What is worship, and how is it relevant in a secular age? That is the big question for this sermon as we continue our Deep Life Series. The key texts are 1 Chronicles 16:23-31, Acts 2:43-47, and Matthew 4:8-11.
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Talking about worship to a group of people gathered in a traditional Lutheran worship service on MEA weekend is a bit like preaching to the choir. You’re here. You obviously find some value in worship.
Yet, my hunch is that, even in a crowd like this, there is still someone who may be here under some form of emotional duress. Or, perhaps you are here, but you have forgotten why this is an important practice.
I want to approach this sermon as if I were speaking to a skeptic. What is worship and why is important in a secular age when most people find belief in God difficult?
Let’s approach it like an anthropologist.
I’ve been doing some research and I came across a really interesting tribal culture. I think we can learn a lot about worship from observing their rituals.
Each village has its own local deity. Each member of the tribe worships this deity differently. Some have a shrine in their own home. Some gather with a few other people. Every village has a temple to the deity.
While each village and tribe has its own local deity and thinks theirs is the best, they all know that there is something beyond each of them that binds them all together.
The people are devoted to their gods. They give of their time, their money, and their emotional allegiance. They have war paint and tribal rituals of song, food, and dance.
Let me show you a picture of one of their local temples.
Here are some of their worship leaders.
You think I’m joking, but I’m not. I think the National Football League is one of the most organized religions in the United States.
You see, worship, in its basic definition, is the authentic response to whatever you hold most important in your life.
So, what is worship and what does it look like?
I was on my two-day hermitage this week, so I had some time to think about this. I know it’s a little campy, but I came up with an acrostic to think about worship. I want to bring this into conversation with our texts for today.
It begins with we. Worship is a communal act.
We see this in 1 Chronicles 16:23-31.
King David was trying to unify the twelve tribes of Israel into one kingdom. He did this by establishing a permanent location for the tabernacle, the tent of God. He rallied the whole nation and reestablished the Levitical families to tend to the constant observance of rituals to honor Yahweh, the God of Israel. They sang and danced and brought offerings and proclaimed the praises and greatness of God.
It unified the people.
The first followers of Jesus, in Acts 2:42-47, gathered in the temple courts and also in their homes for the breaking of bread, for prayer, and for sharing everything together.
Worship brings people together and forms community.
I recently read an amazing book by Jonathan Haidt called The Righteous Mind.
He is a moral psychologist. He is also a liberal atheist, so he has no bias toward the need for God of worship. He has spent the last twenty-five years researching and asking the question “Why are humans moral creatures?”
He says that the human species is 90% chimpanzee and 10% bee (metaphorically). Chimps are incredibly selfish and cruel creatures. They look out for themselves. That’s what drives most humans most of the time.
However, there is something inside of the human being that Haidt calls the “Hive Switch.” There is a sense of the transcendent that reminds us that we are part of something greater than ourselves. This transcendence can even lead us to give up our own lives for the sake of the hive.
This may be similar to what Martin Luther was getting at when he said that we are simultaneously sinner and saint. We wrestle with these two impulses—the chimp and the bee—on a regular basis.
Haidt concludes that religion is a necessary aspect of human culture that binds people together for our survival.
I read another book this week on my hermitage. It is called Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue. The internet knows him as Science Mike.
It is a beautiful auto-biography about a man who began his life as a pious Southern Baptist, had a crisis of faith, became and atheist and turned to science, had a mystical experience that he could not explain, and has reconstructed his faith in a beautiful fusion of scientific skepticism and mystical openness.
He wrote a list of axioms to re-ground his faith. The one on the Church is appropriate for our topic.
The church is at least the global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Even if this is all the church is the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community, and faith practice in the world—and this practice can improve people’s lives in real, measurable ways.
The point is that even atheists and skeptics have come to realize that worship, in the very least, is a vital, community-building practice.
So, what do we do, collectively, in worship? We offer. To offer something is to give, to bring.
Our consumerist, individualistic society has led us to approach worship with the question, “What did I get from worship today?”
The sermon was kinda lame today.
The music was flat.
I didn’t really get anything out of it today. Why go back?
Where is the focus of that attitude? Me.
The question we should be asking in worship is, “What did I bring to worship today?” Worship, throughout scripture is a ritual in which we bring an offering of sacrifice, of time, of money, of praise.
King David said that the best offering is a contrite and humble spirit.
We offer something religious.
Religion is a spit word in our society. More and more people claim to be spiritual, but not religious.
Granted, organized religion has done some heinous thing. I get it.
However, the true meaning of the word helps us refocus. If you do a deep dive in the etymology of this word, you will discover disagreement, I must confess. But, the general consensus is that the word religion comes from two latin words
Re + ligio
Ligio means to bind together. We get the word ligament from it. The ligaments bind the muscles and bones together to form our bodies.
Re means to do something again.
Religio is the practice or practices that bind us together to form a communal identity.
In this service was practice the traditional Lutheran liturgy week after week. This religio forms the culture of worship at Easter on the Hill.
There is a different religio down at Easter by the Lake. Just like there is a different religio in the Presbyterian, the Methodist, the Catholic, and a host of other churches.
Religio is necessary to form community, and it is good. When you start believing that your religio is the only correct religio and start killing those who practice a different one, that is when it becomes evil.
We offer religious service.
Many of the original Hebrew and Greek words translated worship in English literally mean to serve or to bow down before something of higher power.
Have you ever wondered why it is called a Worship Service?
This is similar to the term offer. We worship because we are servants of God, and we are servants of our neighbors.
That is what Jesus taught us. He did not come to be served, but to serve.
That’s what love is. We are called to love God with our whole heart and to love our neighbors as ourself. We do this by serving God and serving our neighbor.
We offer religious service honoring.
To honor is to exalt something and acknowledge that it is bigger than you.
Worship is about keeping the main thing, the main thing.
This universe is God’s universe. Everything is from God and everything is for God. When we praise God and honor God in worship, we get re-centered. It’s not about me. It’s about God and us, together…all of us.
These last letters challenged me. What goes with I and P that refers to God? Then it hit me.
The term God is an troublesome one. God is not a name. God is a placeholder term for the infinite. God is not a person like you and I are a person. God is not a thing or a being among all other beings in the universe.
God is the ground of being from which all being springs forth.
There are no human words, there are no human theological constructs that can contain the infinite.
God cannot be contained in our boxes.
Yet, God promises to meet us in our boxes. God showed up in the tabernacle. God showed up in the upper room in Acts.
God revealed Godself in the person of Jesus Christ, and because of his life and teachings, I can know that God’s promises are trustworthy.
God will meet us in this box, and then, if we are willing, will lead us to expand our boxes.
The infinite promises to be with us in our messy finite boxes.
I have to confess something to you. Sometimes I don’t want to come to worship. You come here because you choose to attend. It is a voluntary act for you.
Worship is my job.
Those days where I don’t want to be here, I show up anyway. When I do, something happens. I enter into the practice. The music starts. The rituals begin. My body begins to move. Suddenly I am caught up into something transcendent as we all move together.
I am reminded that I am part of something bigger than myself. I am connected to God, and I am connected to you.
At the very least, that is worth doing.
That is why we worship.