NextSunday Worship


May 20, 2018

Danger: People at Worship

Dr. Mike Massar Isaiah 6:1-8; Acts 5:1-11 Year B: Day of Pentecost

The Witness of Scripture:

The ancient instruction book of the church, Didache, says

“Two ways there are,

one of Life and one of Death,

and there is a great difference

between the two ways.”

Didache; VI, 15)

 

Most of us don’t think of church,

especially worship,

as being a “life or death” matter.

However, our texts for the morning

suggest otherwise,

and maybe that is why we have problems

with such texts.

Because we are uncomfortable

with a God Who would seem to extract

a severe justice

that is even tinged with death,

we have domesticated our worship experiences

by avoiding such scriptures

or amending them.

This morning’s scriptures

certainly, reveal that.

They are texts that most preachers avoid

or, at least, amend

because the experiences

portray a perspective of God

that makes us uncomfortable.

Several years ago, Barbara Brown Taylor

coined the phrase, “terror texts,”

to describe those parts of the Bible

that make us a bit squeamish –

stories like Abraham

risking all in the possible sacrifice

of Isaac,

or Jael, the most blessed of women,”

who in the book of Judges

drove a tent peg

through an enemy’s head

with a mallet.

Then there is Elisha cursing a crowd of jeering boys

with the mauling by two she-bears.

And there is Jesus cursing a fig tree

or telling a story about bridesmaids

being barred from the wedding

because of their tardiness.

Dr. Taylor says that however wrong

these stories may seem,

however misbegotten and needlessly cruel,

God may be working redemption in ways

we are not equipped to discern.

She illustrated it by telling a story:

 

Several summers ago

I spent three days on a barrier island

where loggerhead turtles were laying their eggs.

One night while the tide was out,

I watched a huge female heave herself up on the beach

and dig her nest and empty her eggs into it.

Afraid of disturbing her,

I left before she was finished.

The next morning, I returned to see

if I could find the spot where her eggs

lay hidden in the sand.

What I found were her tracks

leading in the wrong direction.

Instead of heading back out to sea,

she had wandered into the dunes,

which were already as hot as asphalt

in the morning sun.

         

A little ways inland I found her:

exhausted, all but baked,

her head and flippers caked with dried sand.

After pouring water on her and covering her with sea oats,

I fetched a park ranger

who returned with a jeep to rescue her.

He flipped her on her back,

strapped tire chains around her front legs,

and hooked the chains to a trailer hitch on his jeep.

Then I watched horrified as he took off,

yanking her body forward

so that her mouth filled with sand

and her neck bent so far back

I thought it would break.

         

The ranger hauled her over the dunes

and down onto the beach.

At the ocean’s edge, he unhooked her

and turned her right side up.

She lay motionless in the surf

as the water lapped at her body,

washing the sand from her eyes

and making her skin shine again.

A wave broke over her;

she lifted her head slightly,

moving her back legs.

Other waves brought her

further back to life

until one of them made her light enough

to find a foothold and push off,

back into the ocean.

 

Watching her swim slowly away

and remembering her nightmare ride through the dunes,

I reflected that it is sometimes hard to tell

whether you are being killed or saved

 by the hands that turn your life

upside down.

 

Dr. Taylor went on to say

that these are the texts of the Bible which,

“pry our fingers away

from our own ideas

 about who God should be

and how God should act

 

If we are open to this possibility in our interpretation of Scripture,

then we are open to the possibility in our lives as well.

Whether the terror is heard on Sunday

or lived on Monday,

the question is the same:

Do we trust God to act in all the events of our lives,

or only the ones that meet our approval?”

(Taylor, Barbara Brown in The Other Side Magazine March & April 2000)

 

This morning we are confronted with such texts,

ones that take place

in what we would assume

to be the safe confines of worship.

We begin with those days

after the first Pentecost.

The disciples and others had gathered for worship,

offering prayers and praise.

