April 6, 2008
This morning I want to ask what may be the most basic of questions: “What are we doing here?” By that, I mean, why come to church and sit in this room for an hour or more and sing and pray and listen to words from this ancient book? Is God here? What do we think is going on? What do we expect will happen? Are we doing it the right way? Is there something more or less we should do or say? If worship is at the center of a church’s life, are we clear on what it’s supposed to be about?
Jesus addressed that question famously in the middle of an encounter with a woman of another race. There were a number of things going on during that encounter and in that passage, but one key part has them discussing the worship of God, which was one of the points of historic difference between their two races (Jewish and Samaritan). They worshiped in different ways, and most importantly (to them), in different places. Jesus ends up describing to her the “people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” (John 4:23)
I want to look with you at what Jesus said here about worship to help us grow towards being the kind of people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. I believe that is the right answer to what we are doing here, and the question really is whether we are being those kind of people or not.
The worship conversation began at the same place our worship conversations most often begin: Samaritans and Jews, Presbyterians and Baptists, Jerusalem and Mt. Gerazim, a traditional church building or a rented storefront. Jewish worship was ancient, full of heritage and tradition. The Samaritan worship was new-fangled and mixed in questionable new practices. But Jesus didn’t take the bait.
Verse 23 may be the single most important verse about worship in the Bible. Listen to what Jesus said:
An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.Not only were things supposed to change radically from the arguments about time, place, and style, but Jesus announced that things had changed. The hour is coming and now is.
There’s more here than I could unpack in an hour, so we’ll just focus on the two qualities of worship that Jesus highlights: spirit and truth. But underscoring that, do we not want to be “true worshipers?” Do we not want to be the kind of worshipers that God seeks to worship Him? If we are doing anything else, ultimately we are wasting our time and God’s!
Worship in Spirit
What does it mean to worship God in Spirit? Let me mention two things. One is that location is no longer essential to true worship. It did matter, once upon a time, that the Jewish people worshiped in the place that God commanded, because God chose to be present in a particular place, be it a mountain, the Tabernacle, or the Temple. But now, with the coming of Jesus, God has sent and left His Spirit with all who believe. So, location is not as important as the presence of God. And Jesus taught that where two or more are gathered in His name, God is there in their midst. (Matthew 18:20)
There is also a sense in which “worship in spirit” addresses the human spirit. But like the issue of location, this simply means that human worship isn’t about going through the motions, but about worshiping God authentically and transparently, from our spirit to His Spirit. All this adds up to exactly what Jesus told the woman: the essentials of worship are not in the mechanics and the externals, but internal and spiritual.
Secondly, worship in Spirit means that God’s participation (and even leading) are essential to worship. Hebrews 9:14 describes the definitive worship in Spirit:
…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?That worship is Jesus obediently making the perfect worship offering on our behalf, and it is applied to believers through the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus continues to lead our worship, because it is he who presents us as “acceptable” before God. And it is the Holy Spirit who connects and binds us to him for our worship to go anywhere at all.
We think of worship as something we do, but perfect worship is something Jesus has done and is doing for us, even as he has died for us and risen for us, and it is “worship in Spirit” by which we share in that work.
Worship in Truth
What does it mean to worship God in Truth? I’ll mention four things. First, there is a link to “worship in Spirit” because scripture describes the Holy Spirit as the “Holy Spirit of Truth.” (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13) Therefore, to worship in the Spirit is to welcome Truth into the midst of the community.
Second, we may understand “worship in truth” at the human level, meaning that we should worship truthfully or authentically, not in pretense or for show. We may fool one another with our Sunday morning best, but of course God sees right into our heart. This is not to say “don’t come,” but to say, “be real.” Church is not a spiritual beauty pageant; it is an encounter with the one who knows us deepest of all.
Third, God’s Word is Truth. (John 17:17) Jesus prays for his disciples and for us in John 17, and declares that God’s Word is Truth. He also prays and asks God to sanctify or set us aside in that Truth. Worship must be rooted in the Word of God written in the Bible. That is how we know about Jesus and how we interact with God’s will and words.
Fourth, Jesus is Truth. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) “I am the truth.” Worship must be fixed and focused on Jesus Christ, for he is the living expression of God’s Truth. When you also consider that Jesus leads our worship and we only participate in that through His Spirit, we realize that worship must be completely and only about him!
Worship in Spirit and in Truth – that is what matters and what is essential to true worship.
Worship in Community
There is one more dynamic to worship that is not addressed directly in this passage. But, of course, the Bible isn’t a lot of disconnected teachings, but one whole. So, in our second scripture reading for today, we heard 1 Corinthians 12:18-25. That is one of many passages which describes the worshiping body of believers. It is one of many passages that recognizes that God has made us to worship in community.
In creation, God recognized that it was not good for the man to be alone.
When He called a chosen people, Israel, God’s very covenant promise was to a people, the descendants of Abraham. They were the covenant community, and God’s Word to them was always in the context of the community. You worshiped in community; you served in community; you were blessed in community; and you were even cursed in community, when the whole turned from God.
