Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Worship with Reverence and Awe
Community UMC, Quincy
“What Faithful Living Looks Like: Worship with Reverence and Awe”
Pastor Andrew Davis
August 21, 2016
Hebrews 12: 18-29
I love a good thunderstorm!! A couple days this week while working in the office, I would look out the front door of the church house and comment to Linda how the clouds were sure building and hoping for a good thunderstorm out here. But instead, the Chester and Susanville areas got to have it and the brief rain while we stayed high and dry here in Quincy. Might see some this week, as they are in the forecast. Although with the dry conditions around us, we probably don’t readily want to wish for a thunderstorm necessarily, as lightning is one of the many ways wildfires begin and we already have enough fires burning in the state, along with resources being stretched thin.
However, eight years ago when my family and I traveled to Chicago, then up to Wisconsin for a family reunion, I got a good lesson of showing reverence and awe when it came to thunderstorms, as our thunderstorms in the Sacramento Valley are more on the mild side. My mom was hoping while in Illinois or Wisconsin, we’d get a real thunderstorm and sure enough, on my second day in Chicago we did and that evening, we sat out on my cousin’s front porch watching the lightning light up the clouds like a strobe-light. But then all of a sudden, there was one streak that completely lit everything up and left us with a sense of awe and wonder, and reverence to the power of that lightning strike. Nature was definitely giving us a spectacular light show. I would experience another spectacular thunderstorm in Colorado Springs in 2011, then experience a number of thunderstorms in Washington, DC during my four years there. In fact, on a nighttime monument tour with Wesley Fellowship during my first couple weeks at Wesley, we had to duck under the roof of one of the bathroom houses between the WWII Memorial and Lincoln Memorial when the lightning and thunder got quite intense, including one streak that was a little too close for comfort!! Talk about being in awe and wonder, but also a valuable bonding experience that those of us there still recall when we chat here and there. On the other hand, while thinking about the power of nature, I also keep thinking about the people of Louisiana this week who are dealing with the flooding and all the rain that they have received in a short period of time. While reading the news this week, it was observed that Louisiana received in four days, the equivalent of Sacramento’s yearly rainfall average in a year. It's a testament to the destructive power that nature can have as well, as floods, tornadoes, fires, and windstorms can leave us in awe and wonder, but in a fearful way. It certainly puts a different perspective on awe and reverence towards nature and the power of nature. Like the power of nature, we too encounter a very powerful God, in which sometimes we have nothing else in us but to worship God with reverence and awe, even in the face of Disaster. And today, many of our churches are finding ways to still worship in Louisiana, or in Lakeport where our church there was destroyed. Our worship of God still goes on and still happens.
When it comes to encountering God in a powerful way as we just heard in Exodus and Hebrews, let’s think for a minute about the Israelite community when they encountered God at Mt. Sinai with Moses and Aaron in the lead. God gives Moses specific instructions to tell the people not to touch the mountain while Moses had the distinct honor and privilege of being the one to actually go up the mountain. Now if we’ve grown up in the world of pop culture, we would expect to see something like the late Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses from Cecil B. DeMille’s film, “The Ten Commandments,” in which Moses is portrayed as heroic, confident, and unflinching as he approaches the mountain in the film. But then again, Mt. Sinai is not any ordinary mountain to be approached, for the Israelite community, the voice of God through the thunder and trumpet sound was “a voice so terrible that they begged God to stop speaking” (Ex. 19: 19, NLT).
It’s not always the vision of how we expect to encounter God in this day in age because we oftentimes expect God to be gentle and loving, which is a place where I too struggle in my faith journey when I hear and approach a text like this morning's where God is portrayed as demanding and vindictive. My colleague Dawn Chesser at Discipleship Ministries in Nashville explains that “many of us prefer not to think of God as powerful, demanding, and vindictive. Maybe we would rather imagine God mostly as an over-indulgent grandparent figure with only good intentions for us. We’d rather remember that ‘(t)he Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Psalm 145:8, NRSV).”[i] However, this is also the instance where we see the complex nature of God.
