Today we’re continuing our sermon series on Deconstructing Worship.
We come to worship every Sunday or every other Sunday or at least twice a year and we follow basically the same order of worship week after week after week. We change the songs and the sermon is different, but the pattern of worship continues to be the same. But have you ever thought about WHY we worship the way we do? Does worship itself have meaning beyond what we give to it? And why do we do it? The obvious answer is to honor God, but can’t we honor God outside of worship? Aren’t there other forms of worship than simply gathering on a Sunday morning and listening to a pastor preach? Those are some of the questions we are seeking to explore together. Last week we talked about the construction of the order of worship and how our modern order follows the Emmaus story. From the beginning of the journey to the end, the story of the two men mirrors our experience here in church. We talked last week about the four-fold pattern of gather, receive, respond, and go. Gather, receive, respond, and go. And it is this pattern that we see in the Emmaus narrative. The men meet on the road, they share the journey with Christ who offers them the Word of God, they break bread together, and they go out and tell about their experience. In this story, we discover that the very foundation of our worship, the order of worship itself, has reason and meaning. Today, we are going to delve into the first fold of the four-fold pattern – the gathering of God’s people.
I’ve always wanted to go to a Japanese wedding.
When I was in high school, we watched this video in my Japanese language class about wedding traditions in Japan and they do something very different than we do in the states. Instead of bringing gifts for the bride and groom, guests of the couple actually RECEIVE gifts. Can you believe that? I don’t know if that’s generally true or if it’s widely practiced, but in the video we watched, the couple gave every attendee a new color TV. As if the wedding wasn’t expensive enough. Now there’s some real incentive to make friends. Usually, when we go to weddings or parties, we’re in the habit of bringing gifts. We don’t come with the expectation of receiving any. Usually, the celebration itself is reward enough. We go to these parties to honor the person it’s being thrown for. We go to spend time with the person, we go to show our love and affection for the person, but generally it’s all about the person we’ve come to celebrate with, not about us. Worship is like that. Worship is a weekly celebration of God. We are reminded in the call to worship that God has done the inviting. God initiates and we respond. God initiates and we respond.
There are many examples of this in the Bible.
This morning we are going to read a passage that reflects this very thought. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, please go to 1 John 4 beginning with verse 7. 1 John 4:7. Throughout God’s story, we see how God truly embodies this concept. Like it says in the book of Revelation, God is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 22:13).” In the beginning God created us. God gave us life. God was the one to come to Abraham and promised him he would be a father to many. God was the one who selected Gideon to bring relief to the Israelites even though he was the lowliest among his people. God was the one who picked Jeremiah to be a mighty prophet and told him, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5).” . It’s important for us to remember that worship is not about what we do FOR God, but rather our RESPONSE to God’s love for us. Worship is not about what we do FOR God, but rather our RESPONSE to God’s love for us.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
When we gather together for worship, it is a response to God’s invitation.
God has invited us into his house and we gather by his grace. Throughout this passage, we witness God’s initiative, God’s first movement on our behalf. Verse 7, “Everyone who loves has been born of God.” God is creator. God is the one who made us. We didn’t make God. It was the other way around. Verse 9, “He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” Sending Jesus was God’s idea, not ours. We asked God for a King, but God sent us a Savior. We asked God for a King, but God sent us a Savior. And then in verse 10, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” God loved us FIRST! God loved us FIRST! And so we gather.
The first part of worship is called the “gathering” because it is the time when we come together.
And not just in the physical sense but in the spiritual as well. Not just in the physical sense but in the spiritual as well. Each part of the gathering is designed to prepare us for receiving and responding to God. The welcome, announcements, prelude, and opening songs are like the comedian who comes out to warm up the audience before the main act. It’s the “pre-worship” part where we begin to notice God’s presence amongst us. It calls us to put our heads and hearts in the right mind frame and to begin concentrating on what we are about to engage in – an encounter with God. As one writer put it, “God does not simply invite us to a party of friends, or a lecture on religion, or a concert of sacred music – he invites us into the presence of the King of the Universe…” When you put it like that it gives worship a completely different framework. As we come together, we begin with the Call to Worship and it is in the Call to Worship that we are reminded again that God initiates. Whether it’s a verse or a responsive reading or a hymn, the Call to Worship always points to God as creator and redeemer. Even the very name, “Call to Worship,” is a reminder not that we decided to come together, not that we initiated this gathering, but instead that we were called here by God. Perhaps that is the most fitting since the early church was often referred to as the ecclesia which in the Greek means the “ones who are called out” or “the called-out ones.”
After the Call to Worship and before hearing the Word, we always sing.
But why? Why do we sing? Especially for those of us without good singing voices? We sing because it is a gift from God. We sing because it is an expression of joy and gratitude. We sing because we know it is one of the ways in which from our earliest ancestors we lifted up praise for God. And we sing because it is one of the ways that connects us closely to God. In both the Old and the New Testament there are many, MANY verses about singing. In Psalm 95, it says in the very first verse, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.” And it’s not just in the Old Testament either. In Ephesians 5:18-21 we hear Paul’s words on the subject. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” We’re not supposed to get filled up on earthly intoxication, but on the intoxication of the Spirit through song! We sing the hymns and psalms and other songs to make “melody to the Lord with your heart.” Singing is an important part of worship. God appreciates it and it doesn’t matter if we have beautiful voices or not. We hear in Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! (ESV)” A joyful noise. Thank God we don’t have to be perfect. It is in the singing itself that God is invited into our lives to fill us with the Spirit.
We often add other elements into this time or preparation, too.
We say a prayer of confession to remind ourselves how much we need God. We say the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed or other confessions of faith to remind us of what we believe and to affirm our belief in Christ. But no matter what else we do, it always comes down to prayer. Prayer is the part where we give it all up to God. We get rid of the distractions and we lift up our concerns. We empty ourselves so that we are ready to hear God’s Word in our lives. But why pray together? Why should we bother with corporate prayer? How come we don’t all just say quiet silent prayers or say any prayers at all? Because prayer in itself is an act of worship. Prayer in itself is an act of worship. Just the very nature of prayer – bowing before God, kneeling before God, praying in unison to God – these acts alone point us to the one who calls us to worship. They create an attitude of submission, a realization that we are not in control. When we pray together, we are reminded that none of us can do it alone. We are reminded that Christ died for ALL of us. Prayer reminds us also that we are all equally sinners before God. And when we come before him with that kind of humility, then we are ready to hear his Word for us. Prayer is that final piece that prepares us before God.
The time of gathering all leads us to this point where we are prepared for God’s Word.
Through the call to worship we acknowledge that God is the one who calls us. We are reminded that our presence isn’t something we did on our own initiative, but rather that we are responding to God’s will. And as we go deeper into this gathering time, we continue on this journey of recognizing and relying on God. We confess our beliefs. We confess our sins. We sing praise for the one who created us. And ultimately, we lay down and empty ourselves before God. So as we journey together through worship, let us remember that we didn’t invite God. He invited us. How will you respond? In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.