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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through Worship (Psalm 150, Acts 2:42-47)

Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary!
    Praise God in his fortress, the sky!
Praise God in his mighty acts!
    Praise God as suits his incredible greatness!
Praise God with the blast of the ram’s horn!
    Praise God with lute and lyre!
Praise God with drum and dance!
    Praise God with strings and pipe!
Praise God with loud cymbals!
    Praise God with clashing cymbals!
Let every living thing praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!


42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.


Over the last several weeks, we’ve been in a series of messages looking at the not-so-obvious ways we hear from God.  We begin the premise that God is still speaking, right now, to ordinary people, like us, but that our ears and hearts need to be tuned in so we don’t miss out on hearing from God. 


Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen how God speaks to us in silence, through other people, through dreams, through donkeys, and through wrestling.  If you’ve missed those messages and want to hear more in detail, we have video of all our previous sermons on the church’s website.


Today, we’re wrapping up the series by exploring how we can hear from God through worship.  Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought you said we were looking at the not-so-obvious places we hear from God, and now you’re ready to talk about hearing from God in worship.  Shouldn’t worship be one of the obvious places?”


It should.  But often it’s not.  I say that because what I’ve observed is that much of what we focus on in worship itself and in our conversations about worship are much more about us than about God.


I’m keeping it real simple and straight-forward today.  Worship is about God.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is not about you.  Worship is about God.


In fact, repeat that after me:

·        Worship is about God.

·        Worship is not about me.

·        Worship is not about you.

·        Worship is about God.


If you remember nothing else from today’s message than that worship is about God, then it will have been a good day!


That’s hard to remember, because so much of what we talk about in relation to worship has to do with our tastes, our preferences.  We come to worship with expectations about what we want to hear, see, and experience.  What is the right way to worship?  The right words?  The right songs?  The right instruments?  The right time?  Guitars or organ?  Choir or band?


Personal tastes and preferences are not a bad thing, so long as they are not the main thing.  We, or more to the point, me is not the main thing in worship; God is.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is not about you.  Worship is about God.


If you’ve followed the worship wars that characterized much of American Christianity over the last 30 years or so, you’ll notice that sort of heart was sorely lacking from the debates.  We think of these divisions as being primarily about traditional worship vs. contemporary, but the issues are bigger than that.  In reality, Christians have been bickering with each other about worship since the very beginning, and we forget that many things we take for granted were divisive and controversial in their day, and many of the hallmarks of what we consider “traditional” were cutting-edge contemporary when they were introduced.


Things like air-conditioning in churches across the South, evidence that we were getting too soft and worldly.  Hymns were controversial, people finding their tunes to be vulgar and more appropriate to the tavern than to the church.  Services being conducted in the native language rather than Latin was a sore spot for many.  Choirs were too showy.  The organ was considered more appropriate for carnivals and street fairs, stained glass was too decadent, and even having seats in the worship space – be they chairs or pews – were incredibly controversial to people who wanted to preserve the tradition of standing through three-hour Latin masses with no instruments, the Psalms only chanted and no hymns sung, in dark, gloomy sanctuaries, crowded in summer heat pressed up against strangers who only bathed once a year whether they needed to or not.


Things we take for granted were controversial enough in their own day.


There were fights – battles in the worship wars – over each one of these innovations.  We can look back on these things and think to ourselves, “How silly,” but at the same time, I suspect Christians in 100 or 500 years will look back on us and our fights between contemporary and traditional forms of worship – which will all be traditional, by then – and think the same thing about us.


Where we make worship about us instead of about God is when we allow our individual tastes and preferences to take priority over God.  We worship the instrument, the style, the format, or whatever else instead of worshipping God with and through those things.  That is just one more way we make worship about us instead of God.


It’s silly and sad and destructive to see people dividing churches over personal preferences, and choosing sides based on matters of style, fighting against each other and failing to realize, in the grand scheme of things, that we’re all on the same team.


Worship invites us to put aside our preferences and consider God’s preferences.  The most important instrument in the worship of God is a heart tuned for praise.  A heart more oriented toward pleasing God than pleasing self.


