Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 1.33.01 PMSermon: When God Imagines A Church: Filling the God-Shaped Hole

Scripture: Psalm 100

Date: February 8, 2015

 

Blaise Pascal was a French physicist in the 17th century. And by all accounts a genius. By the age of twelve he was engaging in discussions with the preeminent scientists and mathematicians of his day. By the age of 14, he had begun formal studies in math and physics. During his lifetime he invented the arithmetical triangle and helped to create the calculus of probabilities. Two concepts that I’m sure we all use every day. He even had a mathematical theorem named after him. (Which I’m sure we all aspire to). But in later life he turned away from science and mathematics and began the study of religion, which he continued until his death. And In one of his religious writings, Pascal made this observation in discussing a human’s response to God. He wrote:

There is a God-shaped hole in every heart that only God can fill.

Two centuries later, Helen Keller, would come to the same conclusion as she told about the day that her teacher, Anne Sullivan, came to her and said, “Helen, today I’m going to teach you about God.” And Helen Keller who had never heard of God before, responded in her sign language, Good. Ive been thinking about Him for a long time.

I believe that God created each one of us with a desire to know Him, with a hole in our soul that only He can fill. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this predisposition toward God, prevenient grace, or the grace that goes before us. And he believed that people are drawn to the church, that they come to worship to fill that God shaped hole. God imagines a church that is filled with people seeking to know Him, inviting His presence into their life and where worship reflects that longing that we all feel. So this morning as we continue to think about the kind of church that God imagines for us to be, we are going to think about how we worship Him. Because you see, most of the goals that we have set are dependent on leading people into a deep and profound attitude of worship and seeking in their lives.

Consider these words of the Psalmist, as he calls us to worship this morning:

Read Psalm 100

A minister friend of mine sent me a card for my birthday last year which said on the cover: “When you get to be your age you start to think about the hereafter.” And then inside the card it read: “Especially when you go into a room and you can’t remember what you’re here after” Well, when we come to church, we need to remember what it is that we’re “here after”. We are here to worship God, to celebrate God’s presence in our midst. We are here to celebrate the holiness, and majesty and joy and power and awesomeness of our God. Which, I think has a couple of implications for us as a church. The first is that the worship of God ought to be an element of everything we do whenever we gather in the church. There should be a sense of reverence in all that we do in the church, even the most seemingly mundane things, because everything we do, we do in the presence of God. We should come with a keen awareness that when we come into the church, not just the sanctuary that we are coming onto Holy Ground, sacred space. We come to acknowledge that our God is a great and awesome God. I love Isaiah’s description of God in the sixth chapter of his prophecy:

I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above Him were seraphs, each one had six wings, With two they covered their face, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.

When we come to worship, we are to come with a profound sense that Gods presence fills this entire place and that we are created to worship Him. We worship to bring glory to God, to experience His presence, and to express our love and adoration. Scripture tells us that God “inhabits our praise”. God is present in our worship.

And then we should worship with a sense of unlimited joy. The description of the early church that we find in Acts is of a community that “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” The psalmist tells us to shout for joy to the Lord. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs. Nothing should bring us greater joy in life then the worship of God. But sometimes our expressions during worship are not expressions of joy and if anyone would take the Psalmist seriously and begin to “shout for joy”, how would we react. I think I may have told the story about the little boy who was sitting in worship with his father and he began to get a little fidgety and so to occupy himself he began to look around the sanctuary and he saw a plaque on the back wall that had lots of names on it, and he asked his father what it was. And his father whispered, “that’s the names of all the church people that died in the service.” And the little boy thought about that for a moment and then asked, “Was that the first or second service?” We need to bring to worship a sense of joy. Worship is a celebration of life and a reflection of our joy for a God who loves us so much that all He desires is our presence with Him.

But one of the struggles for the church has always been that human beings experience the presence of God in a variety of ways. For some that presence comes in the midst of a traditional worship service with the beautiful hymns of the church, creeds and prayers. While others experience God through a more contemporary expression with praise choruses, and multimedia presentations. Others prefer a blending of these expressions. None of these are wrong, just different ways of experiencing the same Lord. I believe that God imagines a church that allows people to experience the presence of God in the way that is most meaningful to them. A few years ago, Karen and I and another ministerial couple skipped out of missions night at annual conference and went to see the Beach Boys 50th reunion concert at Riverbend near Cincinnati. And they played all the songs that we had grown up to and I knew nearly every word to every song. I thought it was a great concert. And as we were walking to the car, we talked about how great it was to hear all of the familiar, old songs. That really made it a great evening for us. But as we walked along, I happened to overhear another conversation between a couple teenagers who didn’t like the concert at all. And one of them commented, “All they played was oldies”. The very thing that I had connected with was the thing that turned them off. Some time ago I saw a poll that George Barna did among people in the church about worship. And what he discovered to no one’s surprise was that there is a wide diversity concerning how people want to worship in the church.

