Heart of Worship: Keep the main thing the Main Thing

This is  Epiphany when we remember the coming of the Wise Men, who fell down and worshiped the Baby Jesus and brought him precious gifts (Matthew 2:11). The Wise Men were not Jews. They were Magi from the East, probably from around Babylon (Matt 2:1-2). Christians celebrate Epiphany as the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. The Wise Men included the first non-Jews to see the Messiah. When they came, they fell down, worshiped Jesus, and gave him precious gifts. We are called to do the same. We are called here week by week to fall down before the Risen Christ. We are also called to bring him gifts, and two gifts he wants most are for us to obey his commandment to love one another and his commission to share the good news and make disciples until he returns.

It is no secret churches struggle for unity in the area of worship styles. Don’t feel bad if this characterizes your congregation. Frankly, I am surprised that some churches went along so long without experiencing tensions between those who prefer contemporary and more traditional Christian music. Most congregations experienced it in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

When I was in my early 30’s the young people in our church requested permission to experiment with “Contemporary Worship.” The service was held on Sunday evening and attended by about 200 or more people, not all young. Not unpredictably, a bit of conflict developed between proponents of the two worship services. When I went to Advent in 1999, they had two very different kinds of worship experiences and the two groups were in tension. It was while studying The Purpose Driven Life as a congregation that we finally reached unity about this issue. [1] When thinking about worship, it helps to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.

Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

Our text is from the last chapter of Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go 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 I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20).

Let us Pray: God of All Wisdom, Love, and Hidden Power: Come among us as we begin a new year. Allow us to be filled with your Spirit and, like Jesus, always about our Father’s business, wherever we may be. In Jesus Precious Name, Amen

What is Worship, Anyway?

Our text begins by reminding us that, when the disciples came to receive the Great Commission, the first thing they did was worship Jesus. The word used in this passage literally means to fall down or bow down and worship, to pay homage to and to submit to as a sovereign. [2] To the Jewish and Christian mind, God and only God is worthy of worship, and when the disciples fell at the feet of the risen Lord and worshiped him they were recognizing that Jesus was the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, of one being with the Father.

When we come to worship, we come to bow down before God, to pay our respects to God, to pray to God, to listen to the Word of God, to hear again the commandments of God, so that we may leave renewed in our devotion to God and in our commitment to follow God’s word and leading in our daily lives.

Whenever music, or a preacher, or a worship leader, or anything else takes the place of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our worship, we are doomed to division until we remember what true worship is. This has important ramifications: We cannot and must not make a person, a theology, style of music, a particular liturgy, or anything else our primary concern. God revealed in Jesus Christ is our primary concern in Christian worship.

Just as importantly, when we worship we are not religious consumers of religious experiences. We are bowing down, offering ourselves to God. We are acknowledging that God is God and we are not God. We do not come to worship primarily to hear a message, listen to music, recite a liturgy, or whatever. We worship to offer ourselves to the Living God.

Worship and Christian Community: It is Not about Me (or You)

Our text tells us that the “Eleven” came and worshiped Jesus. The remaining disciples, after Judas betrayed Jesus, when the time came for Jesus to ascend into heaven, came together and worshiped Jesus. We can too easily pass over this fact: Jesus called his disciples into community and they worshiped him then and always since as a community. Worship is essentially communal. The Jews worshiped God at the Temple and in synagogues as a community. Since the beginning, Christians have worshiped God in community.

The word for “Church” is a Greek word that literally means those who have been gathered out of the nations to worship God. [3] When Paul speaks to Christian believers he almost always does so in the plural. [4] God did not call each of us into a merely private relationship with Him. He calls Christians to enter into the Divine Fellowship of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a divine fellowship that has an earthly counterpart. That earthly counterpart is the church of Christ as it exists in a real, concrete form in real concrete places all over the globe.

In churches today, with multiple worship services, in more than one style, with people who either do not know each other or do not know each other well, this can be hard! However, we must always remember that we were called together, in different services, with different liturgies, from different families, communities, jobs, social backgrounds, etc. to worship Christ in loving community!

