Sermon delivered the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2009, at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Lewis Center, OH. If you would like to listen to the audio version of this sermon, usually slightly different from the text, click here.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our preaching theme for this month, which is worship in the context of Easter. You will recall that the term, worship, is derived from the old English word, weorthscipe, which means having worth. So when we worship something or someone, we are essentially assigning ultimate worth to that person or thing.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a new commandment—to love one another (John 15:12, 17). So what does that have to do with worship, you ask? Good question. Until late yesterday afternoon, I was asking myself the same thing with increasing panic as the hours ticked by! But fortunately the Lord took pity on me and helped me out (he really does hate to see grown men cry).
The link between today’s Gospel lesson and worship is pretty straightforward. True worship of God will always produce a desire in us to love him, and as today’s Gospel lesson and Epistle make clear, the NT writers did not equate love (agape) with some warm fuzzy feeling, e.g., “I love you, man,” but rather believed that agape love for God is properly manifested in obedience. If we truly are going to worship God and love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we will have a desire to obey him by doing.
But what kind of God is capable of creating this kind of desire to love and obey him? If we really don’t know God, or if we have inadequate notions of him, we cannot possibly end up loving and obeying him willingly or eagerly, and this is what I want to explore this morning. Are you giving the God you worship all he is worth?
Years ago, J. B. Phillips published a classic little book titled, Your God Is Too Small. In it, Phillips identified 18 various “unreal gods” that cannot possibly be worthy of our worship or evoke a desire in us to serve them. Don’t worry, my peabrain cannot remember all 18 of the gods Phillips identified but I do want to highlight a few of them to illustrate my point.
The first unreal god Phillips identified is “Resident Policeman.” This god is manifested primarily in a guilty conscience when we do something wrong and is always watching over our shoulder, eagerly waiting to catch us being bad so that he can rap our knuckles (or worse) and remind us how bad we really are. Can you love a god who is not really concerned about you as a person but rather who only seems interested in catching you when you misbehave? I can’t.
Next we have “The Grand Old Man.” This unreal god is some really, really old guy who, even worse, is old-fashioned and not with it. This god makes up a bunch of irrelevant and outdated rules that we can and should safely ignore because he has just not been able to keep up with all the progress of technology and science. This Grand Old Man may have been adequate for the ancient Israelites and early Christians but of course times change, and he has not been able to keep up with us and all our progress. Who can possibly want to obey someone whom we think is irrelevant and out of touch? I can’t. Can you?
A third unreal god is “Managing Director.” At first blush, this is an adequate god because this view of God holds that God is indeed the Creator and Manager of this vast and awesome universe. So far, so good. But this view also holds that because God is so busy dealing with this vast universe of his, he has little or no time to be actively or intimately involved in the lives of individual people, much like a CEO of a large international company who does not have time to know or be involved in the lives of all his/her employees in any meaningful way. At one time in my life, I tried to worship a god like this and found it entirely unsatisfactory because this god could never, ever satisfy my craving for a deep and intimate relationship, the very kind of relationship that God created us to have. Can you love a god who is either unwilling or unable to be intimately involved with your life and help you deal with all the messiness in your life?
Our next unreal god is called “Absolute Perfection.” Again, there is a kernel of truth in this unreal god. After all, did not our Lord himself command us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48)? The problem with the god of Absolute Perfection is that it results in a one hundred percent standard that will surely lead us to despair. After all, if you continue to raise the bar high enough, you will eventually make even the best and brightest of us look like fools. The one hundred percent standard inevitably leads to an arbitrary set of accompanying rules that none of us can possibly keep, and when we fail to keep them, we fail to show our love for God. This god of Absolute Perfection might say something like this to us: “I’ve upped my standards. Up yours.” In my younger days, especially in my late teens and early twenties, I tried to worship this god too, and as you might expect I failed miserably. All I succeeded in doing was to develop neurotic anxiety over being unable to meet this god’s one hundred percent standard, and every time I failed, I was convinced even more that I was going to hell because I had. Can you love and worship a god who demands more from you than you can possibly ever give? I couldn’t.
Last, we have the “Pale Galilean.” As the name implies, this god is an entirely negative god, bent on making sure his followers do not enjoy their lives too much. Compared with their non-Christian contemporaries, worshipers of this god are afraid to be themselves, to enjoy beauty, or expand themselves, i.e., their lives are “pale” in comparison. This god surrounds them with prohibitions but does not supply them with vitality and courage. He seems to be consumed with the overarching fear that someone somewhere might be having a good time and is bent on stopping it. Can you love and obey a god who is bent on making sure that he sucks the life out of you so that you too can become a “pale Galilean” who is bereft of joy, happiness, and vitality? I can’t.
In each of these examples we can see how it is virtually impossible to love and obey a god who is not interested in us or our development, who is not interested in having a real and intimate relationship with us, and who cannot possibly equip us to live life joyfully or help us deal with all that goes terribly wrong in our lives.
Where is God’s Grace?
But thankfully none of these gods is the God we worship. The real God we worship is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, our triune God, and this God is worth every bit of our love and obedience.
When we worship God the Father, we worship our Creator, the Source and Author of all life. God created us to have relationship with him as Genesis 1:31 poignantly reminds us when it says that after God created humans he looked at his creation and saw it was very good, not just good as it had been after his other creative work. Then when we see God pursuing his sinful and fallen creatures in the garden, wondering where they are because they are hiding from him (Genesis 3:8-9), we begin to realize the pain our sin and separation has caused him as this lonely God of ours searches after them and wonders where his beloved have gone.
