We come together for the reading and discussing of the sacred writings, as any quality of the present time gives occasion for fore-warning or for recollection. In any case, with the holy words we feed faith, we set up hope, we build trust, and furthermore we close our ranks by the inculcation of precepts. (Tertullian, 2nd century)
When you open the book containing the gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him. For the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him. (Martin Luther)
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The weather has kept us from gathering these past two weeks, so we have fallen behind in our series on “Why We Worship as We Do.” On that first week, we looked at the order of our worship liturgy and were reminded that it has four parts:
- We gather together before God
- We hear and speak words with God (The service of the word)
- We come to God’s Table
- We are sent into the world to share his love and good news
We saw that this order follows the common pattern of gathering for a meal, and we talked about how gathering for worship each week is like God hosting us for a Sunday family dinner.
On the second week, I had planned to talk to you about Baptism, which is the means by which we enter God’s family. With faith in Jesus, who died and rose again for us, we die to sin and rise in him to walk in newness of life. By his grace, through the washing of water and the filling of the Holy Spirit, God gives us a seat at the table. (You will find the notes about baptism on the back of your insert today.)
Today, we are going to look at the first two parts of our worship service:
- We gather together before God
- We hear and speak words with God
In the gathering, we come from the various lives God has given us to celebrate the common life we have together in Jesus. We come from many different circumstances. Some of us are rich, some are poor, some are at happy and contented places in life, some of us are going through seasons of difficulty and darkness. We come from different backgrounds, we have had a variety of experiences in life. But whoever we are and wherever we come from, we gather together in the name of Jesus, who is Lord of us all.
The gathering is a time for praising God and for thanking God that he has invited us to share in the life of his family. So during this opening movement of worship we sing songs of praise, we confess our sins and thank God for his forgiving love, and we pray that we will experience his life-transforming presence in our midst as we worship this day. Whatever our own personal circumstances may be, the gathering is designed to lift our eyes upward and to impress upon us the wonderful privilege we have to come into God’s presence to meet with him.
This brings us to the second part of worship: the service of the Word. This is the time when we hear God speak to us through the scriptures, and we speak to him in prayer.
- We have a reading from the First Testament, which reminds us of our heritage and of how God came to fulfill his promises to us in Christ.
- We pray a psalm together, joining the voices of God’s people through the ages in acknowledging God and presenting our needs to him.
- We have a second reading from a New Testament epistle. These letters were addressed to the first churches, and they give us further teaching about Christ and the gospel, and instructions about how to walk in this new life.
Finally, we read from the Gospel for the day. A passage from one of the four Gospels brings us directly to the story of Jesus. As Martin Luther says in the quote that is on your insert today, in these Gospel readings Christ comes to us or we are brought to Christ, just the like the people in the Gospel stories.
And this really is the point of our worship. We come here each Sunday, not just to meet with each other, but to meet with Jesus, our risen Lord. He is here in our midst. He is the one who speaks to us, who teaches us, encourages us, and instructs us. He is the one who then welcomes us to the table and shares his own life with us. He is the one who then sends us into the world to proclaim the good news that he is alive and Lord of all.
It is my job as the preacher to always keep this in mind. I’m not here to tell you about myself or to simply tell you stories that you will enjoy hearing. My task is to share the gospel in the context of worship so that we might understand the meaning of these texts and so that they might speak to our lives here today with prophetic force. The word we hear from God in worship is meant to penetrate our lives and renew us in Jesus. As the quote from Tertullian that you have before you says: “with the holy words we feed faith, we set up hope, we build trust, and we [learn God’s precepts].” The word of God in worship is designed to bring us to Jesus.
After we hear these words, we respond with words of our own. We confess our faith by saying the Creed together, and we join our hearts and minds in intercessory prayer for ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. God has spoken to us, and now we speak back to God, asking him to fulfill his Word and bring life to the world.
This part of worship reminds us that our relationship with God is a conversational relationship. We listen, we hear, we try to understand, and we respond with words of trust and commitment. God speaks to us, and we speak to him. And through this experience week after week we come to know God better and to trust him more. Each Sunday the word of the gospel brings us to Jesus or brings Jesus to us.
You remember the Gospel story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Two of Jesus’ friends were walking home together after Jesus had died. They were sad and discouraged. Their hopes had been dashed. They were downhearted.
A stranger came up and joined them as they walked. As they talked together, the stranger began to share the scriptures with them. He told them how the scriptures pointed to Jesus and how it was necessary for him to die for the sins of the people. They were so captivated by his words that they invited him in for a meal when they reached their home.
Later that evening, at the table, the stranger broke bread and vanished from their midst. And they knew that they had been in the presence of the risen Lord. And this is what they said: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
They had entered the presence of Jesus sad of heart, slow of heart, and discouraged of heart. But when Jesus spoke, they knew what it meant to have burning hearts — hearts filled with the light and love and warmth of God’s presence and grace. May it be so with us each week, as we gather together and hear God speak to us.