Elder Desiree Ocampo, preaching
August 27, 2017
There is an old story about a man who dreamt that an angel escorted him to church one Sunday. There he saw the organist playing vigorously, the choir singing passionately, the other musicians playing their instruments with gusto. But the man heard no sound. The congregation too was singing, but the sound was completely muted. When the minister rose to speak, her lips moved but there was no volume. In amazement, the man turned to his escort for an explanation. “This is the way it sounds to us in heaven,” said the angel. “You hear nothing because there is nothing to hear. These people are engaged in the form of worship but their thoughts are on other things and their hearts are far away.”
Worship. That’s what we are talking about today. What is worship? In a survey about worship, the Barna Research Group has found that the term “worship” means many things to many people. There is no single interpretation of the word that is common to more than one out of five adults in this country. Some say it is praise or giving thanks to God. Some say it is praying to God. Some say it is attending church services; or having a personal relationship with God; or having a particular attitude towards God; or it is a way of living that reflects one’s spiritual commitment.
In that survey, they also found something that is very interesting to me. Two-thirds of church-going adults (65%) reported as being very satisfied with the ability to worship God afforded by their church. Yet, nearly two thirds of regular church attenders say they have never experienced God’s presence at a church service.
I’m confused with these results. It begs the question – are we satisfied with never experiencing God’s presence when we walk through those doors each Sunday? Is it good enough for us, that once a week, we wake up, brush our teeth, get in the shower, put on our Sunday best, walk or drive to Atlantic Avenue and Third Street, take an hour or two of our day to be with other people we don’t really know all that well, and together perform the act of worshiping the one and true God we call the Lord of our lives, knowing that we won’t experience his presence?
So why worship? Why do we do it? Again, from the Barna Research Group. Their survey revealed that three-quarters of all adults and a whopping 92% of all church-going adults said that it is very important to them to worship God. There is no doubt that Christians believe worship is at the core of our identity.
In the Bible, the word worship, when used as a verb, comes from the Greek word latreou meaning “to serve.” It is the same word Moses used when he told Pharaoh “Let my people go, so that they may serve (worship) God” (Exodus 9:1). In other words, service is a question of worship. And just as easily, we can say worship is a question of service. In late Judaism and in the Old Testament, the relationship between us human beings and God was expressed as service. We are God’s servant. But not in the sense that we are his slave or that we are to do his bidding when he wants, whatever he wants. It is service born out of obedience that naturally grows out of our gratitude for God’s love – His love for us as individuals, and his love for us as a people of faith. It is out of gratitude for God’s acts of salvation throughout history, and for the ultimate sacrifice he gave to us – the incarnation and death of his son, Jesus the Christ.
We heard the words of the apostle Paul today. To paraphrase, he basically said that as followers of Jesus Christ, the kind of worship we give to God requires us to present our whole entire body as a living sacrifice. Chapter 12 verse 1 opens with, “I appeal to you therefore.” That word “therefore” is significant because it implies that the words that follow are a response to something that came before. So let’s take a moment to look at the words that came before. This means looking at the last couple of verses of the previous chapter. We find that Paul quotes a hymn that describes the depth of the riches and wisdom of God’s ways: “For who has ever known the mind of the Lord? Who has ever been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him, and through him, and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.” And from those words that describe our God we therefore respond in worship. The kind of worship that requires our whole bodies to be a living sacrifice. Sacrifice.
Let us examine what sacrifice is all about. When I think about sacrifice I immediately associate it with giving up something I have. And what goes along with that is a kind of suffering on my part. So in a way, sacrifice for me brings up feelings of reluctance, needing to let go of something I hold dear, and in all likelihood feelings of resentment. But this is not what the Bible teaches. Surprise, surprise! Sacrifice in the Bible is not about me giving something up. It is about worship. And specifically, it is about the one receiving worship, not the one giving worship.
There are many kinds of sacrifice we find in the Old Testament. And each one has its own name and purpose. There is the sin offering. There is the guilt offering. There is the whole burnt offering. There is the peace offering. There is the drink offering. The meal offering. The morning offering. The wave offering, and on and on and on. But there is an offering called the gift or present. This offering made to God can be of anything, whether it be food, grain, animals.
