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As I said earlier, today is the Christian festival of Christ the King. In traditional churches, since 1925, it is remembered at the end of Ordinary Time in the church calendar, the week before Advent begins. For the Church of England, it’s the start of the church year. So it’s a celebration that Jesus is Lord; it’s an opportunity for the church family to get together to worship God at the beginning of a new year.
Worship is our response to God. That’s possibly one way of explaining what worship is; how we respond to the love, forgiveness from sin, and abundant life that is offered when we accept God’s love for us, particularly when we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. When we are invited to discover all of this, as we all are, our response can be nothing else than to worship him.
Our theme today, as I say, is true worship, following the sung worship which Matt and Helen have led us in and before we get into the Christmas spirit and perhaps carried away with all of the busyness of preparing for all that lies ahead. So let’s take a moment to think about worshipping God through our actions, using our passions to make the world a better place. We’ll be looking at a couple of key passages in the Bible from Amos and Isaiah. And we’ll be looking at Isaiah over these next two or three weeks as well, building upon my question from last week, whether Jesus imagined this to be the church he hoped for. Not necessarily our building, but buildings and churches and things in general.
There are many things that we do as church that show our faith in action. For example, we purchase and sell fairly-traded goods, in particular our tea, coffee, and sugar, not yet the hot chocolate. In doing so we support overseas farmers by paying a little more for their goods, enabling them to live above the poverty line, therefore making a difference in their world. Other people perhaps sponsor children in developing countries to help them get a good start in life. Still others support the cause of justice by working for organisations that make a daily difference for others, or supporting financially agencies that challenge Christians to put their faith in action. And in 2018, next year, we will be looking to support Tearfund’s fiftieth birthday as they have come up with some practical action that might just help our world be a more loving, equal, and better place because, as James in the Bible says, faith without works and without deeds is dead.
So our theme today is exceptionally practical. Please be warned that our first couple of readings are not necessarily pleasant listening. So I’m going to be reading from The Message translation of Amos chapter five. Just two verses to start with and then I’ll go into the NIV version of Isaiah Chapter 58 and verses two to five.
This is Amos’ words from God to God’s people. He says,
I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, [Aside: O dear]
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
And then we have Isaiah chapter 58 verses two to five. And this is the heading for Isaiah chapter 58 is The True Fasting, or in others of the translations it’s True Worship.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
A tough one.
Here we have two prophets of Almighty God confronting two groups of people who are choosing to be perhaps religious rather than faithful. They seem to be hanging onto the coat-tails of religion. Poor Amos’ message is one of judgement on Israel for their sin. For not attending to the needs of the poor; for going through the motions of religious worship; was forgetting or ignoring the practicalities of putting faith into action. The people of Israel were taking lightly their religious worship, their feasts, and their celebrations; there was no heart. It was simply acting the chore of praising, worshipping and not really glorifying God, because God sees the hearts of his people and in this instance he criticizes them.
Using words like I hate, I despise, I take no delight. Not good fun. To God, worship without hearts is worthless.
Poor Amos, poor Amos. No wonder his name meant ‘burden bearer’.
What was life-transforming about the people’s life and worship? – nothing. Their hearts? All talk, no action.
Similarly in Isaiah Chapter 58, we have God’s people complaining that their prayers were not being answered. Look God, they were saying, we’re doing what you told us to do, we’re attending worship, we’re fasting and yet you’re ignoring us. You’ve not seen any of what we’ve done. And Isaiah’s rebuttal was that their fast days were opportunities for showing off, just as we were looking in the last few weeks at the Corinthian church and how they wanted their spiritual gifts to be, ‘Hey, look at me, I want the best spiritual gifts!’ Exactly here, hundreds of years before. As in Amos, here in Isaiah too, the people seemed to have empty sacraments. People had lost their first loves. Revelation says people had lost their first love, going through the motions because they’d become stuck in some kind of rut of religiosity. Because they knew themselves as God’s chosen people they’d become complacent, perhaps, and, sadly, their faith was becoming as an empty shell.