In the midst of their worship

the Presence of God was made manifest

in the startling descent of tongues of fire

that moved them out into the streets.

If they had not been prodded by God

such an act would have been treacherous,

because just weeks before

perhaps the most grievous act

of terror in the history of humankind

had transpired with the crucifixion

of Jesus,

and their actions would certainly have seemed

to connect them

with their seditious leader.

It was a moment teeming

with uncertainty and possible violence.

Yet, it was the marked beginning of the church,

because that upper room congregation

was changed, transformed,

never to be the same again.

We tend to forget the raw and remarkable power

that took place in, of all places,

worship.

 

Then again, there is that amazing scene

that took place in the book of Isaiah

upon the occasion of the death of Uzziah

who presumably died at the hands of God

as punishment for taking the Holy

into his own hands.

After Uzziah’s death

Isaiah ventures to the Temple for worship

where he is confronted by the Living God

in such a spectacular fashion.

Here this remarkable scene

and its elaborate use of imagery

changes Isaiah for good.

But, lest we overlook,

the death of Uzziah and the call of Isaiah

both took place in worship . . .

 

Isaiah 6:1-8

 

Finally, there is this strange story

in the book of Acts

where a couple,

emulating the generosity of Barnabas,

sells some property

and places the proceeds

at the feet of the apostles,

which would have been considered

a holy oath

as well as an oral contract.

When it was discovered that they had held back

a portion of the proceeds of the sale

they were confronted individually by Simon Peter.

 

His damning judgment was

that of hypocrisy,

that they had withheld finances

while telling the church they had given all.

The sentence,

and this is the difficult part,

animated in the couple

dropping over dead.

Over the years

scholars have struggled with this story,

of whether the couple actually died

or that they were excommunicated . . .

After all, in many religious communities,

for example, Orthodox Jewish communities,

when someone goes outside the faith

they are considered as good as dead,

with no future interaction.

The issue then at question

is one that equates lying to the community of faith

as being synonymous with lying to God.

 

However, you interpret their act,

Simon Peter was unequivocally righteous here

and set the tone for the church and the church-to-come . . .

It is the church’s responsibility to speak the truth.

If we allow falsehoods and “willful blindness”

as the revered Frank Stagg once called it  –

to exist,

then we have participated

in the killing of the church.

 

Simon Peter saw the deceits of Ananias and Sapphira

as the way that leads to death.

Not to confront such lies

will lead to the death of the church.

Now, who would have thought

that taking up the offering in worship

could have been such a life-and-death matter?

It was;

it is.

Please stand and give reverent attention

to the reading of God’s Word

as found in the book of Acts,

beginning with the verse numbered one

in the fifth chapter . . .

 

Acts 5:1-11

 

The Sermon:

 

One of the responsibilities

that I loved in the churches I served

was meeting with four-year-old’s

who were about to come to “big church”

for the first time.

In concert with the Minister to Children,

I sent out a letter to the parents

explaining the new rite of passage

that was about to take place

in their four-year-old’s life.

I explained to them

that they would bring the children to worship,

and that the children would be in worship with them

up until the time for the children’s sermon.

They would then be dismissed

for extended session.

In that letter

I tried to help the parents prepare

for the event,

trying to anticipate a child’s first worship encounter.

I explained to the parents

that I would have two meetings with the children –

the first, prior to their first time in worship

where I would try to get them ready

for what was to happen;

and then a second meeting the next week

where I would listen to the children’s perceptions

and questions.

It was always that second meeting

that I loved.

You see, the children observed things in worship

that most of us don’t notice.

They asked questions like,

“Why were the people up front wearing robes?”

“Why did some people put money in the plate

and why did other people

not put money in the plate?”

“What was behind the curtains

or, in our case, in the window above the choir?”

I loved those times

and I loved those questions,

because it was so helpful

to observe worship with a child’s eyes.

Most of us have become conditioned

to come to worship with few expectations

and the simple hope of being entertained

and getting out on time.

