This is the message that I am presenting at Gaylordsville United Methodist Church on July 12th. The Scriptures for that Sunday were 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19; Ephesians 1:3 – 14; and Mark 6: 14 -29
I will also be at Gaylordsville next week; services are at 9:30 and you are welcome to attend.
This has been edited since first posted.
Why did you come to church this morning? Perhaps you had heard from someone that there was going to be an interesting speaker and you wanted to see or hear for yourself what you friends had said was true. Maybe you are here this morning because you have to be here; you have the keys to the building and if you aren’t here, people will come looking for you. Then again, you are here today because you didn’t have a choice, your mother or father told you that you had to come.
It is entirely possible, of course that you came to church this morning out of habit. For my family, church was part of the Sunday routine, along with pancakes and bacon for breakfast, Southern-fried chicken for supper and perhaps a pizza for dinner.
But even that routine became sadly boring and I found myself fighting tedium, boredom, and apathy during the service; so much so that my mother would routinely elbow me in order to keep me awake. And while I can’t remember who was preaching, I do know that even hellfire and damnation preachers have the extraordinary power to put me to sleep in church.
What were you expecting to receive from your relatively limited time here this morning? For too many people the answer to this question is they want is for church to be a microcosm of society. They want an hour or so (and really not more than an hour) away from the problems of the world; they want very simple topics and nothing that requires them to think or respond; and they want God to give them the solutions rather than being asked to solve the problems of the world.
And fair warning, if that is what you expect this morning, it is not what you are going to get. For every two or three people out there for whom Sunday and church are a limited amount of time that could be spent better elsewhere there is at least one person who is desperately searching for the answers to questions buried deep within their soul. These questions are so deep in their soul that most people cannot even say what the question might be; they only know that something is missing in their life and perhaps, just perhaps, the church can tell them what it is.
I can empathize with these people because there have periods in my life where I knew that something was missing. But for me, I knew what was missing; there are many out there who do not know what it is they are missing.
I have often said that I came to know Christ through the power of my mother’s elbow as she constantly poked me to stay awake as we sat in the pew of 1st Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. To get away from her elbowing me, I would sit in a pew myself; and for whatever reason, I began to think about pursuing the God and Country award in the Boy Scouts.
With my father’s transfer to Lowry Air Force Base and our move to the Denver area, I found myself attending the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church in Aurora, Colorado. The pastor of this church was George Edie and while I am not sure if he understood what the God and Country award meant, he agreed to guide myself and two others in the process of earning this award.
The one thing that you have to understand about this award is that it is an award that one seeks out of something internal, not external. Advancement in the Scouts does not require this award and this award is the only one that can be earned regardless on one’s Scouting rank. Those who seek the award as a “trophy” will find themselves falling short of the goal.
Somewhere in that period of growing up, going to church every Sunday, and working through the God and Country award, I came to know who Christ was. And while I may not have understood back in 1965 what this award really meant, other than it was a decision that I made on my own, the training and classes that I attended, the duties that I performed and what I learned kept me alive during the times that I have come to call the wilderness of my life.
And when I started to college and had the opportunity to no longer go to church if I didn’t want to, I found myself still going. But it wasn’t out of habit that I went to church; I found that if I didn’t go to church I was missing something that was a part of me and my life..
It may be that is why you are here today. You are seeking something, something that cannot be described or defined. It is something that cannot be physically felt but only be determined through the experience that comes with worship on Sunday mornings. The freedom of having Sunday morning open didn’t fill the void and I came to understand that what transpired on Sunday morning was a very necessary and important part of my life.
There are many today who have the same feeling, the same emptiness in their lives that I felt. But they don’t know where to turn; they don’t know who has the answers to the questions that they aren’t even capable of asking. There is something missing in their lives but they don’t know where to turn.
They may feel that the church is the place to find the answer. But how can the church help? They know of the Bible and they know who Jesus Christ was, but they see their knowledge in terms of the past, not the present.
