How Should We Worship Him?
At this time of year everybody knows you're suppose to worship God. Christmas specials have a church-like atmosphere. Budweiser and Miller trot you past a church in their holiday greetings. When I was young, my mother told me that the bars in Michigan shut down at 6 PM on Christmas Eve so everybody could go to church. I don't know if people did leave the bar for church, but even those who don't go to church expect church this time of year. Everybody expects God to be worshiped at Christmas. The question in our Christmas Catechism is How should we worship Him?
The proper way to worship our God, contrary to Christmas legends and Christmas specials, is not by doing things for Him. If you know any Christmas legends, you know that a main theme of them is some impoverished person not having a gift worthy to give King Jesus. So they stand outside the manger fretting about it. Then either a miracle makes a gift appear, or they just give what they can and Baby Jesus miraculously loves it. For example, the little drummer boy despairs because he has nothing to give, so he decides to play for Baby Jesus and "then He smiled at me." Poinsettias and white roses are suppose to be a result of Christmas miracles. Poinsettias grew where a shepherd boy in Mexico dropped tears because he had nothing to give Jesus. White roses come from when a shepherd girl not daring to enter into the Lord's presence empty-handed is shown by an angel white roses that have sprung-up miraculously.
Don't get me wrong; I love legends like that, but you have to recognize they're essentially pagan. Paganism of all sorts teaches that in order to worship God you must do something for him. Crasser forms of paganism demand that you sacrifice humans or animals to an angry God. The more refined forms demand that you do something to please God.
You know what I've just done, don't you? I've called pagans all those who believe worship is doing something for God. I've called you a pagan if you think going to church is something you "gotta do" to please God. I've called pagan pastors who give people something to do for the church to get them to come to church. But the majority of people believe coming to church is something they do for God, a chore they have got to do each weekend, a responsibility they need to fulfill, a burden they must bear.
They're wrong. Church isn't about us doing for Jesus; it's about Jesus doing for us. The only ones in the Christmas story who came to do something for Jesus were the wise men. But remember, they came from a pagan land, and while they know Jesus is a king it's doubtful they fully understand how much He came to do for them. All the others in the Christmas events: the shepherds, Simeon , Anna, Mary, and Joseph are either told what the Christ-Child will do for them or rejoice over what He will do.
They that worship God must worship Him in spirit and truth said Jesus. The truth is that the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, said He didn't come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom. Worship is having God do for you. But where does God do for you today? At a place called Bethlehem, in a land called Judea, on a hill called Calvary? No, He does for you right here at a place called Trinity.
This is the point we stumble at because it takes us one more step away from the god of our own ideas. We think our relationship to the invisible God is in our heart, in our feelings. It's an individual thing. I don't need to go to any church to commune with God; I can do that myself. I don't have to have the Word of God preached to me; I can read it myself. I don't have to go to a building filled with a bunch of hypocrites to be close to God.
This is the attitude of many who call themselves Christians. The problem use to be Christians who came to church on Sunday but denied the faith in their day to day life. Today the problem is people who don't go to church at all, and believe they are nevertheless Christians. They have no relationship with the Bride of Christ, the Church, but believe they still have a relationship with Christ, the Bridegroom. They think the Bride of Christ is a tramp, a hypocrite, a human organization, and they don't think the Bridegroom, Christ, is bothered by their view. They think they can despise the Bride but love the Groom. What earthly husband would tolerate such an attitude? Is this the attitude of someone who holds preaching sacred and gladly hears and learns it?
But it's so hard to believe that a sinner as bad, maybe worse than myself, can really be speaking God's Word to me. Likewise, it's hard to hold God working through ordinary water sacred; it's hard not to despise the invisible Lord coming to us visibly in the form of bread and wine! How can the God I can't see be doing anything for me through these things I can see!
You do realize this is what all those who rejected Jesus concluded? How many even after hearing the wonderful words pouring from Jesus' mouth and seeing amazing miracles at His hands, still rejected Him as nothing but a son of Joseph, nothing but a carpenter, nothing but a demonized man who thought He was God. John reports them saying, "You being a man, make Yourself out to be God." And, "Aren't we right in saying you are...demon-possessed!"
Don't you see the similarity? Don't you see the danger you're being warned of? Christ was rejected because He looked liked any other man; pastors are rejected because they are ordinary men. Christ was rejected as God because He had human flesh and blood. Pastors are rejected as being unable to do the things of God because they are just flesh and blood. How can they forgive sins? How can their hands baptize me into Christ and give me Christ's body and blood? How can they speak to me God's Word? The powerful, invisible God surely wouldn't deal with me through such a weak, visible man?
