Together Week One: "Gathering Together"

This week I am beginning a new sermon series for the month of September entitled, "Together."  This series focuses on my church's core values, what we call the "Five Things."  A couple of years ago, I preached a series on the Five Things to introduce them as the "how" that enables us to accomplish the "why."

Sounds awesome, right?  And sort of vague.

So here's what I mean:  The "why" is our purpose, our vision as a church.  We believe that we are called to "Reflect and Reveal the Unselfish Love of Christ to the World."  The shorthand version of this is, "Know Jesus, Show Jesus."

How we accomplish our vision is by focusing on our core values, our Five Things:  Worship, Pray, Grow, Love & Serve.  What we have discovered is that when we actually do pay attention to the Five Things, God has done some amazing things in, among and through our church.

Funny how that works, eh?

You might be wondering why we need to hear sermons on these topics again if we've gone over them in the recent past.  There's a couple of really good reasons:

First, there are a lot of new people in our congregation who haven't heard about them and why they are important.  Over a hundred, actually.  Which may not seem like a lot to some people, but in Presbyterian world that's a lot of new members.

Second, if you don't revisit the things that are important to you, dust them off and shine them up every once in a while, they very well may stop being so important.

The first installment in this series is entitled "Gathering Together," and is focused on the first of the Five Things: Worship.

If you aren't a Christian or if you are new to Christianity, you might get thrown off by the word "worship."  It shouldn't.  Everyone worships something---even if you aren't a Christian.  Whatever gets the majority of your attention, your devotion, your time, money, energy and love---that's what you worship.

Christians say that they worship God, or more specifically Jesus, who we believe is also God (long story).

Christians also talk about worship in the context of church services because it's when we "go to church" that we get the chance to express our worship of God together.

So, I need you to imagine the perfect worship service.

Maybe for you it involves lots of hymn singing---and I'm not talking about the dirge-like hymns that populate the Presbyterian hymnal, I'm talking about some hymns---you know the kind that you know by heart and don't put you to sleep when you sing them, or make you feel like you are attending a funeral.

(And when I say Presbyterian hymnal, I mean the blue one, not the red one...the red one was awesome... the blue one not so much.  And don't get me started on the new Presbyterian hymnal that our denomination just had to produce.  And they did so by committee, of course---assembling a fine group of scholars and other assorted fuddy-duddies to pick the hymns that went in it, take even more masculine language out of the standards and remove any of the aforementioned hymns that you know by heart.     Not buying it.  Ever.)

Or maybe it's in a contemporary setting and involves a band leading worship songs that are actually contemporary---you know, ones that aren't fifteen to twenty years old, and sound like people with mall hair, shoulder pads and parachute pants should be singing them.

Does your perfect worship service have lots of prayers, liturgy and creeds?

Or does it have more time for teaching and preaching?

Is the sermon in your perfect worship service no longer than twenty minutes, or is it more like mine and about an hour to an hour and a half?

Am I the only one who imagines that?

Maybe if you aren't really a church going person, you wouldn't really know how you would describe it.  You might use words like "not too preachy," "not too boring," "open," or "welcoming."

We all would describe our perfect worship service differently, wouldn't we?  But what would be our ultimate criteria for it being perfect?  What standard are we using exactly?

Truth be told, we would probably be using the same criteria:

What's best for me?  


I want you to read this passage of Scripture from the book of Revelations...

Crazy image right?  There's a lot of singing, angels, saints, and the one thing that makes me really excited:  presbyteros.  That's right, when it says the "elders" fell down and worshipped, the Greek word is presbyteros.  PROOF that there are at least some Presbyterians in heaven, baby.


What we have here my friends is a glimpse of something awesome: The Perfect Never Ending Praise-Fest, Fall Down On Your Knees Before the Throne Can I Get A Witness Up In Here Worship Service.


But the focus, the centerpiece of this unbelievable worship service that John the Revelator had the privilege to witness and then try to explain was not the witness himself.  It wasn't the angels, the saints or even the Presbyterians.

It was the Lamb, who we know is Jesus.

Jesus was the center of worship.

Jesus, who is the fullest expression of God.


So what if the purpose of true Christian worship had nothing whatsoever to do with what I get out of it, and everything to do with what God gets out of it? 

This leads us to another interesting question.  What kind of worship does God really like?  What sort does he truly appreciate?  

I think that God desires both authenticity and excellence.  God wants your best.  

So are you giving God the best of your everything when it comes to your worship?  And remember when I say worship, I am not just talking about "going to church."  I'm talking about what gets your attention, your energy, your money, your love.  This isn't something that is confined to an hour and change on Sunday morning, as we'll be going over in a bit.  

You can't fake your way through this one, kids.  The problem with God is that God knows you way too well for that.  


What does God think about worship with no witness?  About people who go through the motions on Sunday and then ignore everything they prayed, sung and proclaimed all through the rest of the week?  

He has a pretty dang low opinion of it, that's what. 

It doesn't matter how awesome the Sunday service is if you don't leave transformed.  

So what exactly does it look like when you give God the best of your everything in worship?  When you not only sing, pray and preach about transformation, but are actually transformed to live life differently?

I think we can know that our best is being given to God in worship when:

It's not about the "How" It's About the "Whom"
It's hard to believe, but people still lose their testimony over worship style.  You'd think after twenty five years or more of worship wars between Traditionalists and Casual worshippers that the Church would finally be in a different space.  No chance.  There are the people who like a little drums in their Sunday morning music, and the people who prefer the gentle blast of an organ.  And both groups think their preferred style of worship is the only proper way to conduct themselves in church.

