Preparing for Worship

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on August 16, 2015)

So yesterday as I was preparing for worship by preparing this message I want to say today, I got to thinking: I wonder if there are some people who think it’s the pastors’ job to prepare for worship.

If you ARE in that boat, I’m going to sink it today. Preparing for worship is ALL of our responsibility. My goal, though, is not to make that feel like some kind of burden.

Instead, my goal is to hold up a radical and life-giving idea. For each and every one of us, the preparation for worshipping together happens when we worship God on our own ourselves. In drawing near to God, we experience exactly what we were created for!

This idea we have as Quakers…that our personal worship experiences with God are what make a corporate experience of worship possible, rather than the reverse…this idea we have as Quakers is what I really believe is the heart of everything.

Following Jesus is about more than getting information. It’s more than belief. It’s more than doing the right things. It’s more than trying harder. It’s more than feeling spiritual or passionate or good. Following Jesus is experiencing God, listening to God, and obeying God. It is offering ourselves to God in such a way that we are transformed!

And in that drawing near to God, we are also given a place in a community, in a family, in Christ’s church where each of us plays a part in helping the whole body of Christ move in love and obedience to God.

The essential way, then, to prepare for our worship together is to draw near to God on our own.

It’s a beautiful gift, actually. Because of Jesus, we can draw near to God. Think of all the ways spiritual quests or religious practices give a different message, a message of how difficult it is to experience God. We think of monks on a solitary pursuit…letting go of worldly attachments to find God. We see some pulpits raised up way higher than the congregation, communicating how inaccessible God is to the average person. We remember the Jewish temple, with its courtyards which said “only this far” to Gentiles and to women, with its holy of holies that only the high priest could enter once a year.

So many things scream about the inaccessibility of God, but the loudest and most definitive word is that God has come near, the Word in the flesh. Jesus has forever changed our ability to experience God. Ray/Susannah read one of my favorite parts of the bible earlier, from the book of Hebrews. Turn with me there again, to Hebrews 10:19.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:19-23, TNIV)

The radical truth of Christianity is that Jesus opened a new way of life for us, one that lets us boldly enter into God’s presence.

God is not in a location, in a place, or held captive by certain practices or people. Where Samaritans and Jews once argued about the correct place for the temple, Jesus reminded us that the day would come when place wouldn’t matter, when all true followers would worship God “in Spirit and in Truth.”

These verses from Hebrews take some of the most important images and symbols from Jewish worship, and completely transform them. Where people used to offer sacrifices and blood for protection and forgiveness from God, Jesus’ death has now completely and fully met that need.

Our world today doesn’t much use these images of blood, but we do understand “washed with pure water.” We know this on multiple scales. At the light end, the embarrassment that comes when you show up at a friends house, still sweaty in your workout clothes, and realize a whole bunch of people are there.  We know how much a shower of pure water is needed there!

We know this on a much deeper level, where clean, pure water that flushes out a deep wound can keep infection from setting in and causing tremendous illness.

We can boldly enter the presence of God because of Jesus! The way has been opened. Not by pastors who teach truth. Not by priests who seem to hold the keys to God’s presence in the Eucharist. Not by spiritual guides who give tasks for you to overcome or achieve. Not by emptying ourselves.

It’s already opened by Jesus. This is the heart of our faith. What is left to us is to boldly walk right into the presence of God…and find cleansing, forgiveness, and transformation.

What does this look like?

We can go back hundreds of years to a young person who was seeking for this real and transformative experience with God.

He studied; studied the bible, studied theology. He longed to boldly enter into God’s presence, yet struggled to know how to do it or what it looked like. So he asked respected spiritual people in his community. Time after time, he was disappointed in what he found as he asked his questions. One basically said to calm down and relax, try smoking to see if it would chill out the questions he was having about spirituality.

One conversation with a pastor was going well, as they explored ideas and theology…but then the young man stepped on the edge of the pastor’s flower bed, sending the pastor all into a rage and ending that relationship. Despair overwhelmed the young man-if right theology and right thinking didn’t keep a person from petty anger, where was the power of God to be found?

Giving up, young George Fox went off on his own…and was surprised by God. He writes about the life-changing day in his journal:

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”; and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.

This experience became the life message of George Fox.

Don’t look to rituals, don’t look to belief, don’t look to people, don’t look to theology as the things which will meet your deepest longing and transform your life. Find the way Jesus opened and walk boldly right into the presence of God! That’s where you will find joy.

George Fox lived in a time when the church did not have many examples of spiritual vitality, and his experiences caused him to be quite skeptical of how others can help the faith journey. While I’m a little more hopeful and not quite as negative about how symbols and belief and people can help us experience God, even so, the heart of George’s experience holds true. Christianity is not primarily about learning right beliefs or doing right behaviors. It is primarily about being in the presence of God!

