Scripture Reading: Colossians 3:16-17
Scripture Lesson: Exodus 26:30-37
Sermon: Where Does Worship Come From?
The sermon entry will be rather different this week because of how I preached the sermon. It relied heavily on being able to see objects within the church and on the screens. Thanks to my Dad for letting me borrow the laser pointer...It really helped! The premise of the sermon is that our worship today is based upon a worship format that extends back thousands of years. In fact, many of the items found in traditional churches are variations of worship items present in the Tabernacle and Temple of ancient Israel. I was a little scared that it might be too much of a "teaching" sermon, but it was well received.
The Tabernacle is an old word that basically means "tent." Why we use tabernacle in Christianese? I don't know. The original worship space was a portable tent. What a great metaphor for God being with us wherever we go!
Solomon's Temple was basically a permanent Tabernacle. It had many of the same features and was laid out very similarly.
To enter the Tabernacle structure one had to first go by the Altar. A place of sacrifice, the altar was a bloody mess. Day and night sacrifices went up as substitutionary offerings for sin, for shalom (health and blessing), and for gifts to God. The Protestant Christian church has no altar for the Christian altar was the Cross on which the perfect Lamb of God died. In Roman Catholic churches where the Eucharist is an actual "redoing" of the Death of Christ, the priest is literally sacrificing Christ and so the Table also serves as an altar. However, Protestant theology does not believe Christ is sacrificed repeatedly; furthermore, His death on the Cross was a sufficient sacrifice once and for all. Thus, what is often called "the altar" in Protestant churches is actually the Table, which I'll come back to later.
The second item that one would come to is the Laver. It was an huge ceremonial washing bowl. The water was used to ceremonially cleanse and purify. Notice that after the altar and atonement comes the cleansing. In the Church, our baptistry serves this same purpose. In the entrance of Roman Catholic churches is a beautiful symbol, the holy water through which we come into the church. Figuratively and literally, one enters the Church through faith in Christ's atoning death and through the cleansing waters of God's Grace.
Inside the Temple was beauty and mystery. Candles or Menorahs burned brightly. The mystery of fire has always captured mankind's imagination. Fire has always been something somewhat mystical. The connection of life and death and purification juxtaposed with the warm light given off makes fire nearly sacred...or a symbol of the sacred. Today, we still light fires in our traditional churches. Acolytes bring the fire in and take it out when we leave. In the Christian tradition we have also tied this to Jesus' words, "I am the Light of the world." When we gather together, Jesus promised to be with us; thus, we light the candles as a symbol that Jesus' Light and Spirit is among us as we worship together. We take that light with us as a reminder that we don't hide the light under a basket; rather, we shine it brightly for all to see. We take Jesus into the world...we don't try to hide him away at a church building!
Inside the Temple was also a Table of Unleavened bread. This was consecrated bread offered to God, but also for the priests. Leviticus 24:5-9 says that the bread is an offering to God for the priests of God to eat. There is something wildly awesome about all of this. Giving to God means giving to others. The bread and the animal sacrifices were offered to God, but the priesthood ate from them as well. Secondly, it is worth noting that we are sustained by God's blessings, and that when we eat from God's Table, our lives are blessed. Thirdly, the Church (altar) Table serves in this same capacity. The offering of Christ's Body and Blood to God is served to us at the Communion Table. 1 Peter 2:9 says that followers of Jesus are the new "priesthood, a holy nation, God's own possession." As Christ made us all priests, we now eat from that Table the Bread and Wine consecrated to God through Christ Jesus. We eat from the Table of God as priests. Brothers and Sisters, what an awesome privilege to eat from God's own table, the offerings of Christ.
One of my favorite professors in seminary Richard Lischer told this story:
One of the pillars of the congregation stopped by one day to tell me that he'd just been born again. "You've been what!?!" Born again! Yep, I was visiting my brother-in-law's church and I experienced something there, I don't know what it was...but something was happened and I was born again!
Lischer replied, "You can't be born again! You're Lutheran and chairman of the board of trustees!"
What my professor got caught up in is something that seduces us all: The ordinary. Too often we get into a routine of church. We try to make routine and ordinary something that is spectacular...that is mystery...that is far from routine.
Enter the Holy of Holies. The "holiest place." There was the infamous Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the presence of God, and all of it was behind a curtain. The Ark, which means box. Yes, box. Noah built a box. The Israelites carried around a box. Indiana Jones searched for a box. You get the drift. It was a box that carried important reminders of their story with God. The tablets of the Law given at Sinai, Aaron's budded staff, and a golden pot of Manna served as visible treasures symbolizing God's presence with them. My take is that we have it all backward: The Ark isn't what's important....It's the story inside.
The Ark was not to be touched, and the Holy of Holies was not to be entered except by the high priest, once a year. It was sacred space where God's Glory dwelt on earth. And separating all this from the rest of the Temple was a huge, ornate curtain. This thick curtain was a divider separating the people from God. In the Gospel texts, when Jesus dies, the poetry of God blossoms for the curtain in the Temple was torn in two. The divider between the presence of God and the people was gone. Now, through Christ, all could come into God's presence. The book of Hebrews says that we can boldly approach the Throne of God because of Christ's atonement.
Churches no longer have untouchable Arks or dividing curtains for central to our theology is the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in us and among us. God no longer is unavailable to the common person for the people of God have been made priests under one high priest Christ.
In closing I shared a story about the mystery and grandeur of worship being like my only experience of Crater Lake. My parents took me out West when I was in high school, and we went to see Crater Lake, one of the most beautiful scenic gems of the USA. Apparently, the water is so clear that you can see a 1 foot object 1000 feet down. The lake itself is in the crater of a volcano. Anyhow, when we got there, it had snowed like 15-20 feet in June! There was fog, snow, and snow drifts as far as the eye could see. Crater Lake was a huge disappointment. Worship can be like that, too. Sometimes there are things in our lives or things happening around us that allow us to miss the grandeur of it all; HOWEVER, Crater Lake is still beautiful...I just missed it. God is beautiful, and sometimes we miss it in worship, too. This is why it is important to keep coming back. Sometimes the fog of our lives keeps us foggy in worship. Sometimes the timing of our lives is the wrong time to hear a message. Does that mean worship is bad? Does that mean God is less grand? No!
Worship should be a multisensory experience full of symbols and actions that invite us into the presence of God. Worship is a declaration of our faith in God, so let us, as we come together every Sunday, worship with these symbols all around us...knowing that they speak to us through many generations of faith...that our God is the Living God full of Glory and worthy of praise.