There is little expectancy

in worship these days.

 

I saw this first-hand in a worship experience

in another church where I was on staff.

The pastor, a bright and caring human being,

had the idea that he wanted to try to experiment

by having someone interrupt his sermon.

We discussed the matter in worship planning,

noting that it might not go as planned,

but he was convinced that it was a novel idea.

I was a bit concerned,

because being extremely intelligent

as well as being brought up in a foreign country,

the pastor tended to preach

in compound-complex sentences.

I had observed that oftentimes

members of the congregation checked out

after five minutes of the sermon.

Nevertheless, on that particular Sunday

I was intrigued about what was to happen.

Sure enough, the service went as normal,

and when the time for the sermon came

I watched as the pastor began in a most eloquent fashion,

but I also noticed that folks were checking out.

About ten minutes into the sermon

a drama student stood up and yelled,

“I don’t believe that!”

The pastor then engaged him in a dialogue

while I observed people all over the congregation

turning to each other and asking,

“What happened?”

In one sense, it was funny;

but in another sense, it was tragic.

And it wasn’t the preacher’s fault,

even though it was a good lesson for all preachers

to pay attention to the congregation;

but it is also important for the congregation

to pay attention,

not just to the words being spoken

but to the Spirit’s prompting nudges.

God is present here,

and that should make us

sit on the edges of our seats.

 

There was a time when the Jewish people

had that sense of expectation.

After all, God’s residence

was in the Holy of Holies,

very close at hand.

Thus, when they worshipped

they paid attention

and leaned in.

 

However, during the reign of Uzziah,

and it was a most successful reign,

perhaps the finest since Solomon,

worship had become rather humdrum,

matter of fact . . .

so much so that one particular Sabbath

the service seemed to drag

to King Uzziah. . .

so he went to the altar

and with his own unconsecrated hands

placed the incense on the altar.

It was as if to say,

“let’s get this over with . . .

there is nothing happening here

except a human process.”

And he, as King,

could take matters

into his human hands.

However, after he placed the incense on the altar

and stepped back,

huge white blemishes of leprosy

appeared on his forehead and hands.

This was the most awesome disease

of the ancient world

and was widely regarded

as God’s judgment on sin.

 

(Claypool, John; a sermon to Broadway Baptist Church,

“Worship as Involvement” September 23, 1973)

 

Uzziah fled the Temple and his palace

to a leper’s cottage

where he died a few weeks later.

The entire nation went into mourning

as well as great shock,

because this beloved leader

had had the audacity

to take God for granted.

It was a crisis of epic proportion,

and it was in this situation

that Isaiah found himself.

As a Temple Priest

he went to the Temple for worship,

and the recent events must have been

very much on his mind.

During the worship experience

Isaiah became acutely aware

of the Presence of God.

God’s majesty was unmistakable and undeniable,

and Isaiah, humbled, cried out,

“Woe is me for I am a man

of unclean lips,

and I dwell among a people

of unclean lips.”

 

Now, what I think is important to note

are the expectations of Uzziah and Isaiah –

Uzziah comes to worship expecting little

if anything;

Isaiah comes with a reverence

that is ready for God.

Uzziah comes, seeing worship

as simply a human invention;

Isaiah comes, open to the mystery of God

that is found in authentic worship.

And it is Isaiah’s humility and intent

that pleases God,

because in Isaiah’s confession

God responds with a purifying peace.

In this moment God draws close,

and Isaiah is forever changed,

so that when God in an intimate way

asks who will go in God’s Spirit,

Isaiah responds,

“Here am I,

send me.”

True encounters with the Holy One

always send one away on a different path.

 

I believe one of the things

that the church is missing these days

is an expectancy of meeting God.

We tend to slump into worship

and try to be attentive

but most often paying attention

to what needs to be done elsewhere.

And the result is a malaise

that dishonors God

and deadens the church.

