A glimpse of light
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Nowadays, we quite often say that fanatical fans of pop stars, sports stars or other celebrities ‘idolise’ their heroes, and we often speak of such famous people as ‘idols’. We mean nothing especially pejorative about the term- when we say that some sportsman or pop star is an ‘idol’ to his fans, that’s a fairly morally neutral term in today’s culture. We just think it’s slightly crazy that, especially young people, should show such an interest in these performers.
But the word idols has its roots in the Bible, and where it very much has negative overtones. Near the top of the list in the Ten Commandments God gave Moses as a way to create a just society, God said that they should not worship any idols. And the Old Testament prophets of Israel spent a lot of time talking about idols, warning against false gods which people often worshipped.
Here, for example, is the prophet Jeremiah in fine satirical form:
People of Israel, listen to the message that the Lord has for you. He says, “Do not follow the ways of other nations; do not be disturbed by unusual sights in the sky, even though other nations are terrified. The religion of these people is worthless. A tree is cut down in the forest; it is carved by the tools of the woodworker and decorated with silver and gold. It is fastened down with nails to keep it from falling over. Such idols are like scarecrows in a field of melons; they cannot speak; they have to be carried because they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them: they can cause you no harm, and they can do you no good.” (Jeremiah 10.1-5).
Today’s idols might be flesh and blood pop or sports stars, rather than wooden statues of gods. Or there may be those other things which we worship, things which we put first in our lives before God- money or possession, for example. Yet the old prophet’s advice remains the same- false gods cause you harm, and are a distraction from the worship of the true God.
So what are we doing when we come here to worship? What are we all doing today when we worship God? I’ve been going to church since I was a child, and I have been leading worship for many years now, so perhaps I take a question like that for granted. I know what worship is- or at least, I can recognise it when I see it. I know what to expect when I go into Church on Sunday. But for many- perhaps most people- nowadays, worship is a strange word, a words whose meaning is less and less understood. People worship or idolise pop stars and footballers. Of a smitten lover it might be said, ‘He worships the ground she stands on’. But worship and God are two words which don’t necessarily belong together. Even many people who say they believe in God never feel the need to meet in a place like this to sing and to pray. And I suspect that even if we asked churchgoers ‘what are you doing when you worship God?’ we would get a variety of answers.
For example- entertainment has become a huge industry, with much more influence than perhaps we give it credit for. Nobody bats an eyelid when some famous actor or pop star makes pronouncements on some issue or another, although they may know no more about the subject than you or I. Even politicians have to be seen to be entertaining- their style is often more important to people than the substance of their policies. And entertainers are sometimes treated as if they were demigods- their fans’ devotion seems to be close to worship sometimes.
And if entertainment can become worship, I wonder sometimes if worship can become entertainment. After all, we all live in this world in which we are constantly being entertained. We watch TV, we listen to the radio, even when you go shopping there is background music on. And so perhaps I ought not to have been surprised when a couple of years ago, I met a ministerial colleague who was writing a thesis on ‘worship as entertainment’. He thought that increasingly, people understood worship as a kind of religious entertainment. Someone once suggested that the decline of church attendance in Scotland had to do with the rise of other entertainments! And so maybe we need to be more entertaining, in order to keep people from watching TV, washing their cars, visiting B and Q or going to Sunday league football games. Perhaps we ought to close all our churches and have our Sunday morning get-togethers at the Eden Court or at the Caley Thistle Stadium.
I happen to believe that you ought to be allowed to enjoy yourself on a Sunday morning. I happen to think that it’s good that when we meet here together we can have a laugh, enjoy good music, have fun meeting our friends. But that can’t be all there is to it. There must be more to worshipping God than just entertainment. Worship may be entertaining, but there must be more to it than that.
For surely at the heart of all true worship is an encounter with God. Somehow, in the midst of the music, the fellowship, in the laughter, as we sing and pray and listen for God’s word together- in it all, we meet God.
In the story about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God, weare told that God’s presence covered Mount Sinai like a dazzling light, or a fire, or a cloud. Something awesome and holy was going on. And something awesome, even terrifying, is going on in today’s Gospel passage as well. James takes his disciples Peter, James and John up to a high mountain (there are lots of parallels in this story to the story of Moses on Mount Sinai). Up there, they see light- light which seems to change the appearance of Jesus. They have visions of Moses and Elijah, and they hear a voice that speaks. Just as Moses had received the Law, so too the disciples receive a revelation- they hear God’s voice telling them that their friend Jesus is God’s son, no less. They are terrified, they throw themselves face down on the ground- and it all ends with a friendly tap on the shoulder, and a familiar voice who says, ‘Don’t be afraid’.
The Sunday on which we read of the Transfiguration of Jesus is a good day to think about worship. For this passages remind us of what it is really like to experience the living God, to get a glimpse of the glory of God. These passages of scripture remind us that there is more- much more- to worshipping God than just entertainment.
