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Whom Alone We Worship and Serve
June 10, 2012
06-10-2012 Sermon “Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”
This is only the second sentence, and still part of the first paragraph, in this theological confession, called “A Brief Statement of Faith,” that is shaping the summer preaching here at U.P.C. This confession is our denomination’s newest confession of faith, written not yet thirty years ago by a committee chaired by Dr. Jack Stotts, who was at the time the President of Austin Seminary. This second sentence is so thick with meaning that, initially, you may not notice one particularly remarkable thing about it. And that is that the major force of this sentence turns around the fundamental centrality of worship. Since this is a worship service, and we’re all here worshipping, I wanted you to notice that. Other confessions begin with the primacy of scripture, or the nature of God; but none of them—coming right out of the gate—so clearly and quickly locates the life of faith in its very heart: the worship of God! Moreover, back in the eighties, when our new, reunited church commissioned the writing of this confession, they specified that it be written so as to be used in the liturgy of the church. Therefore, it incorporates not just brevity, but also a lilting, poetic, liturgical style of language. “Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.”
And isn’t that appropriate? After all, before there were theologians or preachers, there was worship. Before there were liturgies or hymnals; before there were sanctuaries and choir lofts and pulpits; before there were prayers and creeds and theologies; there was worship. Before there were patterns set that put it all into syllables and words and music; at the very beginning of things there was still worship. Before we turn the lights out in this room at the end of this morning, and turn off the sound system and go home; don’t forget that at the center of what we do as individuals and as a community, there is worship.
The baby in your house, or the baby you remember, knows it. Lying there in the crib, sometime before you are fully awake, she opens her eyes with the first rays of morning light. She doesn’t know her own name, she doesn’t know the name of God, she cannot walk and she cannot talk; but already—there at the beginning of dawn—the only appropriate thing for her to do is to sing a baby song of praise. And so she sings those little baby anthems—they’re the most wonderful anthems in the world.
You have one of those conversations—these particular conversations don’t happen very often, but often enough for you to be reminded of how precious they are—in which what gets discussed is not the weather or the stock-market, but heart-talk. You hear, and you are heard; and the frog comes to your throat and the tears to your eyes because to have such a conversation, rare indeed, is always such a stunning thing. And for the sheer wonder of that experience, you find a way to offer a burst of praise. It’s worship.
Since this is a Trinitarian formula, evoking God the Creator, Son and Holy Spirit dwelling in a kind of dynamic relationship, in mystery, you get the sense that even God’s own Self—the object of our worship—experiences the delights of worship, too!
Before anything else, there is worship.
Scripture says so, too.
As early as the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, there is that soaring poetry about creation. Of light and darkness, of earth and sky, of waters and plants and animals and finally people. And at the end of all of this creative activity, as a kind of epilogue to it, even God sets aside a Sabbath—and worships! God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, says God, it was very good.
In Exodus, when the people of Israel made their way past the hot breath of Pharoah’s pursuit, beyond the armies and oppression of Egypt and through the Red Sea to firm ground on the other side; when they were finally safe, before they did anything else, they broke out the tambourines and they worshipped! “I will sing to the Lord,” they sang—Moses and Miriam and all of them—“for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider God has thrown into the sea!”
The prophet Isaiah heard singing like that once. You heard about it in our first Lesson. He was in the temple; and, while there, he saw a vision of God, and heard the seraphim singing: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” And sometimes on Communion Sundays, we sing or say that song: “Holy, holy, holy Lord of power and might; heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Hosanna in the highest.” It’s worship.
It’s there all through scripture, as if to suggest that worship lies beneath everything else as nothing less than the vigorous intentionality of God. God encounters us, which at its depth is always a trust-building experience; and we respond to that encounter with worship.
It’s here also in this text from Luke. Through much of Luke’s gospel, really, the central plot is Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, on the road to the cross, the hard and bumpy road of discipleship—it’s the same road, I think, that Luke is inviting us to travel. And here in today’s text, there is a bend in the road, and the city—the destination!—comes into view. It’s not the conquest of that city, nothing like that; but it’s the vision of it, at least. In Luke’s telling of this moment, the disciples did what came naturally. “As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives,” Luke writes, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” They sensed, somewhere in their guts, that nothing in that moment was more appropriate than worship.
But the Pharisees in this story were not sure about that. Maybe they felt that the praise was premature—after all, it was one thing to reach the city, but it was something altogether different to claim it. Maybe they felt that they should postpone the victory celebration until there was something to really celebrate. Or maybe they were afraid that the worship would get out of hand and call attention and thus capture the attention of Herod and the authorities, who were laying for Jesus anyway. Or maybe they were alarmed that the worship was so spontaneous—no bulletins, no hymnals, no offering, no ushers even. Or maybe they just didn’t believe it. Who knows why they were so nervous? Whatever it was, they demanded that Jesus tell his disciples to stop.
“He answered,” writes Luke, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Why? Because worship is that thing that lies deep down beneath everything else. It is the fundamental praise that creation itself takes part in. The praise which will find voice even when it’s not our voice; which begs for our attention and expression this morning in this wonderful and purposeful gathering, but which lives by the confidence that—if we, too, were silent—the walls of this church would shout out. Worship, after all, is the fundamental praise at the root of all creation.
But, like those Pharisees, we still have some nagging doubts about it. Is it really appropriate and timely in many circumstances? Yes, says Jesus.