C. S. Lewis wrote
… Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of a map. But the map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God – experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you or I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion – all about feeling God in nature, and so on – is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map. (From The Joyful Christian by C. S. Lewis)
What Lewis is saying is that without the real experience of God in one’s life, it is impossible to turn book learning into real Christianity. We might feel that we are Christians because we have studied the Bible and know about Christ. But until you experience Christ as your own personal Savior, all that training and study are no more than what Peter would call “cleverly invented stories” (2 Peter 1: 16).
But where do you come into contact with Christ? Where do you receive that one little spark that transforms Christ from the person revealed in the history books into the individual who transcends time and place?
The problem is that the church, at times, seems out of touch with today, speaking in a language from the 17th century; other times behaving as if this were the 19th century instead the 21st century. And when the words of the church do not reflect the words of the Bible or when the words of the Bible do not reflect the words of society, those who seek answers to questions that they do not understand will go elsewhere to find the answers.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians that God will understand those who speak in tongues but no one else will know what they are saying. But when one proclaims the truth in everyday speech, then others can begin to know the truth. (1 Corinthians 3: 2, 4)
Church is no longer a worship experience, a time to recharge the soul but a momentary point in time required by society. It is no longer the place for the soul but a place for society. And in a society where it seems that every minute of the day and the week is to be blocked out and accounted for, time on Sunday morning to be in worship gets shunted aside.
To be sure, many in the church today are aware of the gap that exists between those who are in church and those outside. And they are working on reducing that divide. But I am afraid that the methods that are being used are more in line with society’s methods than they are with God’s methods.
If you will allow me the analogy, the church’s response in this day and age is like Herod’s promise to his daughter. The church willingly makes a deal that pleases society but compromises its soul. And in the end, the deal that is made is destructive to all parties. To bring people into the church requires more than simply responding to the needs of society. It must be willing to set itself apart from society so that people understand what is happening.
The Old Testament reading for this Sunday (2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5 and 12 – 19) is about the triumphal entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. In the second portion of the reading, David dances in joy in front of the procession but David’s joy brings anger to the heart of Michal, the daughter of Saul and sister of Jonathan. There is more to that story which we will save for a later date.
It is the first part of this Scripture that we must focus on in the context of what the church is trying to do. In verses 1 – 5, we read
They placed the Chest of God on a brand-new oxcart and removed it from Abinadab’s house on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, Abinadab’s sons, were driving the new cart loaded with the Chest of God, Ahio in the lead and Uzzah alongside the Chest. David and the whole company of Israel were in the parade, singing at the top of their lungs and playing mandolins, harps, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals. When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled, so Uzzah reached out and grabbed the Chest of God. God blazed in anger against Uzzah and struck him hard because he had profaned the Chest. Uzzah died on the spot, right alongside the Chest.
Now, this is one of those passages that critics of the church probably love, for it doesn’t make any sense that God would kill someone who was trying to protect the Ark of the Covenant. But the Ark was being transported on a cart, not carried as prescribed in Exodus 25: 14 and Numbers 3: 30 – 31; the Philistines had captured the ark and placed it on a cart to be carried away as a war prize, not as essential part of the worship service.
And David, as we would be, was angry at God for killing Uzzah because Uzzah’s actions were unintentional. But God had told the people what the penalty for failing to respect the Ark would be; it was not Uzzah’s attempt to keep the Ark from touching the ground that was the problem, it was the fact that when the Israelites had recovered the Ark and failed to respect its sacredness that caused his death.
And what the church has done today is remove the sacredness from the service in order to say to society, “look, we’re cool, we’re hip, we understand what you want.”
When we remove the sacredness from our worship service in an effort to bring people in, we end up losing more people than we gain. When you remove the sacredness you remove the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to be a part of the service and if the Holy Spirit is not part of the service, it is not possible to answer those questions that so trouble you.