For worship is about meeting God. In worship, we meet the dazzling, terrifying presence of God, the creator of the universe and the judge of us all. We ought to be a bit afraid when we worship! I once went into a pulpit in which there was a little sticker, where only the preacher could see it. It quoted, from the Authorised Version, Jacob’s words after his dream of heaven at Bethel: ‘How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28.17). A reminder to the preacher in the pulpit that, if he or she is doing his job right, the pulpit would become a gateway for the congregation to experience something divine.
Or I think of another church, where I was once a guest preacher. As I got ready in the the vestry, I noticed a they had a Bible text in a frame, which scared the life out of me. It was a text from John’s Gospel, spoken by some Greeks visiting Jerusalem for Passover. They approached to Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples: ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ (John 12.21). What was scary about that was the thought that those words also encapsulated what the congregation through the door and out there in the church were expecting. They were waiting to see Jesus, and I was supposed to lead them to him. What a responsibility!
But for all of us here, those texts could stand as reminders of what worship is really about, why it is we are here. This place, now, is supposed to be the gate of heaven, a place where we might encounter the God of Jesus Christ.
In many ways, it seems crazy that we should expect to meet God in this or any other service of worship. I know I have sat through services which didn’t feel very heavenly. Worse, I led some of those services myself! And when people today are used to high production values, it seems absurd to suggest that in our hymn-singing and praying together, we might feel we are at the very gates of heaven. Crazier still, perhaps, to expect that in my attempts to string a few thoughts together, you might meet Jesus. And yet, that is what the Church believes about worship. Just two or three of you gather together, says Jesus, and I will be there with you.
I think I have come to believe that encountering God is not a spiritual ‘experience’ as many people understand that sort of thing. If we really wanted to compete with the world of entertainment, we would try to give people an experience. Perhaps would dazzle them with loud funky music and flashing lights. We would probably have a bar, and we would even tolerate the mind-bending drugs which some people claim are a gateway to heaven. We would give people who come to church an experience, and call it spiritual.
But we don’t do that. In fact, I’m always a bit suspicious when I think worship is designed to manipulate my emotions too much. Instead, I think something infinitely more mysterious is going on in real worship.
We like to think that we do worship. Worship is a human activity. We prepare it, we take part in it. We agonise over the content and the style, and sometimes we even argue over it. Even the buildings in which we worship are important to us, and we look after them carefully. Yet for all our doing in worship, we need to be reminded sometimes that really we can’t do anything for God.
We have all heard to tales of once famous personalities who cannot cope when no-one comes to their shows, no-one wants to have the on TV, when they’re dropped from the team, when no-one is giving them the adulation they used to receive. It’s terrible if your worshippers stop worshipping you any more. But God does not actually need our worship. God would still be God whether we worshipped or not. God, I think, is pleased when we respond to his love by offering worship. But I think that in worship, it’s not so much we do something for God, as God does something for us.
On the mountain, the disciples learned that Jesus was God’s son. They really hadn’t quite realised that before, and so they were different people when they came back down. Worship ought to change us, because no-one can glimpse the glory of God and ever be the same again. Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it. Maybe you even go home from church bored, fed up, or even angry sometimes. But if you really met God in your worship, then something should have changed.
When I speak to people who come to worship regularly, there is always a sense that it does do something to them. They will talk, for example, about how they feel they need to come, because it somehow helps them for the week ahead. Some people talk about churchgoing as if it was like taking your car to the garage- Church is where you’re refuelled for the week ahead. Some Sundays it might be just a few gallons, but occasionally you will change your tires, go through the car wash or have a full MOT service! I think people are onto something when they speak like that. Yes, there are times when your encounter with God will hit you like a ton of bricks. But often it’s just drip-feeding. God, I believe, often changes people slowly.
Even after they came down from the mountain, the disciples still didn’t fully understand what they say and heard up there. The implication of what it meant that Jesus was God’s son had still to sink in. All was not yet clear- ahead there were still to be more misunderstandings, betrayal, even the death of Jesus. But they learned something new on that mountain top. They had encountered God- briefly. It didn’t explain everything, but it was enough to be going on with.
Encountering God, glimpsing God, seeing at least a bit of light in the darkness, perhaps seeing Jesus in a way you hadn’t realised he was like that before- that’s what’s going on in worship. It isn’t that we can make God appear as we want him to- we never know where the wind of the Spirit will blow from next. But in worship, if we can make space for God, God may well come to meet us- and change us. Change us a little, or change us a lot- who knows?
For God is not out to just entertain us. He doesn’t want to just keep us amused. He wants to change us, and through us, change to the world. The power of entertainment is that is helps people get away from the real world, help them forget their troubles, allowing them, perhaps only briefly, to be part of a celebrity fantasy world. Yes, we could do worship that did that, and perhaps it would be very popular. But at the end of today’s service, I will say, ‘Go in peace, to love and to serve the Lord’. And I will send you away, and I will hope that this hour of worship will actually help you to meet whatever life has in store for you this week. You will not have all your questions answered. But hopefully, something in this service allowed you to have a glimpse of light in the darkness, a sense that you have known a gateway to heaven, that perhaps you have seen Jesus- and that will be enough for now.
Ascription of Praise
Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and shall be forever, Amen.
BCO 1994, p586
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise state
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo
OH: hymn 336 Christ is our light!