12th Sunday after Pentecost
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his own blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His God and Father, to him be glory forever and ever, Amen. In the name of Jesus, who allows us to gather before Him in worship, dear friends in Christ, Proskynesis is the ancient Persian practice of bowing down or prostrating oneself before someone of a higher social standing. If you lived in the 300s BC and were to enter the court of Alexander the Great, he adopted this practice so you’d be expected to get down on your hands and knees before him to show your respect for his position. Today if you are in the military, and you come into the presence of another officer, it is expected that you raise your hand to your head to salute that fellow soldier. If you want to greet the Queen of England in the traditional way, for men you bow your neck and for women you curtsey. We have many different traditions and expectations when we come into the presence of someone else, especially someone of a higher social ranking. But the common theme in all of them is a show of respect.
Well, what is worship? What does it mean to go to a church worship service? Is it a time for me to sing songs that I like? A time to catch up with people whom we haven’t seen for a week? A time to be entertained for an hour? A time for me to learn something new? Going to worship at church is arguably the one thing that a congregation does that affects the most people regularly every week. Why do you come to worship? Is it because you feel you HAVE to? Is it because you are afraid that God is going to be angry with you if you don’t? Is it because it’s good for the kids to get a little religion and sweat in a hard pew for a little while? Do I come to church to put in my one hour with God a week so that I can spend the rest of the week doing what I want to be doing? Why do you come to worship? And here’s the question that we’re focusing on: Can someone still be a good Christian even if he/she chooses NOT to worship at church? The survey showed that over half of you said, “Yes, someone can be a good Christian even if he/she doesn’t worship at church.”
Finally, worship is God’s people coming together to come into the presence of God. Just like falling down to the ground before someone else, saluting someone, or bowing the neck before someone is all about respect, so is worship. The most common words used for worship in the OT and the NT mean literally to fall down on your face before someone else out of awe and respect. So, worshipping God means to “fall down” so-to-speak before Him out of awe and respect for who He is and what He’s done. The problem is that our sinful nature likes to think that everything is about us. We have such a twisted sinful nature that it even thinks that going to church is all about us!! “I need to be entertained.” “I need to be served.” “I want things MY way.” “Why didn’t we sing the hymn that I like.” And then there’s the always famous…”I don’t get anything out of worship.” But the reality is, you’re not really supposed to. It’s not about you or me, it’s about GOD! Worship is for ME to come before GOD and fall down before HIM out of awe and respect. That’s what’s particularly different between worship and Bible Study. Bible study is specifically GOD feeding ME with His Word. Worship is ME falling down before GOD out of awe and respect. Even the word “worship” in English comes from the old English “worthscripe,” which means to ascribe worth to someone or something. Worship is then pointing out that God is worthy of our praise.
And so how is it that we praise and glorify God? How does God want to be praised? He wants to be praised by proclaiming the gospel in Word and Sacrament. He wants the Gospel – good news about His love for us in Jesus – to be the heart and center of our worship to Him. And what happens when the gospel is proclaimed clearly and purely in the reading of the Word and when the Gospel is administered through the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper? God is at work! God is using His means to work and strengthen the faith of His people. So, while worship is all about US falling down before GOD, to focus on Him, in incredible grace He’s present to fill our hearts with His love and His grace.
And that’s how God wants His people to view worship. We come into the King’s throne room, the very presence of God Himself. Who should we focus on? Should we focus on the preacher? Should we focus on the hymns? Should we focus on hair dew of so and so? Should we focus on us and what WE want? No, we focus on God. And that shapes the way we view worship. Do we want it to look like a heavy metal rock band concert? Do we want it to be like self-help group? No. We come before God with reverence and awe. We light candles, we hang banners, we follow a worship order, we focus on the Word of God, we sing hymns that focus our attention on God and what He’s done for us, we sing with the voices God has given us. In a sense it is a two way conversation between us and God.
