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Rethinking the Worth of Worship

Sermon Theme: What Should I Do About Suffering?

“Why do you worship?” The answer flows from Exodus 20:1-17 and has to do with change; to see ourselves for who we are and to see God for who he is. “Worship changes us.”

Why get out of bed earlier than most on Sunday, get dressed in a-bit-nicer-than-work clothes, walk or drive here, if driving, look for a parking spot, come in, and worship? Great music? Meet old and new friends? Get a boost for the week? Habit? None of those are bad or wrong. But if someone asks, “Why do you worship?” there’s a powerful, meaningful, and actually instructive and impactful answer you can offer. It flows from today’s first reading from Exodus chapter twenty and has to do with change. Yikes! You know the old saying, “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer, “What? Change?” But here it goes “worship changes us.

 To see ourselves for who we are

I used to picture the Israelites who escaped from Egypt under Moses’ leadership as the good guys and the Egyptian Pharaoh and his army as the bad guys. Didn’t you? The good guys were enslaved and oppressed. Pharaoh and his taskmasters were brutal, evil, harsh, and mean. God came to the rescue. The good guys escaped. The bad guys drowned.

But this picture of good guys and bad guys doesn’t add up when we witness the Israelites on their journey to the promised land. How could they constantly grumble and complain instead of trusting God who miraculously provided a daily supply of food and on more than one occasion water from a rock in the middle of the desert? How could they whine, “We’d rather die in Egypt than in this miserable desert,” instead of joyfully following God? How could they worship a golden calf instead of revering God with all their heart, soul, and mind? The answer? They were not good guys. Basically, they were heathen. God knew it, Moses knew it, but they didn’t know it. They didn’t realize the depth of their own crookedness and corruption. They needed a change of attitude, a change of heart. They needed to see themselves for who they really were without God, and there was only one way for that to happen.

God went to work on their hearts. From Mount Sinai and through Moses, his spokesman, God held up a giant mirror. In techno-Bible talk it is called God’s law. His law stirs up knee-knocking fear and deep-slime-pit despair, demanding that we be just as holy as he is in order to be near him and stand in his presence and demonstrating that we can’t match up to what he expects by pointing to all the bad we do and all the good we forget to do. If you came into church today, and someone said, “You’ve got a little powdered sugar on your cheek,” or if someone said, “You’ve got a hole in the back of the shoulder of your jacket,” or if someone said, “Your shirt collar has a grape juice stain on it,” you’d probably take their word for it. But if you wanted to be sure, you’d need a mirror.

One of life’s most difficult challenges is being honest with ourselves. The truth is that deep inside each and every one of us there is a little heathen. God knows it, but we wouldn’t know unless God puts his finger on it and presses down hard. Ever since Adam and Eve hid in the bushes of Eden, we humans are born wanting to hide and cover up our faults. Ever since Adam blamed God for his troubles because he had created Eve, ever since Eve blamed God for her troubles because he had created the snake, we humans are born-blamers, and in the end, we are blaming God. We aren’t good at understanding the depth of our own crookedness and corruption. We need a change of attitude, a change of heart. We need to see ourselves for who we really are without God’s love.

God does that every time we worship. Sidebar, please! There are lots of folks who think worship is something we do. We gather, we sing. we pray, we praise. Fine. Nothing wrong with that. But I implore you to consider another definition for worship, namely, God coming to us, God serving us, God reaching from the heavens and changing us on the inside. He does that in only one way, through his words. So, he hauls out the giant mirror of his law and says, “Take a look. Have you always kept me ‘Number One’ in your heart and life, more important than your job, your friends, your spouse, your kids, your wallet? Have you ever tossed my holy name in at the beginning of a sentence? Have you always leaped out of bed on a Sunday and said, ‘Great! I get to go to church today!’? Have you always respected your teachers, your boss? How about the person in the Oval Office? Have you held a grudge against anyone? Has flared-up anger ever bonfired into hatred? Have you ever glanced at a member of the opposite gender and had a lustful thought pass through your mind? Have you ever stuck five bucks in the offering box in back instead of figuring out a percentage of your income to give to God? Has anything untrue ever slipped through the little slit in your face known as your mouth? Have you always been in control of your desires?”

