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.

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