Luke 1:46-55, Luke 2:8-15
Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully
It might sound strange to say, but of our four Advent Conspiracy themes, the one I find the most challenging, personally, is this week’s: Worship Fully. I spend most of my time planning and leading worship. This week, Pastor Aaron and Laurel and I sat down to do some worship planning. And so here, in the midst of Advent, we were planning for January, and Lent, and Easter, and even worship themes through the end of June. It can be a little disorienting. And it can be a little challenging, while leading worship to actually just worship. One of my favorite things about pastoring at Liverpool as part of a team is that I have regular opportunities to not preach. Preaching is one of my favorite things about ministry, but I’ve found that regularly having a week where I’m not preaching helps me prepare spiritually better for the weeks I am preaching. On top of that, I’m blessed by Aaron and Laurel and their insights into the scriptures. It’s the same reason why I value our lay servants who help at our 8am service so much. Could one person lead the whole worship service? Sure. But aren’t we richly blessed by the different words and voices and prayers and forms of expression we use when together, we worship God.
What does it mean to worship fully? I believe it means giving our whole hearts to God in praise, prayer, studying the word, in acts of thanksgiving. The scriptures throughout remind us that the greatest commandments are to love God and love one another with our whole hearts. The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the core, the center, the meaning. We worship because God is God and we are not! We worship because God is love and we seek to love in response. We worship because as God chooses us, creates us, we in turn want to say that we’ve chosen God above all else. It is God who we promise to love with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And because of that, and to show that, we love our neighbors, our fellow human creations. We worship because God is who God is. And we worship because we want to know this God, encounter this God, hear from this God, be moved by this God. That’s why we worship.
How do we worship? As you know we have a group of confirmands going through classes and one-on-one sessions with their mentors this year. They have a couple of essays to write, and some service projects to complete, but mostly, I consider the confirmation requirements to be fairly easy. Accomplishable. I followed a pastor once who required confirmands to pass regular tests, and if their grades were too low, they had to take them over and over until they achieved a high enough grade. It sounded pretty stressful to me, and a little unfair since adults joining the church didn’t have to do nearly as much! I think confirmation is vitally important – all of our faith formation activities are. But I’ve told the youth that with confirmation, like with most things in life, you get out what you put in. You can probably make it through confirmation here with some half-hearted efforts. And then joining the church family officially will probably feel a little half-hearted. But if you put your heart and mind and energy into confirmation, it just might be one of the best faith experiences of your life!
We get out what we put in. That concept works for worship as well. How do you prepare yourself for worship? How do you come to this space or other times and spaces of worship? Do you come expecting to encounter God? Do you come offering yourself to God? Expecting to learn? Expecting to be bored? Expecting nothing? And what do you bring to worship? How do you give your heart to God in worship?
Have you ever taken a look at John Wesley’s Rules for Singing? Maybe you didn’t realize the founder of Methodism had rules – unless you took my John Wesley study this summer – but right in your hymnals each week you hold his rules for singing in your hands on page vii. He writes,
1. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of it being heard, then when you sing the songs of Satan.
3. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
4. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before, not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can. And take care you sing not too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Of course, we get a chuckle out of these. But especially #5 – what Wesley writes about hymn-singing is how I feel about worship. “Have an eye to God” in all we do in worship. Aim at pleasing God more than ourselves and more than others in worship. Offer our hearts to God continually. That’s worship.
It is so easy for us to become consumers of worship just like we consume everything else. It’s easy for us to slip into a “the customer is always right” mindset when we’re worshipping, where we’re the customers and God is the salesclerk. Of course, I want you all to find our worship time together meaningful and engaging. But I want that because I want worship to be a place where God can transform your hearts and souls, where God can invite you into a life of discipleship and you can learn to be ready to respond, “Yes.” Worship is for God. When worship is about something other than giving our hearts to God, it is just another kind of idolatry. Worship is saying yes to God.
We have two scripture readings today. One we read as a responsive litany in our Call to Worship – from Luke 1. This is commonly known as the Magnificat, for the opening lines of the words of the song Mary sings when she meets with her cousin Elizabeth shortly after finding out from the angel Gabriel that she is pregnant with a child from God. Mary has the opportunity to respond to Gabriel’s news in so many ways, all of which would seem justified. But Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In other words, “My soul exults God.” “My soul worships God.” Far from thinking about how this child she carries will impact her personally, even though her life has been in turmoil, her response to the news from Gabriel is to give herself completely to God and sing with joy, worshiping God for God’s goodness, God’s saving plan for the lowly, the oppressed, the overlooked. Mary doesn’t just say “yes” to God. She says yes with a song, with her whole heart, with joy.
And then today we get a sneak peek at the Christmas story. The shepherds have no idea what they’re getting into when messengers from heaven break open their night announcing the birth of a savior. But the shepherds don’t ask questions, even though they’re afraid. They just go. They say yes with their actions. And they make haste – they go quickly. They see and are amazed. And they tell everybody everything they’ve seen and heard and been told. And then they get back to work – but they’re praising and glorifying God all along the way. I’m struck by their willingness to get caught up in this story that must have seemed to strange to them. But they say yes, with their whole hearts, with utter joy.
As we approach our celebration of the birth of Christ, it can be easy to get caught up in the traditions that we love, the sights and sounds of Christmas, the pageantry, the beauty. We are surrounded by such beauty that it can take your breath away! But let us remember where every symbol, every song, every candle flame points us: they direct us to the manger, to worship God-in-the-flesh. To bring us to cradle so that we might offer our gifts to Jesus. To say, “yes, we’re in,” with our whole hearts. I promise, you’ll get out everything that you put in, and then some. And then some.
“My soul magnifies the Lord.” “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” Thanks be to God! Amen.