Few things are shared in by more human beings than worship. Worship is something nearly everybody does, in one way or another.
Now I didn’t say that everybody goes to church. Obviously not. Not even half of the American population attends any kind of worship on a regular basis. The Gallup Poll people will tell you that quite a few of the people who say they do go to church actually do not go to church, but they think they should, and so lie about it in order to present a good image.
I did not say that nearly everybody goes to church. I said that nearly everyone worships. Everyone has something in their lives which has ultimate value. Everyone points to something outside themselves which is of supreme importance. It may be money, it may be power, it may be prestige, it may be having fun, it may be an immaculately green lawn, it may be a sleek svelte body, lots of possibilities. But if you assign supreme value to something, that thing you are worshipping. That is your god.
So why? Why do we worship? What makes us such religious beings? And why do people invest so much feeling in their worship? Why does worship kick up such strong emotions in people? Battles have been fought over worship; they say you can preach nearly any idea you want in a Baptist church, as long as you do not put the Doxology in the wrong place during morning worship (or, in a case you’ve been reading about in the papers, unless you move a certain ceremonial chair to a new location)! Battles!
Did you know that laws have been passed to make people worship in one way or another. Did you know that our Baptist ancestors were the targets of laws in seventeenth-century England, laws that prohibited more than five people gathering for prayer unless they were supervised by a priest of the Church of England? Worship was so important to somebody that they wanted to force us to do it their way; and worship was so important to us Baptists in those days that we would go to jail rather than submit to such a law! You see, worship creates powerful feelings! Worship gets to us.
Why do we worship? What does it all mean?
One day a young man stood in the doorway of a great building set aside for worship, thinking he might go in and reflect for a while. As he stood at the threshold of this place, he pondered for a moment the situation in which he found himself. For him it was a time of personal quest. What would he do with his life? What career path should he take on? What should he spend his time and energy doing?
Behind that question lay a deeper one. With what values should he live his life, given the stuff that was going on his home town? Things were not pretty out there. Lots of predators on the loose, lots of people willing to do you in for next to nothing. He was not so sure, in fact, that he himself was not a part of the problem. He too wanted wealth. He too felt sometimes as if you just go out and grab what you want, the devil take the hindmost. So where do you find some direction in a society where everybody is out for himself and you think maybe you are too, but something down inside makes you uncomfortable with that?
And, then, something else had just happened, something that made this young man very shaky, very tentative. People were saying that new leadership was going to upset the whole big apple cart. Things might change politically in a very big way, and who knew whether life as they knew it would even go on? There might be such an upheaval that everything and everybody would just be sent to the scrap heap!
So if you are worried about your personal choices, if you think you are infected with the same moral sickness as everybody else, and, to top it all off, if you are afraid that the very fabric of your nation is going to be torn up and discarded, what do you do? And where do you go?
The young man’s name was Isaiah. The time was some 742 years before Christ. The place was Jerusalem, the royal capital city of Judah. And the threshold was that of the Temple of God. At that threshold of the place where men habitually worshipped, Isaiah truly worshipped. Isaiah found answers. Isaiah shows us why we worship.
First, what Isaiah saw at the Temple threshold tells us that in worship, and only in worship, will we find someone with whom we can lodge our fears when things are unstable. In worship, and only in worship, can we find something that is bedrock, something that we can depend on in a world that is awfully shaky.
When Isaiah stood in that temple doorway, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a time, like Gabriel says in the play, “Green Pastures”, when “ever’thing’s not nailed down is comin’ up loose.” It was a time of tremendous instability. The old king, Uzziah, much respected, had just died, and who knew what the new young king would be like? To the north of the city, enemy soldiers had been seen, tramping out a death march. It was not a very comfortable time. In that day of instability, Isaiah tells us what he saw:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
When “ever’thing’s not nailed down is comin’ up loose”, Isaiah saw, thanks to worship, that God can be trusted. That when the world is in a mess, you trust a who, not a what. You trust a who, not a what. Not arms, not politics, not an ideology, not a platform, not anything. Not anyone. No single person is to be thought of as being the savior. No king, no president. No governor, no mayor. And no pastor is an unquestionable savior. That’s what is wrong with some of the churches you’ve been reading about in the newspapers; some pastors have put themselves in the place which belongs to God and to God alone, and their people, not so much like sheep gone astray but more like lemmings following blindly, have let it happen, and the results are disastrous. The results are disastrous, because God says, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” If we genuinely worship, we do not put our trust in any system or any person. We put our trust in God, who alone can be counted on in shaky times.
