"Worship That Makes Sense"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts April 3, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
Note: You may download this sermon at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Scripture Reading: Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
The Sensible Worship Survey
I want to begin today with a question. When I first ask it, it might seem to be a rather "churchy" question. You know, the kind of thing that pastors and theologians fret about, but most folks find to be a tad irrelevant. But I believe this question is one of the most vital you can ever ask. If you answer this question correctly, your life will never be the same. I hope by the end of this sermon you'll agree.
Okay, so here's the question: What kind of worship makes the most sense? See, I told you, sounds kind of "churchy," doesn't it? Still, I want you to think about this with me: What kind of worship makes the most sense?
It would be fun to do a bunch of "person on the street" interviews like Jay Leno does on the tonight show, you know, those "Jay Walking" snippets, to see what folks "out there" think about worship. Suppose you went down to the Irvine Spectrum and talked with randomly chosen people. How do you think they'd answer the question: What kind of worship makes the most sense?
My guess is that first thing you'd hear is something like this: "Well, whatever kind of worship feels right to you." Sensible worship, from this point of view, is entirely a matter of personal preference, and it relates largely to your feelings. If something helps you feel spiritual, then this is sensible worship for you.
If you were to keep asking folks at the Spectrum about worship, no doubt before long you'd be interviewing some Christians. From them you'd probably hear a description of worship that fits whatever they like at their own churches. From a traditional Christian you'd get a description of sensible worship that includes hymns, a choir, and printed bulletins. From a megachurch believer you'd hear about praise bands, uplifting, practical sermons, and state-of-the-art video projection. An emergent church worshiper might regale you with descriptions of edgy rock music, ambient darkness, and service to the poor. Though the details would differ widely, the bottom line would be essentially the same from all three types of worshipers: "Sensible worship is whatever moves me spiritually. It's what makes me feel God's presence."
The Sensible Worship Survey 2,000 Years Ago
Now I want to stretch your imaginations a bit further. Suppose you were taking this "sensible worship survey" not in the Irvine Spectrum in 2005, but in the Roman Forum 1950 years ago, at the time when Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Christians. In the Forum, surrounded by temples dedicated to the gods, what do you think you'd hear if you asked the average Roman: What kind of worship makes the most sense?
I'd suggest that just about everyone would give more-or-less the same basic answer: "Worship is what we do when we visit the temples of the gods. Sensible worship means offering sacrifices so the gods will treat us with favor." Temples, sacrifices, earning divine goodwill: that's what sensible worship was all about in the first-century Roman world, and throughout the ancient world in general, for that matter.
If you happened upon a philosopher while doing your survey in the Roman Forum, however, you'd probably get a different story: "Temples and sacrifices and all of that stuff are just external trappings," he'd explain. "The worship that makes the most sense is a matter of the mind, the spirit. It's more a matter of mystical feeling or philosophical reflection than offering sacrifices in the temples. The worship that makes the most sense is something that happens inside of you. It's not religious actions that you do." I expect you've noticed how similar this ancient philosophical perspective is to our contemporary understanding of sensible worship. Bottom line: it's what happens in your heart that really matters.
Sensible Worship from God's Perspective
In writing to the Christians at Rome in the mid-50's A.D., the Apostle Paul sought to answer the question: What kind of worship makes the most sense? His answer appears in Romans 12:1, though it's a little hard to see this in our translation, which reads, "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." Behind "spiritual worship" is the Greek phrase logike latreian. Latreian, which meant "service," was commonly used to describe the offering of sacrifices in temples (see Heb 9:6, for example). It is often translated simply as "worship." Logike is the root of our English word "logical." It meant "intellectual" or "logical," and by extension, "spiritual." So in Romans 12:1 Paul makes it clear by truly logical or spiritual worship is all about. He's talking about the worship that makes the most sense.
And what is this? Let me read Romans 12:1 to you again: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship [or logical worship]." There's your answer, from God's point of view. What kind of worship makes the most sense? Presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. There it is. That's sensible, logical, spiritual worship.
This is really quite an astounding statement, especially when you remember Paul's religious and philosophical environment. By using the language of "spiritual [or logical] worship," he's clearly in dialogue with the philosophers of his day and their critique of pagan temple worship. Paul agrees with the philosophers that true worship isn't about going to temples and offering sacrifices in order to get the gods on your side. Yet he doesn't concur with their view that worship is mainly a matter of mind or spirit. Rather, it is about what you do with your body, but in a much broader sense than offering sacrifices to the gods.
