Friday, 8 February 2019

“What happened in church?”: a sermon (Isaiah 6:1-8)

I’ve given my sermon the title “What happened in church?”  Interestingly, one of my Princeton Seminary professors, the late Dr. Donald Macleod, had a sermon with the title “Something happened in church”, based on this same passage from Isaiah.  These are two very different sermons, and I didn’t consult Dr. Macleod’s sermon in preparing this one.  (Actually, I don’t even own a copy of that particular sermon.)

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

I may be about to make a very strange – and, perhaps, dangerous - admission, particularly at the beginning of a sermon. 

But here goes anyway. 

I often “zone out” when I listen to a sermon in church.  If you talk to me on Sunday afternoon and the conversation turns to that morning’s church services, “What was the sermon about?” is a dangerous question to ask me

It’s not because of advancing years.  If you asked me this question back when I was in my mid-twenties, I’d have been as vague on the homiletical content of the typical service I attended then as I would be now in my mid-sixties.

A better question to ask me would be “What happened in church?”  I could comment at length about the scripture lessons, the hymns and other music, and the liturgy.  I’m mentally engaged during the bulk of the service, and always have been.  But I freely admit to letting my mind wander during sermons …, and during children’s talks …, and particularly during the notices.

I don't think I'm alone here.

A big part of this has to do with the assumption – an assumption I consider to be a false assumption - made by many congregations and by many worship leaders:

-- regardless of their denomination,

-- regardless of their theological emphasis,

-- regardless of their worship style,

-- regardless of their musical tastes.

This assumption is that the average person sitting there in the congregation is there because he or she wants to learn things about religion.  As a result, the parts of the service in which information is conveyed to the congregation (sermon, children’s talk, notices) are treated – in practice, at least, if not in theory – treated as being much more important than the rest of the service.

I think that assumption is a rather large mistake to make.  I believe the typical person who shows up at a worship service, whether a regular worshipper or an infrequent one, is there because she or he wants to experience a relationship with the God worshipped by the congregation, not because they want to learn information about religion.

The fact that so many congregations and worship leaders don’t “get” this – particularly in churches with a middle-of-the-road, teaching-learning worship style such as the Uniting Church – is (in my opinion) one of the main reasons why churches like ourselves have been clobbered in recent decades in areas of membership and attendance:  a far more important reason I believe for the emptying of the churches than questions of theology, biblical interpretation, or sex.  People want to experience God when they turn up in church, rather than merely learning stuff about religion.

We need to remember that  the typical person who shows up at a worship service, whether a regular worshipper or an infrequent one, is there because she or he wants to experience a relationship with the God worshipped by the congregation. 

Thus, we need to be aware that the “main course” of our worship is what we do when we gather around the Lord’s Table to celebrate the presence of the risen Christ.  The part of our worship we’re doing now is the appetizer.  I want to make it as good an appetizer as possible, but nevertheless the appetizer leads up to the main course.

Looking at our lesson from the book of Isaiah, the prophet was in the Temple, the place of public worship.  He spoke of his experience of worship.

-- He was caught up into the cosmic praise of the Living God involving all creation.

-- He was confronted with his own shortcomings, yet also heard the clear word of God’s mercy, grace, and transformation.

-- He experienced God’s call to service, and responded with a clear, “Here am I, send me!”

For Isaiah, worship was not merely something cerebral.  (Nor was it something merely emotional.)  For Isaiah, something happened in worship:  something real, something genuine.

So may it be for us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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