Sacredness is not a set of rules but an attitude, one of respect and thoughtfulness. Sacredness is not found in the traditions of worship but the reasons for worship. There are many ways of holding worship, from the place it is held to the music that is sung.
I have held worship services outside in the Foothills of the Rocky Mountains that were as meaningful as a formal, high church service in a elaborate and ornate sanctuary. When I started really lay speaking, driving some 185 miles on a Sunday to preach at three years in southwest Kansas, I would listen to a radio broadcast of hymns and praise from London that was transmitted over the local NPR station. It was a quiet and peaceful way to begin that day’s work. And even know, I am able to listen to WFUV, Fordham University’s radio station. Before service is a time of quiet and what I call folk music; afterwards, the station broadcasts the mass and it gives me the opportunity to reflect on the message that I prepared as well as listen to someone else’s interpretation of the Scriptures for that Sunday.
My wife and I are hosting a Friday night vesper service in the gardens of our church (“Friday Night Vespers in the Garden”) and while the numbers may not be what we would have liked them to be, it is clear that the Holy Spirit is present with those who have gathered together.
No matter where you might hold a church service, if it is done with respect, it will be a time when the Holy Spirit comes down and is part of the service.
The same can be said about the music played in a church service. I don’t mind variations on traditional church music. After all, I once proposed a worship service that focused on the music of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Cream (“A Rock And Roll Revival”). As I fiddled with this “modern” service I discovered that an order of worship involving the music of the group U2 has also been created (see “Rock and Revival Revisited”; it should also be noted that this is a particular order of worship to be used for a specific service). Even Duke Ellington has written a number of liturgical pieces. To me, if the music moves your soul, then it has a place in the worship service.
But when we get away from sacredness of the service; when things are done because it is the easy way or that’s way it has always been done, then we begin to lose the meaning of the moment. And for those who need that moment, it is often the time that they turn away from the church. Note that I am not talking about the seriousness of the moment. It is quite easy to have fun while worshipping and celebrating the presence of Christ and God in our lives. Should we not sound the trumpets and bang the cymbals? But, in the words of the Preacher, “there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3: 4). There is also a time to tear down and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3: 7).
This is a great time for the church, if we would but take it. We live in a time when mankind has the power to master the world, even destroy it. It may not be through nuclear war, as it was for so many of us who grew up in 1950’s and 1960’s but the crisis of weather, the crisis of money, the crisis of belief are all things which can lead to the destruction of the world. And the answers that many people are giving in response are far too simple and far too shallow to adequately explain and predict what we must do as individuals and as a society.
The church as a denomination, as a group, and individually must be there to help people answer the questions that they seek answers for. We must be the church that we once were, not the church we are today.
Christ once said that we need to seek the truth and the truth shall set us free. And that is what so many people want, the truth and the freedom. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul points out that we have gained that freedom through Christ. The question then is how we as individuals, as a single church, a denomination, and as Christian respond to the needs and desires of those who do not know Christ but seek answers to the questions deep within their lives?
We have seen that the traditional evangelical response of telling people that the answer lies in Christ and if they don’t accept Christ as their Savior then they are doomed doesn’t work. You cannot ask someone to follow Christ without first showing them how Christ is at work in the world. You cannot call someone to conversion without enabling them to see how Christ calls each one of us to repent of our prejudices and to be open to the fullness of life in which there is no black or white, no rich or poor, no free or slave? To do otherwise is practice an evangelism that is a false witness – a religious escape from Christ’s demands.
What we are called to do today is an evangelism in which a call for Christ is related to a decision in Christ; to a call to be free for the presence with Christ within the struggles of our time. It is not an easy task. The death of John the Baptist was put into Mark’s Gospel as a reminder that Jesus’ own ministry was not going to be an easy one.
In coming to Christ, we have received the gift of life, a life free from slavery to sin and death. And having received that gift, we know must go out into the world and share that gift through our words, our thoughts, and our actions.