Jesus called these kind of people hypocrites, literally ‘play actors’, people who wore masks. He said this an awful lot to the religious leaders of his day. How hurtful that must have been to them. Jesus was telling the religious leaders to practice what they preached. How sad it is to reflect that the harshest words Jesus said were for the leaders of the faith.
Francis Bacon, the English poet and playwright, said this about hypocrisy, ‘A bad man is worse when he pretends to be a saint’. Worth thinking about, perhaps.
So to summarize the context of the passages today. The prophets Isaiah and Amos were agreeing with Jesus when they were, in effect, saying to their heroes, ‘Look, guys, you’ve missed the point. If you’re trying to earn brownie points by just turning up to to worship, going through the motions of service, but not allowing it to go deep into your hearts: and it’s all for nothing. It’s not about turning up; it’s not about singing songs; it’s not about being seen to be worshipping God; it’s about loving God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. It’s about loving your neighbour. It’s about showing the world that you mean business when you’re angry about the injustice you see around. That’s true worship.
You might remember the incident when Jesus was so frustrated that he went into the temple courts and threw over the tables, chased the money changers, and generally became incensed at the religiosity of those who were essentially getting in the way of those who really wanted to offer their real worship to God. The money lenders were taxing the faithful; they were exchanging Roman money for Temple money at hugely inflated prices, and so that the worshippers could purchase a dove or a lamb or a pigeon or another animal to be sacrificed at the temple in the outer court. All this prevented real worshippers from gaining access to God where he was in the holy of holies, and this was most certainly unjust, and so Jesus did something about it.
Today our call as Christians, whoever we are, is that of the same as Jesus, to truly worship through action. Look at Luke chapter four and verse eighteen, and I think Neil might be talking a bit about this passage next week. ‘The spirit of the Lord is on me because he’s anointed me to preach proclaim good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Then Jesus rolled up the scroll gave it back to the attendants and sat down.’ Having said these words he sat down. He didn’t explain them. He didn’t expand upon them. He just sat down.
Later, he would obviously prove these words by putting them into action, and, in doing so, he was showing in word and in deed that his ministry was to right wrongs, to forgive sins, to stand up for those in need, to heal, to restore, to recover. In practising what he preached, this testimony alone was a better testimony than that of the religious leaders around him
Let’s make this thing a little bit more practical. Look at the clothes that you’re wearing. Do you know how much they they cost? Do you know where they were made? Your hats, your shoes, your shirt, your trousers, your skirt, every garment was made by somebody, somewhere. Most of our clothing comes from Bangladesh. Much of our clothing, although it’s very very difficult to know exactly where things come from. Many of our clothes come from Bangladesh, often in garment factories that are not fit for purpose; even where girls as young as twelve are sold, kidnapped, to work in these places for less than a dollar a day. In 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed, killing over a thousand people, over a thousand workers. The building was not designed for the purpose for making clothes and people were not designed for slavery, to be bought and sold. And so I need to ask myself, is it right for me to stand here in my shoes which were, perhaps, I don’t know, forty or fifty pounds, for the person who made them to be paid just 20p. I heard from a friend who works for a Christian agency, I think it was Christian Aid, I may be wrong, some years ago, that for every one pound that we spend on our clothes the person making them gets just 5p. That’s not right.
Is it fair that seven years after the earthquake that hit Haiti, two and a half million people, Haitians, are still in need of humanitarian aid? Do we care enough to act in support of the 500,000 or more Rohingya people who are being displaced at this very moment from Myanmar and some of whom are walking dangerous walks into Bangladesh, a country that may not be able to afford to take many more people? Does that make us angry? Does it infuriate us that a few people’s greed for land or power or money puts others into great poverty and danger?
Rob Bell says this: we live in a world where people get angry about things that do not matter when, at the same time, people don’t get angry about the things that do matter. Maybe God is using our anger to get our attention? Let’s read on in the Message version of Amos chapter five and then I’ll read the Message version of Isaiah 58 and verses six to ten.
