Sunday, October 11, 2009

Liberated for Worship

Texts: Exodus 6:6-8; 8:1; 1 Peter 2:9-12; Romans 12:1-2

IT’S BEEN YEARS SINCE CHILDREN in the Presbyterian Church (USA) were required to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism in order to be confirmed. But say I were to ask you, "What is the chief end of man?" most of you could reply, "Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."

There’s the meaning and purpose of human life, right there in those twelve little words. Human life is for the glorification and enjoyment of Almighty God. You and I and every human being ever born were made for worship. Everything in creation was made to focus us on the living God as our chief joy and treasure. Everything we do should show all creation how wonderful the Lord Almighty is. That’s how He made us to find fulfillment. That’s what He created us to do.

But we don’t see humanity carrying out that purpose, do we? We don’t even see it in ourselves, who bear the name of Christian. Ever since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we have turned away from worshipping God and enjoying and glorifying Him above all other things. In Romans 3:10-18, St. Paul reminds us of what is written in God’s holy law:

"There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one."
"Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit."
"The poison of vipers is on their lips."
"Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."
"Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know."
"There is no fear of God before their eyes."

God made us to seek Him, to do good to others to the praise of His name. He gave us tongues to speak His word and vocal cords to sing His glory. He purposed our lips to proclaim the health-giving truth of His righteousness and love and our mouths to utter blessings on Him and our neighbor. Our feet He created to run quickly to do His service; our whole being He made for encouragement and joy and peace, peace we would find in bowing before Him and worshipping Him, looking to Him in holy fear. But do we? Does any human being of his or her own volition truly seek the Lord and the kingdom of His righteousness?

No, we do not. We humans run after and worship every other god except the Lord of heaven and earth. Some of us worship forces of nature, depicted as idols of metal, wood, or stone. We so-called superior modern types, we worship the false gods of money, power, position, or family. If we’re really sophisticated-- and I use the term satirically-- we claim to be worshipping the Lord God Himself , but we make Him over in our own image. We say, "Well, the God I worship wouldn’t do that!" or "My Jesus would always do this other thing!" When the very word of Scripture declares that we’re telling total lies about the Triune God.

When it comes down to it, we fallen humans are really worshipping ourselves, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden. Every sin, every act of human crime and warfare, every evil and disease that has come into this world, can be traced to that one vicious motivation that lies in every one of our hearts: We would be as God, and our chief end is to glorify ourselves and enjoy ourselves in our own way forever.

So as Paul continues in the third chapter of Romans, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God."

But why should God hold us accountable? What difference does it make to Him if we glorify and enjoy Him-- or not? When the Scripture declares that God’s wrath will come upon those who refuse to worship Him alone, isn’t He being arbitrary and unfair?

Seems like a reasonable question-- until the Lord opens our minds to understand just how things are. God must punish rebellion against Himself, first because idolatry violates the very reason He created us. It’s an outrage against the image of God in us all. Then, the wrath of God comes because our refusal to glorify and enjoy Him puts us in opposition to Him in a battle we can’t win. Our sin is like fierce waves pounding us like frail wooden boats to pieces against the rock of God’s righteousness. It’s true that God Almighty cannot bear sin in His presence, but more than that, we sinners could not bear His presence in our sin.

But the third reason God must punish our idolatry is perhaps the greatest of all, and the hardest for us in our fallen natures to understand: It is that He is God. He and He alone has the right to be praised, worshipped, and glorified now and forever. That’s what it means for Him to be God. He made us; we did not make Him. He commands us; we are not to command Him. Ultimately, everything ought and should and shall be done to His glory and to the praise of His name.

And so, for His own name’s sake, God Almighty did not leave us in our sin. He called us to be a people of His own choosing and provided a way for us to be saved.

In the days of Moses the Lord freed the Hebrews from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt and led them out to be His chosen people. After the children of Israel came into the Promised Land the Lord gave them judges and kings and prophets, to liberate them from oppression by the Gentile nations round about them, and from the yoke of idolatry they so often took upon themselves. And we know that these wonderful acts of salvation looked forward to the greatest act of liberation of all-- that day when Jesus Christ, God’s own and only Son, hung upon a cross to take the wrath we deserved for our sins and to bring us salvation through His blood.

Why did He do it? Why did our Lord Jesus Christ suffer not only tortures of physical pain, but also the infinite horror of separation from His eternal Father? To save us from our sins, we reply. Yes, but why did He save us from our sins? Why did He set us free? Going farther back to God’s great liberation of Israel, why did He free them from Pharaoh? What was it all for?

