Sermon for September 30th, 2012
1Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." 4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
We Go Forth in God's Name
After the scripture passages had been selected for this week's sermon, but before I had finished writing the sermon, somewhere in my process of studying, researching, and meditating on the scripture passages, I think the Holy Spirit nudged me in a different direction. It was while I was studying today's Old Testament scripture from Genesis 12, where God calls Abram, and my eyes wandered up the page a few paragraphs to the beginning of Genesis 11. It's a familiar story--the Tower of Babel--but I think it holds an important message for us today as we conclude our sermon series on the Heart of Worship, focusing on Going Forth in God's Name. It's short, so I'll read it in its entirety:
11Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
The traditional interpretation of this story is that as humanity becomes more technologically advanced (they can make bricks and build things) they become more arrogant, put themselves on the same level as God: "Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with it's top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." So God comes down from Heaven and punishes them by confusing their language and making exactly what they are afraid of come to pass.
I have to admit, I've never been satisfied by this interpretation. If building a city or a large building is a sign of arrogance, why does God allow David to build Jerusalem and Solomon to build the temple? For that matter, why doesn't God come down from Heaven today and stop us every time we build skyscrapers and metroplexes that likely make the tower of Babel look like so many Lincoln Logs and Lego sets? And if you listen closely, I'm not so sure God's assessment of the situation sounds like he's that angry or offended: "Look they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." That doesn't sound like a criticism--it sounds like high praise. Did God really intend for that moment to be the height of human achievement, and for them to go no further? If so, it didn't work so well.
I'd like to propose a radically different interpretation of this story. I'd like to suggest that the sin of the people of Babel wasn't arrogance...it was fear. They weren't trying to put themselves on the same level as God, they were trying to make a name for themselves so they wouldn't be scattered abroad on the face of the earth! Remember way back in the Garden of Eden what God commanded Adam and Eve to do? He said, "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth." Ten chapters later, and the descendants of Adam and Eve are huddled together in one city, focusing all their talents and energy on building upward and inward, rather than building outward. This is a condition known quite well to parents of college graduates who are still living at home as "failure to launch."
The descendants of Adam and Eve have truly graduated, hence God's proud words: "Look...this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." They can make bricks and mortar! They can build buildings! They can communicate in a common language! They've got some serious job skills! And they're really comfortable at home.
So God kicks them out. Not as a punishment, but just like a mother bird nudging her baby out of the nest...so it can soar! God scatters them to the ends of the earth to be a blessing. We see this in God's words to Abram just one chapter later, when He says "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing." By the way, if you think your kids took a long time to move out, Abram was 75 when he finally left his father's house. That's also a good reminder to the 70-somethings in our congregation that you are now at the perfect age to begin something new!
We see the same thing in the New Testament, in our passage from Matthew: Jesus is resurrected, and when the disciples see him, they have no problem worshiping him. Worship is the easy part. But now that they know he is everything he said he was; now that they know the three years of ministry and apprenticeship were leading up to this day...they doubt. Worship is easy. What comes after worship is hard. No more huddling afraid in the upper room. No more following Jesus around watching HIM do all the miracles, watching HIM do all the preaching and teaching, watching HIM take care of the sick and the poor. They know what's coming. Jesus says...Go! It's YOUR turn to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It's YOUR turn to teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. It's YOUR turn. You've graduated! You've got skills! Go!
And so, every Sunday at about 11:50...we graduate. We Go Forth in God's Name. It is the final movement in our worship service, and if you look in your bulletins, you'll notice it's the shortest one. We sing a song, say a few words, then we're done. That's for good reason. When God says "go" we're supposed to go, not dwell in the safety of the sanctuary we have built and are quite comfortable in. We too, like the citizens of Babel, like Abram, and like the disciples, sometimes suffer from "failure to launch." Yes, we eventually do leave the sanctuary on Sunday morning, but then how often do we huddle together with the friends we are comfortable with in our fellowship time in the Robert Young Centre, or go out to lunch with the same people we've gone out to lunch with for years, or retreat to our other sanctuary and safe place: our home. We go back and forth all week long between our home, our workplace, and our church and get so wrapped up in our routines we never really ask ourselves "Have I engaged with the world this week? Have I gone out of my comfort zone to share God's love with a stranger--either through my words or my actions?"
For eight weeks now, we have been examining our worship service here at First Presbyterian Church. We have been peeling back the layers of the onion (so to speak), looking at the scriptures, our traditions, our practices; peeling back the layers in search of the Heart of Worship. Time and time again we have seen that what's at the core of every aspect of worship the Word of God. And the living word of God is Jesus Christ. We Gather in God's Name, in the name of Jesus. We Proclaim and Hear God's Word; we proclaim and hear what Jesus has done. We Respond to God's Word; we respond to what Jesus has said and done.
Jesus Christ is truly at the heart of our Worship--but now I'm going to ask us to go one layer deeper: Jesus is the heart of worship...but what do we find when we look deep within the heart of Jesus Christ? When you peel back the layers of an onion, it gets smaller and smaller until you get to the heart. But when you peel back the layers of worship and get to the heart, Jesus, and then you look into the heart of Jesus, what you find isn't small at all. In fact, it's so big it can't be contained within the worship service or the walls of the church. If you look deep into the heart of Jesus, you will find people. All of the people in the world.
And Jesus says, "go to them." If you love me, Peter, feed my sheep. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
If you love me, then feed my sheep. Don't stop at worship. Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you.
If you love me, then feed my sheep. Go and I will go with you. I will bless you to be a blessing to others. But first you have to go. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. This is the Heart of Worship. This is the Heart of Jesus Christ: Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.
Ready? Set? Go!