Cowan at the Core: the Heart of Worship

I’m working on getting audio together from Sunday’s sermon. Until then, you’ll just have to read the manuscript:

**UPDATE** I’ve uploaded a recording of the sermon. You can listen to it here.

As we continue with this new year of 2009, we want to continue to build our lives on the rock that is Jesus Christ. In order to do build our lives on the proper foundation, we need to know what the core elements are to actually being a follower of Jesus Christ. And as we look at the core of what is to be one of Christ’s disciple, we’ll also discover some of the core elements of Cowan Christian Church.

One of, if not the fundamental elements of Cowan at the Core is worship. Magnifying Him and lifting Him up is the whole reason we’re even here. Because worship is so fundamental to the essence of the church, it’s really no surprise, is it, that church history is full of disagreements about how we should worship. As I mentioned last week, our movement of churches grew out of the desire to see unity within the worldwide church. But even within our own brotherhood, we’ve seen division. And some of the reasons for the divisions center around disagreements about worship.

And the phenomenon isn’t limited to the churches within our movement. Some of the key discussions and disagreements in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have centered around worship. At times, the disagreements have become so heated and so divisive that many have referred to them as “Worship Wars.”

I understand the desire to make sure worship is done properly. I understand and agree that we should worship God in spirit and in truth. After all, that’s how Jesus said we are going to worship: in spirit and in truth. But many of these arguments have had little to do with worshiping in spirit and in truth. They’ve had more to do with personal style and preferences. And instead of celebrating the diversity between the many churches and celebrating all the different ways we can worship the Father together, there are many times that worship has become more about us and what we want instead of entering the Throne Room of heaven and focusing on magnifying Him. And when we focus on ourselves instead of God, we lose the heart of worship. Because it’s not about us. It’s all about God.

A powerful example of what worship is and how we should approach it is found in the book of Isaiah chapter 6. If you have your Bibles with you, please turn with me to that chapter now: Isaiah chapter 6. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one found in the pew in front of you. Isaiah 6 is found on page 591 in those red Bibles.

Some of the passages from the book of Isaiah are the most well-known and often-quoted verses in the Old Testament. There are several prophecies that came to fruition during Christ’s ministry here on earth. Isaiah was a prophet to the people of Judah during the tumultuous 8th century, B.C. According to tradition, he was a cousin of King Uzziah, but no firm evidence really supports this claim. He did have personal contact with at least two of Judah’s kings, who were David’s descendants. He spoke of coming judgment, but he also spoke of the hope of a deliverer and that God would not turn His back on His chosen people forever.

Read Isaiah 6:1-9

As Isaiah begins to recount his experience, he opens by saying that this happened in the year that King Uzziah died. Uzziah became king of Judah when he was 16 after his father was assassinated. He reigned some 50 years and was faithful to the Lord through most of that time. And the nation prospered during his reign. Although he began well, he didn’t exactly end his reign well. He entered the temple once and burned incense. This was a duty reserved for priests only. And God punished Uzziah for turning an act of worship into a show of his own power by striking him with leprosy. Uzziah never recovered from his leprosy. And Uzziah died the same year Isaiah had this experience.

A righteous person’s falling into sin is always a tragedy. And a national leader’s sliding into sinful practice is a national tragedy. And in the midst of this tragedy and heartbreak, Isaiah worshiped the Lord. It’s a lot like someone today saying, “In the year of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, I worshiped God;” or “On September 11, 2001, I worshiped the Lord.” Or, “When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I sought God’s face.” Or, “When the doctor shared the diagnosis with me…” or “On the day I lost my job…” or “When my loved-one died unexpectedly…” “…I worshiped God.”

These seven words remind us that worship does not happen outside of history. It doesn’t take us away from reality. It occurs in the midst of our life experiences. Worship isn’t something that happens in an out-of-body state, but in the middle of life – both the good and the bad. And as we worship here together, it doesn’t take place outside of our own personal experiences. We bring together our own stories as we worship together. And it’s out of that context that we seek the face of God together. If our worship together is going to be true worship, then we bring in with us all of the baggage of what is happening out in the world.

“It is a natural part of worship to bring with you the concerns of your life. We gather here and we bring in the fears of life, the worries of our family, the concerns of the world and we lift them up in prayer, and we seek God’s comfort and guidance.”[1] Because our worship is towards God. It’s not about us.

So at the same time this historical moment was taking place, Isaiah set his focus on the Throne of God. And as he encounters the glory of the Living God, he is awestruck at what he saw. Amazing creatures dancing around the Throne. The room filling with smoke. The majesty of the Lord filling the entire temple. It was an amazing experience.

Now, can you imagine Isaiah, in the middle of this encounter with the Living God, looked at his watch and thought, “I hope this doesn’t go too long. I’ve got some important football to watch today.” Or, “Ugh…we’re singing this song again?!?” or, “That smoke is just too distracting. Maybe they should have less smoke next time. And why does it have to be so loud?” Of course, he doesn’t do that. The only thing he can do is call attention to the amazing holiness and purity of God by recognizing his own sinfulness and impurity. Because worship wasn’t about Isaiah. And it’s not about us. It’s all about lifting God up.