In describing sensible worship as "presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God," Paul draws liberally from Old Testament sacrificial imagery. As you may recall, God set up for the Jewish people an elaborate sacrificial system, complete with priests, offerings, and one temple in Jerusalem. If the people followed God's directions carefully, by offering their best animals to the Lord, for example, then their offerings were holy and acceptable to God. If they tried to cheat, however, by serving up blemished beasts, then their offerings were unacceptable and accursed (see Malachi 1-2).
Paul uses the sacrificial vocabulary of the Old Testament, but in a startling new way. Now acceptable and holy sacrifices aren't what we offer in temples, but what we offer in all of life. Paul speaks of presenting our bodies specifically to refute the philosophical notion that worship is really about what's in your heart. To be sure, the inner person matters, and Paul will get to this in a minute. But true Christian worship isn't just about having right thoughts and spiritual feelings. It's about expressing these in deliberate, tangible actions in the world.
The Value of Worship in Church
Now, you might wonder, if worship is about expressing our devotion to God in the world, does this invalidate what we do in church? Is Paul implying that gathering together with God's people to sing praises, to pray, and minister to each other isn't really worship?
Not at all. Notice where Paul's argument takes him after calling us to present our whole lives in worship to God. Beginning in Romans 12:4 and continuing on for most of the rest of the chapter, Paul speaks of how we are to live together as members of the church, the body of Christ. He specifically mentions prophecy, ministry, teaching, and exhortation, exactly the sort of thing that happens when Christians gather. Moreover, in other places in his writings Paul exhorts us to sing "songs, hymns, and spiritual songs to God" (Col 3:16). So what we do when we gather as a body is obviously important and central to the life of worship.
But notice carefully what I just said. What we do when we gather is central to the life of worship. It isn't the sum total of worship. Singing songs, offering prayers, preaching sermons, praying for each other, and all the other things we do when we gather are surely part of logical worship. But, from God's point of view, going to work, chatting with your friends, studying for your history test, hanging out with your family, and shopping at the mall - all of these can also be acts of worship. As I've said several times in the last few weeks, biblical worship isn't just "in here," it's "out there" as well.
Now I'll admit that it isn't easy to think of worship in this way. Heck, it isn't easy to think of life in this way! We're so accustomed to envision worship as the sort of thing we do in church, or in youth group, or maybe in our private devotions. But worship as all of life? That's not intuitive. If we're going to begin to think this way, we'll need a thoroughgoing mind shift. And this is exactly what Paul addresses in Romans 12:2.
Here he says, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect" (12:2). If we're going to present our whole lives in worship to God, then we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We need to learn to think about life, not in worldly terms, but in heavenly terms. We need to look upon our lives, not as the world sees them, but as God sees them.
And what God sees in your life is a continual opportunity for worship. If you choose to honor him in all you do, if you do your work for his glory, if you seek to shine with his light into the world, then you'll be worshiping, not just for an hour a week, but 24/7.
The world says sensible worship is a matter of doing religious things in a place of worship. God says it's a matter of how you live each moment.
The world says sensible worship is really a matter of feelings. God says it's about offering your body - your whole life - in service to him.
The world says worship is what happens "in here." God says worship includes what we do "in here," but also what we do "out there" for his glory.
I want to extend a personal challenge to each one of you. Begin to think about your life in God's terms. Begin to envision your life as a continual opportunity for worship. Begin to see each thought and each action of each day as a potential act of worship. See what a difference this will make in how you live. I believe it will be truly transformational.
What About the Heart?
Now you may be wondering: What about the heart? What about feeling God's presence? What about feeling joy as we praise God? Do these things still matter?
Of course they do. If worship involves your whole life, then naturally it will include your feelings. If you read the Psalms, for example, you'll find lots and lots of emotion: extreme joy, deep sorrow, desperate longing. All of these things belong in our relationship with God. And they often rise to the surface of our hearts as we gather for corporate worship.
Nothing I've said today implies that our feelings don't matter. But everything I've said underscores the fact that feelings are not the sum total of worship. Unlike the ancient philosophers who said that logical worship was really an "inside" experience, unlike the trend in our day to limit worship to certain emotional experiences, Scripture teaches us that worship is offering to God all that we are: heart, soul, mind, strength. And it's making this offering, not just in church, but in the world as well.