However, the powerful, demanding, and vindictive God is the portrayal of God that we get in our text today, as verses 18-21 of Hebrews recalls the scene at Mt. Sinai from Exodus 19: 10-25 to evoke a sense of fear of God, in which “even Moses was terrified,” definitely not the case in the movie “The Ten Commandments.” Even while this encounter with God produces fear, it was still a spectacular sight that produced awe, but more so a fearful awe in which the community had no other choice but to worship God with reverence and awe. We hear another version of Exodus 19: 18-20 which reads,
Mount Sinai was all smoke because God had come down on it as fire. Smoke poured from it like smoke from a furnace. The whole mountain shuddered in huge spasms. The trumpet blasts grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered in thunder. God descended to the peak of Mount Sinai. God called Moses up to the peak and Moses climbed up (MSG).
Now if that’s not enough to produce a sense of awe, who knows what else could, except maybe a massive storm or act of nature, whether it’s something wonderful or fearful. And it’s hard to say what had to be going through Moses’s mind, as Moses was typically a hesitant and fearful person as portrayed in the greater narrative of Exodus unlike the heroic and confident figure that he’s sometimes portrayed as.
Now when we come to the text from Hebrews, the author of Hebrews is explaining to new converts in the very early days of Christianity how their ancestors, the Israelite people we so afraid and nearly rejected the messages from God. The author is using this rhetorical force to link Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, and Jesus’s death to these later generations as a warning not to ignore God’s word, in which the author implores these new converts from verses 25-27 of Hebrews not to
turn a deaf ear to these gracious words [from God in having Jesus’s death be the mediator of the covenant]. If those who ignored earthly warnings didn’t get away with it, what will happen to us if we turn our backs on heavenly warnings? His voice that time shook the earth to its foundations; this time—he’s told us this quite plainly—he’ll also rock the heavens: “One last shaking, from top to bottom, stem to stern.” The phrase “one last shaking” means a thorough housecleaning, getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakable essentials stand clear and uncluttered (MSG).
At the same time Dawn Chesser further explains that
we must own that the God we see in the Hebrew Scriptures is the very same God whose grace we who call ourselves Christians have come to know in Jesus Christ. Therefore, we would be wise to remember that just because God has had mercy on us in sending Jesus Christ to save us doesn't mean that God must always, in every circumstance, have mercy on us. We would be wise to remember that we should not expect God to be merciful to us over and over again, without any accountability on our part. We would be wise not to take God’s mercy for granted.[ii]
By recalling the scene at Mt. Sinai, the author of Hebrews uses some powerful imagery to show the people, and even us today why it is important to worship God in order to show why God must be approached in worship with reverence and awe, but not take God's mercy for granted. We also see a contrast between how we encounter God at Mt. Sinai and Encountering God through Jesus in Hebrews, as “this contrast (12:18-24) underscores the advantages we gain from the new covenant Jesus makes possible: a new access to God and communion with others in a vibrant city of joy” which in this case is the “heavenly” Jerusalem.[iii] As the author of Hebrews contrasts Mt. Sinai with Mt. Zion, it is “from the community’s perspective the access to God already available is lived out in their worship and worship that pleases God is marked by gratitude, reverence, and awe."[iv] While God was viewed from a distance in Exodus, it’s ultimately through Jesus Christ in which we as Christians access God and approach God. Furthermore when it comes to Jesus and the new covenant, “this new covenant in Jesus requires not sacrifices of blood, but, according to the next chapter of Hebrews, sacrifices of “praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name” and to “not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16, NRSV).”[v] Even with a new covenant through Jesus Christ, we do not want to underestimate God’s power or mercy, which is why it is necessary to worship God with a sense of sense of reverence and awe.
