A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Senior Minister, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on October 7, 2012.
We live in uncertain and anxious times. Every day in the news, we are reminded that our economy is not as robust as it once was. We see the growth of countries like China, and we wonder about America’s place in the world. We wonder about new threats, whether we focus on the problems of our environment or the rise of terrorism. Each of us in this sanctuary might advocate different solutions to these problems, but I think most of us would agree that America – at least for the moment – has lost a step, that some of our glory days are behind us.
In our Old Testament lesson today, the prophet Isaiah faced a similar situation. He was in a worship service in the temple, “in the year that King Uzziah died.” I’ve often wondered why King Uzziah was mentioned. As I did some research, I found that King Uzziah was one of the most powerful rulers in the history of the Kingdom of Judah, the southern half of the Davidic kingdom that split after Solomon’s reign. Uzziah became king of Judah when he was only 16 years old, and he ruled for about 52 years. During the early part of Uzziah’s reign, Judah peaked as a world power, and that kingdom enjoyed the prominence, the privileges and the influence of such a position. But that did not last. The year that King Uzziah died marked the end of the glory days of the kingdom of Judah. Judah was receding as the center of power and influence on the world stage. The days were gone for Judah to do things as it had always done. That caused concern and anxiety for many within the kingdom. And so, it was during this uncertain and anxious time that the prophet Isaiah attended a worship service.
And oh my, what a worship service it was, because God actually showed up! There was no soothing music from an organ nor peppy music from a band; there were no inspiring anthems from a choir nor entertaining sermons from a preacher. There were only strange winged beings thundering and pronouncing over and over again the all-encompassing power, divine sacredness and transcendent worth of the almighty God: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” During this encounter with the holy God, Isaiah did not close his eyes and lift his hands in ecstatic joy; rather, this encounter moved Isaiah to close his lips and cower his head beneath his hands in terror. “Woe to me! I am ruined!” he cried. “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!”
I must confess that I often judge how “good” a worship service is by how it inspires me, how it feeds me, how it comforts me, how it makes me feel good. And while worship may sometimes accomplish those things, ultimately, worship is not about me; it is about God. Therefore, worship is not about attending a good show on Sunday mornings. Worship is not about witnessing a divine pyrotechnic display and then living to tell about it. Neither is worship solely about entering a comfortable haven in a cold and heartless world. Instead, worship is about acknowledging the worth of God, who convicts us of our sin in the searing light of transcendent holiness and glory. Worship is marked by the touch of the fiery coal of divine judgment followed by the gracious pronouncement that follows: “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
The purpose of worship is to glorify God. This encounter with God may be accompanied by inspiration and comfort, or introspection and conviction, but worship is always accompanied by an invitation and commission. After his worshipful encounter with God, Isaiah heard God’s invitation for mission: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” After their three-year encounter with the Son of God, Jesus’ disciples were given this commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” I believe that being the Church means being sent for mission. The Book of Acts is a record of the early church being sent on mission starting from Jerusalem, and then expanding to ever-widening circles of Judea, to Samaria and finally to the ends of the earth.
Like the kingdom of Judah in the year that King Uzziah died, the church of Jesus Christ in America finds itself in an uncertain time of transition. The church no longer has a prominent place in American society nor has it the support of our culture or government. Back in the 1950’s, all one had to do was to open the doors of a church, and people would flock in. But in most churches in America, those days are gone. The United States is rapidly becoming a post-Christian nation. On March 12 of this year, Time Magazine ran a cover story highlighting ten trends changing American life. One of the trends is the dramatic rise of the number of people who identify themselves with no religious affiliation, people who answer the question about which religious tradition they belong to with the word “none.” So, instead of looking at the rise of Baptists, say, or Catholics, or Muslims, the real emerging population is the “nones.” No matter what we do during our gatherings on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights, the “nones” are people who would never darken the doors of the church, even for their own funerals! I don’t mean to sound judgmental or disappointed with the nones; after all, we each make choices to pursue what is meaningful and helpful to us. The nones look at a church building and see something that is irrelevant to their lives.
It was only during the “glory days” of the last century, when the church had power and prominence in American culture, that we could almost get away with not having to go out into the world because people came to us and filled up our church buildings. We were content to let missionaries go to foreign countries and cultures, while we mostly stayed within the walls of our sanctuary. But those days are gone. People no longer come into our church buildings just because the doors are open. Therefore, it is time for the church, for the people of God, to respond to the question that our triune God asked during Isaiah’s worship encounter: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
Being the church means being sent for mission. Church is not a building nor does it take place only on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings; those are the times when the church is gathered. The rest of the week, the church is scattered to worship, to minister and to witness out in the world that God has created, out among all the people for whom Christ died. The success of a church is not measured by its seating capacity, but its sending capacity.
When Beth and I were members of UBC the first time, we experienced some our most meaningful experiences of church when the whole congregation mobilized to minister and serve our community in the name of Christ. We loved how during “Operation Inasmuch,” this whole congregation is sent out of the church building for a day of community service painting houses, building ramps, cleaning up a local park, volunteering at Ronald McDonald House, among other projects. It is wonderful seeing young and old, male and female, rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, all working together outside the walls of this church as a channel of God’s blessing and grace. In the past couple of weeks, as I read reports from congregational surveys taken during the pastoral transition period, a vast number of you responded by saying that mission projects like Operation Inasmuch or PACEM, where we provide housing for the homeless during two weeks in the winter, were some of the most spiritually significant times in the life of UBC. These organized events are powerful ways of being sent out on mission, but of course they are not the only ways. Building relationships with neighbors and colleagues, volunteering with schools or other organizations, or just spreading a little cheer as you go about your day are just some of the ways that we can be on mission for God.
During uncertain and anxious times, the church is tempted to batten down the hatches and withdraw from the world. But it is precisely during times like these that God calls forth men and women to send them on mission for the good of the world. If we live in a day when more and more people are unwilling to come to church, perhaps it is time for the church to go to where the people are. After all, we are a people for whom God sent His Son Jesus Christ on mission! For God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten Son. Jesus was God’s love sent to us in flesh and blood, and we are reminded of that every time we receive the bread and the cup during the Lord’s Supper. When you receive these elements, hear the holy and almighty God say to you, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Now, there’s nothing magical or saving about the bread and the cup itself, but they remind us of the real presence of Christ, the one who took away our guilt and made amends for our sin in the eyes of God. The elements also strengthen and sustain us to be sent on God’s mission into the world.
Therefore, let us approach the Lord’s Table not consumed by guilt. We receive the bread and the cup so that the grace of God may consume us. Similarly, we come to worship not to consume religious goods and services. We come to be consumed by the holiness and glory of God. When the church worships God in this way, may we hear a commissioning call that asks: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” May God equip us to respond with gratefulness and courage: “Here am I. Send me!” Amen.