Why We’re Here

Below the fold is an edited transcript of my sermon “Why We’re Here” from this past Sunday (September 10, 2017). My texts were Psalm 100, Exodus 8:1-7, Luke 4:16-22a, and Revelation 4:6b-11.

SERMON

I want to begin by recapping a common theme of all of today’s scripture readings: the centrality of worship. There are a lot more than these four readings, the Bible is full of them, but these are the four I selected. We started off with our call to worship, Psalm 100, which was a hymn of praise probably used in worship in the temple. We continued with Exodus 8:1-7. As much as I loved the frogs as a kid, I never noticed that the reason given for setting the people free from slavery is that they might go and worship God. They are to be freed so that they may worship. In Luke 4:16-22, Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and announces that he is the one who has been promised. Note where he does that. He does that in the synagogue. He does that during worship, which Luke tells us was his custom. Finally in Revelation 4:6b-11 we see that worship is what is going on in heaven now and later in the book of Revelation we are told that worship will continue in the new heaven and the new earth which are to come.

These are just four examples of how worship plays a prominent part in the Bible, and that brings up the questions, Why is worship so prominent? Why is it so important? I want to share three answers. There’s a lot more than three. But I’m going to limit myself for the sake of time.

The first reason worship is important is that we grow ever more like that which we worship and we all worship something. Even people who consider themselves atheists worship something.

There’s a paraphrase of John Calvin that says the human heart is a factory of idols. [1] Think about that: the human heart is a factory of idols. What that means is we tend to make idols out of things; we tend to make gods (with a little “g”) out of things around us.

Sometimes we make idols out of things that are not bad in and of themselves but become bad when we raise them to the status of gods (again with a little “g”). At other times we end up worshipping things that weren’t even good to start with.

Either way, we get so caught up in them that we find ourselves lost. N.T. Wright puts it like this:

You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship. Those who worship money become, eventually, human calculating machines. Those who worship sex become obsessed with their own attractiveness or prowess. Those who worship power become more and more ruthless. So what happens when you worship the creator God? … because you were made in God’s image, worship makes you more truly human. When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You discover more of what it means to be fully alive. [2]

If you worship things like money and sex and power those things eventually go wrong and you become less human. If you worship God in whose image you were made you become more human.

And becoming more and more human is a good thing. That’s something we get out of worship right there. But there’s still more that we get out of worship and that brings me to my second point.

John Wesley and many before and after him have talked about the means of grace. The means of grace are those places in which we are most likely to encounter God, experience God’s love and be empowered by God’s grace. And worship is a means of grace.

Worship is not only a means of grace itself, but actually combines several different means of grace: things like prayer, scripture, hymns, and even the sermon. (Acts of piety are not the only means of grace. John Wesley believed that you can encounter God in acts of mercy like feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or helping the poor, but that’s a sermon for another day.)

Worship is a means of grace. It’s a place where we are likely to encounter God, experience God’s love, and be empowered by God’s grace. Those things don’t always happen. But it’s more likely to happen here than anywhere else.

Now I don’t know if you noticed this, but the first reason I gave for worship is to become more like the God we worship and thus more fully human. And the second reason is that it is a means of grace through which we encounter God’s presence, experience God’s love, and receive God’s grace and power.

A complaint that I often get from people who don’t come to worship is that God is an egomaniac for wanting to be worshipped. I would point out to you that the first two reasons I’ve given for coming to worship are not about God, they’re about us. For something that is supposedly about God, there sure is an awful lot in it for us.

The third reason is different from the first two because it refers not only to why we are here in the sanctuary this morning, but it also talks about why we are on the planet. Worship isn’t just what we’re here for this morning. It’s one of the purposes for which we were put on earth.

God made us in God’s image.

[At this point I asked if anyone had a mirror and one was loaned to me.]

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Does it mean we look like God? No, that’s not it. Maybe we’re like God in that we can reason? Or perhaps we’re like God in our capacity to love? What if we’re like God in that we can be in relationships? All of these are possibilities, but the best explanation I’ve heard for how we are like God is that we are made in God’s image like a mirror. Now you can take a mirror, and you can look, and you can look at yourself in it. But you can also take a mirror and angle it so that it reflects something else.

With this analogy (of the image of God in us being a mirror), the image of God is not something we possess. It is not something found in us innately. Not something that we can get a handle on or cling to. Rather we are made in the image of God in that we are like a mirror in that we are meant to reflect God’s love and care, God’s just rule into the world. N. T. Wright is not the only one who said this, but his books are one of the first places I encountered it. [3]

Wright talks about how God created the world and then God created what he calls “a looking-after creature.” [4] Have you ever thought of yourself that way? God created the world, and then God created a being to take care of this world, to watch over it. And that’s where our job as mirrors come in. We reflect God into the world. We reflect God’s love and God’s reign and God’s rule. We reflect God’s goodness and light into the world.

But there’s still more to it than that because all creation worships and praises God. Remember when Jesus went into Jerusalem and his followers were praising him, and the Pharisees thought they were making too much noise. And the Pharisees said tell your disciples to be quiet. And Jesus said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” [5]

The great truth is that all creation praises God, all creation gives glory to God. And that glory was meant by God to be gathered up by us. We were meant to articulate it and then reflect it back to God.

We were created to be in-between God and the rest of creation reflecting God’s love and justice into the world and reflecting creation’s praise and thanksgiving back to God.

Now those three reasons set a rather high bar. If you’re thinking that you don’t always grow more like God when you’re here, you’re not alone. If you’re not sure that you always experience worship as a means of grace, you not alone. If the idea that you’re here in worship reflecting God’s love and justice into the world and reflecting the world’s praise back to God sounds nearly impossible, you’re not alone.

Even at our best, even when everything goes right, even when a service goes off without a hitch: our present worship right now is imperfect and incomplete. Seldom do we really reflect the world’s praise back to God. Haltingly do we reflect God’s love into the world. We get glimpses of what we are growing into now and then, but they are few, and they are scattered. We come to worship, and sometimes we get we get bored. We’re not always excited to be here. We sit in these pews, but sometimes we still have a hard time focusing on God. Our worship at present is imperfect and incomplete.

But it will not always be so. And those glimpses we get, those moments when we experience God’s presence, our halting attempts to reflect the love of God to the world and the world’s worship back to God, those time we grow closer, however incrementally, to the likeness of God.

Those are glimpses of the future. Those are tastes of the feast that is to come. Worship is an anticipation of our life with God that is to come. Amen.


A note about these notes: I don’t pride myself on originality. (My assumption is that—with 2000 years of Christianity behind us—if a statement about Christianity is true, than it’s probably been said before.) I could probably hunt up a citation for every paragraph in the above sermon, but instead I’ve contented myself with providing citations for things I actually did look up so that those who want to follow up and learn more may do so.

[1] John Calvin wrote: “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xi.8. Found online at Classics Ethereal Library, accessed September 9, 2017, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.xii.html.

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 148.

[3] See N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006); and N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2012).

[4] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 37.

[5] Luke 19:-40 (NRSV)