The value of worship is not what we get out of it, but how we can give honor to God. It’s not a movie. It’s not a play. It’s not a ballgame or a show where you can tune in and tune out as you please. Worship is what we do for God. It’s the main event. Experiencing the Word as it is read, sung, played out in drama, acted out in the Lord’s Supper, and preached is all part of our time of worship together. Everything we do this morning is an act of shared worship of the Father. That’s why we sing together. That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. That’s even why we have announcements in the morning: to share what God is doing in our lives and in our communities. When we come here on Sunday mornings, I hope we come with the attitude of what we are going to give to God, not what we can get out of it.

God wants our worship. He is worthy of our worship. He deserves all of the honor and praise we can give Him. And He deserves that worship every day, not just on Sunday mornings.

Dr. Gary Johnson of Indian Creek Christian Church in Indianapolis has said it this way: “Worship is more than a Sunday morning experience. It should be the way we live 24/7. We should be forging a walk with God that is passionate, engaging him relationally throughout the day, and every day throughout the week. Worship is more of a way we live than what we do on a Sunday morning.”[2]

Again, the prophet Isaiah addresses the same issue. If you still have your Bibles open, turn to Isaiah 29:13. It’s found on page 609 in the red Bibles.

Read Isaiah 29:13-14

The worship lifestyle of the people of Judah had only become a matter of pretense. It wasn’t a genuine response to God from the heart. Although they were professing they knew God and they were gathering together to formally worship God, they did not worship Him with their hearts. They were more concerned with their own rites and regulations than with God’s Law, which promotes mercy, justice, and equality. Their worship together was pointing to God, but their everyday lives were not.

Worship on Sunday mornings is only meaningful to God in the extent that it reflects the desires of my heart on a daily basis. Our worship on Sunday morning should not be the only time we give God honor. It should be an extension of the worship we’ve already been doing in our daily lives. When we gather together on Sunday mornings, we proclaim that it’s not about us. It’s all about God. And we point towards Him, encouraging others to do the same. And that’s how it should be the rest of the week. In order to fully worship God, our lives need to point to Him – regardless of circumstance or location. If the way we worship on Sunday morning doesn’t match up with the way we live throughout the week, then it invalidates our worship. It invalidates it to God, and it also invalidates it to the world, too. Christian author, Brennan Manning, once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” As we worship on Sunday, we point towards Christ. As we worship with our lives the rest of the week, we need to point towards Christ.

By all accounts I’ve been able to find, composer Joseph Haydn was a faithful follower of Christ. He sought out God’s glory, even with the musical works that he composed. Most critics and scholars have considered his oratorio, The Creation, to be his greatest work. He had written it as a way to glorify God, telling the story of creation as found in the book of Genesis through music.

On March 27, 1808, a group of celebrated vocal and instrumental artists performed this masterful work in a Vienna music hall. This was the last performance of The Creation that Haydn was to attend. He died about a year later. He was sick and his body was weak. He had to be brought into the hall in a wheelchair.

His attendance caused an electrifying atmosphere in the music hall. There was genuine excitement that this composer’s greatest composition was going to be performed in his presence. As the performance proceeded, enthusiasm gradually increased.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with performances like this, but it’s generally considered proper practice to hold your applause until the end of the performance of the entire piece. Oratorios like these are composed of different movements, and there’s usually a pause between these movements. But the audience generally refrains from applause until the final note of the entire performance is played. The Creation consists of 34 separate movements. As the performers reached the end of the second movement, the music’s power grew. The crowd’s enthusiasm increased. And the music continued to crescendo until the burst forth the final line of the second movement: “And there was light.” And the people broke out in thunderous applause, paying tribute to the composer. His contemporary, Ludwig van Beethoven, was said to have knelt before him and kissed his hands as an act of honor.

Haydn struggled to his feet and motioned for silence. Then, lifting his hand high toward heaven, he cried out, “No! No! Not from me – everything comes from up there!” And he fell back into his chair, exhausted.

Even in the midst of receiving all of this praise and recognition for an amazing creative piece, Haydn knew his purpose. He knew that his life was supposed to point others to the Father. At this time where it would be tempting to massage his own ego and puff his chest out with pride, Haydn led others to the Throne.

Is that what your life is doing? Are you pointing to Christ in all you do, or are you allowing yourself to bask in some of the glory, too. We were made to worship the Father. And only He is worthy of honor and praise. If our lives are pointing to something or someone other than Him, then we need to repent. And as we live our lives, we need to continually point heavenward saying, “Not from me! From Him!”

Because it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s all about Him. That, friends, is the heart of worship.

[1] I have borrowed heavily from this sermon in the opening thoughts about worshiping within history.

[2] Christian Standard, September 14, 2008, p. 17 (697).

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