Can you think of a setting in which you are the designated Christian? Perhaps you’re conspicuous among a group of your colleagues or friends because they know you’re active in the church or simply know you as a person of faith.
In some circles, like my running club and the office where I work downtown, I seem to function as the designated seminarian. It’s not uncommon for friends to ask me questions about things like atonement or the Trinity or why a loving God allows such bad things to happen in our world. But someone recently asked me a seemingly simple question that really called me up short: “Why do we need to worship God?”
As some of you know, I worked on Capitol Hill for nearly 25 years, and without realizing it, I found myself engaging in a time-honored Senate tradition: filibustering. Okay, stammering, to tell the truth. And eventually I fell back on the dodge I often used during my years as a press secretary, and said, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” I’m afraid I never did.
It’s often said that worship ushers the people of God into the presence of God, but I have to admit that I don’t find that explanation very satisfying. It seems to me that we are always in the presence of God. And while worship may remind us of the presence of God, I think there is more going on than that.
The passage that the liturgist read to us this morning may give us some insights.
Our scripture readings are usually taken from the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings developed by a collaboration among a number of Christian denominations. The 12th chapter of Exodus is a lengthy one, which describes the institution of the Passover, the tenth plague, the exodus, and finally, a series of Passover regulations. But this morning’s lectionary reading is limited to the first 14 verses.
I mention this because if you read the passage in isolation, the last verse almost seems like an afterthought. “This shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD. Throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” But the Passover festival is discussed extensively elsewhere in the chapter.
Beginning in verse 24, God told Moses: You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land the Lord will give you . . . you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’
Here’s a question for you: Why do you suppose an all-knowing God instructed the Israelites in Egypt to mark the doorposts and the lintels of their houses? Surely God already knew which homes were occupied by the Israelites.
Perhaps it is because God wanted the children of Israel to participate in their own deliverance. Up until now, Moses and God had been doing all the heavy lifting. Moses went to Pharaoh to tell him to free his people, and God visited a series of plagues on Egypt. This Passover ritual was a way for the Israelites themselves to take part in their deliverance.
Then God instituted the Festival of Passover—a time of remembrance.
This tells us something about why we worship today—to participate in our own deliverance, our own salvation.
And to remember. But not just with our minds. The Apostle Paul wrote of being transformed by the renewing of our minds, but also of presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice. The gospel has a claim on our entire being.
I would imagine that nearly everyone here has a Christmas tradition—something you or your family does year after year—that is so important to you that you can’t imagine Christmas without it. Why don’t you take a moment to share a favorite Christmas tradition with someone sitting near you.
Most of our Christmas traditions have several things in common: Usually they are not terribly cerebral. They involve doing something that makes Christmas more meaningful for us. They often involve a connection to the past. And they are important.
In fact, they are so important that sometimes arguments break out over how to get them right. Just ask Linda about the time— You know what? Never mind. Forget I mentioned it.
Interestingly enough, the same is true of worship. It’s not just cerebral. It involves doing things that deepen our faith. And it is important to us. Sometimes it seems that Christians argue more about worship than they do about theology.
For instance, the movement toward contemporary worship has given rise to the term “worship wars.” How ironic is that? Going to war over an experience that is supposed to bring us together.
Fortunately, sometimes the worship wars are tempered by humor. My 21st century hero is a music minister named David Regier, who tweets as the Church Curmudgeon and is probably one of the most cantankerous people on Twitter.
We’ve all known someone like him . . . the old guy who sits on the back row of the sanctuary, farthest from the drums—he measured—and complains, “It ain’t the way it used to be. I’ll tell you that.”
Here are a few of his tweets:
- Just got the new Worship Leader Study Bible. Repeats the last verse of each chapter 7 times.
- Worship team practice tonight. They’ll be working on new arrangements of old hymns so seniors can hate them too.
- If you ditch the Scripture reading and prayer, you’ll have time for another awesome worship song with 8 words in it.
- Worship practice is wrapping up. All that’s left is for the tech team to put the lyrics through the slide randomizer.
But he doesn’t just pick on contemporary worship. Here are a few more:
- Those cold winds are the icy stares of hymn writers past who have had their 3rd verses skipped. Again.
- My pastor is praying that the church will go back to the way it used to be. He has to. I put it on the prayer card.
- Working on my new seniors’ Bible study: “Finding a Biblical Mandate to Justify Your Nostalgic Preferences.”
Why so much squabbling about worship? Wallace Stanley Sayre, the late Columbia University Professor, once said, “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” Disagreements about worship are so intense because the stakes are so high. Worship is an experience that connects us to God and each other.
This passage about the institution of the Passover tells us several important things about worship.
First, as I mentioned before, it is experiential. Passover involves eating unleavened bread, preparing a special meal, refraining from work, and so on.
For Christians, worship involves both the proclamation of the word and sharing a feast—sharing bread and cup. It also involves processions, lighting candles, singing, responsive readings, and closing our eyes and bowing our heads to pray.
It involves filling backpacks for our Community Assistance neighbors, preparing meals and breaking bread with each other and our neighbors. It involves going out into the world on mission trips and swinging hammers to make people’s homes safe, warm, and dry. And in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and the earthquake in Mexico, it involves preparing cleaning kits and hygiene kits to be distributed by UMCOR.
We can write checks for Community Assistance and our short-term missions and UMCOR—and I hope we do—but there is something about rolling up our sleeves and getting involved—presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice—that connects us with our neighbors, with each other, and with God.
The passage also tells us that worship is a response to God. In worship, we give thanks to the God who led the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt—the God who even today is working to restore all creation.
Worship reminds us of who God is and who we are. Our friends in 12-step programs often speak of being “right sized.” This has nothing to do with corporate re-structuring or down-sizing. Being right sized reflects an understanding of God’s power and God’s abundant love for us. And an understanding that we are God’s children.
The passage tells us that worship calls us into a community of faith. God said that the whole congregation of Israel should celebrate the Passover festival. In our western culture, especially here in the States, we attach so much value to individual rights and individual accomplishments that we sometimes forget that we have been baptized into a covenant—a community.
And, finally, as we celebrate our Kids Kickoff this morning, this passage reminds us of the importance of children in worship. God instructed the Israelites to observe the Passover festival with their children, and when the children ask, “What does this celebration mean?” to explain its significance.
Children don’t have to wait until they know what worship means to participate. Which is lucky for me, since three-quarters of the way through seminary I was stumped by a question about why we worship.
When I first joined the United Methodist Church, I was surprised to see children participating in communion. I said to a friend, “But they don’t know what it means.” And she replied, “Neither do we. Not really.”
And many of us learned to sing the words, “Jesus loves me,” long before we even began to understand who Jesus is. And now, ironically, many of us listen carefully, as adults, to the children’s message in the hope of unlearning all the misconceptions we have picked up along the way.
What is worship? I have yet to come up with a definition that would fit on a bumper sticker. But maybe the Apostle Paul came close when he wrote of being transformed by the renewing of our minds . . . and presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.
I can speak with a little more confidence about the purpose of worship. Worship prepares us to share God’s love—the good news that God is restoring creation—with a world in great need.
May it be so.