This was to be the message that I presented for the Friday Night Vespers in the Garden series at Grace UMC this past Friday. But as I noted in the first line, the weather was pretty bad Friday morning and we had flash food advisories all over the place. In fact, this is what it looked like a little earlier in the day (photo shared by a friend on Facebook:
So, when it was all said and done, we cancelled the Vespers for Friday. But we are planning on having Vespers tonight and then this coming Friday, so if you are in the neighborhood, come on by.
I based this message primarily on the passage from Isaiah (Isaiah 1, 10 – 20) but also used the readings from Hebrews (Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16) and Luke (Luke 12: 32 – 40).
So why are we here this Friday evening in the Grace UMC garden, especially with the weather the way it was this morning (for those reading this, it rained for the better part of the morning and caused the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood advisory for the area)? And why will we gather in our respective churches on Sunday morning or perhaps again here in the garden Sunday evening? Shouldn’t we be home resting from a long work week and preparing for a short but hectic weekend?
Well, first of all, worship isn’t supposed to be an add-on to what we do but rather a moment when we can gather as a group to be with God. It doesn’t matter if it is on a Friday night, a Saturday morning, or sometime on a Sunday; we have gathered to pause and be with God, to refresh our souls as much as we refresh our bodies.
I think sometimes we fail to realize that. We make the argument that we need our rest, that we need to recharge. But recharging our soul doesn’t simply shutting down for a period of time. It means putting back in what has been taken out. Our gathering together for worship should be to provide that opportunity.
But what was it that made God so mad in the passage from Isaiah that we read today. It wasn’t that the people of Israel had gathered together in worship but what they had done to the worship and what they had done to the concept of a society of God’s people.
In one sense, God has called the bluff of the Israelite people and said that He is tired of what they have substituted for true worship. Now, I suppose we could have a rather lengthy and deep discussion on the rituals and practices of religious ceremonies two thousand years ago and why God, through Isaiah, is complaining. It would seem to me that, while based on what God had laid out as the pattern for worship in the early days of the Exodus, worship had begun to borrow more and more from the neighbors and from the secular world. It was no longer what it was meant to be.
There are passages in the Old Testament that lay out what the people are supposed to be doing and when they are supposed to be doing it in terms of worshiping God. God was very specific in what the people were to do because they were just beginning to understand who they were and what their relationship to God was to be and what their relationship with others in their own community and other communities was to be. But, by the time we get to Isaiah, this group of people is no longer wandering through the wilderness, figuratively and physically, but well established as a country and an identity. They should understand the nature of worship and their relationship with God.
But they don’t, as we know from a study of the Old Testament. It isn’t just that the Israelites have this very frightening tendency to forget the who, the why, and the how of worship and would, more often than not, borrow the worship habits of their neighbors; they also forget the relationship with God. It would seem to me that they had allowed a priestly class, designed to assist them in worship, become a ruling class, dictating how to live and think.
No wonder God is so angry. The practice of worship had become something of a routine and when things become a routine, you sometimes have trouble remembering what it is you do.
I was once told that most car accidents occur close to home. I don’t know how true that is today but I think it is very logical. You are comfortable in your home surroundings and you don’t necessarily look for things out of place. When you are in a new area, one that you don’t know, you tend to pay more attention to what you are doing. Accidents occur when you stop paying attention. When we stop paying attention to the simple things, the harder things become that much harder.
The same is true in church today. Often times when I go out to another church to provide pulpit supply I use the order of worship that is in place at that church. That’s fine because I am there to do one thing and that is not to change the ways things are. But I have also been told on more than one occasion that the congregation is not comfortable with changing the order of worship and that is frightening. Are the people so locked into a manner of worship that they can only to do things by the numbers? I have come to believe that the greatest problem in many congregations today is that change is not welcome – “this is they way that it was done when I came here; this is the way that it is done now; and this is the way that it will be tomorrow and for years to come.”
God points out that the Israelites are going through the motions, making notes on what they have done, the meetings they have attended, the grade of meat they provide for the church BBQ, whoops, sacrifices. But after it is all said and done, they go back to the same old lifestyle, one of sin and hatred, violence and greed, oppression and injustice.
There are two constant themes in the Bible and we know them well. Throughout the Old Testament, we are reminded that it is our relationship with God and others and how we react to each that is important. Even Jesus reminded his critics of these two points.
When the church members found out that he had cooked the liberals’ goose, they ganged up on him, and one of their bright boys, trying to get Jesus over a barrel, asked, “Doctor, what is the most important commandment in the Bible?”
Jesus said, “’You shall love your Lord God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind.’ This is the greatest and most important commandment. Next to it is this one: ‘You shall love your fellow man as yourself.’ The whole Bible hinges on these two.” (Matthew 34 – 40; The Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan
You cannot do either of these if all you do is go through the motions. The key word in what Jesus said, at least to me, is “love”. I am sure that you can take care of the hungry, the needy, the sick, and the oppressed and do it without an ounce of love but what do you get out of it in the end and what do the people get as well.
So why are we here today; why will we be in worship on Sunday? I turn to the first part of the Gospel reading for today
“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.
In the Cotton Patch Gospels, Clarence Jordan translated the second sentence of that passage as “Your Father has decided to make your responsible of the Movement.” In the verses that follow the passage from Luke, Dr. Jordan pointed out that those who do the work of God will be rewarded and those who don’t do the work that is expected will be in a lot of trouble. And that brings us back to Isaiah.
There is a song that we sing that opens with the following words,
Some come to dance
Some come to play
Some merely come to pass time away
Some come to laugh
Their voices do ring
But as for me
I come here to sing
We have come here to sing and praise, to refresh and renew, to hear the word and live the word. And then when the worship is over, to go out into the world and continue to do what God wants us to do.
Some will come because they are seeking God. If those who have come to this place and this time and come for their own selfish needs, to gather points for some unknown reward card, those who seek God will not find Him. But if those who are here have come to be with God, those who seek God will surely find Him.
The question seems simple but is complex. But the answer is often times very simple. I have come because I seek Christ and I know that in this worship I will find Christ and I will be able to help others to find Christ.