I wish I had time to develop this theme some more. If I had the time, I would talk about how when people get scared, they turn to religious fundamentalism and to cult religion. If I had a few more moments, I would remind you that when people are afraid, they shout campaign slogans and worship the Bible and a catalog of beliefs instead of the God of the Bible. If I could, I would warn you that when you start following anybody, blindly, without using your mind, you are on your way to trouble. God and God alone is worthy of worship. And in worship and in worship alone do we find a living presence that will keep us centered in uncertain times.
Thomas Dorsey had it exactly right when he taught us to sing, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand; I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on.” Worship gives you a bedrock place to stand, in the holiness of God. Worship gives you a who, not a what.
Second, what Isaiah received in the Temple shows us that in worship, and only in worship, will we face the true depths of our problem, but at the very same time, in worship, and only in worship, will we be freed from ourselves. In worship, and only in worship, will we really know the awful truth about ourselves, that we are sinners to our very core. But, wait a minute, don’t despair; for in worship, and only in worship, do we find release from that awful truth.
I spoke a little last week about denial. We are terribly good at denial. We indulge in denial. We just refuse to look at the truth about ourselves. As some wag has put it, “Denial is more than a river in Egypt.” And denial is more, also, than a psychobabble term. Denial is not wanting to admit that there is anything really wrong with us. It is next to impossible for us to own up to the power of sin. We are like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, you remember, the one who stood and announced to God that he was so glad he was not like the other fellow over there, an extortioner, unjust, unclean? The one who was so incredibly thankful to God that he was not like that other guy?
Well, did you ever hear about the Sunday School teacher who was teaching her children that story, and when she got to the end, having painted a gruesome picture of how rotten that Pharisee was, she commanded her children, “All right, boys and girls, now let’s all close our eyes and bow our heads and thank God we’re not like that Pharisee!” Denial at work!
And guess what? I too laughed when I first heard that story. I too smiled at the naiveté of the Sunday School teacher. Do you know why? Because I was secretly thanking God that I was not like that Sunday School teacher! On and on it goes, we cannot escape believing that we are really pretty good folks. Nothing will force us to confront our sin.
Until we worship; oh, our God, until we worship. In worship we encounter the holiness of God, the otherness of God; it becomes painfully clear who we are and what we are. In worship, and only in worship, we are brought face to face with all that God is, and therefore, without question, unvarnished, raw reality shows us up. It shows us who we are, and we cannot escape it. Like light penetrating every shadow, worship turns a spotlight on us and we have to confess. We have to confess. No way out of it.
But at the same time, praise be to God, at the same time, worship cleanses us, worship releases us. Worship celebrates one great fact: that the shackles of sin are thrown off, and sin no more has dominion over us. That wonderful double truth, that he was a sinner but also a sinner saved by grace, that’s what hit Isaiah square in the face that afternoon at the Temple gate:
And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."
Someone once commented that the good thing about the worship of the Church of England was that it forced kings and queens, the noble and the powerful, to say along with everybody else what is prescribed in that church’s confessional prayer, “Spare thou us, miserable offenders, for there is no health in us.” The high and the mighty, the accomplished and the powerful, the proud, all have to face that. But we won’t face that harsh reality unless we do so in worship. In worship, and only in worship, will we admit that.
And don’t forget the other side. The other side is that we will never leave this place without hearing in some fashion the good news, “Christ receiveth sinful men.” I am personally committed to the idea that every message, every service, must announce the good news of God’s love. Every sermon, every prayer, every hymn, everything we do here, must not only call sinners to repentance, but must hold out the promise of what God in Jesus Christ wants to do for sinners. If there is no good news, then there is no worship. If there is no gospel, then there is nothing to celebrate.
So celebrate! Celebrate! You can be forgiven! You can be made new! Small wonder that some folks get carried up in worship and they just have to shout or dance or raise their hands or something! Small wonder! You cannot treat the good news of your release as if it were small potatoes! If you were in prison, and someone came and unlocked your cell, you would not keep on sitting on the bench inside the cell; you would run out as fast as humanly possible. If you were in deep debt, and someone came and told you that the debt had been paid, and you now had money in the bank, you would not keep on pinching pennies; you would treat yourself and your friends to dinner and you would celebrate! Celebrate your release!
