Worship is for life, not life for worship
If worship is a retreat, in other words, it is not a retreat from the world but a retreat in order to come back to the world in love, mercy and grace.
• David Lose
Today we conclude our series on “Why We Worship Like We Do.” And I can’t think of a better Sunday than Transfiguration Sunday on which to do that.
Today’s Gospel text from Luke puts two scenes in front of us. The first is the story of the Transfiguration itself. It takes place on a mountain. The text says this took place on the eighth day after the previous story. In early Christianity, “the eighth day” was one of the phrases believers used to describe Sunday, the day of worship, the day of resurrection, the first day of a new week and the first day of the new creation in Christ.
In this narrative we see the disciples and Jesus together. They have withdrawn from the crowds, and gone to a sacred place of solitude to pray. Here they see the glory of Christ. They witness him interacting with the story of Israel as he talks with Moses and Elijah. The focal point of their conversation is the death that Jesus is about to die on the cross. Then God’s own voice speaks directly to the disciples and instructs them to listen to Jesus.
In other words, what we have here is a picture that looks a lot like Christian worship.
Like the disciples, we come together on the first day of the week to meet with Jesus. We come from our homes, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and communities, leaving our daily lives behind for awhile. We come to a sacred space, one that has been dedicated for meeting with God. Here we sing of God’s glory and we give God praise. Here we pray. Hear we learn the story of the Bible and how it leads us to the cross — the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Here God speaks to us, points to Jesus, and says, “Listen to him.”
Worship is an experience of wonder and joy. An experience of fellowship. An experience of hearing God’s words and learning about God’s beauty and power. Worship here in the sanctuary is a kind of retreat, a pause we take every week to go up the mountain with Jesus and take in a bit of heaven’s glory.
Now I know it doesn’t always seem like that. What happens here in worship is often quite mundane. Frankly, sometimes it’s boring and uninteresting. We don’t always sing well. We trip over our words in the liturgy and the readings. The pastor makes mistakes. The pastor preaches an unintelligible sermon. We laugh. Sometimes people get offended. We get distracted. Parents of young children wonder if it’s worth it when worship feels more like a wrestling match than a divine encounter. We get older and we don’t always hear everything clearly. Plus, we all have things on our minds from our daily lives that keep us from paying attention.
Yet most of us keep coming back, don’t we? Somehow we understand that there is something different about this place and what we do here. Something that doesn’t depend on us getting everything right and doing everything perfectly. There’s glory here, even if we only get a glimpse of it now and then. The disciples didn’t always see it either, even when they were right there, beside Jesus every day. But then, every once in awhile, the glory shone through.
And then, you will notice, there is a second story here. Jesus and the disciples came back down the mountain. When they did, what did they find? Immediately they were immersed in the crowds again. And then came a man with a concern about his child, and we read about illness, and the power of evil, and the struggle we all have with knowing how to deal with it. Then we see Jesus acting to overcome the powers that bind people and setting the oppressed free.
As David Lose says, “…the retreat to worship and the time to listen to the Word, be immersed in the cross, and be gathered in prayer leads inevitably to a return to the ‘everyday world’ of human need where Jesus heals the sick and opposes the forces of evil. If worship is a retreat, in other words, it is not a retreat from the world but a retreat in order to come back to the world in love, mercy and grace.”
So once again we see here again the challenge that we have talked about in this series: Gathering and worshiping on Sunday is designed to equip us for what we will face between Sundays. We don’t leave Jesus behind here in the sanctuary or up on the mountain, we follow him out into the affairs of everyday life, back down into the valley. In worship we leave that world for a time, but then we move back into it, having been nourished and strengthened by seeing God’s glory and hearing God’s word together.
This week I visited a 35 year-old man and his family. He is dying of leukemia. At age 35. He and his wife have 3 young children. They are members of a church where they worship on Sundays. But that has been only one part of their involvement with that church family.
This man has been going through treatments and clinical trials for a few years now, and his family’s entire life has been disrupted. There is a couple in their church that work with the youth. The woman has a condition that confines her to a wheelchair. She and her husband adopted a child because they can’t have children of their own. And yet they devote themselves to the children and young people in their church. But that’s not all.
As this family that I visit has been battling cancer, these friends from church have decided to virtually adopt their 3 children and care for them so that he can get his treatments and travel for his clinical trials. They have even set up rooms for each of the kids so they have their own place to sleep in their house when needed. They care for them several days a week while the man’s wife works. They have become “God parents” in the truest sense of the term.
If we get anything out of this series, I hope it is this. Worship is for life, not life for worship.
Our gatherings on Sunday are extremely important, but they are meant to be part of a larger rhythm of life. Like the disciples in this story, we follow Jesus up the mountain for the magnificent experience of being with him and hearing him and seeing his glory. But this is inevitably and always followed by going back down the mountain into the valley where daily life is lived.
And guess what? Jesus is there too, smack dab in the midst of this life’s ups and down, in every season and circumstance of life. And this is where we are called in worship to “Go in peace, and serve the Lord.” Thanks be to God.