So after God was having a go at his people through Amos this is what he said:
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.
And in Isaiah Chapter fifty eight, verses six to ten. Just going to double check where I’m reading from
This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’
Everything we do, everything that we are, our passion, our work, our whole being, should reflect our freewill offering of worship to God.It’s our free will to decide to follow Jesus. That obedience is key. And this should be showing, this should be done by showing justice, not just by doing church. That’s one of the things I think Jesus came to show us. By encouraging one another and meeting together, sharing community together, as we’ve explored over these last months, but also showing love to the world.
The original building here, there, that we have at Main Street was designed and set up in a time when it was expected that perhaps everybody went to church, when almost everybody knew who Jesus was, they understood the general teachings of the Bible even if it was the moral teaching of the day. They would express worship by attending service on Sunday and this is all fantastic stuff and we must keep meeting together. But many people today no longer have heard of, or know, the principles of scripture. The building we have here is an alien place for many people.
Many who are unlikely to set foot in here unless they are here for weddings, baptisms, blessings or funerals, they want to know that, as followers of Jesus, we are not hypocrites and that we are doing something that involves reaching out with practical concern: to bind up broken hearts; to counsel; to listen; to be there; to release people from darkness, all sorts of captivity, debt, sin, hunger; to release people from darkness, to show them that Jesus is the way of living; the life of Jesus, the model of Jesus, is the way to live. This is the sort of justice that not only God wants to see in our lives but others want to see that Christianity is really all about this.
I wonder if the challenge is more than outrageous preachy. I wonder whether our response is to be outrageous people, to be an outrageous church, and I think we’ve got an edge on those other churches. I don’t know why but I think we just have.
To do justice, to act justly, to get alongside people, and to be with them on their journey through life. To pick them up when they fall, to love them unconditionally, to help in ways that we are able to help. It is when we act as Christ-like people that people will notice Christ. When we act outrageously and start to do things that promote the needs of those who need to know the love of God both outside and inside our community here, people will notice the real Jesus.
If the people that Amos and Isaiah were talking to remembered to care about those around them that perhaps had little; if they provided just results in courts; if they didn’t trample on the poor; or if they didn’t oppress the righteous; their hearts would have been in a better place to have received God’s blessing. They would have known what real worship was.
What an amazing promise God had for those who heard Isaiah’s voice and obeyed it,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.
Our verses today suggest that we need to be filled with the power of God. To go, to go and restore and rebuild, revive, renovate, and make this community liveable again, and I think that’s my passion. That’s what I want for our friends, our fellowship here, and for Frodsham, to make the community liveable again.
How? What gifts and abilities do you have? What one thing makes you angry?
Rick Warren in his Purpose Driven Life says, since your natural abilities are from God, they are just as important and as spiritual as your spiritual gifts. The only one difference is that you were given them at birth. God doesn’t wastes abilities. He matches our calling and our capabilities. If you really desire to be used by God you must understand a powerful truth: the very experiences that have that you have resented or regretted most in life, the ones that you perhaps wanted to hide and forget, are the experiences God wants to use to help others. They are your ministry.
So to conclude, what is worship? It’s the passion that God has given you to make the world around you a better place, with your family, with your friends, with your loved ones, with your church, with your community. It’s your experiences of life to share with others and to love them. It is to live a life that suits your God-given personality. It is to act in only the way that God has created you in His own image to act.
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:6–8, NIV)
Shall we pray?
Father God, Would you please help us to worship you in spirit and in truth with every fibre of our being, Lord God, with every bit of our personalities, the gifts that you have given us, the spiritual gifts that perhaps you’ve given us, and you’ve developed in us; help us to incubate them further.
Father, thank you that we are able to come into the holy of holies to worship you face to face.
Father God, would you help us to love mercy, to act justly, and would you please help us each day to walk humbly with you.
I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This talk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Passages marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Passages marked The Message are from from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.