*For instance, he discovered that most people under the age of 35 prefer a service that includes music played by a praise band.

*And that most in that age group wanted to keep their children in the service with them.

*And they responded that they like a lot of participation by the congregation in worship services.

But on the other end of the spectrum, according to his polling,

*most people over 50 prefer a service that features hymns played on the organ or piano

* and that age group desires a worship service which brings strong sense of order and tradition.

*They are uncomfortable when people raise their hands in worship, or clap,

*And they dont want a lot of congregational participation.

African Americans polled

*preferred a service that emphasized a high level of personal interaction.

People living in the south, in what we used to refer to as The Bible Belt,

*prefer a more informal atmosphere that deemphasizes ritual.

* and they want Communion to be celebrated only on special occasions.

People in upper income ranges also

*wanted a more informal atmosphere, but wanted very limited participation by the congregation. And they preferred that children not be present in the service.

And on and on. The results of the survey varied according to geographic region, education levels, ethnicity, income, age, etc. But the common denominator was the desire to worship, to somehow fill that God shaped hole in their lives. And so churches struggle with how to worship. A term that has crept into church language in the last 10-15 years is what we have come to call “worship wars.” How that must grieve God’s very heart. He promised His presence when we worship. He inhabits our praise but the church has sometimes struggled to realize that people experience the presence of God in many different ways. And that’s ok. And for the church to be the church that God imagines, we must be constantly striving to provide opportunities for worship for all of Gods people. It’ should not be a problem but rather a great opportunity for us. God imagines a church where all people can come and experience His presence, revere Him, rejoice in Him. We have set a goal of welcoming 400 new persons into worship this year. It is a goal that recognizes that there are a lot of people in our community who desire to worship God, though many not in the traditional ways. We will not reach 400 new people for worship by simply continuing to do the same thing we’ve been doing for the last several years. We need to be tapping into the imagination of God and exploring new and dynamic ways into which to invite persons into the presence of God.

And then when we worship we need to come to God with minds and hearts that are cleansed of the tainted world around us. The ancient Hebrews knew this to be true. Before they could enter into the Temple they had to be cleansed. They had to take a ritual immersion bath or a Mikveh. As archaeologists have excavated the sight around the Temple they have discovered the remains of dozens of bath houses at the gates. And pilgrims would come from all around the world to worship in the Temple but before they could do that, they would need to be cleansed. In the New Testament, we find references to the need to be made spiritually clean before one could worship. That happened through Baptism and there is historical evidence that in the early years of the church, the Christians would use those same bath houses for Baptisms. At Baptism we are cleansed and made worthy to be in the presence of God.

In one of his books, Max Lucado relates that his summer job while he was in college was working in the oil fields in Texas. It was hard work he said. He and four other guys would go from oil well to oil well, basically doing the things that nobody else wanted to do. By the end of the day they were covered with oil, and dirt and grime and sweat. And he said they smelled bad. But they didn’t realize how dirty and smelly they were because they were all together. He writes “When you are surrounded by people who are dirty and smelly, you dont realize just how bad you are. “ But all that changed when he got home and his mother would meet him in the garage and say, before you come in this house you need to take off those filthy clothes and get in the shower. Compared to his mother who was always as neat as a pin and smelled nice, it became obvious just how filthy he was. Well, that’s how it is when we come into the presence of our great and perfect God, more Holy then we can ever imagine, more loving then we can ever truly know, we are confronted with our own humanity. Our own sinfulness. With the fact that we are unclean. We spend the week toiling in a world that is often tainted and unclean. And sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in that world. Isaiah, in the midst of his great vision, realizes this and he writes: I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty. When we come into God’s presence it becomes so obvious just how “worldly” we have become. We are covered with the dirt and grime of sin. So that when we worship we must come with hearts that are ready to be cleansed. Ready to put aside the clutter of the world and be filled by the presence of God. In essence, the Holy Spirit meets us at the door and says that before we come into the presence of God, we must put aside our old clothes, our old selves, and be cleansed of the dirt and grime we have accumulated, and then we will be ready to worship. When John tells about the last supper that Jesus had with the Disciples before He is arrested, he tells us that before the meal Jesus takes up the pitcher and towel and begins to wash the feet of the Disciples because it was the custom that when gathering for a meal, there should be a servant present to wash the feet of the guests. But when Jesus comes to Peter, to wash his feet, Peter balks and says to Jesus, “you shall never wash my feet.” And look at what Jesus says in response. “Peter, unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” We must be cleansed when we come into the presence of God.

