Vital Congregations Initiative: Worship Inspired by the Spirit
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2022
Isaiah 6:1-8, Revelation 21:1-2, 22-26
Prayer: By the power of your Holy Spirit, illuminate the Word we read today that it may be ingested by us, take root within us, and bear much fruit through us, for the sake of your coming kingdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Our Old Testament text describes the vision of the prophet Isaiah when he first heard God’s call. It is a vision of worship, complete with a song of praise, a prayer of confession, an assurance of pardon, the Word of God proclaimed, and a faithful response of the participant, Isaiah.
Hear the Word of God from Isaiah 6:1-8.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I 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!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
Our New Testament text also reveals a vision of worship.
In our text for today, John on the island of Patmos, enduring persecution from a Roman emperor, envisions the New Jerusalem, when the former things had passed away.
In the New Jerusalem, there is no temple, the temple is the Lord. God abides within the city, and worship of the Almighty permeates the city’s existence. Hear the Word of God from Revelation 21:1-2, 22-26.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband…. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day— and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practises abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Do you remember what you were doing 21 years ago today, on the morning of September 11, 2001? I distinctly remember standing in the parlor in the church I served in South Carolina, watching in shock with other staff members as the second plane hit the twin towers in New York City. I remember distinctly gathering that very evening in the sanctuary for prayer. Many from the congregation and friends from the community stood in a large circle, on the outside of the pews. We held hands. We read from Psalm 46. We offered heartfelt prayers. Do you remember what you were doing the Sunday after 9/11?
Chances are, you were in worship.
A large percentage of the American population was in worship on the Sunday after 9/11. The Sunday after 9/11 saw larger crowds than normal in the sanctuary, far more than the typical Sunday in September. And for the next few months, most churches in the country experienced a larger attendance than normal.
The shared trauma and tragedy and questions of 9/11 drove us to our knees in prayer and to our sanctuaries for worship. There was a felt need worship in those days – to receive comfort in our distress, to make sense out of the senseless, to address difficult questions of warfare and revenge, to gather together in mutual support, to seek hope for the future.
The Holy Spirit was at work in those heady days following 9/11. We had had a shared experience that needed to be addressed, and the Holy Spirit was right there with us, bidding us to gather together, bidding us to pray and to listen to God’s Word, bidding us to encourage and uphold one another. And many people arrived to worship with some sense of expectation, with hope for hearing a Word from the Lord.
The Holy Spirit spoke through the scriptures, the people listened, and when we were sent forth from worship, we were reminded that God was with us, and that God would guide our steps for the days ahead.
Worship Inspired by the Spirit – this is the mark of Vital Congregations that we explore today. The word “worship” comes from the old English “worth-ship”, or literally, “giving worth”. Worship is “giving worth” to God, giving our time, our talent, our attention, our very selves to God.
Worship is not so much about what we receive; worship is something that we do. We actively worship together, with our minds, our hearts, our voices, and our wills engaged. You have heard me say before that worship is the heartbeat of the church. Like oxygen to the bloodstream, worship is our lifeline to nourishment from the Holy One. We gather for worship, we sing songs of praise, we offer our prayers and supplications.
We pray our confessions and we receive forgiveness, and we pass the peace of Christ. We pray that the Spirit may illuminate God’s Word. We listen for the Word to be read and proclaimed. We seal the Word by celebrating the sacraments. And, like oxygen spread throughout the veins of the body, we are sent back into a world in need, a world in need of those who have been to worship, a world in need of the body of Christ to be alive and nourished and engaged.
And the amazing thing is that, as we engage in this time honored tradition of worship, as we participate in this sacred ritual, as we engage in this human, yet divine construction, the Almighty God shows up. God is with us.
Of course, God is always with us. We are always in the presence of God, if we but take notice, but on Sunday, on the Holy Sabbath day, when we gather together to seek the presence of God, when we seek to encounter the awesome mystery of God, the Spirit of God tends to show up. We cannot control the Spirit; we cannot force the Spirit’s presence, yet we can put ourselves into a position where we are more likely to receive God’s presence.
God longs to be known by us; God longs to be in relationship with us. God wants for us to be here, for our own good and for the good of the world. And it grieves God’s heart when we fail to gather together, when we retreat into our own solitary lives. The background of the Isaiah text is that the people had grieved God’s heart. As the prophet proclaimed elsewhere in the text:
“God held out God’s hands all day long to a rebellious and contrite people.” God longed for God’s people to return to pure worship, to refrain from giving themselves to idols, and to live in right relationship with God and with one another. And when God sent Isaiah from his vision of worship in the temple, God gave Isaiah a difficult message to preach, a prophetic message calling the people to return to God, to rend their hearts, not their garments.
