Worship … we gather to worship … we sing, pray, dance, cry, laugh, listen, learn, enjoy, and enjoin in worship – coming together as individuals, we worship as a communal body.
We have been considering over the past month ways we can be more committed to Christ. We’ve talked about being more committed to service and studying the words of Scripture, to witness and our financial giving. Today, we turn to consider our commitment to what many consider to be the central act of Christian Discipleship – to worship.
The Lewis Center for Church Leadership, a non-profit subsidiary of Wesley Theological Seminary, where I had the opportunity to work for four years prior to entering pastoral ministry, keeps close tabs on the life and health of the church today, focusing especially on the United Methodist Church. In recent years, they have focused a great deal on worship attendance patterns. In a report, published in 2010, the Lewis Center noted that between 1994 and 2000, the United Methodist Church was holding at a slight increase in worship attendance, increasing at a marginal 2.5% from the previous decade. However, from 2001-2008, the attendance in the United Methodist Church nationwide had dropped by more than 10%.
The Lewis Center goes on to clarify one reason for this drop. While ‘regular attendance’ in the protestant church used to mean being in worship 3-4 weeks a month, many sociologists in studying the protestant church say that today ‘regular attendance’ means attending only 1-2 times a month.
So what is changing in our society, in our Church culture, that identifies the reasons for a lack of priority in worship, and the decreased worship attendance? If we can name those reasons, how do we turn back to the Biblical mandate to be in worship, to worship God, to join in communal worship? I believe that if we can better understand and perhaps relearn why worship is so important, we can change the trend of recent years, and make a renewed commitment to have worship be a cornerstone in our lives.
To help teach us about the priority for worship, and what it takes to refocus and relearn why we worship, we’re utilizing this passage in the Gospel of Luke. This comes from the 19th chapter, verse 45 through 48. In the context of the story, Jesus has just entered the Holy City of Jerusalem. He rode in during his triumphant entrance with the chorus of Hosannas and waving Palm branches surrounding him. Having entered the Holy City, Jesus makes his way to the temple.
What Jesus does in this short pericope, that is, this brief story of the ‘cleansing of the temple,’ is to root the purpose of the temple – what we call today the Church – and the worship that takes place within, into the historical story of faith.
Jesus says, “It is written, ‘my house shall be a house of prayer.’”
This verse reminds us of the primacy of worship throughout the story of God’s people. This is a quote from the books of the prophets. Isaiah 56:6-7 says, “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
In the midst of the cleansing of the temple, Jesus was placing the need for a place of holy worship in the roots of the Judaic faith, upon which the faith of those in the room at the time, and our faith in Christ, is built. It is upon the history of the people of Israel, that is, our ancestors of the faith, through trials and tribulations that we have faith in Christ today. Christ, entering in to the temple and overturning the tables directs the temple leaders and all who had gathered to remember the history of Israel, upon whose corporate life their faith, and our faith, is built.
In their book, Overflow, Dr. Lovett Weems and Rev. Tom Berlin remind us of the history of worship that is spoken of in the Old Testament, the history to which Christ is calling our attention. Before leaving Egypt, Moses begged of Pharaoh, “Our God says let us go so that we can worship God in the wilderness.”
Once they have exited Egypt into the wilderness, God gives further instructions for worship. In the 10 Commandments, God offers two of the ten directly to the necessity of worship, and of right worship. “You shall not make for yourself an idol … you shall not bow down to them or worship them,” and the second, “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” God offers them explicit instructions for worshipping. And God does this more than once. The people had a problem remembering. Again, a second time, while the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, God instructed them, “You must not worship the Lord your God in the way of [the Egyptians] … they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates.”
Even after they reached the Promised Land, God continued to instruct them on the necessity of worship. The commandment to worship can be found in Joshua, First and Second Kings, and throughout the teachings of the prophets. Even flooded in the poetry of the Psalms, we are told over and over again to worship: Psalm 29:2, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due [God’s] name; worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness.” Psalm 34:3, “O Magnify the name of the Lord, and let us exalt His name together.” And Psalm 100:2, “Worship the Lord with gladness, come before [the Lord] with songs of praise.”
Dr. Weems and Rev. Berlin name that the command God offers, the command to worship, is clear. In naming this command, and remembering the many times God’s people have been instructed and reminded of the necessity of worship, Weems and Berlin offer this critique of the Church today, saying, “Despite the practice of a majority of Christians, regular weekly worship is not an option if we are to be faithful people of God. … Ignoring worship is simply not acceptable from God’s perspective.”