Traditionalists criticize modern praise and worship as being 7/11 songs---seven lines sung eleven times.  Here's the thing, if you don't like repetition in your worship music, you'll hate Heaven.  Read the Bible.  There's a lot of "Holy, holy, holy" being repeated for all eternity.

And just because someone prefers to worship in a pew, wear a suit and tie, and act a little more on the somber or reverential side doesn't mean that they aren't filled with passion for the Holy Spirit.

The point isn't "how" we worship, but "whom" we worship, "whom" we glorify.

I read about a little boy who was drawing a picture and his mother asked him what he was drawing.  "A picture of God," he replied.  "No one knows what God looks like," she told him.  "They will now," he said.

That's why we worship---to glorify God and point to him.  To show the world what God's like by the way we give him our everything when we worship.  And I should add this:  According to one of our historic confessions, our job in worship is to "glorify and enjoy God."  Far too many Christians act as though they aren't enjoying God at all when they worship.

Once I had a church member tell me that they wished I acted more in Sunday morning worship like I did when I conducted a funeral.  I actually asked them, "So, you want me to act like I am at a funeral on Sunday morning?"  "Yes," they replied emphatically.

That's a true story.

You can worship reverently without acting like you're at a funeral.  Lots of people do it.

It Isn't Confined To An Hour (or so) On Sunday Morning. 
I am going to tread carefully here because I don't want people to get the wrong idea.  But lots of Christians think that they are cool to just come to church once in a while, get their Jesus on, and then they're set for a week or more.  Theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins likens the modern day church to a crack house where people go to get their "fix," and then come back when they begin to "jones" for God again

If you think that God is confined to one hour on Sunday morning, your God is too small.

Elizabeth Browning wrote this: Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes--the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.  

That's some straight up sermonizing there.  Worship is something you do wherever you happen to be because that's how you should roll if you call yourself a Jesus follower.

My wife does this better than anyone else that I know.  She's one of those people that wakes up ready to worship.  In fact, she even wakes up most days to the same song that she programs on her iPod for the express version of worshipping with her very first thoughts.  It's the song "Good Morning," by Mandisa & Toby Mac.  It's catchy.  Listen to it.  It will get in your head.

I love that my wife starts her day like this.  I am not a morning person, so I can't muster up the same joy that she does until several cups of coffee.  For her though, worship is an attitude that begins from the moment you wake up, until you go to sleep.

It's Better When It's Done With Other Christ-Crazy People
So in case you're thinking to yourself, "Okay, I see you Leon.  I can worship anywhere, so that means I don't have to come to church any more.  Thanks for the solid, brother."

Listen, I realize that God is everywhere, but you can't tell me that God's not more present in some places than others.  And for me one of those places is when a group of believers gather together invoking the name of Jesus Christ.  

A friend of mine was traveling on Easter Sunday morning and decided to attend a worship service at a small church in the little town he was passing through.  When he showed up there was no one there even though the sign said that a service was scheduled.  Finally, a man came out of the church and swept off the porch.  My friend got out of his car and asked the man (who turned out the be the pastor) what was happening.  The pastor said, "I'm just sweeping up in case anyone shows up."

No one showed up except my friend.  On Easter.

The pastor and the people in that church lost the plot.  

In Hebrews 10:25 we have this:  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

That's some good advice because the Day is always approaching.  And when I say the Day, I mean the Day when the kingdom of God will be fully present on Earth, and you, me and everyone else will have to account for ourselves.

I don't know about you, but if the Day comes I'd much rather be found in church than on the golf course... or in a tree stand... or out on a boat in a lake...

But that's just me.

Besides, not coming to church causes you to miss out on that old church smell of hymnals, dust and saint-sweat... Not to mention the ceiling tiles you counted as a kid while you waited for the sermon to be over...  Or the memories you have of your whole family squashed into a pew on Christmas Eve...

It Actually Transforms You Because You Met Jesus
Here's something awesome about that whole worship service that John the Revelator saw and described.  The Lamb was on the throne.

And since that took place in Heaven, which is an eternal place, we can say with all confidence that the Lamb is on the throne.  Which means for those of us who are Christians:  Jesus is risen, alive, in charge, and the kingdom of God is crashing in all around us if we have eyes to see it.

And this same Jesus who is alive, well and kicking kingdom butt is ready to encounter you whenever you gather in his name.  Check that.  He WANTS to encounter you.  He's TRYING to encounter you.  "Behold," he told his disciples, "I stand at the door and knock, if anyone would just let me in I will come inside and live there and make that my home."

A lot has been said in the news media lately about how young people 18-30something years old are not in church.  I know why they aren't.  They've been to one.  Their expectations of awesomeness when it comes to church are pretty stinking low.  Let's face it.  Not many of us really expect anything awesome to happen when we come to church.

Here's a timely question about your worship experience in church and one that sort of paraphrases a question politicians are asking nowadays:  "Are you better off than you were one hour and fifteen minutes ago?"

Did anything happen?

You may have come into the worship service with a bunch of mountains in your life that needed moving, and you were told once that if you had enough faith you could move mountains, but you don't feel like you have a lot of faith, so you were hoping you would find some, receive some, or feel some when you came to worship.

Did you?

What if instead of actually just singing, praying, reciting and proclaiming all of that stuff that you are supposed to believe...

you actually left and lived like you believed it?

Maybe it's time to let go of doing things the same old way you've been doing them, especially if they aren't really working for you.  Realize that it's not about how you worship, but whom you worship.  Know that worship is a lifestyle that happens more than one hour a week.  Finally admit that it really is better when you can worship with other people.  And allow yourself to actually be transformed by a real and palpable encounter with the Risen Jesus.
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