In the church I served in Atlanta before I came here, I had a parishioner with AIDS-related pneumonia. He went into the hospital and I went to see him. He was sitting up in his bed, holding oxygen up to his face, and his breathing was so shallow. Even with the oxygen, he could only muster little tiny gasps of breath. He clearly had something he wanted to say. I said, “No, no, don’t try to talk.” He motioned for me to be quiet, and between gasps, he said: “When this is over, and we have the service, I want the congregation to sing “I’ll Praise My Maker While I Have Breath.” I said, “Sure.” But I wondered: in this kind of tragedy—a death too soon—is it appropriate to worship? Yes, says Jesus.
Yes, says Jesus. There’s nothing more appropriate and timely—in any situation. Even in that moment in your life when praise just doesn’t always come naturally for some reason or other, there’s nothing more appropriate, says Jesus. Even when you’re here, and you don’t feel like singing; you don’t feel like saying the Lord’s Prayer; you don’t feel like saying the Creed. So should you have even come? Yes, says Jesus; yes, says the church. If you can’t sing or pray or say the Creed, then don’t open your mouth—let us do it for you! I’ll sing and speak for you, because someday you may have to speak and sing for me. There’s nothing more appropriate, and here’s why. The worship that wells up from the essential truth that is the bedrock of all creation, the praise that simply must be voiced—that the stones will shout out if we don’t—is worship and praise that bestows upon us glimpses of the clear vision of God. And not something or someone less than God.
A few years ago, there was this praise hymn—a particularly vapid one—that was popular in some worship settings. It was a very simple hymn: “It’s not about me, it’s not about me, it’s not about me; it’s about Jesus.” Well, as one faculty member at Austin Seminary put it, “If you sing three times that it’s not about me, and once that it’s about Jesus; then truthfully, it’s about me!”
But worship is that thing that directs us away from ourselves and toward a clearer vision of God and God’s purposes.
This is the other central point of our text, I think. It’s not Pollyanna praise, not pie-in-the-sky praise, not whistling-past-the-graveyard praise. It’s praise and worship instead that gives us vision, that enables us to see the world more clearly.
And it’s not an accident that, in Luke’s gospel, the thing that happened next after that spontaneous act of praise was that Jesus saw the city—saw it as God sees every city—and wept over it. There is a relationship between worshiping God, and seeing the world as God sees it—in its potential for good and its capacity for evil, in its grief and its loss and its power and its despair and its tenacious hope. And to engage in the worship of God is also to get the gift of seeing the world as God sees the world.
I love the story that is told about George Gershwin, the composer. Once, while on a train from New York to Boston, Gershwin was inspired to compose the major portion of “Rhapsody in Blue.” It was on that train, of all places, with the steely sounds of the track, and the click-clack rhythm of the train’s motion, and the bells and whistles and all the other distractions—on that train Gershwin was inspired and suddenly heard the complete construction of the “Rhapsody” from beginning to end. On a train! Sometime later, he said: “I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.”
Now you and I live in a world that filled with noise. And not just the noise of street-life and sirens and honking horns and airplanes up above. It’s also the noise of our awful arguments these days, and of our egos wrapped up in their sad self-promotion. It’s the noise of petty conflicts that often grow in size to large wars. It’s the noise of too much shouting and not enough listening. It’s the noise, finally, of our whole laboring world, struggling finally to worship itself.
And so it often takes work to hear the music. But it’s there.
I’ll never forget one Christmas Eve in my church in Atlanta. We did there on Christmas Eve what we do here. We planned rich and festive worship. We had three festival communion services—two of them in the church, and one of them, the middle one, at 9:00 in our chapel. The chapel there is a beautiful space: an English gothic cathedral-in-miniature, stone exterior, stone interior, beautiful carvings, splendid windows. It’s a great place to worship.
But the hundred and fifty or so people who packed that chapel at 9:00 on that particular Christmas Eve had to pay a price to enjoy that beauty. They had to file through a crowd of about fifty homeless men who were huddled together at that intersection where the chapel was situated—busy and prominent during the day, but never more deserted that on that particular night. These men had tried to get into our Night Shelter for the evening, but we only had cots for eighty men and we were full that night. So now they were there outside, near that intersection across the street from the Capitol building, waiting for a bus that would take them to an overflow city shelter. We invited them to worship with us, but they had declined so that they could wait for their bus.
Those stone walls! On one side of them, the inside, the well-placed and the warm; and on the other side, the outside, the cold and nearly-forgotten.
At 9:00 sharp, the choir and clergy processed in during the opening hymn, we said a corporate prayer of confession, we kept some silence, we sang a Kyrie, and the associate pastor announced the good news of pardon and acceptance: “Friends,” she said, “Believe the Good News of the Gospel! In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!”
And at the moment that sentence was finished, an amazing thing happened. A huge cheer went up on the other side of that stone wall. Those men were cheering the arrival of that bus that would take them to another shelter—a bleak version, at least, of pardon and acceptance.
But the effect on that side of that stone wall was riveting! I will never be able to hear those words again without thinking of the only appropriate response to them: riotous cheering throughout the precincts of heaven and earth! The roar of joy in the face of God’s mercy! Music in the very heart of noise!
Listen carefully for that music. For it comes from some place deep beneath everything else that is. Listen for it, and when you hear it lend your own voice to it, and follow the sound wherever it leads you. It’s the most important, radical thing you will ever do.
It’s the voice of the holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship…and serve.