Scripture Readings: Exodus 24:12-18
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.
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.”
Today’s idols may 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 the true God- money, a career. Yet the old prophet’s advice remains the same- false gods are no good. Martin Luther wrote,
Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.
If you make a god of your work, it will destroy you. If you make a god of money, you will never be satisfied. If you make a god of an entertainer, they will disappoint you.
Many 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.
Today, we live in a 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, listen to good music and enjoy meeting our friends. And we do use some techniques from the entertainment industry to keep you interested- well trained organists, choirs who have rehearsed what they will sing. Even I got some training from actors! Worship can and should be entertaining. But there is, of course, more to it.
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. Both of our scripture passages today talk of people meeting God. In our Old Testament reading, the wandering tribes of Israel have received God’s Law at Mount Sinai. To seal the covenant, God calls Moses back to the holy mountain, to receive the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written. We are told that God’s presence covered the mountain like a dazzling light, or a fire, or a cloud. Something awesome and holy was going on here, something which the writer of Exodus could hardly find words to explain. But light plays in a part in his attempts to understand.
Something awesome, even terrifying, is going on in the 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:
This is my son, whom I have chosen- listen to him!
And then, silence:
When the voice stopped, there was Jesus all alone”.
They were left in the presence of their friend, Jesus.
Light and darkness are powerful religious concepts. John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus as ‘the light of the world’. In today’s Gospel story, Jesus is somehow lit up by the presence of God. Moses experiences God in dazzling light. In a world of darkness, it is in the God of Jesus Christ where we understand what pure good and love is: a light which lights up a world of darkness.
To worship God, to experience God, is to be in the presence of that light which is the glory of God. Our readings today 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. In worship, we meet the dazzling, terrifying presence of God, the creator of the universe and the judge of us all: the light that lightens up our lives, which can transform the darkness of our world: the light of the glory of the creator of all the lights in heaven and earth.
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’.
In another church, as I got ready in the vestry, I noticed a Bible text in a frame. 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’.
On the other side of the vestry door was a congregation, expecting to that I would help them to see Jesus.
So, here we are now, at the gate of heaven, hoping to see Jesus! 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.
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.
When Moses came down from Sinai, he came with the Law of God for his people- a new revelation, the Law which would govern the people from now on. Moses met God, and Moses- and the world- was never the same again. The disciples went up the mountain, and they 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.
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
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 Jeremiah 10.1-5
 Luther, Large Catechism (1529); ODQ 505.10
 Genesis 28.17
 John 12.21