So how do we worship God with a sense of reverence and awe today? Do we approach God through worship with fear and trembling like the Israelite community in Exodus? OR, do we approach God through worship by showing respect, reverence, and awe? Or, do we approach God with all of the above? A lot of what is said in our lesson from Hebrews this morning says a lot about giving God worship that is filled with reverence and awe, whether it is fearful awe or joyful awe. Now anytime that I mention the word worship, it can easily open up a can of worms because many of us have different ideas about what worship of God with reverence and awe looks like. As I always like to say, ask five different people what kind of worship is pleasing to God and you will get five different answers. However, we do see two different contrasts in this passage from Hebrews of what worshiping God with reverence and awe looks like. On the other hand, Taylor Burton-Edwards of Discipleship Ministries explains that
The primary point of this week’s reading is not to contrast the “awe-filled” worship on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19:10-25) with Christian worship, but rather to say Christian worship is the real fulfillment of all those things. The only contrast is the response we are called to have. In Exodus, the intention was to provoke fear and keep folks away through these symbolic actions. For Christians, God’s call and our response is to enter into direct encounter with the very realities those symbols at once pointed to and protected from, and to do so with thanksgiving, reverence, and awe![vi]
Our worship today is definitely a far cry from that scene on Sinai, in which we don’t necessarily approach God with fear the way the Israelite community did. But regardless of how we approach God, we do need to have that sense of awe and reverence regardless of the setting we are in and how we encounter God. And when it comes to encountering God through worship, if I was to ask five different people how they encounter God through worship, I will get five different responses. No two people encounter God the same. As Taylor explained, we saw God keeping the people away from the mountain and encountering God with fear and trembling in Exodus and verses 18-21 of Hebrews. But then as the author of Hebrews writes from verse 22 on, we encounter God through Jesus Christ, particularly through his death on the cross, another means of showing reverence and awe towards God in God not intervening in Jesus’s crucifixion. Even today, our worship is one way we can encounter God with reverence and awe when we gather together as the body of Christ on Sunday morning, but also one where we can continue encouraging others to approach God with a sense of reverence and awe.
So how do WE encounter God through worship with a sense of reverence and awe? I know as we shared memories of John Ellison’s ministry two weeks ago, the time during the prelude is one of those times where some encounter God with reverence and awe, with people sitting quietly and meditating to the music or praying privately before the service, kind of like the notion of “before the service, speak to God; during the service, let God speak to you; after the service, speak to others.” For several of my colleagues, they encounter God in worship with a sense of reverence and awe through extended silence or when the sanctuary is empty before church or during the week. I can definitely attest to that, as I encounter God during the week whenever I step into this sacred space, or in the hour before everyone arrives as I do my walking and breathing prayer while preparing my heart and mind for our service.
For many, music is a very important means, and for some of my friends, they are moved into a sense of reverence and awe through the more contemporary music, receiving the music with such a high energy, while we have others who are moved to reverence and awe though the words and melodies of the great hymns of our faith that tell us a rich story. Some also encounter God with reverence and awe when we take part in Holy Communion, as Holy Communion is one of the ways we intimately encounter God through the means of grace when we remember Jesus each time we partake. Or, some encounter God through the confession and pardon, in which we ask God for forgiveness for our sins as one body, in which we are then granted forgiveness, assurance, and pardon through that confession.
Sometimes it is through nature and the power that nature has on us where we can encounter God, just like I do when I encounter a thunderstorm. One of my favorite examples of encountering God through nature is in chapter seven of The Wind and the Willows in which two of the main characters, Rat and Mole are in a rowboat and encounter a sunrise and the powerful experience they share with tears in Rat’s eyes and Mole's bowed in reverence and awe.[vii] No matter how you encounter God, it can be powerful in which we give thanks to God while encountering God with a sense of reverence and awe, even if it is through a storm, through our weekly services, through walking through the neighborhood or trails, music, or silence.
As we go into this new week and look for ways to encounter God and perhaps lead others to encounter God with reverence and awe, how do you encounter God with a sense of reverence and awe? What are times in your life, good or bad, in which you have encountered God and had no choice but to give God thanks, reverence, and awe? How can we encourage others to approach God with a sense of reverence and awe?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘Lectionary Calendar’. 2016. Accessed August 19, 2016. http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fourteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2016.
[iii] Lose, David. ‘Commentary on Hebrews 12: 18-29 by Bryan J. Whitfield’. August 22, 2010. Accessed August 18, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=659.
[iv] New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on Hebrews, Vol. XII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 159.
[v] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘Lectionary Calendar’. 2016. Accessed August 19, 2016. http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fourteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2016.
[vi] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘Lectionary Calendar’. 2016. Accessed August 17, 2016. http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fourteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2016.
[vii] Kenneth Grahame, The Wind and the Willows (Digireads.com, 2011), Kindle page 91.
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