This is the kind of offering that Cain and Abel gave to God. You might remember what Abel’s sacrificial offering to God was. It was the firstlings of his flock. Abel was a shepherd and he offered the first animal offspring of the season. And, not only were they the firsts, he made sure he offered the fat ones. Not the skinny ones that were not worth as much. On the other hand, his brother Cain who was a farmer offered the fruit of the ground. They weren’t the first fruits and definitely not the best of any of the fruits. I guess like me, he didn’t want to give up something he held dear. But we know that God had no regard for Cain’s gift offering. But Abel’s gift offering, God found acceptable.
When Paul said our whole body is to be given as a living sacrifice, he was talking about sacrifice as a gift offering. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Present it. Offer it. Give it as a gift. Your whole bodies. All of it, not just a part of it. Your entire being. Your whole person. My entire being. Not just my mind, not just my heart, not just my feelings. But all of me. Because really, what other sacrificial offering can we give to God? Christ was and is the ultimate sacrifice. Christ is the sin offering, Christ is the guilt offering, Christ is the whole burnt offering, Christ is the peace offering. So what is left for us to offer as our worship? Nothing but our whole existence.
It is what God finds acceptable. And, it IS what God deserves. When we dedicate our whole being, when we acknowledge that everything there is, comes from him, and is caused by him, and exists for him. That is real worship. That is holy worship. But let us not be satisfied in taking these words, nod in agreement, then walk out of here and not have the slightest idea what this kind of spiritual, whole-body type of worship looks like in our everyday lives. Let us not be satisfied in receiving God’s word for one hour out of the one hundred sixty-eight hours in a week and walk out of here to go about the rest of our day, and live our routines on Monday, Tuesday, hump-day Wednesday, is it Friday yet Thursday, then thank God it’s Friday, my weekend Saturday and then back here again on Sunday. Wake up, brush our teach, dress in our Sunday best, walk or drive to Atlantic Avenue and Third street, take an hour or two of our day to be with other people we don’t really know all that well, and together perform the act of worshiping the one and true God we call the Lord of our lives, with the likelihood that we won’t experience God’s presence.
Instead, we have to figure out what this spiritual, whole-body kind of worship looks like in everyday practical terms. And this is the same issue that the apostle Paul was dealing with when he wrote the words of our scripture today. He was writing to the believers in Rome who were primarily Jews. They were good worshiping Jews. They presented their sacrificial worship offerings on the altar. They knew exactly how to worship in everyday practical terms because the law, or the Torah found in our Old Testament scripture, provided the guidelines for how to do so. It outlined exactly how they were to live in God’s covenant. But Jesus, who died and was resurrected from the dead, is the fulfillment of the law. Jesus is now the new covenant. As believers and followers of Jesus, there is a new-found freedom apart from the law. And with it came the rejection of the sacrificial offering of animals as central to worship, and the Law or the Torah that provided such comfort and ease in knowing how to live their daily lives was no longer the center. And we find Paul in chapter 12 explaining to the Jewish believers in Rome what the new sacrificial offering is to look like. No longer will they sacrifice animals or food or drink, or grain on the altar. They were to sacrifice their whole bodies in daily living. Paul moves them away from focusing their worship in a “holy place” and moves them towards focusing their worship to the “market place.” Paul calls for a commitment in daily living which is now the Christian’s equivalent to the discipline and order that the Law previously provided. Paul takes language of worship out of its context of sacred place and sacred person and applies it to ordinary people and ordinary places. Put another way, Paul secularizes the sanctuary by sanctifying the business of the everyday. I think that is worth repeating: Paul secularizes the sanctuary by sanctifying the business of the everyday.
Jesus himself when he was still among his disciples preached about it. On his sermon on the mount, recorded for us in Matthew, chapter 5 verse 23 and following, Jesus said, “So when you are offering your gift on the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
To me it can’t be any clearer. Worship goes beyond the liturgical. Worship isn’t about the holy place, it isn’t about the sanctuary. Worship isn’t bound within these four walls. Jesus makes it clear that doing the best we can to seek reconciliation between our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our community, that is what is necessary for true worship. The stuff of our everyday lives and the stuff of our everyday relationships – they are essential to a life of true worship. Moving from holy place to the marketplace means acting in total commitment. It is life in the everyday, not ritual on every Sunday.
