Thirty years ago our church up north held a mission with Delores Winder, the petite American whose own miraculous healing led to her promoting God’s power to heal with churches all over the world. I have many memories of that mission but one experience I vividly recall is when she shared with us something she learned about worship. In church one day, Delores had a vision of Jesus standing behind the worship team. To her surprise, he was weeping. Lord, why are you weeping? she prayed. Clear as a bell, she heard him answer: I’m weeping because you are singing all about me when what I long for you to do is to sing to me. The distinction between songs that declare truths about God, compared with songs and choruses when we offer worship directly to him has shaped my perception ever since. The truth is that both have their place.
This term we've followed a preaching theme based on the image of a braided river. As we get to know each other in a faith community, and share our different journeys in following Christ, we discover that there are multiple pathways or channels through which we human beings connect with God. Like the braided rivers we see in Canterbury, Christian faith has many streams that may seem separate at times, though actually all are part of the same river. So we have explored the different channels, four of them. Think. Feel. Serve. Belong. It’s been good to notice what we share in common but also to identify where we differ. And perhaps to stretch ourselves by experimenting with another stream.
I finished off the series by zooming in on our hopes and expectations when we come to worship. Our four streams do all have different, even conflicting, perceptions of worship, and a wide variety of experiences of connection with God, but perhaps the advice Jesus gave the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4: 1 - 26) helps us find some common ground. Remember what he said as they spoke together about faith and worship and living water? After she mentioned that Jews and Samaritans worshiped on two different mountains, Jesus said the time was fast approaching when true worship would not be based on a place at all, but would be worship in spirit and in truth. Years ago that distinction led me to draw up a table of what Spirit and Truth might mean today.
“Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth.”
John 4: 23 Msg.
The Bible tells us we need to give God plenty of room to touch our hearts and change our lives, but not get so hung up on experiences that we lose sight of the fact that worship is about honouring and serving the living God, not just for getting our needs met; Kierkegaard has some wisdom about who is the audience. Truth and Spirit are both about encountering God – and they come together in a faith experience where we know Jesus personally.
Think about the Prime Minister. All of us know who John Key is, we would recognise his presence, and probably even feel confident to speak to him if we met him. But we don’t really know him – at least I don’t – not the way his wife and kids and co-workers and even political adversaries know him. They know his qualities, his preferences, his way of going about things, in a way we plebs don’t. God wants us to know him like that. Not just his deeds seen in history, but his character as known within the family, and his presence in our lives as we think, feel, care, and serve. Jeremiah spoke about this in ch 31:
I will put my law within them—write it on their hearts!—and be their God. And they will be my people. They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God. They’ll know me firsthand.And in John 17 we hear:
This is the real and eternal life:
That they may know you, the one and only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.
When we know God like that, worship comes naturally, Not just on Sunday but every day, every where. When we are thinking, feeling, serving or caring. Worship is what draws us together, it is the braided river overflowing the banks of our differences and uniting us as people of faith. Naturally we seek to worship him according to our own temperament and background but we also need appreciate differences and acknowledge that at times we need to make sacrifices so that others can experience him in their way. We noticed in Part Two - experiencing God - that some factors help us connect with God more tangibly, they build an atmosphere where personal encounter is more likely. We said that Jesus promised He is with us always, and his risen presence continually inspires and equips us, but it seems that environmental factors can contribute to our ability to experience that presence. Art, music, architecture, or nature can lead to us feeling God's touch in a personal way. Like glasses that help us see more clearly, dynamics in our environment can enable us to experience the reality of God's presence in a clear way.
A scientist might describe them as catalysts. A catalyst is an ingredient that facilitates a chemical reaction – in fact some chemical processes won’t take place without the catalyst, others only happen very slowly if the ingredient is missing. The idea of a catalyst for worship keeps the focus on God and his sovereignty but it reminds us that there are factors, over which we have some control, that make a real two way connection with God more likely. An old song calls it ‘building an atmosphere of praise’. So how can we develop an attitude and atmosphere for worship where his hand may be felt in our own lives?
The first example is from Isaiah 6 – and it’s the catalyst of repentance. God’s touch is often felt in an atmosphere where repentance is present. Isaiah came face to face with God’s glory - and he was convicted of his sin and helplessness. Woe is me; my destruction is sealed. But God answered with a touch of love and forgiveness. Repentance is a key to transformation. If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chron 7: 14) On a personal note, its interesting that since Auckland encountered the Toronto Blessing phenomenon with all its falling-down manifestations, the only time that I have ever felt my knees turn to jelly was during a group prayer of repentance led by another pastor. If I had been standing up, I know I would have crumpled, but I was kneeling and the sensation was glorious, like warm wax wrapped round me, God’s real and personal touch. Repentance is a catalyst for authentic worship.
John Wesley’s experience was something similar. John was a committed Christian minister but he knew his relationship with God was not all it could be. in 1738, at a study on the book of Romans, John had an experience of Christ’s presence – his heart was strangely warmed and he received new assurance and new power. The worship that night was focused on the word of God and the transformation described in Romans became Wesley’s real life experience. The Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. (Rom 8: 10) Many of us have felt God’s touch through the reading or preaching of the Word.
Thirdly – and you may be surprised by this one – the experience of human suffering can be the catalyst for a real experience of God. My colleague Sue had to retire from parish ministry 10 years ago because of multiple sclerosis. She has continued to serve others from her wheelchair, as a therapist, supervisor and addiction counsellor. Sue often testifies to the wonderful experiences of God’s touch she has known since becoming disabled. In fact, she looks back and views her years of health, not those of incapacity, as the wasted years. For Sue, suffering has been the catalyst for renewal of faith and hope, and an opportunity to know God’s presence in a powerful way. Perhaps you can identify with that.
Fourthly I need to talk about the Holy Spirit. In Acts 11, Luke tells us about a sermon when the Holy Spirit came on a group of Gentiles in such a powerful and obvious way that Peter had to stop. These pagans experienced connection with God through the Spirit of the Risen Christ. People who are open to God often come to a new awareness of God's powerful presence through inviting the Spirit to fill and renew them. Those of you who have done the Alpha Course will know a central part of the teaching is when Nicky explains ‘who the holy spirit is’ and ‘what he does’ at a special weekend. But its not only teaching. We encourage Alpha participants to do business with God, to invite him to fill them with his spirit. The normal pattern is to watch a DVD called ‘How do I receive the HS’ and then to spend time in discussion, so that folk feel relaxed to pray in small groups. But in one session I led, God moved amongst us while we were still watching the presentation. It happened in such a dramatic way in a businessman called Peter that we could all see it. His face was flushed, his heart on fire with love for God, and so we offered prayer right then as tears flowed in repentance and faith. Inviting the Holy Spirit to do his unique work of connecting us with God is the fourth catalyst for receiving Gods touch, as many young Easter campers will testify.
Let’s be clear - none of these is a magic technique. God is sovereign and there is no wand we can wave to make him act according to our desires or expectations. But if we pay attention to these catalysts, if we structure repentance in to our prayer life, listen to the message scripture has for our lives, welcome trials and tribulations as God's opportunity to bless us, and expect his Holy Spirit to fill and control us, we will be building that atmosphere, that environment that is conducive to authentic worship and enables us to be filled and equipped to reach out in love and service to others.
Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration. (John 4. The Message)
To Chew Over: Authentic worship is about knowing God as both objective reality and experienced relationship. Can you identify with both? if not, talk to someone who does.
Holy Spirit come
make my ears to hear
make my eyes to see
make my mouth to speak
make my heart to seek
and my hands to reach out
and touch the world your love.