In Isaiah and Jeremiah we hear God’s continuing anguish and anger over his sinful and rebellious people in the voice of both prophets as they warn Judah that their idolatrous ways can lead only to death, and plead with them to repent of their sins before it is too late. And then in Isaiah 53-55 we read about God’s grand plan, a plan he had from all eternity, to redeem both humans and his creation from the bondage of sin and death, and free us to become the humans he created us to be.
Isaiah 53 speaks of the Suffering Servant who will bear the punishment for our sins so that God’s justice may be fully satisfied. In Isaiah 54 we read about the new covenant God will make with his people because the work of his Servant has been fulfilled. Then in Isaiah 55, we read of God’s plan to redeem his fallen creation in a mighty act of restoration, not unlike that which we read about in Revelation 21. God is not only going to redeem us, he is going to reverse the curse in Genesis 3:17-18 and set all of his creation aright. In each of these stories we see a God who loves us and all of his creation passionately, and has compassion for his sinful creatures beyond our ability to completely comprehend it all. A God like that makes me want to love him and obey because he has demonstrated how madly and passionately he loves even a knucklehead like me. Can you get excited to love a God who loves you equally as much?
Then in the NT, we see God’s plan for the redemption of humanity and all creation unfold in history, and that is why we worship God the Son. For the NT tells the story of how God loved us so much that he took on our flesh, lived among us, allowed himself to be tortured and hung on a cross to die a horrible death for us. In doing so, he bore the punishment for our sins and made it possible for us to live with him forever. As we read the story of Christ’s passion and death, we are suddenly struck with the awesome realization that the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 was God himself! Incredible!
But the Good News doesn’t stop there, does it, because the cross is not the end of the story. Had it been, there would be no Christian faith today. No, on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him a new resurrection body. In doing so, God confirmed to us that his promises to redeem his broken and fallen creation are true and that in the resurrection God has begun his work to restore us and all of his creation to what he intended it originally to be. I cannot quite image what this new creation will look like, but I do know that there will be no more tears or sorrow or sickness or death or infirmity or deformity or suffering. How do I know that? Because the death and resurrection of Christ proves that God is true to his word. Our God is indeed a passionate and compassionate God. A God like that makes me want to love him and obey him because he has demonstrated that he loves me so much he has done the impossible for me so that I can live with him and enjoy him forever. Can you love a God like that?
Finally, we worship God the Holy Spirit. The wonderful thing about the Gospel is that it is no self-help remedy. God does for us what we cannot do ourselves and then he promises never to leave us, but to give us his Holy Spirit until he comes again to complete the restorative work he began at resurrection. The Holy Spirit is God himself working in us, helping us in our infirmity and when life gets messy, helping us grow in grace and faith, and guiding us to do the work he calls us to do in this world. And it is important that we do God’s work in this world because in the resurrection of Christ, we are reminded that God plans to restore his broken creation, that this world is important to him, and so it must be for us as well. I want to love and obey a God who has promised never to leave us alone or make us follow some futile self-help remedy to solve the problem of the human condition. I want to love a God who works within us through his Holy Spirit to help him accomplish his mighty act of restoring our broken and sinful world. Do you?
Where is the Application?
If you have answered “yes” to any of these questions, then how can you show your love for God in your worship, i.e., how can you demonstrate that you are giving God all he’s worth?
First, we can worship God through the daily reading and study of his Word. When we truly love God we want to delve into his Word every day and we make time to do so because we know this will help us know him and his will for us even better. Suddenly daily Bible reading and study become a privilege and joy, not some dreary obligation we think we must do because we are supposed to, because our hearts are bursting with love for this God who loved us first and we want to get to know him better, just like we did when we fell in love with our best beloved.
Second, we can worship God through the lifting up of our prayers, intercessions, supplications, and thanksgiving (see, e.g., Acts 2:42, 46; 3:1; 4:31; Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 1 Timothy 2:1-2, 8). In giving thanks for one another and praying for each other, we demonstrate our love for, and trust in, God, and allow him to work in and through us to help him minister to us [personal testimony about Mothers’ Day]. We pray for and with each other willingly because this is what our Lord commands us to do. And because we love him we want to obey him.
Finally, we can worship God through the sacrifice of our praise (Hebrews 13:15). We obviously praise God when we assemble to worship each Sunday. But as St. Augustine observed, real praise comes from our whole being, not just our lips. We praise God not only when we assemble as his family; we also praise him when we live a good life, a life of obedience to God’s commands. We do so, not out of some dreary sense of obligation as we saw in the unreal Pale Galilean, but out of a sense of joy and thanksgiving for this triune God who loves us madly, who pursues us relentlessly, and who has rescued his world and us from death and destruction. This is real worship because it results in obedient love, the kind our Lord commanded us to demonstrate in today’s Gospel lesson, and in doing so it allows us to give God all he is worth.
Worship of the Living God always evokes a genuine desire to love and obey him because we begin to get a glimpse of the depth, breadth, width, and height of this God of ours who has acted on our behalf to make possible the impossible. The God we worship is Big enough to meet our every need in this life and the next, if only we will love and trust him enough to give him the chance. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity. Are you ready to give God all he is worth each and every day of your life? Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.