Revelation 7:9-17 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Psalm 34:1-10, 22 I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. O fear the LORD, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want. The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing. The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.
1John 3:1-3 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“…there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . . and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God”
A child and his mother were going in to church one Sunday and the little boy noticed the great brass plaques on the wall of the church – so he asked his mother who they were. “It’s a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service,” she said. The little boy got a terrified look on his face and said, “Which service, Mommy, 8:00 or 10:00?”
The scripture lessons today speak of the hope of heaven, of a life transcending this life. Appropriately, the Christian faith teaches us that there is a life which transcends and completes this life, and by so doing, it shapes and transforms the meaning and purpose of this life. And Heaven is often characterized by worship — not clouds and harps and puffy child-angels — and not something terminally boring — like elevator music or like watching paint dry.
Numerous authors describe worship as boring or depressing them to the brink of self-destruction, and I was always offended by that, but a couple of years ago, I was in the midst of conducting a service and it occurred to me: this is boring – and if it’s boring for me, who is leading it, it must be boring for others as well. A voice deep inside me said, it’s not supposed to be The Night of the Living Dead – the day after.
The scriptures record a number of descriptions of life beyond, and all of them sound amazing and anything but boring. I think Heaven, and the presence of God, must by definition be endlessly fascinating – awesome – astonishing – overwhelming – mesmerizing. Worship is the bridge between this world and life in the presence of God. It seems it would be a good thing to practise until we’re good at it.
In the Orthodox tradition there is a story of the Russian Csar sending delegates to Constantinople, in order to investigate the possibility of importing Christianity to the Slavic countries. Upon returning to the Russian court, from their visit to St. Sophia in Constantinople, the delegates said: “we have been in heaven” – which described their experience of orthodox worship. For them, it was profound and, you might say, earth-shaking. I experienced something of that when I first experienced the fullness of Anglican sacramental worship. “We have been in heaven.” Now you are more likely to hear that phrase from people returning from a golf resort or perhaps from a visit to a trendy restaurant.
One of my favourite quotes is from the author Annie Dillard, who said:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians . . . sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Crash helmets! Lashed to the pew! That suggests something more engaging (even threatening) than counting sheep while lounging on white clouds. Worship is, above all, a vehicle for connecting with God, and an opportunity to experience the real presence of God in a sacramental way.
It suggests worship, if it is meant to be a connection with the living God, must by definition be a life-altering experience, not some sleepy and familiar habit which we drone through like hibernating bears. Passages like we read this morning, often seem to make little sense, because we have not been exposed to, or trained to expect, a kind of worship that is rooted in the quest for direct encounter with God and thus characterized by the majesty of God, nor are we much used to the experience of awe and wonder in the context of our spirituality in general. This suggests a problem either in something we as worshippers are not doing or we as the church are not providing , and it’s probably both. Like opening the door of a nuclear reactor, like standing on the sun – if we connect with God, we are bound to be transformed.
The 20th Century English mystic and theologian Evelyn Underhill said: “Worship purifies, enlightens, and at last transforms, every life submitted to its influences … It does all this, because it wakes up and liberates that “seed” of supernatural life, in virtue of which we are spiritual beings, capable of responding to God who is Spirit . . . Worship is therefore in the deepest sense creative and redemptive … worship developed here and now is a preparation for that unblemished worship which is the substance of eternal life; and therefore it must never lose its transcendental reference. But its object is a God whose saving presence enters the natural world, and is discerned by means of natural things” (Worship)
Last week, we reflected on the Lord’s summary of the law, and his summons to love the Lord our God with every depth and fibre of our being – to make it our absolute priority. Worship must be a summons to engage with God in the depths of our minds and souls – not a promise of entertainment but as a promise of life itself – requiring and creating the fullness of our being on earth – and refining and guiding us toward a life which we can barely begin to imagine. If worship is not really engaging us, changing that has less to do with “jazzing up the service” than with changing the focus of worship’s true purpose and our intention toward it.
The effectiveness of worship has everything to do with the sense of expectation and preparation that we as worshippers bring, and the degree of self-opening and surrender we are prepared to undergo in the service of God. It has to do with what we OFFER. It has to do with what we believe. The life Jesus lived was never boring and in fact often offended people because it was too enthusiastic. As we become aware of the deeper purpose of worship, its connection with life and with coming to new life may become more obvious, and its place in our priorities may change.
I close by quoting from Psalm 34, from which we just read, as an expression of the kind of worship to which we are called: “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the LORD, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.”