Worship just cannot not be completely divorced from community. Worship is a part of, and flows from, Christian community and its long, rich history. Jesus called twelve people to become his disciples in community. He discipled them in community during his earthly ministry. His last commandment to them was to love one another (John 15:12; I John 3:11). We are called first and foremost to love one another in a deep, life changing community that mirrors the community God has, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the first and most important thing God wants of us. This next year, the most important thing Christians will do or can do is to build community, real authentic Christian community in our congregation.

Worship Leads to Action: The Great Commission and Worship

It is no surprise that, immediately after the disciples recognized Jesus for who he was and fell down at his feet to worship him, at that moment, he gave them the Great Commission. The Great Commission is not some minor add-on to the Gospels. It is central to the Gospels. All four Gospels and Acts contain the command of Jesus to carry the Good News into the entire world. [5]

Today’s text is the most famous of the renderings:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go 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 I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20).

Because Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of who God is and what God intends to do in history, because in Jesus Christ the wisdom (Word) of God and the self-giving love of God is revealed in human form, because God vindicated Jesus by revealing in him God’s eternal life, because all the hidden, secret, power of God is present in Jesus, and because the Gospel is Good News of God’s love for everyone, we are to go and make disciples, followers of Jesus who have heard, learned, and internalized his word and live out in their daily lives the divine life of Jesus, sharing that Good News in word and deed wherever we and they may be or are doing.

In Romans, Paul speaks of this outward-focused aspect of worship when he says:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Our truest worship of God is what we do because we come to to worship Him week by week, because we are in community with other believers, because we have heard the Great Commission and Great Commandment, — because of all this, we give ourselves wholly to God in our average, day to day, lives. And, what should constitute the primary focus of our daily lives? Sharing the love of God and the Good News of the Gospel with others as we are able.

Worship: Music and the “Heart of Worship”

Life changing worship has been an important part of Christian life since the beginning of the Christian movement, and not surprisingly, not everyone agreed even in the early church about worship. The early Church struggled with questions like, “Who should be able to lead in worship?” “How big a role should be played by speaking in tongues, prophesy and the like?” “How should communion be shared and when?” [6]  The questions of music in worship, how much music and what kind of music should be heard has frequently cropped up during the course of Christian history. [7] When Martin Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and composed the music for the hymn, his music would have been considered contemporary music, and far from the chants with which the medieval church was familiar. [8]

It helps if we remember to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing: Jesus is at the heart of our worship. Jesus, not our preacher, our music, our liturgy, is the main thing. We do not come here for any other reason than to worship Jesus and Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing in our lives.

This message takes part of its name from the Christian song, “Heart of Worship” written in the late 1990s by Matt Redman. [9] The song began with Redman’s pastor deciding that music had become a barrier to worship within Matt’s home church, “Soul Survivor,” in Watford, England. “There was something missing in their worship, so the pastor did a pretty brave thing,” he recalls. “He decided to get rid of the sound system and band for a season, and we gathered together with just our voices. His point was that we’d lost our way in worship, and the way to get back to the heart would be to strip everything away.”

Reminding his church family to be producers in worship, not just consumers, the pastor asked, “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?” [10] The question initially led to an embarrassing silence, but eventually people broke into a-cappella songs and heartfelt prayers, encountering God in a fresh way. Redman goes on to say that “Before long, we reintroduced the musicians and sound system, as we’d gained a new perspective that worship is all about Jesus, and He commands a response in the depths of our souls no matter what the circumstance and setting. “ The Heart of Worship’ simply describes what occurred.”

I’m not very musical, but my wife is. When we first dated she had a grey Mercury Monarch, for those who remember that can. One of our first dates, we took her car and she was playing an old Willie Nelson album called, “Stardust”. On that album, there is a song called “All of Me,” which really does not give terribly good dating advice, but we fell in love listening to it so it is meaningful. This secular song, however, has a message we all need to sing to Christ: “All of me, why not take all of me/ Can’t you see that I’m no good without you”. [11]

God wants us to worship Him, and we do when we give “all of me” to Christ

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).

