The Core - Week One: "True Worship"
This week we'll be launching a new sermon series that will take us all the way through the month of June--and will be re-exploring the core values of our church.
We imaginatively named this sermon series, "The Core" because we are (as I stated earlier) re-exploring our church's core values: Worship, Pray, Grow, Love and Serve.
But there's another, more important reason why we chose this particular name, a reason that reflects the overall theme of our re-exploration:
Let me explain.
You are unbelievable.
Let me tell you some facts about you.
[the following is liberally borrowed from Rob Bell's "What We Talk About When We Talk About God"]
You lose fifty to a hundred and fifty strands of hair a day... you shed ten billion flakes of skin a day... every twenty eight days you get completely new skin, and every nine years your entire body is renewed.
And in the middle of all of this shedding, renewing and changing your body continues to remember that you are you...
hair by hair... flake by flake...
atom by atom.
Did you know that your body is made up of around 75 trillion cells which each contain hundreds of thousands of molecules that have six feet of DNA in every cell with over three billion letters of coding?
And these atoms that make you you right this second have been other things before now like... a pigeon, a stalk of celery, a sea bass, Oprah...
You are made of stars.
And here's something else that is guaranteed to blow your mind.
Did you also know that there is a universe between us? It's true. At our most basic level these trillions of atoms that make us us are leaving and joining us to the tune of billions of times a second.
And it's impossible to measure just how much space there really is between you and I, and even the tables and chairs that we are gathered around. On a molecular level, it very well may be light years.
So here we are, exchanging atoms (energy, if you will) with each other in ways that are hard to describe and almost impossible to imagine---and yet it's happening.
We give off energy. And we receive it.
All of the time.
This is why when we are sitting down to dinner with friends and the food is good and there is laughter in the air, and everyone is just full of joy and anticipation---you feel something.
This is why when you are in a stadium full of people and everyone is cheering because your team just scored and you feel as though your heart might burst as you hug the strange dude who smells faintly of beer next to you---you feel something.
This is why when you are surrounded by ugliness, sorrow, darkness and hatred--you feel something.
It's why when you are around someone who is angry, moody, negative and nasty---you feel something.
Which brings me to this:
We are made of what we value.
Stick with me.
The things that we value are typically the things we surround ourselves with. If you value beauty, you want to see, experience, and enjoy beauty. If you value peace, you seek moments to be peaceful, to be in peaceful places. Conversely, if you value conflict, you always seem to find it. If you value instant gratification, you give in to it at every turn.
And because of the way we are made--because of the energy that is constantly flowing in and out of us, we react to our surroundings, and before we know it...
We are made--in a very real way--of what we value.
And so we need to talk about Worship--which is the first of the core values we'll be discussing. There are two inviolate truths about Worship as it relates to you, me and everyone:
1. We were made for worship.
2. Everyone worships something.
There is something inside of each of us that longs to connect not just with other people, but with something or someone out there who knows us better than we know ourselves.
We long to know and to be known. We long to truly feel. To not give in to the despair that comes from the resignation that this is all there is, and there is no Creator or Designer, no plan or purpose.
Because when we resign ourselves to this--even slightly--we end up trying to fulfill our longings with other things, other feelings or even what some might call other "gods."
It's when we chase after success... or a big payday... or we decide that we won't deny ourselves pleasure---even when giving in to it costs us our joy, our health, our well-being.
But when those longings are met for real. We know it. When we realize (sometimes surprisingly) that there really is a God, and that God is actually connected to us. It draws out emotions, feelings we didn't know we had.
And when we respond to these emotions we often sing... or pray... or weep... or stand up and dance... or we fall down to our knees or on our faces...
This is called "worship" by some people--a full-on, emotionally-charged, hard-to-explain feeling that can't be shaken, and can't be faked.
Here's an awesome thought. You were made for this. That stardust inside of you contains not just your DNA for this moment, but the very DNA of the One who spoke all of this into existence in the first place.
Which is why when we see others going through the motions of worship, or we find ourselves doing the same---we know that it's not real. We feel stuck in a rut. It might feel comforting for a bit, but the energy isn't quite right. It doesn't feel the same. It's not authentic.
