Danger: People at WorshipDr. 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,
as being a “life or death” matter.
However, our texts for the morning
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
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
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
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,
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 . . .
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.
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 –
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?
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 . . .
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
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,
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
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,
“Here am I,
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—
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
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
All Creatures of our God and King
Alone and Filled with Fear
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