A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on June 3, 2012.
Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:11-17
If you attend worship here, at least on a fairly regular basis, you know that the elements of our worship don’t change very much. We may move things around a bit, kind of like musical chairs. And while we do everything we can to keep what we do and say and sing on theme, there’s not a great deal of variety to what we do.
You’ve, uh, you’ve noticed that, haven’t you?
When you walk through those doors, you are aware that each Sunday morning, between 10:45 and noon, we’ll sing three hymns, have an invocation and Lord’s Prayer, take up an offering, read from both the old and new testaments of the Bible, have a solo or other form of special music, in addition to the choir anthem, and listen to a sermon. Oh, and we will sing the Doxology. Can’t worship with the Doxology. Occasionally, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and if there’s something special going on in the life of the church we will no doubt celebrate that, or certainly give attention to it. But all in all, it’s pretty much the same old same old each week. Go into just about any church anywhere and you will find the same to be true.
You are also aware that we’re one of the few churches in town that does not have what has come to be called contemporary worship. I’m referring to the praise bands singing chorus-type songs for fifteen or twenty minutes, with the words flashed on a screen, followed by a PowerPoint sermon delivered by a preacher who’s wearing a golf shirt.
Why do we not do that? Well, the main reason is that you have let us know that is not the “style” of worship you want to experience. But if you do visit a church that worships this way, you will discover that the same is true with this form of worship as it is with our more traditional format. While it may be different from the way we do it, week in and week out, they do it pretty much the same every time.
Regardless of what form a church utilizes in its worship, there’s simply not a lot of wiggle room when it comes to doing new and fresh things each week. And even if you did, the variety itself would become the routine. There’s something about the routine that is comfortable and affirming, whatever style might be chosen. And for the most part I think we’re all okay with that.
But my guess is that there have been those times – maybe few and far between, but nevertheless there have been those times – when you came to church expecting the routine and instead discovered the miraculous. You were anticipating your worship experience to be the same as it was the week before and the week before that, but instead the Spirit of God moved in your life in such a way that you knew you would never be the same again. You expected the ordinary and instead you had an extraordinary experience.
Has that ever happened to you? It happened to Isaiah.
You see, before he became a prophet and said to the Lord, “Here am I; send me,” he was a temple priest. In his role as a priest, week after week, Sabbath after Sabbath, Isaiah entered the temple and prepared for worship. He led in the sacrifices, the reading of scripture, the prayers. Who knows, he may have even helped take up the offering. Week after week, Sabbath after Sabbath, Isaiah found himself doing the same old same old. And then one day, out of the blue, Isaiah – right in the midst of temple worship – had an extraordinary vision that not only changed his life but altered the fortunes of his nation and his people.
One day, Isaiah came to worship, just like he’d always done before, and he saw God.
When you come to worship, what do you see? When you enter this large room, what catches your eye? You may make note of the flowers on the communion table. That is one thing that changes each week. You may check to see if your regular pew spot has been taken unknowingly by a visitor. You look to see if the friends you normally worship with have arrived yet. What do you see when you come to worship?
One Sabbath, in the year that King Uzziah died, according to Isaiah, he went into the temple for worship. And instead of seeing the altar flowers and making sure he had a fresh copy of the worship guide, rather than arranging the various elements that were required for him to lead worship, Isaiah saw the Lord… “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”
Think about that. That’s a large robe if just the hem filled the temple. “Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings; with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.” For the uninitiated, seraphs are angels. My guess is, in order for all this to happen, the temple’s roof must have been raised!
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
That is what the seraphs sing as they fly above the temple. The building starts shaking from the volume of the heavenly voices, and the whole place fills with smoke. Isaiah figures he’s going to die because he’s seen what no mortal man is supposed to see. With his very own eyes he has witnessed the King, the Lord of hosts!
Isaiah cries out asking for mercy, for when you truly find yourself in the presence of God you realize just how sinful and unworthy you are to witness such a thing. According to the vision, a seraph holds a live coal to his lips and pronounces the priest forgiven of his transgression. And once forgiven, he is offered a challenge from the Lord himself. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The priest, soon to be a prophet, finds himself saying, “Here am I; send me!”
I’m not suggesting that anything like this has ever happened to any of us, or that it necessarily should or ever will. But I do believe that if and when we enter this place on any given Sunday expecting nothing new to happen – that we come to worship thinking it will no doubt be no different than it’s ever been before, so why should we bother to put our heart and soul into it? – we have limited God in his willingness, and maybe even his ability, to enter our hearts and make them new.
The pessimistic writer of the book of Ecclesiastes begins by saying there is nothing new under the sun. If that’s our attitude when it comes to worship, then it should come as no surprise to us when nothing happens to change our hearts and our lives.