In worship and only in worship will we get to hear this: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." The truth about us may be terrible, and we must hear it. We will not hear it anywhere else but in the presence of the Word of God; yet the truth about what we can have is wonderful, and we are not going to hear that anywhere else but in the presence of the Word of God.
Now, finally, what Isaiah chose for himself as he left the hall of worship, that tells us too why we worship. We worship because in worship, and only in worship, can we get anything like a permanent, lasting motivation to do something real with our lives. In worship and only in worship will we get the drive and the energy to stay by the stuff until the end.
Everybody has to answer the question, “What are you going to do with your life?” And, when you get that solved, then there is another very tough question, “When you settle what you are going to do with your life, will you stay by the stuff or will you fall by the wayside?” A lot of folk can get caught up in the emotion of the moment; but when things get a little inconvenient, they’re outta here. But others, others set a course of life and know, from that day forward, who they are and what they are about. Where does that come from?
Isaiah responded to his worship experience. Isaiah felt the desire to do something real with his life. And it seems as though he knew from the get-go that it would not be easy, yet something was happening to fire him up to stay by the stuff. Listen to Isaiah’s response and just how much rough going would be involved:
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!" And he said, "Go and say to this people: ’Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed." Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said: "Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
You cannot help but admire Isaiah’s willing spirit. “Here am I, send me.” That’s superb, isn’t it? He didn’t know when, he didn’t know where, he didn’t know how, he just knew that if the Lord had cleansed him, he had to be on mission. He had to go and do, go and tell. As the hymn-writer put it, “Wherever he leads, I’ll go.” That’s fine. We can sort of identify with that. That makes sense.
But wait, Isaiah did have one question. He didn’t ask when, he didn’t ask where, he didn’t ask how, but he did ask, “how long?” How long, Lord, am I supposed to be out there for you? How long does this mission thing last? I submit to you today that in worship and only in worship will we ever get the strength and the motivation to follow through on the Lord’s answer: "Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”
In other words, it’s always going to be tough. You are never going to have tremendous physical rewards. When you respond to the call of Christ, you are not promised primrose paths and a potpourri of plenty. You are in fact promised a measure of heartbreak and a double measure of disappointment. “Until cities lie waste .. and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.” When you go where Christ wants you to go, you are not in it for a short-term enlistment, nor can you expect medals and prizes to adorn your chest like some Russian general. You can expect rejection, misunderstanding, hostility; you can expect to be beat up on six ways to Sunday. But I tell you, if you worship, you will want to stick by the stuff. You will want to keep on keeping on. You will want to be His and His forever.
In worship and only in worship do we find out what to do with our lives, and get the power to stay by the stuff.
In the spring of 1958 a young engineering student trod the streets of a North Carolina town where he had gone to work for a few months. He had gone into engineering because, in the political context of 1958, everybody was worried about the Soviet Union and whether they were getting ahead of us, the Sputnik satellite and all that. So young people flocked to engineering schools, hoping to save the nation and the world through their technical prowess. This young man, however, had already pretty well made up his mind that that career path was not really for him, and that the Lord had something else in store. He thought he knew what that was, but, at the same time, he wasn’t totally clear. He felt called to ministry, but he wasn’t sure he could make it over the long haul. Preach? New sermons every Sunday? Counsel? People with deep problems? Visit? When you are just as shy as you can be? Struggling with budgets, buildings, Bible schools, and Baptist politics? He wasn’t sure he could do it for very long.
But the night he trod those streets on his way to worship, two things happened. Two signal things. On his way to worship, he saw in a churchyard a cross, and on that cross the words of the Scripture, “Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?” He stopped and heart that as meant for him. That Christ loved him and Christ called him. It was a very reassuring moment. But he did not linger long; he had a worship service to attend at another church.
And when he got there, that night what did they sing? “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the young man worshipped that night. They sang on, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Over and over they sang it, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And the young man thought, “How long? Me? Can I do this? Will I make it? Can I stay with it?”
I tell you, I trust without a trace of hypocrisy in my heart, I have never looked back in regret. I have never felt at my rope’s end. I have not run out of ideas or energy or hope; and it has to do with worship. It is not I; it is the one whom I worship. “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Why worship? Because in worship and in worship only, I can respond to God’s call and stay with it. Why worship? Because in worship and only in worship, I know that “I will trust in the Lord, I will trust in the Lord, I will trust in the Lord ‘til I die.”