Our living sacrifice is such that it extends beyond the worship service. In so doing, we should be encountering and experiencing the presence of God each and every day. And when Sunday comes and we worship together as a community of faith, our experience of God’s presence is that much more powerful. It should be like attending a really awesome party. It is both communal and intimate at the same time. It is both lively and soothing all at once. It is altogether joyous and sacred.
Going back to the research of the Barna Group. Remember that about two-thirds of church-going adults said they do not experience God’s presence during worship. They found that having a worshipful experience wasn’t something they could just turn on or turn off at will. George Barna, who directed the study said and I quote, “Without giving themselves time to clear their minds and hearts of their daily distractions and other problems, many people attend a worship event but never enter a worshipful frame of mind. A large share of churchgoers do not pray, meditate, confess or focus on God prior to the start of a church worship event.” I hope you didn’t miss that part about a “worshipful frame of mind.” George Barna basically said that the reason people are not able to have a worshipful experience when they attend church is because their mind is not in the right place, and they are distracted by things of this world. WOW! That is exactly what Paul writes in chapter 12, verse 2. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” I am astonished at how this research from the 21st century, performed within the rules and principles of the scientific method, tells us results that are identical to what the apostle Paul told the believers in Rome 2,000 years ago. Think about that for a minute. That is mind-blowing. And it is exciting, to know that the words of Jesus’ disciples are relevant today.
But back to the point. The mind is where it all begins. Ephesians chapter 4 verse 22 and following teaches us: “…to put away our former way of life, our old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts. Instead we are to be renewed in the spirit of our minds, and to clothe ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” The renewal of our minds is where transformation of Christian existence comes from. Renewing our minds means setting our minds to be like the mind of Jesus Christ. Our minds should conform to that of Christ himself.
We have some insight on what that mind is like based on what he preached. Let’s turn our attention to the sermon of the mount once again. Matthew chapter 5. Top of Jesus’ mind are the poor for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. His mind is on those who are mourning for they shall be comforted. His mind is on the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and his mind is on those who are being persecuted.
My brothers and sisters let us renew our minds to be like the mind of Jesus. Let’s ask ourselves – Is our mind set on the poor or is it set upon ourselves and how high our rent or mortgage has become? Is our mind set on those who are hungry, or is it set on ourselves and how we have to limit the number of times we eat out at fancy restaurants? Is our mind set on those who are mourning, or is it set on ourselves and how we are so stressed out at work with all the pressures of needing to be successful? Is our mind set on those who are being persecuted, or is it set on ourselves worrying about how our friends and family might judge us if we speak out about injustice and systemic racism? Is our mind set upon the peacemakers?
Let us model our behavior on Jesus himself and be transformed by renewing our minds to be just like his. Let us do this every day. We shouldn’t settle for only Sundays. Sunday is not the goal to arrive at. Sunday is the climax of the everyday. Because by the time Sunday comes, we will not need to turn on the switch for experiencing God’s presence and have a meaningful worship. The switch doesn’t exist.
Worship is in the everyday living sacrifice of our whole being. It moves from the once a week holy place to the everyday market place.
There is one more thing I want to share before I close. It comes from Paul in the form a warning. When we commit to practicing the renewing of our minds on a daily basis, it opens up the door to discerning for ourselves what the will of God is. Picture that a moment. Being able to discern for yourself what the will of God is. How quickly our egos would grow. So Paul warns us in verse 3 to not think of ourselves more highly than we should. We are to never pride ourselves on being better than who we really are. Paul said to think of ourselves with sober judgement, and to recognize that God has given to each one of us our own measure of faith. Otherwise, we run the risk of arrogance, we run the risk of jealousy, disappointment and schisms within our community of believers. While as a person we are called to worship God with our individual bodies, it isn’t done in isolation from other Christians. Each one of us as a member of a community of believers is also a member of the one body of Christ. We have a corporate responsibility to one another. The total worship of the entire body of believers is made up of the individual worship of each member of the body.
So when we walk out of those doors today, may we be ready to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God; that each day brings the renewal of our minds, being conformed to that of Jesus; and I pray that come next Sunday when we join together in a holy and most awesome worship, every single person will experience God’s presence, and that the angels in heaven will hear our voices of praise.