In a television program I watch, there is an episode in which the minister stood up before the congregation. It was a vast sanctuary -- but it was almost empty. The minister looked out upon all of the empty seats and surveyed the 4 lonely people in the congregation -- one young man, and three elderly women.
The minister begins to speak.
"I give thanks to God that there are at least a handful of us who have made the effort to come to worship, who have come to feed on the Word of God, and who don't believe that God is less important than the football game on television."
Suddenly, the young man in the back pew jumps up. "Oh no, I forgot about the football game." And with that he runs out of the sanctuary.
I look around and wonder, don't we have anything better to do right now than to come to worship service?
There are chores to be done at home, books to read, movies to see, games to watch, and web sites to surf. What motivates us to abandon the television and postpone a visit to the mall in order to worship?
I suspect that for some, the answer is "habit." And to tell the truth, not all habits are bad -- although we tend to speak in terms of good habits as discipline. Study habits, proper exercise routines, and good financial management and budgeting are all good habits -- good self discipline. And attending worship is a good spiritual habit. Some of us are here because it is our habit.
But there is something lacking in that answer, because some time earlier in our lives, we didn't come to worship out of habit. We had to make the decision that this was a discipline we wanted to follow. Why did we make that decision?
Others of us may come to worship because we are struggling with God. We are grieving or we are hurting. We are lost, or we are lonely. And our attendance at worship is part of our search for answers.
Still others may be here against our will. You come here because your parents make you and they are bigger than you are.
Or your wife made you come – maybe she’s bigger than you are.
Or maybe your wife made you come here and if you want your life to go smoothly over the next day or two, giving into her about coming to worship is the thing to do.
The story is told of a man who was enjoying a pleasant sleep in bed when his wife suddenly yanked the covers off the bed and announced, “Time to get up and get ready to go to church.”
Meekly, the man told his wife, “I don’t wanna go to church today. Just let me stay here and sleep in this one day.”
Without any compassion, his wife looked at him and said, “Look Bozo, you have to go to church today. You’re the pastor.”
By the way, that is NOT an autobiographical story.
Why come to worship?
Our Scripture Lesson from Isaiah is a great place to look for answers to these questions. For the past 3 thousand years, worship has found its basis in this chapter.
No matter how we change worship from generation to generation, we tend to gravitate back to the sequence that we find in Isaiah. In fact, much of our own order of our worship is based in part on this 6th chapter of Isaiah.
Worship begins with praise and adoration…
“Holy, Holy, Holy!”
We come to worship, because God is holy, and in our heart, we have a hole. An opening. A gap.
There is a “God-shaped hole” that is in everyone’s soul and life. This “God-shaped hole” is a longing of the human heart for something outside of ourselves, something transcendent.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 speaks of God placing “eternity in a person’s heart.” God made us for His eternal purpose and only God can fulfill our desire for eternity.
The problem with this is that we try to fill this hole with everything but God. We strive to make more and more money, thinking money, possessions and security will make us happy, but Ecclesiastes 5:10 says, “one who loves money will never have enough.” Others try to fill the gap in our lives with sex, entertainment, drugs, all sorts of things – but as St. Augustine said in his Confessions, “Our souls are restless, until they find their rest” in God.
We come to worship because we are drawn by God and the Lord’s holiness.
So it is appropriate that the first thing we do in our act of worship is to praise God for this holiness.
This passage from Isaiah not only gives us the reasons why we are here to worship. This passage also gives us a traditional order or worship which we are beginning to adopt today with a few, very minor, but important changes in our own order of worship.
For Isaiah, and for us, the first act of worship is to engage in an act of adoration. Like our opening hymns and our calls to worship that give praise to God, Isaiah goes into the Temple and there are hymns, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, the whole earth is full of your glory.”
Now any act of worship leads to another act of worship. There is a flow and structure that makes sense in worship. Our bulletin is not a hodgepodge of random events, but there is an orderly and systematic flow.
In Isaiah, the prophet praises God for who he is, and then immediately begins to realize that he stands before God, as a sinner standing before a holy and divine diety.
And so the second act of worship is confession.
In the past, it has only been on the days when we have the Sacrament of Holy Communion that we have included a prayer of confession. But it is appropriate for us to always include this in an act of worship.
In every case in the Bible, whenever a person becomes aware of the presence of God, that person very quickly becomes aware of his or her own sinfulness.
One cannot stand in the presence of a holy God without being aware of one’s own lack of holiness.
In Luke, chapter 5, when Peter witnesses Jesus perform a miracle and realizes that Jesus is the Christ, he pleads with him, “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man.”
You cannot come into the presence of a holy God with arrogance. You must come humble and repentant.
In Isaiah, the prophet first praises God for his holiness, and then immediately looks at himself and says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Why are we here? Part of it is that we are drawn here with a need to ask God’s forgiveness. You see, a prayer of confession is not simply a statement that we are crummy people who live terrible lives of selfishness – it is a prayer that admits all of that and asks God for forgiveness.
And because there is a logical flow to the order of worship, after a prayer of confession, there needs to be an assurance of pardon. We need to hear and know that we are forgiven.
In Isaiah, this happens in a very symbolic way.
Isaiah said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
And then, immediately, this is what happens: One of the angelic-like beings, one of the seraphs flew to Isaiah, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched Isaiah’s mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Why are we here? We come out of a desperate sense of needing to be forgiven.
That is why, in our worship service, when we pray a prayer of confession, there is an immediate reading from a verse or two of Scripture that we call “The Assurance of Pardon.” We need to know that we have been pardoned and forgiven.
Again, there is a flow to the order of worship. When we have heard that we have an assurance of God’s pardon and forgiveness, the immediate response is to thank God and to praise God, which we do with the Gloria Patri.
Worship is never complete without hearing the Word of God.
After approaching God with praise, confessing sins to God, and being assured of God’s forgiveness, Isaiah then hears the voice of God.
Why are we here? One of the reasons we come is to be fed and nurtured by the Word of God. It is not just the preaching by the pastor.
In the bulletin you will see that the flow of worship is highlighted by the subheadings that are included – the first section being the “Preparation for the Word,” and the second section being the “Proclamation of the Word.”
There is more to hearing the Word than the preacher’s sermon. That’s part of it, but it is also the hearing of Candy’s sermon with the children. She always does a great job weaving it into the theme of the sermon I preach. And there is the reading of the Scripture. And there is the Anthem that is sung by the choir. All of those things are the proclamation of God’s Word and that is one of the reasons we come to church – to listen and to be taught.
When Isaiah hears the word of the Lord, it prompts a reaction within him. He is drawn to respond in some way. He goes so far as to raise his hand and say, “Here I am, send me!”
True worship should provoke a response. We’ve moved our sermon deeper into the heart of the worship service, rather than placing it at the end. Part of that is because the offering, the affirmation of faith, the prayers should be a response to the Word. We should never simply near the word of God without a response.
And that is in itself the main reason why we are in worship.
To become different. To respond. To be challenged and to do something.
In our Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Isaiah is in the Temple worshipping God. He hears the call to worship, with angels singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
He is moved to confess his sins, which is followed by the assurance of his pardon.
He hears the word of God proclaimed, hearing the voice of God saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
And what follows then is the service.
The rolling up of sleeves and the reaching out to others.
In the Scripture lesson, the Prophet said, "Here am I. Send me!"
So the question for us today not why do we worship? Or why do we come to church today when there are other things we could be doing?
The real question is what will we do when we leave this place of worship. True worship needs to make a difference in the way we live, and my it always make a difference in your lives!