Feelings, I would contend, can help us worship God with our whole lives. It's rather like what happens in marriage. For example, Linda and I will celebrate our 21st anniversary in a week and half. As a part of this celebration I'll give her some sort of present, with a card, always a card, gotta be a card.
I'm glad to do this because I love my wife very much. There are times, however, times when I'm really busy, when I'm not in touch with my feelings of love for Linda. My heart gets distracted by all the stuff I have to do. There are other times, thank God, when my heart is just bursting with love for my wife. Even after 21 years I can still feel some of those wonderful feelings I felt when I first began to fall in love with Linda.
When I'm having those feelings, getting an anniversary gift for Linda is a delight. It's fun to express my love for her by getting something I think she'll really like. So my feelings motivate me to honor my wife. But if I'm in one of the busy times, I still need to get a gift for Linda because it's the loving and right thing to do. Feelings or no feelings, I am called to love my wife as Christ loved the church, and this involves, among other things, showing up with an anniversary gift and a card, always a card.
So it is with worshiping God. The feelings we can experience in worship are fantastic. And they motivate us to live for God, not only within these walls, but outside of them as well. The more I'm consumed with love for God, the easier it is for me to love him in my daily actions. The more you're overcome with gratitude for what God has done for you in Christ, the more you'll take this gratitude with you throughout the next week. So our feelings are very wonderful and helpful. But whether you feel warm fuzzies for God or not, you're still called to present your body to him in daily worship, and this is a matter of choice, not emotion.
My friends, I'm belaboring this point because there will be times in your Christian life when you don't feel much for God. Most of us know what it feels like to be spiritually dry. And if you don't know this yet, you probably will. In these times we can continue to worship God by how we live, even though we're not feeling much for God at the moment. When the feelings return - and they always do - 24/7 worship will be easier. But God is honored, not so much by what we feel for him as by how we live for him each day. Even if you're in a very dry place spiritually, you can still delight the heart of God through presenting your body to him in active worship.
And you'll often find that it's through doing what God asks us to do for him that our feelings are rekindled. Again, it's like getting an anniversary gift for my wife. If I'm feeling pretty stressed out, I don't being the process of shopping for her present with much joy. But, along the way, as I think about what she would like, my heart begins to warm. Usually, by the time I have the gift ready - with a care, always a card, gotta have a card - I'm back in touch with just how much I feel love for Linda. And so it is when we do what honors God even when we don't feel like it.
Why Do We Worship?
There's one more absolutely crucial point I must address before signing off. Since it's not the main focus of Romans 12:1, it's easily missed. But we mustn't let this happen. Let me read once again the beginning of this verse: "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . ." Did you catch that? I appeal to you by the mercies of God. This is an absolutely essential element of worship that makes the most sense.
Remember what the average Roman in the Forum would have said about worship. It's what we do to gain the favor of the gods. Sacrifices were offered so that the gods would provide a good harvest, or many children, or victory in war, or you name it. Worship was a way to get a god to bless you.
For Christians, however, it's exactly the reverse. We worship, not to gain God's favor, but because of his mercies already given. We worship, not because we need something from God, but because God has already richly provided everything we need. So our worship is not an effort to make God do something. Rather, it's our response to what God has already done in our lives. Most of all, it's our response to what God has done in Jesus Christ, taking our sin so that we might live forever in an intimate relationship with the God of the Universe. Whatever else you might say about Christian worship, both in church and in the world, it is always a response to God.
My friends, the more you consider God's mercies, the more you remember what Christ has done for you, the more you consider the myriad of blessings heaped upon you by our gracious Lord, the more you will be empowered to present your whole life in worship. Paying attention to what God has done for us leads to pervasive gratitude, and this feeling - yes, this feeling - moves us to worship both in the gathering and when we're out there in the world. Moreover, the fact of God's mercy leads us to choose to worship no matter what we may be feeling at the time. We recognize that God deserves all that we are because he has given us all that he is.
This is one reason why Communion is so central to our worship. Here we remember, month in, month out, what Christ has done for us. Here we taste the mercies of God. Here you receive a token of Christ's body so that you might present your body to God in whole-life worship. Here we are nourished spiritually so that we might go out into the world and worship in the way that makes the most sense, by living for God's glory each and every moment.
And now let's prepare our hearts for receiving once more the mercies of God in the Lord's Supper.