It doesn't make you want to dance.
It's not true worship.
True Worship doesn't just go through the motions.
True Worship is the response to an authentic encounter with the God who imprinted us with His DNA, loves us more than we can ever know, and also desires to be connected with us by any means necessary.
It's time to take a journey back in time.
In 701 B.C. there was a king in Israel named Hezekiah. Hezekiah found himself in the unenviable position of having his capital city surrounded by the army of an angry Assyrian king. This king, Sennacharib, was notorious for his cruelty, and the Assyrians were especially good at killing people in nasty ways.
Hezekiah beseeched Isaiah, the prophet of God, to pray for the city, and dressed himself in sackcloth and covered himself in ashes.
And mysteriously, the Assyrians disappeared. They broke camp--left things behind and the Scripture even indicates that many of them were dead.
Hezekiah is mentioned favorably in the Hebrew Scriptures as a ruler who did what was right in the eyes of God. He showed humility, he was just and he worshipped God along with his people.
This is in sharp contrast with his son, Manasseh, who came to the throne after his father's death. Manasseh was a son of promise, a product of prophecy from Isaiah himself. But he was also a son of perdition because, according to the Scripture he "did evil in the sight of the Lord...." He acted in "detestable" ways in terms of the worship of other gods. He even participated in child sacrifice, causing his own children to be passed "through the fire"---burned alive to appease the gods.
It's amazing that in one generation you can get two such disparate world views. Hezekiah's view was filtered through the lens of a loving, just and immanent God. Manasseh's through the lens of the ancient near east understanding of angry deities, who needed appeasing.
The ancient Canaanite creation narratives that influenced Manasseh portrayed humanity as cattle--placed on earth for the amusement of the gods. In order to appease the gods, you had to sacrifice more. If your prayers didn't get answered, then you escalated your sacrifice.
Oh, and in this worldview--the gods who win, get worshipped. So naturally Manasseh wanted to be on the side of the gods who seemed to be winning--namely the ancient gods of the Assyrians, who were just variations on the same gods who had been around since before the time of Abraham.
The kinds of gods who demand escalated sacrifices.
There is an ancient Canaanite song that was sung long before the time of Manasseh--a song to the gods. It went like this:
"May the god who is not known be quieted toward me. May the goddess who is not known be quieted toward me. May the god who is not known be quieted toward me. May the goddess who is not known be quieted toward me. Although I am constantly looking for help, no one takes me by the hand; When I weep they do not come to my side. I will lament but no one hears me."
But when you contrast this with the God of Israel, you have something a bit different---despite what people might try to tell you about the "god" of the Old Testament. This God can't be manipulated by escalating sacrifices. This God can't be bought. This God hears when you call, comes to you when you are in need. This God is still immanent, still around you even when things don't look like they are in your favor.
This God loves and forgives. This God wants nothing more than your love in return. True, there are right and proper ways to worship this God of Israel. But those ways are responses to grace---not bribes to get it.
Remember Isaiah, the prophet I mentioned earlier? Well he had this vision about what would happen if/when the people of Israel lost sight of what it meant to truly worship God. Part of this vision is found in Isaiah 1:11-20:
2 Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth!
For the Lord has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
4 Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the Lord;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.
5 Why should you be beaten anymore?
Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted.
6 From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
there is no soundness—
only wounds and welts
and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
or soothed with olive oil.
7 Your country is desolate,
your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners
right before you,
laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
8 Daughter Zion is left
like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a cucumber field,
like a city under siege.
9 Unless the Lord Almighty
had left us some survivors,
we would have become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The convocations, assemblies and appointed feasts the prophet mentions were as I said designed to show honor and give praise to God. They were a response to his grace and goodness. But in Isaiah's vision they become a negotiation. In the Canaanite worldview--the one that became so dominant for Manasseh--the gods were responsible for justice. So it stood to reason that you would appeal to them, bribe them, seek their favor like you would an earthly judge in the ancient near east.
But Isaiah presents an alternate vision of a God who is not just responsible for justice--this God is justice. The very essence---the DNA--of this God is good, righteous, holy, just and loving. And this God wanted his people to reflect this character not just because he desired it, but because they shared it.