The Psalm we read a few minutes ago, Psalm 150, is a classic psalm of praise, a blueprint for worship, if you will.  Let everything worship God.  In the Hebrew, it is not so much granting permission for everything to praise and worship God so much as issuing an imperative.  “All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him” – or to employ local idiom, “Worship, y’all.”  It is the final psalm, an exclamation point of praise at the end of the Bible’s hymn book, one thunderous Doxology that wraps up the whole thing.


That the Psalms end with praise is a theologically significant point – a solid reminder that whatever else we go through in life – the ups and downs, the joy and tears, the dancing and mourning, the lamenting and loneliness, the thrill of victories and the agonies of defeat – all of it, in God’s time and according to God’s purpose, wraps itself up in praise and worship.


Now, it takes 150 psalms to get there.  We don’t get there because we worshipped in the right way.  If you’ll notice the details in Psalm 150, it describes worship that transcends the divisions of style and preference that so often characterize our worship debates.  God could care less about how we worship, so long as God remains the singular focus of our worship.  Indeed, authentic worship includes the blast of the trumpet.  It includes the lute and lyre – that’s a guitar and a harp.  It includes drum and dance – not the devil’s work, folks, but part of God’s orchestra.  It includes strings and pipes – cello and organ, maybe?  Authentic worship includes all things that breathe praising God in their own unique and beautiful way, coming together into a chaotic cacophony of praise that is bigger than a style, bigger than a preference, bigger than individual taste – friends, bigger than you or me.


One way to tell if we’re doing that is to check our pronouns when we talk about worship.  See if you use a lot of “I” statements – “I like,” “I prefer,” “I want” – when we do that, we may as well be singing, “Me, me, me,” and folks, “Me, me, me” is hardly an appropriate warm-up for the worship of God.  Worship is not about you.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is about God.


The life of faith must be bigger than our differences of opinion and preferences and matters of personal style.  God’s desire for the Christian community is one of unity in the Spirit – Jesus prayed as much in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night in which he gave himself for us, as recorded in John 17, and we see a glimpse of that community in the 2nd chapter of Acts.


Devotion to the apostles’ teaching, prayers, meals shared, fellowship built.  A sense of awe, a sense of unity and purpose, connections across lines of personal property and individual ownership.  A community marked by simplicity and generosity, joy and gladness, love and grace that was so tangible it drew people in each and every day – and it lasted exactly five verses.


Unity in the body of Christ is hard work, but friends, it is essential work.  We are all strong-willed, opinionated people with our own preferences, tastes, and styles.  But in the body of Christ, we must be vigilant to keep the me out of we, and if we manage to do that, to keep it from becoming us vs. them, for we are all on the same team.  It’s not about you.  It’s not about me.  It’s not about us.  It’s not about them.  It’s about God.


Worship is the first and last place we discover that.  Now, yes, we have a vitally-important role to play in worship.  We offer our best to God in worship.  We sing.  We pray.  We listen.  We build up.  We encourage.  We inspire.  We challenge. But anything we do is in response to God.  Worship is first a gift from God, and then quickly turns into a response of praise back toward God.


We can make worship about all sorts of things, but to what end?


I think of the lady who got up and walked out when the youth praise team led us one Sunday morning.  When I called her later in the week to ask about it, she fumed about the guitars and said, “I come to church to hear pure music,” which, when I pressed her on what that meant, was apparently anything written between 1700 and 1850 by a white, European man, and played on the organ.


I couldn’t help but wonder how her life might have been different if she had come to church to worship rather than to hear “pure music.”  She’s gone on to her reward, now, and I wonder how the music in heaven has since expanded her understanding of what is appropriate in worship.


I think of the couple who sat about halfway back on my right side.  Every Sunday, she talked, loudly, through the entire service, when she wasn’t looking around to see who was there and make sure they saw her, or working on her to-do list for the coming week.  Her husband would return to his seat from his ushering duties, sit down in the pew, and turn off his hearing aid just before the sermon began.


I couldn’t help but wonder how their lives might have been different if they had come to worship with the expectation that God might have something to say to them, that God might speak to them, somehow, through what happened in worship.  What was even sadder was that they had no sense of expectation that God might have something to say to anyone else sitting near them, either, based on the constant distraction they provided.  Sadder still, no one in that church loved them enough to tap them on the shoulder and simply say, “Shhhh.  There’s a worship service going on right now.  Pay attention, God might have something God wants to say to you.”


