific time, skin diseases were seen as being a direct result of sin. The sinner had been marked. If you were healed, you were seen as being back in God’s good graces.

Healing from such an affliction was a big deal, a life-changing event, one worthy of deep gratitude. In the grand sweep of Jesus’ ministry, though, the healing of the lepers was a relatively minor miracle.

We have all been healed in far greater ways. It is a healing offered to everyone and accepted by many. Here’s a classic Bible verse every Christian should know: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

Left to steep in sin, we would rot away to nothing, vanishing from the sight of God. Whatever hell is like, it is nothing but despair. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, however, we are rescued and restored.

From the moment we turn to Jesus and cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” we see our healing begin. As we walk through life, the lesions of eternal death fade. Even though we may face a temporal death, we know we are walking toward eternal life.

And yet, do we return to give appropriate thanks? Do we rush to the places where God expects to find us?

Are we in worship as often as we can? Surely an eternal healing requires a regular routine of thanks and praise.

Do we thank God by responding fully to the calls he has placed on us, calls to discipleship and service to others? Surely the gift of eternal life calls for extreme dedication of this worldly life to God’s mission.

It is easy to take our healing and simply walk back to life as it was before. It is easy, but it is not right.