What Would Jesus Undo? - Week One: Hollow Worship

Today is the First Sunday of the season of Lent, one of the most sacred seasons in the historic calendar of the Church.  The word Lent comes from the Latin word for forty. Practically speaking Lent is the roughly forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter.

But the season of Lent is also a spiritual as well as a temporal journey.  As Christians, we believe that we are journeying with Jesus during this season--mirroring in a way the 40 days that he spent in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. 

Throughout this Lenten season, we will be asking a very important question.  It's a question that begins with "What Would Jesus---"? 

If you've been around church-y world for a while, you probably remember that there was a Christian fad that made the rounds a few years ago based on a question that began like that. The question was this:  "What Would Jesus Do?"  And the initials WWJD got plastered all over shirts, bracelets, Bible covers, you name it.  Christians love a good fad. 

The idea behind the WWJD marketing was simply to put that question in our minds so that we would be asking it before we made decisions, acted on something, or were about to do something sinful. 

But like a lot of fads, it faded.  Now you can go online and by WWJD stickers that will substitute your name (if it begins with J) so it will read: What Would Jose Do? or Judith? or Jared? Nice. 

For us, however, we won't be asking that question.  Instead, we will be asking a question that's a bit more challenging to answer.  This Lenten season we will be asking ourselves, "What Would Jesus Undo?"  What does Jesus need to undo in our lives so that we can more fully embrace a life of following him? 

Today we'll begin with something that desperately needs to be undone in our lives before we can truly follow Jesus with our whole selves:  Hollow Worship. 

First, we need to define hollow worship before we can step any further into this.  What does hollow worship look like?  Is it inextricably connected to worship services at church?  And if so, is it about the style of worship?  That's what most people would tend to think.  Churches are still fighting about worship styles as if it were... 

Or is it about something deeper?  Could it be that it's about the substance of our worship, the way we give ourselves over to worshipping God with all of our selves at all times, not just on Sunday?  That sounds a bit truer... but it's still not quite there. 

Hollow worship is when the object of our worship is anything other than God.  

And when our worship is hollow, the story we tell with our worship is not a saving story. 

Let me explain.

Once I had a church member and her husband schedule a meeting with me to tell me all the things they didn't like about my preaching, or the demeanor when I was leading worship.  They told 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.

Here's the important part of that whole thing, though:  The story they were telling themselves was that there was something wrong with celebrating, acting joyful and full of life when you worshipped.

It wasn't a style issue...  It wasn't even a substance issue... It was a story issue, and the story they were telling was hollow.   

By contrast, the story we'd been telling in worship--the story they couldn't get--was something completely different. 

I wanted the congregation to feel the full story of the Gospel--that Jesus has risen... that they served a Risen Savior... that a life lived following Jesus was a life worth living...   that just because they were Presbyterian, it didn't mean they were dead. 

I did make a mental note at that point to make sure to change up my funeral services, though.  When you are preaching about the reality of the Resurrection at a funeral and you do it woodenly like you're reading from a script...  what kind of hope does that give anyone.  But I digress.

This all leads us to the deeper question that we need to be asking about our worship. 

What story are we telling when our worship is hollow?  And why do we need to tell a different one?  

Here's what I want us to know today as we did into this and discover how to change our hollow worship into something that is alive, vibrant and fully focused on God:

Jesus can undo our hollow worship when we live into God's saving story.  

Let's dig into the lectionary text for today which comes to us from Deuteronomy 26:1-11
26 When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. 5 Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. 11 Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.
What are some of the things that we can notice right away as we read this strange passage from the Torah?  Well for starters, we can see how this passage reveals the deep connection that the worshippers had with their story. 

And they needed to because this passage was re-written and edited during tense moments in Israel's history--first in the 7th century BCE after the Assyrians conquered and dispersed the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, and then later in the 6th century during the Babylonian captivity of the southern kingdom of Judah.  

When you are under duress and experiencing hardship, it's important to remember your stories.  

This whole passage speaks to the idea that God has drawn near to God's people, which given the circumstances, didn't make a lot of sense.  The people of God needed to be reminded of the stories of how God had shown up in their past, and how that informed their future.  

Telling the story created a connection with those who had come before them.  And it placed the worshippers firmly in the story of God's great grace.  

I could preach a whole series on this one passage about why it is so vital for us to be a part of a worshipping community, to go to church, to get your kids here...  Telling God's great big story of salvation is an act that needs repeating.  

So what happens when we lose sight of this?  How does it go wrong?  

What was happening to the people of Israel is the same thing that happens to all of us.  They grew complacent, they were comfortable in their adaptation of the religions and cultural mores of the tribes of people around them, and they lost sight of their connection to God's story, and the part they played in it.  

Sadly, it was suffering that brought them back.  Only then did they begin to act authentically, and turn their hollow worship into something alive and vibrant... something that wasn't reserved for church-y gatherings, but extended to all aspects of their lives.  

We lose our place in the story when we become complacent in our comfort rather than being agitated to action.  

Jesus addressed this directly once in Matthew chapter 15 when a group of overly religious and self-centered folks came to him with some issues.  They berated him for allowing his disciples to eat without first washing themselves in elaborate ceremonial ways, according to their religious law. 

Jesus hits them with a passage of Scripture from the book of Isaiah where the prophet says: 
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’[c]”
Then Jesus turns to the crowd that had gathered when the religious leaders confronted him and said: 
“Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
Jesus was trying to tell them that they had become disconnected from the story.  They had lost the plot.  They had grown complacent in their comfort, with the way that they had always done it.  They were so caught up in being right, they got it wrong.  

So what does it look like when we get connected with our story? What does it look like when we begin to experience worship that isn't hollow? That is focused on God and not on ourselves, our needs, our desires?  

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.  

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---or sing your lungs out in church, or feel yourself tearing up in your seat for no discernable reason is because all of this wonder, joy, hope, and beauty...is in you.  

The story that you are feeling so connected to in that moment is your story.  The story of how God is saving the world... and starting with you.  

I went on a cruise to Alaska a few years ago.  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...

And Stuart.

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.  A reminder that they are part of a bigger story.  And their infectious joy landed on us all, men included.  

At one point, I found myself dancing like John Travolta---literally.

Imagine what it would be like if we got this---really got it.  Imagine how incredibly alive our worship would be--both within and without the church. 

Jesus can undo our hollow worship when we live into God's saving story. 


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