Message: When God Celebrates (Passionate Worship)
Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8
Date: September 15, 2013
Read Luke 9:57-62
We are continuing this morning to think about the characteristics that make our lives and the church fruitful and vital and essential. Last week we talked about hospitality and we said that fruitful disciples accept that God loves us unconditionally through Jesus Christ and that He desires to love everyone unconditionally.
Today we are going to think about worship. Because if hospitality is accepting the love of God in our lives which leads to community then worship is the response of individuals and the community in which we offer back that love to Him. Robert Schnase writes:
Worship expresses our love for God, our devotion to the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of life. Worship connects us to God. God reshapes the human soul through worship.
You see many churches have gotten worship all wrong. Too often we think that worship is for us. And so in some churches worship becomes like a well produced show. Every piece has it’s place. But the problem is that in doing worship that way, we often inadvertently leave out God. Now don’t misunderstand me to say that we should not constantly strive for excellence in worship. For most people worship is the entry point into the church and so we must present the very best we can. God deserves our best expression. But in programming out any real spontaneity in our expressions of praise, we risk not allowing space and time for the interaction of the Spirit in our midst. Some time ago I read an article about worship, and the writer contended that what worship often lacks in many churches are God moments – moments when those who worship truly feel and respond to the presence of God in their midst. It is almost as though God is an intrusion into well ordered worship.
I am reminded of the story of the young man who wandered into a church one Sunday and took a place in the pew. Nobody knew who he was. And when the service started he became sensitive to the movement of God’s Spirit. He raised his hands during the songs and he was loud and generous in his expressions of praise as the service progressed. As a result he was causing a great commotion in the well ordered service, much to the annoyance of those around him. And finally one of the ushers went to where he was and whispered, “Sir, are you ok?” “Ok? I’m better than ok. I’ve got the Spirit.” To which the usher responded, “Sir, we don’t do that in this Church.”
Well if that’s the case, then Isaiah would have never made it in today’s church. Because in this 6th chapter of his prophecy we find this vision of what worship will be like in Heaven, that should be mirrored on earth.
Robert Schnase says that Passionate worship is the second practice of fruitful disciples and churches. He writes:
“Authentic, engaging, life-changing worship derives from:
*the experience of God’s presence
*the desire of worshipers for God’s word
*the changed heart people deliberately seek when they encounter Christ in the presence of other Christians.
An hour of passionate worship changes all the other hours of the week. In churches marked by passionate worship, people don’t merely show up and sit passively in their pews; they are actively engaged, genuinely connected, personally addressed and deeply challenged.
You know I really struggled with the message this week because I spent a lot of time trying to describe what passionate worship is. And the problem is that the perception of passionate worship varies from person to person. Some are passionate about the old familiar hymns. Others find great passion in the praise songs. Some are passionate about extended prayer time, others by beautiful anthems that the choir sings. And that’s why we try to include all of those elements in our services. But what I realized is that passionate worship is not so much about what worship is as much as what worship does. For the disciple, worship should be experiential. When worship becomes our passion we experience God’s presence. We celebrate a God who desires to be present with His people. A few days ago, in my devotional reading time I came to the familiar words of the fifteenth chapter of Luke, concerning a woman who lost her coins and frantically searched until she found them. In his scriptural paraphrase called the message, Eugene Peterson concludes the story with these words. “And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me!’ Count on it – that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.” That’s what worship ought to be. When we worship God we celebrate lost souls who have been found. The 147th Psalm is all about celebrating God’s presence It is one of the early worship hymns of the church. Sing out your thanks to Him. Sing praises to our God. David writes. And the 100th Psalm echoes it: Shout with joy to the Lord. Worship the Lord with gladness. Come before Him, singing with joy. Go into his courts with praise. Worship brings us into the presence of God. Isaiah says: “I saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and exalted. And all the creatures were singing, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.” It’s a glorious vision of worship that brings us into the presence of God as He celebrates our praise. In his book, Live Like a King, Warren Wiersbie captures this when he writes: “At some point in life, each one of us must decide what is his or her highest joy; for the thing that delights us, directs us . . . Every person has an outlook on life; he (or she) is seeking the highest joy. Outlook determines outcome. if life is to be rich and meaningful, then our joys must be the highest possible; and Jesus tells us that the highest joy possible is to see God.” Passionate worship places us in God’s life changing presence. So many of us live lives that are dictated by external forces. Family, jobs, health concerns, even current events. And because there are so many external factors that can exercise influence over us we sometimes find ourselves living lives that are disjointed and disconnected. But through worship we focus on the essential, inward character of life. Through prayer, and scripture we are connected to the Spirit of God and we find peace. Robert Schnase writes: “Questions of