Sermon for August 19th, 2012
Last week we started our sermon series "The Heart of Worship" with an overview of what worship means for us as Christians and Presbyterians. We established that Jesus Christ, the living word of God, is at the heart of our worship and infused into every part of it.
Today we're going to zoom in on the very first part of our worship service--the things that, in your bulletin, come under the heading "WE GATHER IN GOD'S NAME." We'll look at what we do in this part of the service, why we do it, and what God's written word, the Bible, has to say about it.
We gather in God's name. Or as I have recently come to think of it, the "emotional roller coaster ride" of the worship service. We go from the hopeful heights of the Call to Worship and a rousing opening hymn down to the depths of despair as we are reminded of our sins in the prayer of confession, then right back up as we receive the assurance of pardon and pass the peace of Christ to one another. If we take these things seriously, we ought to be emotionally worn out by the time were just a quarter of the way through the service!
James 5:13 is not one of our scripture readings this morning, but it could have been. It reads, "Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise." This verse highlights the emotional roller coaster ride, but it also points out two important features of our worship: music and prayer. You'll find both of those things in all four movements of our worship service, and particularly as we gather in God's name. Music gathers us together. When we hear the prelude and the chiming of the hour, and when the choir sings the Call to Worship, we quiet our hearts and turn our thoughts to Jesus, in whose name we gather. Often the opening hymn is the very first thing that we all do together as one congregation, singing with one unified voice. Music gathers us together in God's name.
Sometimes the Call to Worship is sung by the choir, and sometimes it is spoken in the form of a responsive prayer. But always, toward the beginning of our worship service is a prayer of invocation. Because it isn't enough for us just to gather together by ourselves. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus tells us that "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." That "in my name" is pretty important. So with the prayer of invocation, we invoke the name of Jesus, we ask God to be present with us as we worship, and at that point we can truly claim to be gathered in God's name. Like music, prayer gathers us (and God!) together.
You should know that I'm not a purist when it comes to what goes where, in what order, and what exactly we call it. I do like for things to make some sense, so probably we shouldn't put the prelude at the end of our time of gathering together. It's a "pre" lude, after all. But as for whether or not we have Announcements when we gather, whether the choir sings the Call to Worship or whether we pray it, whether our opening hymn comes before or after the prayer of invocation...I'm not picky. I hope you aren't either. What is important to me is that music and prayer be part of what gathers us together in God's name. What is important is that we come, in the words of today's first scripture reading, "into his presence with thanksgiving" (that's prayer!), and that we "make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!"
I'd like to turn now to a very important, and I think very misunderstood, under-appreciated part of our worship service. It's the "down" part of our emotional roller coaster ride as we gather in God's name: The prayer of confession. It is a prayer, but a prayer unlike any other. I say it's a prayer unlike any other, because the central focus of the prayer of confession is how much we stink. How broken and messed up we are. And if you're like most people, you probably don't exactly enjoy being reminded of that fact. And yet, the confession of our sins has been part of the life of our church for a long time. In our second reading today from Nehemiah, we find the ancient Israelites "assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, with dust on their heads" as they "stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors." They did this confessing together with reading from the scriptures and worshiping God. Sound familiar? Then in our third reading, from 1st John, we read that "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." But "if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Historically, different churches go about this in different ways. In the two oldest Christian churches, the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches, individuals are encouraged to make confession of specific sins in the presence of another person, usually a priest or an elder. On the opposite end of history, some of the newest non-denominational churches do not practice any sort of confession of sins at all, preferring instead to focus publicly on more positive aspects of the gospel message and leave the "sin conversation" as a private matter between God and the individual.
Presbyterians, as we often do, fall somewhere in the middle of all this. We take seriously the instructions in James 5:15, which says "Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed." Our prayer of confession every Sunday is a unison prayer, allowing us to confess our sins publicly in the presence of one another. But the sins mentioned in the prayer are general, not specific, and are intended to help each of us recall privately where we've missed the mark and dropped the ball in the preceding week, so that we can each ask God directly for forgiveness in prayer.
I think it's also important that we do this confession at the beginning of our worship, as we gather in God's name. Our text from 1st John today reminds us again that we are not just gathering with each other, but that "truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." We are inviting the holy family, Father, Son and Holy Spirit into our midst.
Now, when Amy and I invite people over to our house for dinner, there is almost always a mad, exhausting rush to clean the house first, so that we can give our guests the impression that our house is usually neat and tidy, and not something occupied by three hyperactive children and two frazzled parents. But there's a practical aspect too--we don't want our guests tripping over toys, or digging through piles of clothes and mail and gadgets to find the sofa. We're used to those things and have learned to navigate around them easily. But they make entertaining guests difficult, so we clean house.
Our spiritual home is similar. We're used to our sins, our flaws, and our bad habits, both as individuals and as a church family. We navigate around them easily, but all that spiritual clutter makes it hard for us to truly entertain God in our midst. Our text from 1st John today tells us that "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true." In order for us to truly invite God into our midst, we need to clean our house. And our prayer of confession allows us to do that. It helps us gather up all that clutter, and put it in the giant wastebasket of God's forgiveness, which we call the "Assurance of Pardon." But that's actually next week's sermon, and I'll come back to it then.
To begin to wind up today's message, I want to point out that even though we may say we don't like confession, that we're uncomfortable with the language of sin, or that we don't enjoy being reminded of our failings...still, I've noticed that when you look, confession is everywhere. Have you ever watched a reality TV show? Any reality TV show. They have a time of confession. It's where one of the cast members comes away from all the others, looks directly into the camera, and tells the viewers what he or she really thinks. Usually it's not pretty. Then there's social media. I love facebook and twitter (I confess), but how many times do we hear stories in the news about people who get in trouble for saying something online to the entire world that they would never have said to the people standing right next to them? There is a confessional quality to social media websites.
There is even an online project (it's been around for several years now) called postsecret.com, which describes itself as "an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard." And then these confessions are published both online and in coffee-table book format. They are fascinating to read, as well as heart-wrenching, and often downright disturbing. But they are also evidence of a profound need that we have to lay our souls bare, to confess our deepest thoughts and secrets. Like it or not, we long to confess our sins, and I believe our brains and our hearts are hard-wired to do this. There has been medical research recently that indicates those who hold all of that in, those who do not make confessions in some way or another...get sick more often and are physically less healthy.
However, as Christians, we make one important distinction from the world, from the many confessors and confessions we find all around us. Confessing your sins and your secrets to a television camera, or to a postcard, or to a website, or to complete strangers may get something off your chest, and there is indeed something valuable and powerful to doing that. But I suspect it's not enough, not for long, anyhow. Because the television audience, the internet audience, the complete strangers--chances are they receive your confession the same way many people on the freeway gawk and stare at a car-wreck as they drive past. It's a mixture of curiosity, voyeurism, and ultimately detachment from the situation. Thank God that's not me.
As Christians, we lay our sins and our sorrows not before the world, but rather before the one who created the world, the one who knows us, loves us, and calls us by name. We confess our sins as we gather in God's name, for as Peter proclaimed to the crowd in the book of Acts, "there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." Thanks be to God.