But our thoughts are not His thoughts; our ways are not His ways. God wills to work through weak ordinary things. He willed to come into the world as any other baby does. He willed to look, act, speak, and even suffer and die like an ordinary man would. And today He wills to deal with sinners through His Church. He wills to give new life through water poured on by a sinner speaking God's words; He wills to forgive sins through the mouth of a sinner. He wills to come to sinners through ordinary bread and wine.
And dear friends if you reject the ways God wills to come to you, you do not have the true God no matter how much you feel, reason, or believe you do. As a person stands in relation to the Church, so he or she stands in relation to God. The visible Church is the tabernacle of God among men; outside of her there is no salvation. The person who purposely separates himself from the Mother of all Christians, the Holy Christian church, cannot have God as his Father!
But here's the kicker. If you come here thinking you must come to please God, it's worse than not coming at all. If you think you "gotta" come then it's impossible for you to worship the true God because the true God doesn't want you to come for His sake; He wants you to come for your sake. Those who think they gotta do things for God live under the law and therefore under the wrath of an angry God.
Friends, even if you do believe that this is the place God wills to meet you, if you believe God is angry with you so that you must come here to placate Him, how can you gladly hear and learn His Word? People hide from, close their ears, shake with fright at words from an angry God. So then there are two stumbling blocks to worshiping God: We stumble at where and we stumble at how.
The where is here. Just as God came to man in Christ. Just as God bridged the gap between Himself and sinners by coming all the way down to where they are. Just as He didn't expect sinners to be able to climb up to heaven and bring Him down. So God comes all the way down here for the sake of sinners. "To be born of virgin He does not despise" we sing. How beautiful, how true. He didn't turn His nose up at a Virgin's womb, a feeding trough for cattle, or a stable for horses. And your God doesn't turn His nose up at this building. He doesn't say, I won't meet them there because the building isn't big enough, clean enough, or costly enough. He doesn't say, "I won't allow the bald guy with the glasses to speak my Word or forgive sins." He doesn't say, "There's no way I'm going to place My body on that metal communion tray or My blood in glass cups." Though He's worthy of gold and silver, He doesn't despise ordinary metal or glass anymore than He did swaddling clothes and straw.
Your God has told you where to meet Him on earth. Even as He told the shepherds, "This will be a sign to you; you shall find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger," so He has told you where to find Him. If you were a shepherd back then, would you have refused to go where you were told you could find Him? Would you have said, "Christ the Lord couldn't be in a feeding trough, wrapped with torn strips of clothing"? Well don't do that now. Rejoice in the miracle; don't turn your nose up at it. God has put this building here in order to meet you. He has put His man here to preach you His Word and to forgive you your sins. You don't have to wonder where on earth God is to be found. He says, "I'm here for you at Trinity Lutheran Church."
But how should we worship Him? Just like those shepherds did; just like Simeon and Anna did; just like Mary and Joseph did. By taking what He gives, by believing He comes here to give not to take. God says here is water, wine and bread for thirsty and hungry souls and it's all free. The only requirement is that you be thirsty and hungry. The only requirement for Jesus to give you new life in Baptism is that you be dead in your sins. The only requirement for Jesus to give you the forgiveness of sins through Absolution is that you have sins that need forgiving. The only requirement for Jesus to give you strength and perseverance by means of His body and blood is that you be weak and faltering. The only requirement for Jesus filling your life with forgiveness, peace, and hope is that you be empty.
How fitting a Christmas theme this is! Read what Mary said after God had placed Himself in her womb. She spoke all about how the Lord sends the full away but fills the empty. She didn't speak about what she can or will do for God but about what He had and will do for her. She said, "The Mighty One has done great things for me. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped His servant Israel remembering to be merciful." Worship is all about rejoicing over the great things God does for me. It's about receiving not giving.
But then why does God give a commandment about coming to church if I am not doing something for God? You're forgetting what it's like to be the parent of sinners. Why do you command your children to brush their teeth or do their homework? It's so you can be proud of their teeth and grades, isn't it? Of course not. It's so they might have good teeth and a good education. Or how about this? Why do you command your children to go to bed on Christmas Eve? So they might have the energy needed to give you the best possible Christmas? Of course not. It's so they might have the rest they need to enjoy their Christmas to the fullest. God says "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy." Sabbath means "rest," so God in effect says remember to get the rest you need by receiving holy things.
Contrary to what our society, our medicine, or even our bodies tell us, the rest we need isn't primarily physical; it's spiritual. Sinners can only get spiritual rest through the holy things of God. The waters of Baptism refresh us with new life. The words of Absolution lift off of us the heavy sin and guilt weighing us down. Communion gives us strength and endurance through the Body and Blood of God. This is the rest we sinners need, and we worship God by coming to Him to get this spiritual rest not just at Christmas but throughout the year. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Midweek III, 12-15-99
The Third Commandment