meaning, purpose, love, suffering, connection, life death and hope require a more elastic and searching form of knowledge. Spiritual insight, while as true and eternal as the laws of nature, requires grasping certainties that are not describable principally by fact or science, but by experience, trust and grace. In silence, prayer, reflection, music, embrace, ritual and community, we discover insight, sustenance, beauty and awe. ” Through worship we are transported from this world with it’s temporary concerns, problems and pains, to a more eternal reality. It is that reality that Paul is referring to when he writes to the Philippians: Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. That’s what happens when God celebrates. And Paul doesn’t have in mind that only happening on Sunday morning or whenever the community gathers to worship. His counsel is to pray, to worship without ceasing. Passionate worship happens when families gather for daily devotions or prayers around the dinner table. Worship happens whenever two or more are gathered for prayer and praise. Passionate worship happens when our hearts and minds live in Christ Jesus. Back to Isaiah’s vision of worship. I think that by relating this vision, God through Isaiah was saying to the Jewish people that worship happens wherever God and His people gather. Isaiah was writing at the beginning of the Assyrian exile. The Jews of the northern Kingdom could not worship in the Temple where they believed God lived. How could you truly worship God when you had no access to the Temple and the Priests? And so. much of Isaiah’s prophecy was a call to the people to worship God where they were. It was during the time of exile that the Synagogues developed as the primary location for worship. The word synagogue literally means “to bring together”. These exiled and scattered people were “brought together” to worship God. And they came to understand that God lives wherever the people are gathered to worship. In the 22nd Psalm, David wrote that God inhabits our praise. Eventually the southern Kingdom would fall to the Babylonians and those people, some whose families had escaped from the north, would be exiled to Babylon and the Temple was destroyed, but the people continued to worship because they came to understand that worship took place wherever God’s spirit and God’s people came together. Wherever we worship, whenever we worship, that’s where God is. God lives in the midst of our passionate worship.
And then passionate worship happens when praise and worship becomes the witness of who we are in this world. Schnase writes: While God is present in all of life, it is through worship that we purposefully search for God and become acutely aware of God’s presence. We often hear people say that they don’t need to be in church: that we can worship God anywhere. On the golf course, or on our patio, or on the lake, or walking in the woods, and while it is certainly true that we can experience God’s presence in those places, here’s the point. There is a difference between experiencing God and worshipping Him. When we simply experience God, the focus is on us. When we worship God, the focus is on Him. Worship becomes our witness when it becomes our primary focus, our priority. When we come here to worship, we are stepping out of our busy lives, which rush by, six days a week, and we’re saying to the world that for that time, God is the center of our being, our primary focus. It says that although we could spend our time in a thousand different ways, for this time at least we are going to focus exclusively on God. That our relationship with God is so important to us that we are willing to push aside all else to worship him, to join in His celebration. It used to be that nothing else was scheduled on Sunday morning or Wednesday evening and so it was much easier to witness to the priority of God in our lives. But now things have changed. All sorts of things are happening in those times that were traditionally reserved for church activities. And the result has been that so many have let their Christian witness falter and have adopted priorities other than worship. Worship becomes passionate when it is our priority over all else, when it becomes our witness to the place of God in our day to day living. But the reality is that there are more people today who do not worship on a regular basis, then who do. A couple of years ago, a comprehensive study was done of the United Methodist Church and one of the things that was studied were United Methodist’s behavior when it came to worship attendance. And the survey showed a continuing decline in the number of United Methodists who were considered to be regular worship attenders. That was not a shock to anyone, I don’t think. But as I studied the numbers what I did find a little shocking was the note that related to the numbers that related to “regular attendance” in worship. The note said that “regular attendance” was defined as attending at least one church service a month. When we worship we witness to the priority of God in our lives. But, friends the opposite is just as true and more telling I think, when we choose other pursuits above worship, we are testifying to the lack of priority we place on our relationship with God. No wonder the United Methodist Church is in a long period of decline in America when the average member is setting other priorities above the worship of God, 75% of the time. Our worship is our witness to the quest for and priority of the presence of God in our everyday lives. I think that’s what Jesus was saying in this hard passage that I read earlier. People saying I want to follow you Jesus but I’ve got important things to do. Life presents us with a lot of options, but none should take priority over being present with God. If we allow other things, important things take priority over our worship of God, what is our witness to our family, our children, our neighbors, our friends and even strangers. When we worship with a singular passion, we are witnessing to all that there is no place that we want to be, no better place for us to be, no other place that we must be other than in the presence of almighty God. And when that is our witness, then our worship becomes contagious and draws others into that kind of relationship. That’s passionate worship.