These instances beg the question from each of us, “Why are you here?  What do you expect to happen in worship?  What are you looking for?  What do you hope will take place?”


I’m a firm believer that our expectations set the stage for what we experience.  The invitation today is fairly straight-forward.  Today, I invite you to step into worship with a sense of expectation that you are entering into an encounter with God.  Every time you worship, you are expecting to meet with God, to hear from God, to offer your best back to God, and to be changed in the process.


Today, I invite you to never again approach worship as a critic, or a consumer, or a connoisseur.   Do you see how much more likely it is that we will hear from God in worship when we lay those other expectations aside?  How much more likely that we will encounter God in worship when we expect to do so?  How much more likely that we will hear from God about what God wants, when we’ve stopped obsessing over what we want?


Thank God, God is bigger than any of our personal preferences.  Our worship of God needs to be, as well.  Regardless of the format, the style, the instruments, the music, worship is about God.  When we stop focusing on those other issues, we can experience worship for what it is and was always meant to be.


Today, I simply invite you to remember that worship is not about you.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is about God.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Say What? Series: Wreslting with Hearing from God (Genesis 32:24-31)

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."

Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.


Can you think of a turning point in your life?  Some moment, or experience, or series of events that altered the course of your life in a measurable and noticeable way?  Perhaps it was a circumstance or a relationship, some risk you took or pivotal decision you made.  Once you were headed down this road, and then something happened, and your course was changed?


Our lives are full of turning points.  Indeed, most of us can look back at the course of our lives and realize, probably not only one, but several places where some experience caused us to change course.  The older you are, the likelier it is that you can see several back there behind you.  And that’s the thing about turning points – they are best recognized in hindsight.  Rarely, at the time, do we recognize that we are at some major crossroads.  A turning point does not announce itself ahead of time – “Warning: Turning point ahead.”  Only after we’ve gone through it do we begin to recognize it for what it was.


Today’s Scripture records a turning point in the life of Jacob.  From the day of his birth, he was grabbing and scrambling – his name literally means, “cheat, trickster.”  Jacob is always playing the angles and calculating the odds to outsmart and outmaneuver his slightly-older brother Esau – indeed, cutting a deal to swindle him out of his rightful inheritance – then later jockeying for economic advantage with his equally devious father-in-law, Laban. Jacob is one who’s always looking out for number one, cheating and swindling everyone he meets to his own advantage.  But – as is always the case – the day of reckoning was coming. After long absence, Jacob is returning home, preparing to face his estranged brother Esau, whom he had defrauded. And it is under these circumstances that he meets God.


God does not come to him as some sweet, forgiving presence. Rather, under the cloak of darkness, God comes as a mysterious adversary, appearing from nowhere to accost Jacob in a wrestling match. The struggle is lengthy and inconclusive, but Jacob hangs on for dear life, refuses to let go without receiving a blessing. And the blessing he receives includes a new name: Israel – the one who strives, who grapples, who wrestles, with God.


I wrestled with this sermon all week.  No, the irony is not lost on me that I wrestled with a sermon about Jacob wrestling with God.  I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about wrestling.  Upon meeting me, more than one person has asked if I played sports in school, which I did, but many times they size me up and figure I must have played defensive back or been on the wrestling team, which, no – I was on the golf team.


I don’t know a lot about wrestling, other than what I’ve seen on tv, but I know enough to know that whatever wrestling actually is, it probably isn’t that.  Growing up, I had several friends who were into WWF wrestling – I think it’s WWE, now.  They had all these dolls – I mean, action figures – and sometimes I’d be over at their houses and they’d pull out their dolls – I mean, action figures – and ask if I wanted to play wrestling.  No, I did not.  For one thing, I couldn’t tell a Hulk Hogan from a MachoMan Randy Savage from a Rowdy Roddy Piper – I had to Google all those names – but I didn’t want to expose my own ignorance, and so in my overly-diplomatic eight-year-old way, I’d say, “Ummm, wrestling is stupid.  Everyone knows it’s fake.”


How many times do we see that scenario continue to play out in our lives?  We encounter something new, something different, something we don’t understand, and we immediately pass judgment – “Ummm, that’s stupid.  I don’t know a thing about it, but I know I don’t like it.  And since I don’t like it, I’m against it.  And since I’m against it, you should be against it, too.”