Several months ago, we were gathered downstairs for the Senior Salute, the gathering we’ve done for about a decade to honor, celebrate and bless our high school graduates from NFC.

I’m really grateful to Cheri Hampton and Sandra Fish, who got us started with this gathering. A key part of Senior Salute every year is a time where we as the community pray prayers of blessing as we surround the graduates.

Our high school class of 2015 is a pretty big one, and they’ve been around church stuff most of their lives. They’ve been to hours upon hours of Sunday School lessons, studied the bible for Bible Quiz meets, listened to teachers and even a few sermons over the years. They know tons and tons about the bible and about faith.

I was led to pray that night, and I acknowledged all of that…how they know a lot about beliefs and the bible and what it means to follow God. As they find their own way in the world, what I prayed was that they would experience the reality, the life-changing reality, of the presence of God. That they would make that experience with God their own, and like billions of Christ-followers before them, that experience with God would give them hope and challenge them and change them to be more like Jesus Christ.

I’ve continued to pray that same prayer for several of them a couple of times a month since then. I’ve prayed it for myself. I’ve prayed it for all of you. It’s like God has been drawing me back to this central reality: knowledge and belief are not bad things, but without a real encounter with God, we are missing the most important thing. I want them, I want me, I want all of us to regularly walk the way Jesus opened, and boldly enter the presence of God.

There’s nothing that can replace the real presence of God in our lives.

There’s nothing that can substitute for it. Many things can point us to it; and this is probably where I would debate George Fox if he was still walking this earth. He seemed to place priests and communion with the elements and other symbols and religious experiences as if they were pitted against a real experience of the presence of God.

Rather, I think when all of those things are done as intended, they work togetehr. They help and guide us…they even usher us into the presence of God. Nothing can substitute for the real presence of God in our lives, but many things point us toward it.

I’ve told this next story to many people, but it’s right at the heart of what I want to say today.

When I was in high school, the church I was part of would have a Sunday evening service once a quarter where we could take communion with the elements. I loved those services! They were incredibly meaningful to me, times when God felt real and close. I can even remember one of those times where God helped me see how something I was doing was really wrong and needed to change, and it led me to ask God’s forgiveness…to repent in the best biblical sense of that word.

I came to college and began attending this church, and I missed those communion services with the elements. I missed how that activity encouraged me toward a real experience of the living God. Sometimes we can be frustrated, wondering why the people planning our worship together don’t do the things that work for me, that help me best experience God.

Then I was in a class that taught what Quakers or Friends believe about communion. It was one of those life memories. It sunk in for the first time how the essential part of what I loved about those communion services in high school was the encounter with God. The class exposed me to the bold and lofty Quaker goal: to live as much as possible, as many minutes of each day as we can, intentionally in the presence of God.

The crazy, radical idea is that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, those powerful, special spiritual moments like communion with the elements, or like being alone in God’s creation, or like having a good friend pray with insight exactly what you most need…the crazy, radical idea is that every moment is an opportunity to experience God in a real way. Every moment has the potential of all of those special moments. Those moments are sign posts, reminding us to boldly enter and “go right into the presence of God…with sincere hearts, fully trusting him.”

At its best, it all works together.

When people have real encounters with the living God, those give life to community and religious symbols and our times of worship together. And when our gathered times of worship have been fed by real encounters with God, those times of worship together give life to our individual experiences with God.

How great for ALL of us, if we each as individuals spend time in God’s presence each week, bringing the life and vibrancy from those encounters with God to our corporate worship? Open worship can become a vibrant percolator of people sharing their experiences with God, giving our worship together life and power that comes only from encounters with the living God. May it be!

I’m in a season of life where there are pressures and distractions on every side. 

Tuesday morning, I was struggling under the weight of that. I’m glad that I took the time–just ten minutes because it was all I had that morning–I took ten minutes to sit in a chair in my office and ask God’s Holy Spirit to pray for me.

And let me tell you, the Holy Spirit did.

It almost felt like a physical weight was removed from my shoulders, and that brief encounter with the living God “made me clean” and “washed with pure water.” I will be one to say that these are not dead words on a page in the bible. This drawing near to God is what sustains me and gives me strength.

I want to live in it. I do what I do because I want all of you to experience God, too.

So this drawing near to God IS the best way to prepare for our worship gatherings on Sunday…but it is so much more than that.

It is the reason we exist, to know and be known by the living God! Let’s do it. Let’s draw near to God!

I’ll close with a few more verses from Hebrews 10. May these sink deep and give you courage to go right in to the presence of God!

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25, TNIV)

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