In the Revelation text, the former things have ended. The vision in Revelation is that the whole world has been transformed according to God’s purposes. And in the transformed world, the New Jerusalem, the city, the urban dwelling place, comes down from heaven, pure and beautiful, like a bride adorned for her husband.
God is in the midst of the refreshed city, and the glory of God is its light. The gates are never closed, and there is no night. There is no danger that comes with nightfall. There is nothing unclean within the city, and no falsehoods or abominations. And there is no need for a temple in the New Jerusalem, because God’s presence is the temple. There is no need for a set aside time and place for worship, because every day, every moment is worship, and the Spirit of God permeates every place of work and play and rest within the city of God.
John’s revelation on the island of Patmos reminds us that worship is an encounter with God that we do not fully understand. True worship is an act filled with mystery and awe, when we have the opportunity to express our deepest desires to God and listen for God’s voice, when we experience the call to serve, and we respond to the call to be in mission beyond our pews, to live as disciples of Jesus in daily lives.
Worship is when we experience the opportunity to gather with others at one table. In worship, there are no barriers of color or nationality, no concerns over age or gender, no divisions between political affiliations or opinions. At the Table, in worship, we are one body. We become one body, the body of Jesus Christ, who is Head of the Church.
Where else in our lives does this unity of being and unity of purpose occur?
Mary Monaghan, an elder at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Greenville, would tear up every single time that she served or received communion. The Lord’s Supper was a powerful experience for her. She had had powerful experiences with the sacrament in the past; and so when she approached the Table, she did so with some measure of expectation, with some measure of remembrance and thanksgiving and hopefulness.
One of the participants in my Wednesday afternoon class spoke of the experience of having his mind changed during worship. He was not so much talking about an intellectual changing of his mind about some topic. He was talking about how he would experience a spiritual change of mind in worship. He would leave worship in a different state of mind than when he arrived. He would face the same concerns or questions that he was pondering, but he would do so with a renewed spirit, and he would view his life through a different lens, because he had been to worship.
Many of you have often spoken about being lifted in inspiration by one of the beautiful anthems of our chancel choir. Worship music, when inspired by the Spirit and offered by well-meaning souls, has the power to lift us, to awaken us, to open us to the presence of the Holy.
After experiencing one such anthem, we may discover ourselves more grateful, and more at peace. For some, hearing Highland Cathedral and Amazing Grace on the bagpipe on the Kirkin of the Tartan Sunday is a spiritual experience.
For others, reconnecting to others, greeting one another on a Sunday morning in and amongst the pews, is a spiritual experience. For some people, this is the most important part of worship, renewing friendships in faith, witnessing the face of Christ in our brothers and sisters in faith. What happens when we only do these things once a month or less?
What happens when we only worship occasionally, when it is convenient, when there is nothing else on the calendar for a Sunday? I suppose it is like going to the gym once a month or less. When we only workout or exercise once a month. we do our bodies a bit of good, no doubt, but the effect does not last, the impact is not great.
If we go to the gym once a month, we might maintain a connection or two with a coach or a few other participants. We might remember some of the primary exercises and stretches. But our body is not going to be transformed; the health of our heart will not be changed. A monthly visit will simply not do us that much good, afterall.
But I know that if I workout regularly. If I show up ready to do the work, and exercise with intention, everything is impacted. My muscles, my bones, my joints, my heart, my head are all stronger, more fit, more ready to take on life’s opportunities and challenges.
Worship is likewise.
If we want to be strong in faith, if we want to live with more hope, if we want to be more ready to love our neighbors, if we want to commune with the Spirit of God daily, then we had better engage in the regular exercise of our souls.
Worship deepens our relationship with God
Worship strengthens our communal ties with others.
Worship opens us to experience the wonder God longs to reveal to us and worship encourages us to address life’s deepest questions.
At its best, worship enlivens us, emboldens us to be God’s people in our community and in the world.
At times, worship inspired by the Spirit will afflict the comfortable, offering a prophetic message needed to be heard. At other times, worship inspired by the Spirit will comfort the afflicted.
We have been talking lately about how this current time, this fall of 2022, seems to be a season when there is a deep need for comfort. There seems to be a need for the Spirit to encourage us in this current time of affliction, to offer us hope in this current time of concern.
We do not know what the future holds, but do know who holds the future. And so we turn to God, at least weekly, together, to offer ourselves in awe and wonder and praise, and to receive the nourishment we need, a nourishment beyond what we can provide ourselves.
We gather for worship, because through our prayers and supplications, through the Word proclaimed and the sacraments celebrated, through our songs of praise and the passing of peace —God meets us here.
Worship is our lifeline to God, a place and time where God meets us and unites us as one. Friends, the Holy Spirit is at work in this place, in this time. May our hearts alway be tuned to receive God’s grace, and may we all be sent from worship renewed in faith, abounding in hope, and steadfast in Christ-like love for God and for our neighbor.
To God be the glory as we worship. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church