Our text approaches such worship from both a positive angle and a negative angle. First, God gives the motivation. Why can we worship God? “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.” Remember, the tabernacle and the temple set up? There was the room called the “Holy Place” and then there was another room called the “Most Holy Place.” The “Most Holy Place” was where the ark of the covenant was and where God wanted His people to view as the place where God was. As cool of a symbol as it was to know that God was among you, separating the holy place from the Most Holy Place was a huge curtain. No one was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place because that’s where “God was.” If someone casually went in there, they would die. In other words, sinful humans have no right to stand in God’s presence. But what happened? Jesus died on the cross paying for the sins of the world, removing the barrier of sin between God and humanity. And to illustrate that, when Jesus was on the cross that huge curtain was torn in two from top to bottom. “by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” Wow! Now because of Jesus we GET to go into the presence of God and worship Him with clean and pure hearts free from guilt and sin. And part of our gathering to worship God is again and again hearing just that: I’m sinful, I deserve to go to hell, but God sent Jesus! Jesus lived for me, died for me, rose for me, Jesus won heaven for me! I’m forgiven! I can come into God’s presence now and I will get to stand in God’s presence forever in heaven! Knowing that, I can’t help but worship God in reverence and awe! I want to worship Him!
God gives maturity, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” If you’ve ever watched a young 16 year old behind the wheel of a car for the first time, you know how swerving can easily happen. However, after a while, with learning and experience, you begin to hold the steering wheel “unswervingly.” Gathering with God’s people around His Word and Sacraments gives you a stronger faith and a firmer grip on life. When the dangers and catastrophes of life come there’s a big difference between the reactions of a believer firmly rooted in God’s Word and someone who isn’t. I need the guidance and insight of others to keep me on the straight track.
God gives mutuality, “And let us consider how we may spur one another one toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” God never intended humans to be isolated entities. God said about the first man, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Not belonging to or attending a church is an unnatural state. It’s like an organ without a body, a sheep without a shepherd, a child without a family. God intended humans to be gathered together and to have fellowship with one another. It’s like your body, if your liver decided to jump out of the body, on its own it would die and the whole body would suffer, each has a place, a purpose, a position. Again, it’s not about me. I have a duty and delight to love and care for others, to have a concern for the eternal welfare of other people, to encourage others, to warn them when they are in danger, to help them when they are struggling, to comfort them when they are hurting. That’s why I want church, I want to gather with fellow believers, it’s part of God’s desire that I love my neighbor as myself.
God also approaches church attendance from a negative angle, He gives us a warning. If we refuse to worship Him, refuse to gather with fellow believers, refuse to hear His Word, deliberately keep on sinning: no sacrifice for sins is left (because we’re rejecting the only one available), only judgement and raging fire, punishment for trampling the Son of God underfoot, treating as unholy the blood that saved us, insulting the Spirit of grace. How do you insult the Holy Spirit? You shut Him out, you refuse to hear Him, you become self-absorbed and don’t care about what God says. That’s the warning. If I fail to worship God, fail to hear His Word, I put myself in the danger of losing my faith and going to hell.
Finally, does someone have to worship in church to be a Christian? It comes down to a matter of the heart. Why wouldn’t you want to worship God? Yes, there are some people who aren’t able to come to worship usually because of some health problem, but it’s not because they don’t want to. Worship isn’t a “have to” nor is worship about me, it’s about me falling down before my God out of awe and respect for who He is and what He’s done, namely rescuing me by Jesus’ blood. Yes, the entire life of a Christian is worship as I live to give thanks and praise to God. But I also want to be able to formally worship God with fellow believers. I want to formally come into His presence and fall down before Him. I want to grow and mature in my faith as God comes to me with His Word and Sacraments, I want to mutually strengthen and encourage fellow believers in their faith. I want to witness the miracle of another baby being brought into God’s family through baptism, I want to participate and receive Jesus’ own body and blood in the Sacrament, I want to “exhale” as I confess publicly my utter sinfulness and unworthiness, and “inhale” God’s own Word spoken by His representative that I am forgiven. All that happens as I gather with fellow believers in worship.
Worship isn’t about ME. It’s not about my emotions, my feelings, my wants. It’s about God. And that’s the real beauty of it. So many stay away from church because “it’s boring.” Often that means that worship isn’t emotionally manipulative, it doesn’t tickle my feelings. But that’s actually the beauty of it. God’s forgiveness is an objective reality- it’s true whether we feel it or not. For life in this world we need a faith that doesn’t rest on the shifting sands of our own feelings or personal experiences. We rest on the objective, unchangeable facts of our salvation in Jesus. Jesus died, Jesus rose, Jesus will come again. Week after week after week you hear those facts, that reality, and amazingly, from those facts flow not only strength for life, but a genuine Christian joy and gladness.
And that’s what’s so awesome about worship. You GET to come into God’s presence to worship Him with awe and reverence, and then He comes to you with the unchangeable facts of His grace, and the result is you’re strengthened and motivated to live life for Him and for others. Amen.