The Lord our God freed us for worship. Over and over the Lord commands Moses to say to Pharaoh, "This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me." Not, "Let my people worship, so they may go." Worship wasn’t a ruse to get the Hebrews out from under Pharaoh’s eye, as if God wanted him to think that they’d come back as soon as they’d offered their sacrifices. No, they needed to be liberated from their slavery so they could worship God as He has a right to demand. In Exodus 6, verse 7 the Lord declares, "I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God." He intended to bring Israel into a unique relationship with Him, where they could glorify and enjoy Him. In Exodus 1:12, the Lord tells Moses that their worship of Him at Mount Sinai would be a sign that it was indeed He who was with him.

If that was true for the children of Israel, how much more it is true for us, who are the new Israel in Jesus Christ! The Apostle Peter in his First Letter describes how it is with us:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

God chose us in Jesus Christ and called us out of darkness, that we might declare His praises! He liberated us for worship! When we truly worship Him, it is His testimony to us that He is with us and has set us free. Only God’s people can worship Him, and we become His people not by our efforts, or by what we deserve, but by His gracious liberating hand.

And from the days of Moses; even from the time of Creation, the worship God desires is like a beautiful bird with two wings. We worship God-- that is, we glorify and enjoy Him-- by coming together to hear His holy word read and preached, to receive the holy sacraments He has given to us, to sing His praises, to give our offerings, and to raise up our adoration and petitions to Him in prayer. And we worship Him with our lives as we serve our neighbor, those in the church and those yet outside of it. Peter tells us we should live such good lives among unbelievers that ultimately they, too, may glorify God. Paul in Romans 12 reminds us that in view of God’s mercy in freeing us from sin and wrath through the shed blood of His Son, we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to Him. By such continual acts of worship we "test and approve what God’s will is--his good, pleasing, and perfect will." As we worship Him in our lives we begin to know what it is to enjoy Him forever.

But we still have a problem, don’t we? We keep forgetting what we were saved for. To hear some preachers talk, you’d think God freed us from sin so we could have prosperous lives and happy marriages and well-behaved children and a sense of self-esteem and fulfillment. According to others, after Jesus has saved us by His free grace, it’s up to us to find our purpose under God by working really hard at some forty-day program, as if being a living sacrifice were something we have to do on our own. But no, God has saved us by Himself and for Himself, and having begun the work, He will bring it to completion.

But say we do acknowledge that we’re liberated for worship. The old Adam in us still wants to come up with his own ideas about what worship of Almighty God is. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, "I can worship God just as well or better on the golf course or at the beach as I can sitting in church." But the Bible’s answer to that is, No, you can’t. True worship of God is corporate-- it is offering of the whole royal priesthood, the people belonging to God. Even when we must be alone, our worship must acknowledge the spiritual presence of the whole body of believers. To claim it can ever be "Just Me and God" is to fall once more into idolatry.

But more than that, our worship together is not primarily a matter of what we give Him, but of what He gives us. Tell me, you who claim to worship on the golf course, are you hearing the Word of God preached? Are you hearing the bad news of God's wrath against your sin and the good news of Jesus Christ crucified to reconcile you to Him? And you who say you commune with God on the beach, are you receiving the holy sacraments our Lord has ordained? If not, how can you say you’re worshipping the one true God? Where our Lord does not give Himself in the ways He Himself has ordained, we are left worshipping idols we ourselves have made.

Then again, what if we want to remake worship to make it a better "experience," especially for the unbeliever? Let’s have more entertainment, louder amplifiers, better PowerPoint graphics, more exciting effects! Let’s get rid of boring sermons and sacraments and any talk about sin!

Beware, for if we omit or minimize the means of grace our Lord has given us, we’ll find we’re not worshipping the living God, but our idolatrous idea of Him. We can give a seeker the best "worship experience" in the world, but if we aren’t communicating the bad news of sin and wrath and the good news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, that man or woman will remain just as much a child of Hell as they were when they walked through the church doors. Worship is not about giving us great experiences, it’s about glorifying and enjoying the eternal, righteous, holy, and all-worthy Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Or what if we think worship is just what we’re used to and find comfortable, like a social club with hymns? What will we do when He roars like a lion in His Word and burns like fire by His Spirit? What will become of our tame Jesus idol then? It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!

But take comfort, Christian friends. Our heavenly Father knows our weakness and comes to us in mercy and love. The worship of God is not a burden, it is your glory and your joy! Yes, we often fail truly to worship God as we come together as local churches. We don’t perfectly worship Him as we go about our lives in the world. But our Lord Jesus is here by His Spirit to forgive us, to guide us, to guard us, and to lead us more perfectly in His service. He is with us to teach us to desire the living God more than life itself, for He is Life itself. Our Christ has liberated us to worship Him, for it is in worship that He gives us His grace and strength; it is in worship that our God and Father receives the honor He is due; and in worship we come to fall at His feet, lost in wonder, love, joy, and praise.

In the name of Christ our risen Lord, wherever we are, whatever we do, may we glorify God and enjoy Him forever. As His liberated people, let us continually worship God.