[2] See “proskyneo” in Gerhard Kittle, et all, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 948ff; Spiros Zodhiates, ed. The Complete Word Study Dictionary (New Testament) (Chattanooga, TN: AMG, 1992), 1233. The term means literally to fall down before, to worship, to pay respect of homage to, to show reverence towards, to adore, etc.

[3]  The Greek word, “eckaleo” literally means those called out. Just as the ancient Jews were called out of slavery to worship God, so we are called out from the false God’s of the world to worship the One True God of Love.

[4] The Greek language, like most others, makes a clear distinction between singular and plural forms. In English translations, however, the word “you” is used for both singular and plural pronouns. Christians addressed as “the light of the world” (Mt.5:14), “the salt of the earth” (Mt. 5:14), “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor.3:16,17; 6:19), and “the Body of Christ” (I Cor.12:27), are all in the plural. In other words, all these are communal statements. Our being designated as “the light of the world” (Mt.5:14), “the salt of the earth” (Mt.5:14), “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor.3:16,17; 6:19), and “the Body of Christ” (I Cor.12:27), are all in the plural. See The Pioneers New Testament: pioneernt.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/word-study-142-you-you-all-and-each-of-you/ (Downloaded January 4, 2018).

[5] Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8.

[6] The Books of First and Second Corinthians contain many passages showing that the early Church struggled over many of the same issues with which we struggle, such as “What should the role of women be in worship?” How should people of lower social classes be treated?” “How big a role should the gifts of the Spirit and especially speaking in tongues play in worship?” and other questions.

[7] We forget that the church has always had elements, such as some parts of the Church of Christ today, that do not believe that music should be a part of worship. At every great musical transition in history, there have been those who did not think that the new music was appropriate.

[8] Most scholars think Luther wrote the hymn between 1521 and 1529, with the majority of scholars settling on 1527–28 during a period of personal crisis. It was written as a hymn version of Psalm 46, and was put to a popular tune. It may not, however, have been a beer hall tune unless an existing tune was incorporated into the hymn tune. See, “Luther and the Bar Song: The Truth Please” Issues (Downloaded January 3, 2018).

[9] Matt Redman, “Heart of Worship” (Thankyou Music, 1999). The introduction to this sermon is based on an article at Crosswalk.com and can be found at: https://www.crosswalk.com/church/worship/ song-story-matt-redmans-the-heart-of-worship-1253122.html. (Downloaded January 4, 2018). The most well-known version was recorded by Michael W. Smith. The Lyrics read, “I’m coming back to the heart of worship/And it’s all about You all about You Jesus/ I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it /When it’s all about You all about You Jesus.

[10] One reason churches can have issues with the so-called worship wars is that American Christians, probably subconsciously, sometimes adopt a consumer view of what we do in worship. This was the problem Matt Redman’s pastor saw. When I was in seminary our evangelism professor once made a comment that contained an unfortunate element of truth: He felt that American worship had become a private form of religious entertainment, focused on celebrity pastors and musicians, both in traditional and in newer contemporary congregations, with the excellence of the preacher, or the music, or whatever, being the reason people came to church. We don’t need to feel particularly condemned by this. In consumer society, it is no surprise that a consumer, entertainment oriented kind of worship is a constant temptation. If worship is between Jesus and me, then what I desire in preaching, praying and music is what matters. However, if I am called to be a part of a fellowship of Christians, then what matters is the needs of my fellow Christians as well as my personal needs. We do not have to like everything or everyone or approve of everything. We just have to sacrificially love everyone and sacrifice our preferences for them out of a center in God’s love. This is hard in contemporary society.

[11] Gerald Marks/Seymour Simons, All of Me lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Round Hill Music Big Loud Songs, Marlong Music Corp. (First recorded by Billie Holliday, 1949).

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