Text: Isaiah 6:1-13 W 5th Sunday after Epiphany
The Word on Worship
In the name of him before whom every knee shall bend, every head shall bow, and every tongue shall confess as Lord, dear friends in Christ: Today I’d like to talk about the worship of one true God: what it is we do when we gather in his name, why we do it, and how we should understand and approach it. And I think it’s important that we do this because especially in our times there’re a lot of strange ideas floating around out there that well intentioned but misguided people seem determined to want to foist upon the congregations of Christ’s holy Church.
Let me give you a couple examples of what I’m taking about. Perhaps the most widespread and potentially
destructive idea comes from what is known as the Church Growth Movement. Now, don’t get me wrong, growing churches is
a good thing; but part of the basic philosophy of the proponents of this modern
movement is that the Sunday worship service held in any church really should
not be so much for the feeding and strengthening of the members of the
congregation. They’re already Christians
is the idea, so we don’t have to worry about them. Instead the worship service should be seen as
an outreach tool for attracting new members to the church – especially people
who aren’t Christians. And with this in
mind, every effort is made to make the Sunday gathering open, inviting,
non-threatening, and never very deep or thought provoking. You wouldn’t want to talk to people about their
sin because that would make them feel bad, nor would you want to challenge
anyone to think about any of the points of Christian doctrine that are
difficult to understand like the Trinity of God or how it is that God became
man in the person of Jesus Christ. Such
things would likely scare visitors off.
So instead, we’ve got to make it light, easy-going, and kind of
fun. And to be more specific, we need to
target particular segments of society by appealing to their cultural preferences. If we want young people in the church, then
we need to create the atmosphere of a rock concert ‘cause kids like that sort
of stuff. If the demographic we’re
targeting is mostly rural folk, well then we’ll put a country western spin on
everything. Depending on where your
church is, you can do the same for bikers, Goths, seniors, yuppies, Gen-Xers,
or whatever high density racial minority happens to be in your area. The whole idea is to tailor the worship
service to the felt needs and special interests of the segment of the culture that
you want to pack the pews with. Get them
in the door, make them comfortable, and then sort of slip them Christianity in
small doses over a long period of time. That’s the idea anyway; unfortunately, it
doesn’t work very well. Oh sure, you get
great initial success.
Well, recognizing the limitations of that approach, some churches try to achieve success by maximizing the participation of the members. The thought is that the first method fails to keep up people’s interest level because they’re too passive. They’re merely being entertained. Ah, but if we can get them involved in doing something in the worship service – especially something that puts the spotlight on them for a few moments, they’ll be more invested in what’s going on and therefore more likely to stick around. So what happens now is that worship each week becomes sort of a congregational talent show. We’ll have five or six different bands and choirs, skits that people can perform in, we’ll take turns doing the readings and maybe even the sermon. If nothing else we’ll have you hand out bulletins. We’ve got to get you involved somehow—more than that, we’ll name you the minister of something so that you’ll feel more important: so now we’ve got the minister of children’s puppet shows, the minister of coffee distribution, and he minister of offering collection. Oh, and we’ll have a time for testimonials each week, when anyone can come up front and talk about what Jesus is doing in their life: how they used to be such terrible sinners and how they are so much better now that they know the Lord, or how the Lord has blessed them in recent weeks with good health, a new car, or a promotion at work. Think of it as show and tell for Christian adults: “Look what God did for me. See how much he loves me?” This whole idea comes to what is probably its highest (read that worst) expression in some Pentecostal circles when there is a segment of the worship service set aside for everyone to showcase their spiritual gifts by speaking in tongues all at the same time. It’s a way to show off how much of the Holy Spirit they have. The louder and more ecstatic their speech, the more violently they shake or roll around on the floor, the more “Spirit filled” and therefore better a Christian they must be. And no, though I really wish I were, I am not making this up.
There are any number of other misguided approaches to worship I could name; but what they share in common with the ones I’ve already mentioned is that they all present worship as something that belongs to us. The overarching thought is that we, the people or the pastors of the Church, are the principle actors in worship; and therefore we have the right to make it our plaything and manipulate and shape it however we want to please ourselves, and furthermore that we can use worship to accomplish whatever purposes we desire. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth. The Church does not belong to us. It belongs to the Lord Jesus who bought it with his own blood. Likewise the worship of the Church is not ours. It too belongs to the Lord. And in his Word he has quite a bit to say about it. There are whole chapters dedicated to the Lord’s very clear and specific prescriptions for the worship of his people. Even so, if we could distill it all down to a single word – one word that would describe the Lord, the proper worship of his Church, and the way we should think about and approach it – that word would be “holy”. God is holy. His Church is holy. And therefore the worship of God that takes place in his Church should be holy.