And then the final thing I would say about worship is that through worship we are in touch with who we are and who we are meant to be. In many years of ministry, I have frequently heard persons talk about worship as a centering event. That it provides the ground work or the anchor for the week that lies ahead. Not too long ago a friend said to me: “If I don’t go to church on Sunday, my whole week just feels off.” And all of that is fine, but it is not really what worship is primarily intended to be. It’s more than that. Our worship becomes passionate when we understand that we were created to worship God, that it is the desire, the longing of God’s heart, that we worship Him. It’s not something we add to our lives, it is our life. The primary reason we exist. Bishop Schnase writes:
God desires our praise because by praising God we open our hearts to God’s love and direct our hearts toward the following of God’s ways. God’s desire for our praise reveals God’s desire for what is best for us.
We are never more alive – never more free- than when we worship Almighty God. The Old Testament book of Exodus gives us the incredible story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt and slavery for the freedom of the promised land. And remember how the story begins with God sending Moses to convince the Pharaoh to let the people go. And why should Pharaoh let them go? In the eighth chapter of Exodus we find this:
Then the Lord said to Moses: “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, (watch this) so that they may worship me.
When we worship we get in touch with who we were created to be in the first place. Worship is who we are and why we are. When we worship, we touch the very core of our being. All of that which the world piles on us, falls away and all that’s left is God. Passion means that we are full of the life that God has planned for us. Worship involves our whole selves – mind, body and spirit. When we love God passionately we enter into worship with eagerness, anticipation, and expectation. We expect to see God, experience God in our our prayers and praise, and in His word. We reconnect with ourselves. In the Biblical narrative, every time God’s people became distant from Him because they had gotten entangled with worldly things, God would call them back to worship. Worship touches the deepest part of us. When all else falls away, God is always there, touching the core of who we are. A granddaughter writes this about her much loved grandmother Grace who had gradually slipped into dementia: When I visited her at the nursing home, she didn’t recognize me. She didn’t really know where she lived, and she would seem quite agitated. It was disheartening. But then one day, someone began to play Amazing Grace on the piano and my grandmother’s face began to glow, and she sang the words from memory, and tears fell from her eyes, and she settled into a sense of calm.
Through worship her grandmother reconnected with her most basic self.
Worship becomes passionate when it touches the deepest part of our souls and our being and when it seems as though all else is lost, there is God, and the ability and desire to praise and worship Him. God inhabits our praise and celebrates His creation, His relationship with us. Passionate worship does not refer to how we worship, it refers to why we worship. When worship is the passion of our lives as disciples, we bear much fruit in God’s Kingdom and passionate worship is reflected when we come not seeking what we can get out of worship, but asking how we can love God through worship, what we can give to God’s celebration, and then everything we do as a community becomes a celebration and the church bears much fruit in God’s Kingdom. I like the way that Schnase concludes the discussion of passionate worship when He writes:
Worship soars on the God-given gifts of congregational members. Do you offer yourself and your best to sing or to serve as usher, or greeter or reader? Are you willing to learn and teach about prayer in your Sunday School class, youth ministry, (children’s worship) or Bible Study?
Because when we do that, God celebrates.
Our experience of worship begins with the attitude, the spiritual eagerness, and passion we bring with us. In how we sing and pray, in how we greet others, in how we approach the Sacraments (of Baptism and Holy Communion), Passionate worship begins with our love for God, our desire to open ourselves to God’s grace, and our eagerness for relationship with God.
And when that happens, God celebrates.
And so the question he leaves for all of us is: what kind of eagerness do you bring with you to worship today? Are you ready to celebrate with God?