If we feel that way, it may be because we have a spectator mentality when it comes to our worship. We have come to be entertained. We are the audience and the ministers and the choir and singers are the entertainers. May I encourage you to see it another way? You who sit in the pew are not the audience, God is. Each of us – whether we sit in one of these seats at the pulpit, in the choir, or in the pew – are the entertainers, expressing to God our joy in being in his presence, saying to God that we offer our worship to him as a sacrifice from our hearts.
You may not sing a solo or offer a public prayer. You may not play a musical instrument or preach a sermon, but you’re just as much a part of what we do as anyone else. And God is listening – not only to what is said and sung and played – to what you are thinking as we worship. God is the audience and we are the actors.
Worship is not what we get out of it but what we bring to it, what we put into it. Worship is what we give to God, each of us, whether we lead worship or participate in it. And what we give to God has a lot to do with our expectations of what worship ought to be. When you came through the door this morning, what were you thinking about? What were you expecting in terms of your worship experience? Anything at all?
I am reminded of a story I heard Fred Craddock tell a number of years ago. He was visiting in Dallas and went with a friend to church. It was a wonderful worship service, he says. The singing was spirited, the prayers were thoughtful, the sermon was insightful and inspirational. When the final amen was voiced, Craddock says, he didn’t want to move. His heart was simply full from having been in the presence of God and in a church that took worship so seriously.
When he finally stood, a well-meaning member of the church, in friendly fashion, shook his hand and welcomed him. And then he said in his Texas drawl, “You think Tom Landry’s gonna coach the Cowboys next season?”
The man hadn’t heard a thing, says Craddock, had evidently just gone through the motions of being in church.
You know, you can come to church and still not worship, though you’ve sat in the pew, sung all the hymns, and listened to the sermon. It all depends on what you are willing to give to it.
And, again, it depends on what you see. John Claypool says we can learn a lot from children in that regard. “They force us to consider what we have taken for granted and clarify the meaning of things that we have lived with for a long time.”1 For example, if you were to ask our children – I mean the real little ones – they would probably tell you that our sanctuary is a great place to what?… worship? No, play! Set them loose in this room and they will have the offering envelopes and pencils scattered all over the place. I know. My grandson did that just a couple of weeks ago. They’ll be running up and down these aisles, which often happens when their parents rescue them from the nursery area downstairs.
I wonder if God doesn’t get a great deal of delight from witnessing our children do these things. Do you think that may be something of what Jesus had in mind when he said we have to be like children in order to inherit the kingdom of heaven? That we find joy simply by being in God’s house, in God’s presence?
Of course, our children eventually become teenagers, and when that happens they don’t want to be in church at all. Maybe what we need, to witness extraordinary things happen in our ordinary worship, is to become, and to stay, like children.
Claypool suggests that a child, seeing a worship sanctuary for the first time, might very well ask, “What is this place for? Why is it built this way? What do you do in here?” And then he asks, “How would you go about answering such [questions]? In that sort of moment you might realize that contempt is not the only thing familiarity can breed. It can also make for vagueness and even blindness.”2
What is this place for, this room we call the sanctuary? Why is it built this way? What do we do in here? Regardless of how you answer that question, if our worship is to be authentic, something has to happen between ourselves and God. If something is going to happen to you here, it is up to you to be open and ready and expectant when you enter this place.
How does that happen? It depends on your relationship with God. Claypool tells of the time he stood in a little church in Florence, Italy where he witnessed Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper. As the group of tourists stood gazing at the masterpiece, a guide stood to one side and very quietly pointed out aspect after aspect of the painting. John says that had the guide not explained these things, he would have overlooked them, given his limited artistic background.
“It turned out to be,” he says, “one of the most exciting encounters with a piece of art I had ever experienced, and later on as I was trying to analyze why, I realized that a great deal of it was due to the role of that skilled interpreter. However, understand that my encounter had been with the masterpiece, not with that individual. In fact, I could not later even remember what he looked like or what he had on or anything about him personally. All I knew was that he had facilitated my relation with a great piece of art. He had been my prompter, my enabler, my means toward greater understanding.”3
That is what our worship should do… facilitate our relationship with God, lead us to a personal encounter with the One who redeems us through his mercy and grace.
Harold Hicks was pastor of this church for almost thirty years. I’ve been here more than sixteen, which is the second-longest pastoral tenure in the history of this congregation. Don’t worry, as far as I’m concerned, Dr. Hicks’ record is not in jeopardy. Regardless of how long you have been involved with this church, or however long your time here might be, when all is said and done, witnessed and seen, when it comes to worship and ministry service in this place, let it be said that whoever leads worship in this place is but a prompter, an enabler, a means toward greater understanding of, and relationship with, God.
So when you come to worship, what do you see? When you come to worship, do you expect an extraordinary experience? When you come to worship, do you believe your life will be changed? Well, do you? And if not, why not?
Lord, may we experience the extraordinary each time we come through these doors, for this is your house and it is here that we see you. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1John R. Claypool, “The Secret of Worship,” unpublished sermon, January 30, 1977.