And having stated it that way, I don’t think anyone would dispute it; the trouble is that word holy is usually misunderstood. Most often people take it as a synonym for words like sinless or pure. And I suppose there’s some connection there; but the primary meaning of holy as it’s used in the Scriptures is not so much sinless as it is “set apart”, “distinct”, or “separate”. When the seraphim, the glowing, fiery angels, hovering around the throne of God declare that he is “Holy, holy, holy” they don’t mean that he hasn’t done anything wrong—that pretty much goes without saying. Besides, it wouldn’t be very appropriate. It would be sort of like me greeting people after worship and reminding everyone that I’m not a psychotic axe murderer. “Hi. Good to see you. Did I tell you that I haven’t chopped anyone to bits lately?” Though true, it just wouldn’t be right (unless, of course, I was trying to hide something. Muh-ha-ha-ha!). No, seriously, when the angels say that God is holy they mean that he is completely separate from the created order, that he is altogether “other than” anything we can comprehend or imagine. By crying out that God is holy they are saying that he is the transcendent One who dwells in the light unapproachable so far beyond our reason and highest aspirations that it impossible for us even to talk about him properly. Lacking even the concepts much less the vocabulary to describe him, we have always to resort to metaphors or figures of speech – and even then everything we might say falls short.
But now here’s the amazing thing: this holy God, so high above us in being and majesty and glory, condescends to make himself available to us. He comes down to our level of reality, entering into our time and space and limited range of perception in order to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with us. It’s really an incredible thought that this Being as above and beyond us as God is would want to do such a thing. And that was true even before the fall of man into sin. How much more so now that we are in a state of rebellion against him? It beggars the imagination. If it were not true, if God in his Word did not reveal it to be so, no one could have conceived of such a far fetched idea.
But it is true. And with this as our foundation toward
understanding God’s holiness, we can begin to understand the worship of the
Lord as he directed it to be done in Old Testament times. Central to this worship was the
Now, all of this was meant to communicate
two important ideas: first, that the
holy God was truly present with his people; that is God, who is wholly other
and completely separate and beyond nevertheless made his presence with his
people manifest. He was truly a God with us – and not just in that fuzzy “God
is everywhere” sense. Sure, God is
everywhere; but you can’t get a hold on such a God. The people of
The way this seemingly impossible tension was maintained and to a certain extent resolved was through sacrifice. In his mercy God directed that animal sacrifices be offered up before him. The idea was that God would allow his people to confess their sins and thereby transfer their guilt to the animals they brought to him for sacrifice. The animals would then stand in as substitutes and bear the punishment of death that God demands from the soul that sins. By this gracious arrangement the Law of God could be satisfied and God himself could be present in the midst of his people who, for the sake of those animals that died, he would declare to be without sin. And so what’s vitally important to see here is that the sacrifices were the principle acts of worship and that they were for the benefit of the people. They were what made it possible to maintain the otherwise impossible condition of the holy God living on earth with sinful people.
at least was the idea. Unfortunately
it’s an idea that people have a hard time dealing with. Sure, the initial impact is tremendous. The very idea that God the King of the
universe would make it possible for sinners like us to come before him, and that
he actually wants to treat us as his own beloved children … it’s too much to
think about. Words just fail us. But in time, as with all things, the wonder
wears off after a while. People begin to
take it for granted. And because
sacrifices were awfully easy to do – I mean I’m not dying here, some stupid
animal is – it soon happens that people begin to think of their sins as no big
deal: oh well, just kill another goat
and be done with it. And because God was
sort of out of sight behind that curtain, it didn’t take long for the miracle of
his presence to fade into the backs of people’s consciousness. It was one of those out of sight, out of mind
situations. That’s what was happening in
Isaiah’s day. People were forgetting
about the holy presence of God in their midst.
They were becoming casual about their worship. They began to think of their sacrifices as
favors they were doing for God, instead of the other way around. And since they were doing things for God now,
they thought of more things they could be doing – which oddly enough is the way
pagans think. Pagan worship is all about
what we do for the gods to make them happy.
The worship of
It’s against this backdrop that the
prophet Isaiah is given the vision described in today’s Old Testament lesson. While everyone else was doing what they had
thought up to please God, the prophet was blessed to see what no one else could—the
truth that they had blinded themselves to:
the reality of God’s holy presence in the
All of this fills Isaiah with an overwhelming sense of terror. He feels as if he’s trespassing – that he doesn’t belong here, and that for this violation of God’s holiness he’s about to be thrust into the deepest pit of hell where he knows he belongs. But that’s not what happens. Instead one of the angels flies to the altar and takes from it a glowing coal with a pair of tongs. He flies to Isaiah, touches it to his lips, and proclaims God’s Words of grace and absolution: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
My friends, that is what worship is all about. It’s about the holy presence of God making his people holy by touching them with something that takes away their sins. And there is only one thing that can do that: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ who died on the cross to atone for the sins of the world. In Old Testament times it was pictured by animal sacrifices. In Isaiah’s vision it was portrayed as a burning coal. In both cases God used the image to declare the truth about what he was going to do for his people through his Son. And his people, hearing the declaration of God’s forgiveness and believing that Word, received Christ and his sacrifice. He touched them and took away their sins. In the same way we worship by confessing our sins and receiving to ourselves Christ’s sacrifice through his Word and Sacraments. What they looked forward to, we look back upon. But in both cases the holy God who is truly present makes us holy by touching us with Christ and his saving work on the cross.
And of course we no longer need a
Soli Deo Gloria!