Part II of a VII Part Series
“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance and one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of God’s glory.’”
In the year that King Uzziah died,” writes the prophet Isaiah, “I saw the Lord high and lifted up.” The year King Uzziah died is 742 BC, and Jerusalem was not an entirely happy place to be just then. Assyria, the world’s only superpower, centered in what is now Iraq and governed by a despot far more frightening and capable than Saddam Hussein, is restless and voracious and seeking smaller satellite nations to eat for lunch. The Jews in Jerusalem can see foreign armies bristling like storm clouds on the horizon, and they desperately need a word of hope, so God appoints–‘anoints’ is probably the better word–Isaiah to bring that good glad word from God.
But before Isaiah can bring a meaningful word from God, Isaiah must meet his God–personally, intimately, face-to-face. One day… Isaiah remembers it well, he will never forget it; when he has forgotten the names of his own children he will still remember this; it was the year King Uzziah died. One day in the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah is minding his own priestly business in the Temple when suddenly a sight most human beings are privately glad they never have to experience practically sears his eyeballs out of their sockets.
Isaiah sees God sitting on a celestial throne, high and lifted up. God’s robe fills the whole Temple. Strange beings called seraphs with six wings hover above, lauding God’s magnificence with a hymn the Christian Church would memorably co-opt centuries later for its own purposes: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty/All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea/Holy, Holy, Holy, there is none beside thee/Perfect in power, in love, and purity.”
The Temple’s pillars tremble but hold as the earth quakes around the cowering prophet, who trembles but holds. Instantly aware of his own lilliputian insignificance, Isaiah, like Wayne and Garth after him, falls flat on his face and protests, “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy.” With some consternation Isaiah watches a seraph pluck a glowing coal from the altar fire and scurry forward straight for his tender lips, to purify his speech with scorching heat for the work and words of the Lord.
A voice cries out: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And with words the Christian Church will later memorably co-opt into a second famous hymn, Isaiah replies, “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.”
I don’t know if, at church, you’ve experienced anything quite as vivid or compelling as the theophany Isaiah barely survived in the Jerusalem Temple, but the fact is that Isaiah is a prototype for the rest of us: Before the work, the worship. Before we go out into the world to do God’s work and to speak God’s word and to obey God’s will and to follow God’s way, we must meet the God who gives us the work to do, the word to speak, the will to obey, and the way to follow.
And so it will not shock you to learn that one of the seven habits of highly faithful churches is divine worship. This, this hour, is the center and essence of the church’s common life, and without this hour, the rest of ecclesiastical existence just falls apart. The Westminster Catechism says that the chief end of humankind is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. The chief end, the main goal, of human life is praise and, unexpectedly, fun. My raison d’etre, the point of my existence, is to glorify and enjoy God.
To stay away from this hour on a consistent basis would be to ignore the origin and destiny of your life. You came from That One and you will return to That One, and it would be a crying shame to miss the very point of your life. To stay away from worship would be like receiving an extravagant gift without a word of thanks—gift after glorious gift, day after beautiful day–silently ungrateful for blessings beyond imagination. A wise unbeliever once said that the worst thing about being an atheist is that day after beautiful day you receive the unmerited gifts of the extravagant world, and there is no one to thank.
“The chief end, the main point, of humankind is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” Socrates puts it another way. He says, “Philosophy begins with wonder.” Philosophy, which is just Greek for “the love of wisdom,” begins with the question, “I wonder.” “I wonder why?” “I wonder who?” “I wonder where I came from?” “I wonder whom I owe my existence to.” In other words, says Socrates, right thinking begins with attention to the Mystery behind it all.
Paradoxically, a man never rises to his full stature until he kneels before his Maker. Paradoxically, a woman never achieves the dignity of her humanity until she bows her head in acknowledgment that there is something greater than she. In his play Equus, Peter Schaeffer puts it very simply: “without worship, you shrink; it’s as brutal as that.” I find that to be unexpected, but true. You’d think the person who pretended that he was the most important reality in his world would possess dignity and stature and size, but unexpectedly, these are the smallest among us.
You know why it’s so important to get worship right? It’s because we become like what we worship. Have you ever noticed that? People become like what they respect. People become like what they admire. People become like what they worship.
I once knew a man who worshiped money. And you could tell. He was flat, shallow, green, and, like the U.S. dollar, there was nothing backing him up. On the outside he said, “In God I trust,” but that was just for show.
We become like what we worship. I once knew a woman who worshiped her children, and pretty soon she became one. You’d think that would be a good thing, but neither her neighbors nor her children appreciated her indiscriminate, suffocating adoration.
Without worship, you shrink; it’s as brutal as that. So this is a vital hour in our lives every week. The first thing to notice about our worship is that it’s not about us; it’s about God. Announcements and housekeeping details are minimal because worship is not a commercial for White Sox games or museum trips. I once preached in a worship service in which the announcements were longer than the sermon, and so the congregation left pondering the mystery of softball games, and potluck suppers instead of God.