When the Church began in Acts, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the community of Jesus-believers. They lived and breathed and worshiped together, sharing everything. Whole households were baptized and those who were formerly considered “outsiders” – the Gentiles – were brought into the family of God.
Our future in Heaven is one of worshiping with people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, in an unimaginably immense community of believers. (Revelation 5:9)
In the passage in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the connectedness of the Church, calling it the “body of Christ.” Without each member of the community, the body is made less and is incomplete. And yet the worship principles from John continue to be at the center. Christ is our head; the body serves and follows him. And the very existence of the body is made possible through the “glue” of the Holy Spirit, binding us to Jesus and to one another.
Perhaps the most important aspect of being in community is that of our relationship to God. God’s pattern throughout the Bible is not to be distant and uninvolved, but to invite us to share in – participate in – what God is doing.
I have said before that God is still alive and moving in the world, and we are invited to share in that work in our community and world. God is also alive and moving in the church, perhaps nowhere more significantly than in worship. The Father seeks those who will respond to His invitation to worship in Spirit and Truth, in the context of the believing community. That’s us!
Some Implications for Our Worship
Finally, I’d like to draw out a few implications for our worship from these passages.
Let me start with worship in Truth. Worship isn’t about music or a fancy building or what we wear or whether we’ve been doing it a certain way for a long time or a short time. Worship is about God’s Word being read and proclaimed and Jesus Christ being lifted up as Lord and Savior. That’s why we go to such extraordinary efforts to ground our service in God’s Word. If you look at the bulletin, every moment from start to finish relates somehow to the Word. We are either getting ready for it, hearing it, responding to it, or leaving with it. We do not pick any music for the sake of the music, but for the sake of the words and whether they line up with God’s Truth. We do not do skits in church because we think drama is the newest church fad, but because we find it to be an effective means of declaring and portraying the Truth.
We desire to worship in Spirit. That means we must surround and fill our worship with prayer. Three months before you come for a given service, the ministry staff begins praying for the choice of scripture, music, drama, children’s message, and more. We begin each service welcoming the Holy Spirit into our midst by calling on the name of Jesus. We joyfully invite the Spirit and submit to the Spirit’s presence in our worship. That is why we have an order, but also remain flexible.
And we worship in community. It is vitally important that we do this together. God’s desire and design for his family is not to farm the youth out to a rock ‘n’ roll service or send our older saints to an “oldie-but-goody” traditional service. In many ways it would be easier to do that – folks would probably enjoy having every part of the service tailored to their personal taste. But that would not be a picture of the family of God. One of the things I love about worship at Good Shepherd – and please know how unique this is – is being able to look at a row of people containing an infant, a preschooler, a great-grandmother, a teenager, and everything in between. Of course no one of us will find every moment of the service our very favorite song, prayer, or sermon illustration. But, with God’s help, my prayer is that you find every moment of the service chock-full of God’s Spirit and Truth, celebrated in the context of this special family of God.
This is a good time to remind you of our worship philosophy, which is printed on the back of the bulletin every week.
The style of worship at Good Shepherd is an intentional blend of ancient, traditional, and modern forms of liturgy, prayer, music, and communication. Our starting point for planning each service is God’s Word, the Bible. Each week we seek to provide effective and numerous ways for worshipers to gather around, hear and respond, and go forth into the world with the good and hopeful Word of God in scripture. We also intentionally gather as a family of believers of many ages and backgrounds, and so use all the means at our disposal to invite each worshiper into the presence of God. It is our hope that each person present will not only worship God in Spirit and truth, but also in community. It is a joy and privilege to worship God with you this morning!Finally, I’d like to suggest several things you can do to enhance worship.
Make sure your spirit is up and running when you get here. Get a good night’s sleep on Saturday night. If you had a morning job interview, you wouldn’t stay up until midnight or 1 a.m. the night before. Is worshiping God any less important? Wake up in plenty of time to be alert and ready for worship. Leave time to pray that God would meet you and bless worship. Even better, ask God to speak through the pastor and the service! Invite the Holy Spirit to begin preparing you for worship as soon as you wake up.
Read the sermon text ahead of time. It’s available 2-3 weeks ahead in the newsletter. Read it devotionally and try to figure out what God would teach you through that passage. If you do this, I think the service will come alive for you, because each service is so planned and geared to the scripture for that day. Go online and listen one more time to the sermon a day or two after Sunday. Most are under 20 minutes long, and you may hear many things you didn’t the first time around.
Pay attention to those worshiping around you. You aren’t here just for you. Really, you are here for God, and God has called together this family around you. It matters if the person next to you is having a rough time. Worshiping in community means reaching out to them or at least praying for them. It matters if the mom in front of you is there by herself with three kids. Do you know how hard that is? Offer to let one sit with you, or choose to sit with her. Share a hymnbook or bulletin with someone during the music. Greet someone new this week.
Hear the Good News – an hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth.
Let us be that kind of worshipers! Amen.