 

Several years ago now,

when Tony Campolo was a young pastor,

he was asked to be a counselor at a junior-high camp.

He joked about the experience,

            “Everyone should be a counselor at a junior-high camp—

ONCE!

For any Roman Catholics,” he said,

“I have to say that I now believe there is a Purgatory.

I have been there.

It’s junior-high camp!”

He went on to say

            that junior-high boys have a strange

and often cruel sense of humor.

There’s a strong tendency for them

to pick on some unfortunate, offbeat kid & ridicule him,

making him the brunt of their jokes.

This was certainly the case

during that particular week of summer camp.

They picked on a 13-year-old kid named Billy,

who couldn’t walk right or talk right.

He dragged his body across the campground

in erratic and spasmodic fashions,

and when he spoke

his words were markedly slurred.

The boys at the camp would often mimic his gestures,

and they thought that was funny.

One day Tony heard him asking for directions.

He said, even now I can hear his almost indiscernible,

painfully spoken words:

“Which . . . way . . . is . . . the craft shop?”

The boy he asked,

mocking his slurred speech

and using convoluted hand language said,

“It’s over—there . . . Billy boy.”

But the cruelest thing they did

was on a Thursday morning.

Billy’s cabin had been assigned to lead morning devotions,

and his cabin mates all voted for him to be the speaker.

They wanted to get him up there in front of everybody

so they could be entertained

by his struggling attempts to say anything at all.

When Campolo found out about it,

he was furious,

but there was nothing he could do.

It did not seem to bother Billy!

Somehow, he dragged himself up to the rostrum

as waves of snickers flowed over the audience.

It took Billy almost half a minute to say,

“Je—sus . . . loves . . . me . . . & . . . I . . . love Je—sus.”

When he finished,

there was stunned silence.

When Campolo looked over his shoulder

and he saw that all over the place

there were junior-high boys

with tears streaming down their cheeks.

Some of them had their heads bowed.

A revival broke out!

(Campolo, Tone; Let Me Tell You a Story; pp. 111-112)

 

I honestly don’t know where the church is going

            in the days ahead.

I don’t even know where this church is going

            in the days ahead.

But I do know this –

            if we were honest with God and ourselves

                        and intentionally expectant in our worship,

                                    God’s Spirit would take us

                                                where the Kingdom is at hand.

Our God is waiting,

            waiting on us.

Can we get a witness?

 

About the writer:

Dr. Mike Massar grew up in west Texas, attended Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mansfield College at Oxford, the Graduate Theological Foundation and the Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. His ministerial journey has taken him from 7th and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas to Wildewood Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, to the First Baptist Church of Clemson, South Carolina, to the First Baptist Church of Tyler, Texas, to the University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

He and Lisa have three children — Matt and his wife, Meredith, Patrick and his wife, Kendall, and Meredith and her husband, Chris Munson as well as two grandchildren — Luke and Mae. After over forty years of pastoring churches in Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana, Mike is completing his ministry at University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Gruene, Texas, where he and his wife, Lisa, will begin writing the next chapters in their life. Those chapters will include writing, traveling and enjoying their family, especially their grandchildren

 

Scripture and Music:

Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14         

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b            

Romans 8:22-27 or

Acts 2:1-21    

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

 

Music:

    All Creatures of our God and King

    Alone and Filled with Fear

    Awesome God

    Baptized in Water

    Come, Thou Almighty King

    Father, I Adore You

    For God So Loved the World

    Give Glory to God, All You Heavenly Creatures

    God Is One, Unique and Holy

    Here I Am, Lord

    Holy Spirit, Ever Dwelling

    Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!

    How Great Thou Art

    Lift High the Cross

    Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying

    O God the Creator

    O Spirit of the living God, Thou light and fire divine

    Of the Father’s Love begotten

    Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow

    Sing praise to God who reigns above

    When Long Before Time (The Singer and the Song

Posted in Dr. Mike Massar, Sermons on April 23, 2018. Tags: , , , ,