More than once in my lifetime as a parishioner and as a preacher I have endured a Minute for Mission which was literally longer than the sermon. Now, there is nothing wrong with a Minute for Mission, and so far in my experience with you it appears as if this congregation does them extremely well and understands their role in the larger context of worship, and you will discover of course that another of the seven habits of highly faithful congregations is Mission, but for this hour, our thoughts are focused on the Powerful, Preeminent Plenipotentiary who perfected planets, plankton, peonies, pine trees, porpoises, platypi, porcupines, and Presbyterians.
The second thing to notice is that in divine worship, the preacher doesn’t want so much to talk to you, but to talk with you. The Christian congregation at divine worship is not like a passive audience at a concert or a play; you’re not here to watch or to listen or to be entertained but to participate in the praise of the Maker of All the Stars and worlds.
Do you know where the English word ‘liturgy’ comes from? I’ll bet you don’t, so I’m going to tell you. The English word ‘liturgy’ comes from the Greek word leitourgia. It starts with lei-, from which we get the English word ‘laity’, or lay person, as opposed to the clergy, just the average Joe Schmo in the congregation. So lei–‘the people’–and ourgia, which means ‘work,’ as in a word like ‘ergonomics’. So leitourgia, or ‘liturgy’, means “the work of the people.” Not the work of the clergy, but the work of the laity, the work of the people.
So don’t fall asleep on me or nothing will go right. Sing the songs as if you were praising the Ancient of Days who fires the burning stars and spins the flying planets, because you are. Pray the prayers as if prayer changes things, because it does. Recite the Scripture readings as if they were the very words of God Godself, because they are. Praise the Lord as if he died for you and rose again for all time, because he did.
And finally, I hope you’ll notice that when we gather to worship God every seventh day, we use words we don’t use the other six days of the week. It’s my hope that you’ll find the language unusual, elegant, and eloquent, befitting its subject. Good liturgy is never chatty or conversational. We don’t enter this building by saying, “Thank you, Jesus, for being here. It’s really cool that you showed up today.” Good liturgy maintains, I hope, a certain elevated status because we hope to be lifted out of ourselves into an alien, extra-terrestrial world.
In divine worship, we are not afraid to use language that might distance or intimidate the congregation; in fact, that is partly the point. Near the turn of the seventh century, Pope Gregory the Great said: “The purpose of the expedition”–the purpose of worship, the purpose of life—“the purpose of the expedition is to attain to somewhat of the unencompassed light, by stealth, and scantily.” I love the way he frames that. In worship we attain somewhat of the unencompassed light, not in its totality, but haltingly, fitfully, because God will not be had. God will not be owned, and so with fear and trembling we come stealthily, and scantily.
Sometimes, however, people get it right. I once performed a wedding in which the maid of honor was the bride’s five-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. During the rehearsal and the wedding this young lady wore an expression of genuine bewilderment and small terror. She wouldn’t come close to me. I guess I scared her. I do that to people. I believe the wedding was the first time she’d ever been to church, but the next Sunday, despite her fear, she came back to church.
I ran into her in the narthex just outside the sanctuary right before the service, wearing my full liturgical regalia, all my sartorial splendor, robes and hoods and stoles and all that. She screwed up her courage and came close to me and said, “Mister, are you God?” I thought to myself, “Well, what an intelligent and perceptive child!” But I said, “No, honey, I’m not God. I just work for him.” She said, “Where do you work?” I pointed to the sanctuary and said, “Well, I work in there, honey.” She gasped and said, “Do you work in that scary place?”
And I looked at the sanctuary for the first time through five-year-old eyes. It was a big, hulking, sprawling place, not exactly scaled for a five-year-old, with cold stone walls and muscular, ornate beams and dense, semi-opaque, polychromatic windows laced with black lead–beautiful and imposing in its own way, but also kind of fearful. “Do you work in that scary place?” I guess it reminded her of a haunted house. And you know what? She was right. That place was haunted. There was a presence there. And here too, like nowhere else.
The brilliant, eccentric British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge remembers his father. He says, “I remember that at eight years old I walked with my father one winter night from a farmer’s house, a mile from home, and he told me the names of the stars, and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world, and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them, and when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round.”
By that experience, and others like them, says Coleridge “my mind had been habituated to the Vast, and ever after, I never again regarded my senses in any way as the criteria for my belief.” Has your mind been habituated to the Vast, or are your senses the criteria of your belief? The chief end of humankind is to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever. The purpose of the expedition is to attain to somewhat of the unencompassed light, by stealth, and scantily.
Novelist Katherine Mansfield, quoted by Dr. S. Allen Foster, in an unpublished sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, PA.
Quoted by Harry Emerson Fosdick, Dear Mr. Brown (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 156.
Quoted by Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 44.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, quoted by Kay Redfield Jamison in Touched with Fire (New York: The Free Press, 1993), p. 220.