That’s the stuff of American politics!  Elections are won in this country because of that sort of fear-based mindset.


Thankfully, we’ve never seen that attitude expressed in the church!  People passing judgment or making up their mind about something when they know very little about it – nope, never seen anything like that!


It’s tempting to desire all the answers, to want to see the whole picture, to know the who, what, when, where, why and how of it all.  It’s human nature to want to have as much information and see things as brightly and clearly as we can.  That’s a very reasonable and rational approach – so reasonable and rational, in fact, that it crowds faith right out.


Faith, as it turns out, always has an element of mystery and the unknown to it.  Too often we want to fully understand something before we’ll put our faith in it, but the problem with that is that once we fully understand it, faith is no longer required.  The Scriptures tell us, “faith is assurance of things hoped for, and the confidence in things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1).


Back in the story, Jacob doesn’t encounter God in the bright of day.  Jacob is still very much in the dark when he encounters God, very much in the dark about what’s happening and what it all means.  It’s while he’s still in the dark that Jacob wrestles with God.


Faith is not having all the answers, a firm set of beliefs, seeing things clearly, a life in which blessings fall to earth as quickly as our prayers ascend to heaven – Jacob gives us a different idea.  Faith may simply be the willingness to wrestle and struggle with God and the things of God – even while we’re mostly in the dark about where it leads and how it will all work out.


We’re told to have faith like a child – often interpreted to mean having a wide-eyed, innocent, wonder, a blind trust about the whole thing.  Those of you who have children, however, know that it doesn’t work this way.  Children don’t take anything blindly, but will question every directive with a question of their own, “Why?”  Have faith like a child – feel free to ask, “Why?”  That questioning, that pushing, is how children develop and grow.  It’s how their little minds think deep thoughts and dream big dreams.


Faith like a child may include temper tantrums and meltdowns and questioning everything that comes along.  Faith like a child may include wrestling and grappling with issues that are less than polite and make the adults in the room blush with nervous embarrassment.  Indeed, childlike faith includes questions and pushback, but those things only make us uncomfortable; God isn’t threatened by any of it.


I’m sure we’ve all heard in some context or another that we should never question God.  Too often we treat God as some fragile and delicate stained-glass creation who might shatter if we push back against him.  Yet, this story from Jacob’s life shows us a God who isn’t afraid to get down in the mud beside the river and join us in our struggles, a God who is sturdy enough to handle us and anything we throw God’s way.


When we have fears and questions and doubts, God doesn’t say, “Away from me with all your uncertainty,” no, God plants his feet and says, “Bring it on.”


What amazes me is that God allows us to wrestle, when God could end the match at any time.  God could put us in a full nelson or a sleeper hold – whatever those are – and pin us down any time God wanted to.  It’s like when I was a kid and wrestled with Dad or Papa on the living room floor – and by mere strength and size they could have won the match at any time, but they let me wrestle, learn, stretch, and grow.


So, too, God could slam us down on the floor, make us believe, make us obey.  God could do all that in the blink of an eye, because God is God and we are not, and there’s nothing we could do about it.


But, God doesn’t wrestle that way. God chooses not to wrestle that way.  What would we learn?  We’d learn not to tangle with God, and every opportunity we have for our faith to be stretched and challenged and grow would be lost.


God chooses to let us wrestle and grapple in the ark, but the good news is we’re never alone.  God is there, wrestling with us.


Like Jacob, I can look back at those places of struggle and darkness and fear and doubt, and recognize them as turning points in my life – unpleasant and uncertain to go through, certainly, but the places where my faith was stretched and caused to grow the most.  Like a child, I can see that the places where I was allowed to question and push back were the places of my deepest spiritual awakenings.  What I found is that faith is not the absence of questions or doubt, but simply the willingness to wrestle and grapple with things that are beyond me, with a God who is beyond me.


Whatever we can dish out, God can take it – so feel free to bring your questions, your fears, your doubts, and wrestle God with them all night long, if necessary, and rest assured that God will wrestle you back, as long as it takes for the dawn to break and the light to shine into the darkness and lift the fog.


Friends, faith is formed in the struggle.  Frederick Douglass said, “Without struggle, there is no progress.”


Sometimes, it’s only after we’ve wrestled through the darkness that we’re ready to receive the blessing.