He made them this way, you see. This was their true identity.
The reason why incense was so odious to this God was because it wasn't real. Incense was used in ancient worship to cover up the smell of the sacrifices so the worshippers could be removed from it, so to speak. Isaiah declares that God isn't fooled by their efforts to mask their wrong-headed worship.
No matter what they tried to do to dress themselves, clean themselves up---this God indicates that they are still dyed, stained with stain that is durable, that can't be washed off.
Your true nature is being covered up by all of this inauthentic worship--this God is saying. This is not who you really are. You were made for something else. My DNA is in you.
You are made of stars.
Once Jane Fonda was asked about her conversion to Christianity many years ago--a conversion that many people doubted on both sides of the Christian/Secular divide. She said that she came to a point in her life where she realized that she could feel "reverence humming" inside of her. There was something deep within her that was calling out to something or someone outside of herself.
I remember having a conversation with a girl who was covered in tattoos--particular one big one in the shape of a dragon. It was one of those surprising conversations that you have with someone you would not expect to be having it with. She told me that she had come to point in her life where she knew she believed in God, and that this belief had ultimately led her to experience Jesus. She said that "there is just too much good in the world for this not to be true...."
The first time I heard a sermon on grace was when I was twenty four years old in a Presbyterian church in Ocoee, Florida. I can't remember exactly what the pastor preached, but I couldn't stop crying. I'd been an agnostic for some time. I was bitter. I had spent years trying to fulfill the longings of my heart by appeasing one god or another.
And I thought that God, the God I had learned about in Sunday school was a lot like those gods---that he was angry and required negotiations.
But then there I was hearing how much God loved me, and I had to bite my hand to keep from sobbing out loud.
I was worshipping.
True worship is truly a response, but before it can be a response it has to be a recognition.
When you are truly worshipping, you recognize that you are connected to something or someone that is outside of you---that there is something deep inside of you that is humming with reverence. You suddenly realize that despite all of the ways you may be tempted to think otherwise... there really is too much good in the world for your feelings not to be true.
And then it hits you.
You are feeling connected because you have been called. Someone outside of that deepest part inside of you---the part that is humming reverence and seeing beauty--is calling you.
God is calling you.
And by the time you realize that you are being called, you are contacted. And then your life is never the same again. Because those atoms that make you you --the same ones that were pigeons and Oprah and stars---they share the same DNA as the One who made them... who made you.
There's this Gatorade commercial that talks about how Gatorade is "in you." It's made of the stuff that you just sweated all over the gym floor or the football field, and you're just putting it back in.
The reason you feel something when you begin to understand the unbelievable love of God---or marvel at the beauty of a sunset---or laugh with friends over dinner---is because all of this wonder, joy, hope and beauty...
is in you.
I went on a cruise to Alaska recently. While on the cruise my wife and I joined some new friends for an evening of karaoke and drinks. Actually drinks and then karaoke. Trust me, the order is important.
For the final number my friend Stuart was asked by the DJ to come up and sing Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." As the first strands of the song played over the speakers, every woman in the crowd it seemed was on her feet singing along, "At first I was afraid, I was petrified...."
And then they came to the dance floor. Young women in the twenties. Teenagers. Single moms. Middle-aged women in super high heels. An elegant woman in her mid-seventies. Two lesbian couples. A couple of old ladies who couldn't walk very well...
They sang at the top of their lungs. In unison. Triumphant, proud, hopeful and full of unbelievable joy.
It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.
There is something about that song that speaks to so many women, isn't there? A universal tug on their collective spirit. And their infectious joy landed on us all. At one point, I found myself dancing like John Travolta---literally.
God is not angry.
You don't have to work so hard to please God, and get in God's good graces.
There's nothing you could sacrifice that will cut it.
What God wants is simply for you to be who you are created to be. To worship with all that you are. To respond in joy to God's grace and goodness.
And to realize that you are made of what you value---so value what is true, and good and beautiful. And remember that true worship just doesn't go through the motions.
True worship is an authentic response to a loving God, who through Jesus has already saved the world.
True worship isn't afraid to dance like John Travolta.