Christ roots the purpose of the temple and it’s the necessity of worship in the ancient texts upon which our faith is built. The primacy of worship has been a focus of God since the days when God formed God’s covenant with God’s creation. So how do we, as a Church, get back to understanding and accepting worship as a necessitated priority in our lives?
Let us go back to our passage in Luke. Jesus says next, “you have made my house a den of robbers.” This seems like a direct reference to Jeremiah 7:11, which says, “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too and watching, says the Lord.”
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in the 18th century, says that the phrase ‘den of robbers’ is a proverbial expression for a harbor of wicked men. What Christ was saying is that the temple had become crowded with people filled with evil intentions, who sought not the purpose of God, but who have gathered for personal gain and interests. The Matthew Henry Commentary, published in the early 18th century, offers further insight into Christ’s deep concern and disappointment in the acts taking place in the temple, concluding that, “the temple is a house of prayer, set apart for communion with God; the buyers and sellers made it a den of thieves by the fraudulent bargains they made there, which was by no means to be suffered, [that is, it should not be continued,] for it would be a distraction to those who came there to pray.”
Where we go wrong in our reading and understanding of this story in Luke’s Gospel is when we write ourselves free of fault by saying we are significantly better in our faith and action in the temple than those Jesus was criticizing for we are not buyers and sellers. We have not treated the house of God like a flea market for sacrificial animals, unlike those Christ is kicking out of the temple in this text. The story of Christ flipping tables, as often as we misrepresent Christ’s intention, is not just about money-changers using the Temple for their own gain – it’s about any who see the purpose of worship and prayer for self-gratification.
God does not demand for us to worship because we need to come and change God’s heart – God demands for us to join in worship because our hearts need to be cleansed, changed, and set back on the right path. When we bring in the temptations of the world – be it the fiscal temptations of the secular sector, the materialistic temptations of the entertainment sector, or the desire for an audience and power of the political sector – when we bring those ulterior motives into worship, we pervade God’s house, and are no better than the money changers Christ kicked out of the Temple.
The word ‘worship’ comes from the Hebrew Word shachac and in the New Testament, the Greek word proskyneo. The words translated into modern English, would translate literally as “to prostrate.” To physically lay ones self down, spread before God – flattened in the most humble of positions at the foot of the altar of the Lord. In doing so, in taking on this humble and self-effacing position, you have no choice but to acknowledge your need of God. It is a reminder of the early worship of our faithful ancestors, who in the wilderness relied fully on God for all things – for food, security, health, family, community … even life itself. By prostrating ourselves before God, we subordinate our needs, our personal goals, and we prioritize what it is God desires.
When we prioritize God, be it in communal and corporate worship, or whether in our daily witness lived in a lifestyle of worship, what happens? One last time, let us remember the text from Luke this morning. It says, ‘the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people were looking for a way to kill Jesus, but they could not find any, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.’ The people are set apart from the religious leaders – the religious leaders relied too heavily on themselves for knowing what was right and wrong in the faith. But the people, they rightly listened to the Lord; they were spellbound by what the heard.
The truth is, we cannot worship in a meaningful way if we are bringing our personal motives into the worship space; try as we might, we will never convince ourselves that worship is a worthwhile use of our time if we expect worship to be about us; Christ’s call and the purpose of worship is to humble ourselves to hear the spellbinding message of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Too much, the Church has become about a collection of individuals – people within the church – instead of being identified as the communal body of Christ. Preachers, pastors, musicians, lay readers, organists, communion stewards, greeters … these roles have become so important on Sunday mornings in the Church culture, that I fear in many ways, the Church has lost sight of what is really important in worship. Fred Craddock, in his commentary on Luke says that within the church, “There is no regular procedure for self-criticism and so servants become officials, ministers become religious authorities, self-interests call for perpetuation, and the costs of maintenance demand new fiscal policies. Gradually a beautiful place and its witness to the sovereignty of God loses its way, until someone comes along who loves both God and the temple enough to purify it.”
The call to make a commitment to be in worship is not about just having you in worship on Sunday mornings. The call to climb another step in your journey toward a greater commitment to Christ is about how faithful worship can transform your life and the life of this community. Faithful worship is not about receiving salvation; it’s about worshipping the God who has already given you salvation.
Faithful worship is about being that person who loves both God and the Church enough to be in attendance in worship every week, and to make worship be not about self, not about what personal gain you may earn, but about self-emptying humility which allows you, and everyone who gathers around you, to join in the chorus of community – of faithful fellowship – of Christian family, to receive the life-changing love and grace of God.
So I ask you this morning to consider you commitment to faithful worship, and regular worship attendance. Each of us is blessed in worship by the presence of each other, as together we gather before our Lord.