By Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Isaiah 1: 1; 10-17
Perhaps you’ve heard about the woman who woke up one morning, rolled over and told her husband: “I’m not going to church this morning. I don’t want to go.” “But honey,” her husband replied, “you have to go. You’re the pastor.”
In twenty-first-century, postmodern, western culture, corporate (or congregational) worship is one of the spiritual practices in greatest decline. And, let’s admit, congregational worship appears to take a real kick in the teeth in the opening chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Not only does God not delight in the worship of these ancient Israelites. God hates it!
I want to invite you to turn to someone near you and discuss this question – and in a moment, I’m going to ask for some responses: Why does corporate or congregational worship matter? What difference does what we’re doing here this morning make?
Now, before I go any further, let me say this: this morning’s sermon is not about trying to guilt you into coming to church. First of all, that’s preaching to the choir, cause you’re already here. Furthermore, mere duty or habit is not a very good reason for coming to church. I feel pretty sure that God doesn’t track worship attendance statistics as closely as the United Methodist Church. And finally, if my goal were to shame you into showing up more frequently for church, I would be guilty of the very thing criticized in this opening chapter of Isaiah. Friends: worship is not simply about fulfilling a duty and it certainly isn’t about assuaging our guilt or winning brownie points with God in order to get the things we want out of life. Worship is not Sunday dress up. It’s not even primarily about “getting air in our spiritual tires for the week.”
This morning’s assigned scripture reading was only the verses from the first chapter of Isaiah. But, after reading them, I couldn’t help but think about the story of the call of Isaiah and the stark, dramatic contrast between how Isaiah comes into the presence of God and how those ancient Israelites to whom he is called to prophesy, how they are coming into the presence of God. This morning I’m not trying to give a comprehensive definition of worship. But I will say this: whatever else it involves, worship is about purposefully and attentively entering into the presence of Almighty God.
You know, one of the most popular TED Talks of all time is Brene Brown’s talk on vulnerability. As a researcher, it sprung from her work in evaluating human connections. Brown reminds us, just as our Bible does, that humans are built for connection. Genesis tells us that, after God created that first human in the garden, God pronounced it was not good for him to be alone. He needed a companion, a helper. God built us for connection. And, according to Brown’s research, connection is impossible without vulnerability.
Brown’s research discovery applies to worship as well. Perhaps it’s never crossed your mind that worship is an exercise in vulnerability in that it connects us to, or brings us into the presence of, a holy God. In that story of Isaiah’s call, he has a vision in which he finds himself in a heavenly worship setting. I’ve mentioned before the Israelite understanding that God lived in the heavens and that his feet and his long robe would flow through the sky and come to rest on the Ark in the Holy of Holies inside the Temple, God’s home on earth. So, in Isaiah’s vision, it is as if he himself has been lifted up through the heavens to join the angels in their worship of God… a setting which seems to incorporate typical worship elements such as an altar, a hymn, confession, and the offering of incense. Isaiah, brought into the presence of God in this setting of heavenly worship, is overwhelmed by his encounter with the Almighty. He is immediately humbled in the presence of God’s holiness. He immediately expresses his vulnerability: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…” That’s a pretty dramatic confession for Isaiah to make because the job of a prophet was to speak on God’s behalf and we speak with our lips, right? Nevertheless, through this encounter with God, Isaiah is changed, is cleansed, and offers himself up to God, saying, “Here am I; send me.” Isaiah makes himself vulnerable to God. Now, let’s be honest, in reality we are all vulnerable to God ‘cause God is God and we’re not. But some like to kick against that vulnerability or try to negotiate it on their own terms.
In that first chapter from Isaiah this morning, God indicts the people for hypocritical worship, worship that has made a mockery of God’s righteousness, holiness and justice. You know, all of the prophetic books in our Hebrew Scriptures share two common indictments of the Israelite people. They are condemned for insincere worship which has plenty of pageantry but little sincerity and substance. And they are condemned for their mistreatment and exploitation of the most vulnerable in their society. Every judgment cast against them falls into one of those two categories and, as it turns out, they go together like hand in glove.
You see, for worship to be sincere and acceptable in the sight of God, it requires our own humility and recognition of our vulnerability. It requires a perspective in which we are aware of our proper place, so to speak. Worship isn’t transactional in the sense that we come together to give God our marching orders; to tell God what we want of him. Worship is about offering ourselves to God, acknowledging that God lays claim upon us for bringing about his purposes in the world. When we come into the presence of a holy God, we are humbled as Isaiah was and yet, through our encounter with God, we become something we are not apart from the grace of God.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: I’m not implying that you should never enjoy worship, feel spiritually fed or comforted. Rather, I’m saying that authentic worship means coming into God’s presence in a vulnerable and honest way, ready to offer ourselves fully to God. It is, in fact, part of our communion liturgy that we’ll recite this morning. Go ahead and turn right now to page 9 in your red hymnal. This morning and every time we celebrate communion, we proclaim, like those heavenly seraphs, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.” And then – if you flip to the next page, p. 10, we too, like the ancient prophet, offer ourselves to God, as our communion liturgy continues: “in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice…”
But do we offer ourselves? Friends: do we recognize the power of those words spoken in the presence of Almighty God? Do we realize how dangerous those words are? Those are the words of a prophet: “here am I; send me; do whatever you’d like with me, God; I’m all in and I’m all yours.” If those words don’t frighten you, I don’t know what would. With those words we acknowledge, as did Isaiah, that God has the capacity to clean us up, to give our hands and our hearts a good scrubbing AND that God is awaiting our willingness to be sent out into the world on God’s behalf. That worship isn’t something that ends at 11:30 and we head out the door no different than when we came in. Friends, when the clock hits 11:30, worship isn’t over because we will have offered ourselves to God as a living sacrifice ready to do God’s work in the world.
And so, friends…
Christ our Lord invites to his table…
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