And then, God imagines a church that worships with a great sense of expectation. We should come expecting to encounter God in our worship. Imagine how exciting our worship would be if all of us came into the church with great expectations.

In 1979, a remarkable film which has come to be known as the Jesus Film was released. Since then, it is estimated that more than 200 million people around the world have accepted Christ as their Lord after viewing the film. A man by the name of Paul Eshleman, has made it his mission to take the film into as many places of the world as he possibly can, and in a book called The Touch Of Jesus, he tells of taking the film to a refugee camp in Mozambique, on the southeast corner of Africa. The people there lived in great misery. Most of them had never heard the gospel before. But as they watched the film about Jesus life, Eshleman says they fell in love with Him. And when the film came to the part where Jesus was arrested and beaten and then led away to be crucified, the people became so distraught that a riot broke out. Many of them rushed toward the screen to try and stop what was happening in the movie. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t happening at that moment. And when they couldn’t stop it, they wailed in anguish so loudly that the projector was turned off and in response, hundreds of people dropped to their knees weeping and for more than thirty minutes they confessed their own sins. And Eshleman writes that counselors tried to approach the distraught villagers to pray with them, but the spirit of God was so strong and real, that the counselors (missionaries) themselves dropped to their knees and began to confess their own sins. One counselor is quoted by Eshleman as saying: The sense of Gods presence his power and his holiness was so great that no one could do anything but confess sins. Eshleman goes on to say that eventually the chaos settled down and the showing of the film continued so that the people would know how it ended. And when the story of the resurrection was told a spontaneous celebration erupted. Eshleman writes: “The crowd exploded as if a dam had burst. Everyone began cheering and dancing and hugging one another and jumping up and down. And when the invitation was given, nearly all who were there responded. And the next Sunday 500 people packed the tiny little church that normally had a congregation of about 40. Sometimes in the church, we forget “the rest of the movie”. We stop at sin and conviction, and forget that the true power of the Gospel comes from the resurrection of Christ and that every time we worship we ought to celebrate new life in Christ. New life that is produced in the womb of forgiveness and grace. Did you come with that sense of expectation and anticipation today? In just a few weeks we will celebrate Easter, we’ll come with a great sense of excitement and anticipation and we’ll say it is the most important day in the Christian calendar. Churches will be packed on Easter Sunday. But, you know, the first Christians did not celebrate Easter the way we do today. For them it was another Sabbath because they believed that every Sabbath was “a little Easter” — a celebration of Christ’s victory over sin and death — a celebration of new life in him. When we worship we should come with that same sense of anticipation and expectation. We talk about the goal of 400 new persons in worship this year as being a big goal but yet in the book of Acts we’re told that thousands were added to the church a day. They witnessed and worshipped with a great sense of anticipation that God was going to do something miraculous that day. If we infuse our worship with the kind of excitement and anticipation that was part of the early church, that goal will seem small in comparison.

And then finally, worship should serve as the launching pad for everything else we are called to do in the church. All of our ministries need to reflect our worship and be empowered by our worship. During high school and college, I attended First United Methodist Church in Frankfort. And every Sunday, across the top of the order of worship, were the words Enter To Worship Depart To Serve. Worship does not end when the last hymn is sung and the benediction is given. In fact, that is only the beginning of worship. True worship, the kind of worship that God imagines, should send us out ready to serve our world and share our faith. Worship should inspire a response that goes beyond the walls of the church. Lives that are changed and ready to be used by the Holy Spirit to change other lives. A pastor tells of attending a revival at his church as a young adult before entering the ministry . And he said the revival preacher gave a powerful message about sharing the word of Christ that had most in the congregation under conviction because they were not sharing their faith outside the church. And at the end of the night the evangelist challenged the people to leave the church and witness to the first non-church person they encountered. Well, there was a little restaurant near the church and the man and his friends decided to stop in after the services. And when the waitress came to the table, remembering the evangelist’s challenge, the man said to the waitress, Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? And he said the young woman got the most bewildered look on her face and said, “Is this some kind of contest? You are the fourth person that has asked me that in the last 15 minutes.” And so he explained to her what the preacher had said, and shared his faith with her. And here’s the rest of the story. The next Sunday morning, that waitress brought her husband and children to church for the first time. Remember what Pascal said, There is a God shaped hole in every heart that only God can fill. I am convinced that everyone of us will encounter at least one person this week that God wants to use us to help fill that hole in their life. Isaiah concludes his vision of worship with these words: Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” God imagines a church in which each one of us rises from our pew with those words as our benediction – Here am I. Send me! So today, the invitation is not that you come but rather that you go. God is calling you to go in the world with great excitement and the anticipation that He will do something in the lives of those we share with this week. This very day. Will you respond, “Here I am Lord. Send Me?” That’s what God imagines that His church will be.

© 2020 St. Luke UMC
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