Luke 13:22-30 / 13 Pentecost (Proper XX) / 22 August 2010 / Holy Trinity, Hacienda Heights, CA
In Nomine Iesu
So why do you come to worship? What do you expect from worship? Worship today means different things to different people. For some it’s inspiration. For some, instruction. An opportunity to pray, to praise, to give thanks. For some it’s a fact; for others it’s a feeling. Some people expect to feel closer to God. Some expect God to speak directly to them in some manner. But what about you? Why do you come here to worship? And what do you expect to find?
The writer of the book of Hebrews tackles the worship question in this morning’s reading. Hebrews is probably a sermon put down in written form. Some believe it was written by the apostle Paul, which is why it’s parked next to Paul’s letters in the canon. Some believe it was Apollos. The style is definitely preaching with a big dose of teaching. And the main point addressed in the book of Hebrews is people falling away from worship. People forsaking the Word and the Supper and some even returning to the synagogue and the temple, which still appears to be in operation.
They were feeling pressure apparently. Things weren’t going well for Christians. In fact, it was easier to be Jewish and return to the temple. Doubts were setting in. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t the one they were waiting for. Some got discouraged. They stopped assembling together for worship. Some were following strange and esoteric teachings about angels and other things.
Can you imagine what it would be like if Christianity were illegal? I’m not talking here about putting crosses in the public square or ten commandments on the wall of the courthouse. I’m talking about making it illegal for Christians to congregate, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to own Bibles, to baptize their children, to hear the Word of God preached to them. Imagine what it would be like if someone were to stop you on the way to church and interrogate you as to what you were doing and where you were going. Imagine, in this time of economic downturn, that it was perfectly permissible to discriminate against Christians so that Christians were never hired or others were favored over them. Imagine losing your job because you were identified as a Christian.
Do you think there would be more or fewer people here this morning under those conditions? Would you be here this morning under those conditions? Would I?
The sermon to the Hebrews was written in that kind of climate. And the preacher/author, whoever he was, has a lot to say about Christ, and how He is superior in every way to Moses – having a superior priesthood, offering a superior sacrifice, bringing a superior covenant. In other words, if you abandon Christ and go back to Moses, you are going from the greater back to the lesser. You are going literally downhill and in the wrong direction.
He holds out the great men and women of faith in the OT, those who lost their lives believing in the Promise of God but never in this life receiving what was promised. He compares the life of faith to long distance relay race, where the runners who have gone ahead of us are on the sidelines cheering us on and Jesus is at the finish line with the victor’s crown ready to put it on our heads. And the preacher of Hebrews says, “Keep your eyes focused on Jesus – the author and perfector of your faith, who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame.
He encourages us to run the race, not looking backward at our past, our sideways, comparing ourselves to our fellow runners (which is a sure way to trip over your own two running feet), but to look to Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus and not get distracted by anything else. He reminds them that they have not yet suffered to the point of shedding their blood, and all the suffering and inconveniences they’ve experienced up to now is nothing else that the discipline of a loving Father in heaven who loves His children enough to give them a swat on the rear end once and a while.
Now, of course, we don’t like that, and especially that inner brat called the “Old Adam” hates the notion that God is not our Permissive Parent in heaven but our Father in heaven who disciplines the children He loves. You’re His children, and like all fathers, He protects you from yourself, sometimes with a firm hand that seems painful at the time, but in the end turns out to be a blessing.
He warns his hearers, and us in our overhearing, against complacency, bitterness, immorality and everything that distracts, deflects, and otherwise messes up our running the race set before us. And then he gets to worship and hits a major high note because Christian worship is utterly unique in the world of religion. In all other religions, you reach up to your god, whether corporately or individually, and you offer your god stuff so he/she/it will do you favors in return. But in Christian worship, God comes to you in Christ. Eternity and time coalesce; heaven and earth join together, and the Father through the Son in the Spirit bless us.
For those who were tempted to go back to Moses and the worship of the synagogue and the temple, the preacher reminds them of what Mt. Sinai was like. In a word, scary. Frightening. Untouchable, ablaze with fire, trumpet, and voice from God that made everyone hold their ears and beg that God be silent. No one but Moses was permitted on that mountain. Even an animal that set foot on the mountain was stoned to death.
Do you want that kind of worship? I don’t. That’s ultimately the worship of the Law, you realize. The Law says do this and don’t do that. Do this and you’ll life; don’t do this and you’ll die. That’s the worship of commandments and principles and all the stuff that God demands from you and you as a sinner can’t deliver. Even Moses, who was covered with a promise that he wouldn’t be harmed, trembled in fear.
One of the problems we face today is that people no longer tremble with fear at the thought of coming into the presence of God. When bad things happen – floods, fires, earthquakes, storms – we no longer consider them acts of God but simply acts of nature. Mother Nature, perhaps. It’s interesting don’t you think, that we’d rather blame Mother than Father? We’ll let the psychologists unpack that one. My point is that we leave God out of the picture, and if we have any notion of God at all, it’s the kind of God at whose house you can put your feet up on the furniture.
The Law basically says that if you, a sinner, dare to come into the presence of God, who is holy beyond holy, you will be toast. So don’t you dare come near with your commandment keeping, or you’ll wind up like one of the goats who stuck his foot on Sinai.
But that’s not the mountain you, as a baptized believer, have come to. You have come not to Sinai, the mountain burning with God’s wrath, but to Zion, to God’s city, to the heavenly Jerusalem. Not the disputed piece of real estate over there in what is called “Israel” today. But Jerusalem that comes down “from above,” from heaven, the city of which God is the architect and builder. So when you,, baptized believer in Jesus, come to worship, you’re not coming to a bunch of commandments and to God’s wrath, but to God’s city where you yourself are one of its free citizens.
You come to angels, countless angels in festal gathering, which means they’re having a party. Just as we say in the liturgy, “with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.” You know, it can get discouraging when attendance is down, but think of the fact that in worship what you see is not all that you get. In fact, it’s with the unseen where the action is. The angels worship with us. Wouldn’t you like to hear their liturgy? You will one day. And for now, they hear you.
You’ve come to the assembly of the first-born, the congregation of the elect whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life, and your name is among them. You are coming to God, who is the judge of all, not to be judged guilty under the Law, but to be judged “not guilty,” “innocent,” perfect, blameless, and even holy not because of what you have done but because of what Jesus has done for you.
You have come to the spirits of the justified, the righteous made perfect. Those are all the believers who have died ahead of us and are now “with the Lord.” In some way, and I have no idea how, they are with us. Where Christ is, there His saints are, for they are saints only in Him. That means that the closest we can be to those who have gone before us, including our own loved ones, is in worship, in the liturgy, in the gathering where Christ comes to us and the Spirit gather us as one body around Christ.
You have come to Jesus. Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, in which God forgives and forgets. He forgives our iniquities and He remembers our sins no more. Moses came with books and a bookkeeping spreadsheet – the Ten Commandments. That’s how you keep book on your sin. Jesus came with no commandments. Yes, He preached the commandments to their sheer undoability. And then He died under the same Law, shedding the blood that the Law requires. And you have come to that sprinkled Blood, the blood of Jesus that cleanses you from all sin, the blood shed on the cross for the sin of the world, the Blood of the covenant poured out for you into the chalice of the Lord’s Supper as wine to gladden your hearts.
And when you look at worship that way, not as something we do for God but something God in Christ does for us – His city, His righteousness, His covenant, His blood – then you don’t need to look for reasons to worship. You already have them.
In the Name of Jesus,