Those are just a few of the issues God raised up as he confronted the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The exact wording of his laws for the Israelites doesn’t apply to us today, but the thought behind it all remains. God says, “If you want to live with me, then you have to be changed on the inside. Listen to my words, my law, in order to take a good, hard look at yourself. Don’t look for a place to hide. It won’t work.” Sure enough, worship changes us, as God smashes our hearts so we see ourselves for who we really are and who we would be if left to ourselves without God.

To see God for who he is

When God spoke through Moses to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, he actually had to introduce himself to them. While living in Egypt, they had been introduced to all kinds of gods, and they picked up some of the worship practices of the Egyptians who worshiped animals, the river, the sun, and the king. Where do you think they got the idea for a golden calf? That’s why God made it perfectly clear to them, “I am the only God there is. The plagues I brought on the Egyptians demonstrated that beyond a shadow of a doubt. No god can do what I do. I am the only God, the holy God, and you are rightly shaking in your sandals, especially when you think of the consequences which you deserve because of your being not right with me. I have to say this in order for you to appreciate who I really am.”

If you were relaxing in an upper-level apartment or in the upstairs of a house and suddenly heard someone on a ladder tapping at your window, saying, “Come on out!” you’d think that if he’d be any dumber, he’d have to be watered twice a week. But if your room were on fire, that person’s message would make sense. You’d be delighted to have a rescuer.

Once God had changed the Israelites on the inside, crushing to pieces their I’m-OK-and-I-can-do-what-I-want-attitude, they were ready for his second power tool, an announcement that penetrates the heart and glues together the broken pieces. He told them, “I am the God who shows love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments. I am the God who treats you in a way that is just the opposite of what you deserve. I can do that because I am the God who keeps all of his promises. I promised to rescue you from slavery in Egypt. I kept that promise. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land slavery. But I have also made a bigger promise, the promise to send a rescuer who is going to pull you from the consequences of your sin. Because he is your Substitute, I am changing your status. You will no longer be the target for my holy heat. You will now be the apple of my eye.” In techno-Bible talk that announcement is called the gospel. Any Israelite who heard that announcement of a changed status before God and took it to heart experienced another change, the change from aching inside with fear and despair to being filled with hope and joy.

Sidebar, please. There are lots of folks who think worship is something we do. We gather, we sing. we pray, we praise. Fine. Nothing wrong with that. But I implore you to consider another definition for worship, namely, God coming to us, God serving us, God reaching from the heavens and changing us on the inside. He does that in only one way, through his words, and cover to cover, woven together like golden cords, there are two messages throughout Holy Scripture, the mirror of his law and the announcement of his gospel. That announcement fills out everything about who God really is. One of the prophets said it so well, “Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way … For this is what the high and exalted One says – he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. I will not accuse forever, nor will I always be angry … I have seen [the sinful] ways [of people], but I will heal [them]; I will guide [them] and restore comfort to [them]’” (Isaiah 57:14-16a,18). Sure enough, worship changes us so we see God for who he is, the God who has changed our status, giving us a changed view of who we really are with his love, not little heathen running around anymore but his dearly loved children!

I think it’s fair to say that nearly every type of religion would like people to change from sinful ways to be more pious, more religious, more spiritual, in general, to be better people. That is the bottom line for many of the world religions like Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism as well as the American cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism. That is also the bottom line for many Christian denominations. Of course, that goal is not bad. Wouldn’t you agree that having people be more pious, more religious, more spiritual is a good idea? The big question is, “How? How will that happen?” I suppose, a person could use psychological pressure to scare the liver out of people or pile on a load of guilt. Those tactics would likely change people’s behavior, but their hearts would remain unchanged. God alone has the answer on how to change us. If your job depended on change, you’d do it. If marriage depended on change, you’d do it. Here’s something with no “ifs.” Our eternal life does depend on change. That’s why we listen and learn from God’s words, certainly in private worship but also and especially when we gather for group worship. God uses his tools, law and gospel, to change us on the inside so that we live for him and others. That’s the answer to, “Why do you worship?” So, here’s something fun. Find someone you know who does not go to church, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor, maybe even a family member. Ask what they’re doing next Sunday. They’ll likely what you will be doing. Tell them you plan on going to church, and, pray God, when they ask, “Why do you worship?” the door is open for you to say all sorts of wonderful things about Jesus and tell the truth, “Worship changes me!” Amen.

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