Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church
Worship Enriches our Life
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on 25th March 2007, Fifth Sunday in Lent, by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Joshua 24:14-24 and Gal 2:15-21.
The primary purpose of Christian worship is to glorify God, to magnify God’s mighty acts. Central to God’s concern is the relationship between God and people: God shall be our God and we shall be God’s people. The focus of our worship is God: to God and for God; rather than for ourselves.
However, in the process of worshipping God with spirit and truth, our lives will be greatly enriched.
First of all, in worshipping God, we turn our life from the focus on “me” to the focus on God. Our perspective will be changed and our outlook greatly widened. We see more and we experience much more. It is just like from hiding in a ditch to sailing out in the harbour. In other words, if we are only concerned about ourselves: only our wants and wishes as well as our own benefits, our lives will be extremely poor.
No person is an island. We may not be fully aware that we are actually defined and our lives are enriched by other people who are around us. For instance, I am a husband, only because I have a wife. I am a father because I have a daughter. I am a professor in practical theology because I have a score of students who care to take the course I offer every semester. Without a wife, I am no longer a husband; without a daughter I shall not be a father and when no students are willing to take my courses, I can no longer be a teacher. In the most profound way, my wife, my daughter and my students define who I am and what I do as a husband, father and teacher. They also greatly enrich my life. Can you imagine how poor I will become if one day I lose them? As a matter of fact, my life is consistently enriched by a host of other people, such as my relatives, friends and colleagues. They include of course a great many people whom I have never met. I think of road sweepers, garbage collectors, etc. in the village where my wife and I live, namely Mau Ping San Tsuen in Po Lo Che.
People are related to one another. A person is a bundle of relationships. How can we not care for one another?
Similarly, all people are created and defined by God. As a fourth century great theologian St. Augustine once said, and I paraphrase, people could not find meaning and purpose in their life until they found God.
In worship, we build or rebuild our relationship with God. When we have restored our relationship with God, we can then relate to other people in a brand new way and will be enriched by them.
Worship does not only transform our mindset, from “me” centered to God-centered; it also helps us improve our life attitudes. In Confession when we face ourselves as well as God, we will undoubtedly realize our frailties and limitations over God’s boundless love and mercy. We will then become more humble. When we receive the Word of God; which is the Word of comfort and strength, a sense of gratitude from the bottom of our heart will emerge. Finally with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we decide to rededicate ourselves to God. Humility, gratitude and dedication are the most important attitudes in life.
First, Humility. Humility helps us cut across our pride and self-righteousness; which in turn enables us to relate to other people genuinely.
Second, Gratitude. The sense of gratitude in our heart can perform wonders. Oftentimes, we tend to take things for granted. As a result, we waste a lot of golden opportunities. On the other hand, if we have consistently an attitude of being grateful in whatever we have, we can seize every opportunity and turn impossible situations to possibilities and opportunities of personal growth.
Third, Dedication. We are prone to procrastinate and avoid making decisions. Consequently, we live a life devoid of purpose and meaning. The sense of dedication can transform our life totally: from floating on the water to sailing towards a destination.
Humility, Gratitude and Dedication are vital ingredients to a meaningful life. Worship can help us generate these attitudes in our life.
In worship, we realize that we are human beings created and loved by God. At the same time, we recognize that we are disconnected with God, with other people and with nature. Our life is full of brokenness. Yet at the same time, through worship, we are made whole by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
I am sure that you are aware that central to Christianity is the CROSS. All Christian institutions and buildings have at least one cross as their mark, some big and others small. Many Christians love to wear a necklace with a cross or to have the cross as an ornament of some sort. Every bishop has a rather big ring with a cross on it. Our Church has a lovely cross in the front entrance and another at the back wall. Many Gothic churches or cathedrals were built in the shape of a cross: with the chancel facing East, the nave facing west and a couple chapels on both sides. In most of the traditional churches, there are pictures, icons or even statues symbolizing the 14 stations of Jesus on the way to be crucified (or the via Dolorosa). We do not have the 14 stations in this Church, though in Lent, Maggie has hung several banners pointing to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Kowloon Union Church is a Church belonging to the Reformed tradition of the 16th Century. The reformers at the time insist that the Church was where the Word of God was preached and the Sacraments rightly administered. The divided chancel of our Church fully reflects this idea. In your left side of the chancel is the Lectern. This is where the Bible (or the Ancient Word of God) is read. On your right hand side where I am now standing is the pulpit. This is where the contemporary Word of God is preached or interpreted. Right in the middle of the chancel is the Communion Table. It is so called rather than labelled it as Altar because according to our tradition, Jesus Christ has once and for all made the sacrifice for us (c.f. Hebrews 7:27). We no longer need to have any further sacrifice and offerings of any kind. The Table is where the Holy communion is celebrated. It reminds us most of all Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love for us. Jesus’ vicarious suffering has shown us the ultimate way of salvation. So every time we come to the sanctuary to worship God, we are reminded that we have been made whole by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as represented by the Cross. The only way to express our wholeness is to decide to follow Jesus, to empty our life for the sake of other people, especially those in need.
This road to the cross, the via Dolorosa, is never easy. But Jesus Christ has set an example for us. Moreover, he is also our enabler only if we are willing. Jesus has promised to be with us when we decide to walk on that road.
Indeed, God will never allow us to walk alone. In the middle of my desk there is a small plaque about the famous “Footprint” by an anonymous author. It says,
“One night I had a dream.
I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord and across the sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonged to me and the other to the Lord.
When the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that many times along the path of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest time in my life. This really bothered me and I questioned the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you would walk with me all the way, but I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life there is only one set of footprints.”
“I don’t understand why in times when I needed you most, you should leave me.”
The Lord replied, “My precious precious child, I love you and I would never never leave you during your times of trial and suffering.”
“When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
Again in our Reformed Tradition, there are two sacraments, namely the Holy Communion and the Baptism. Sacraments are the visible signs of God’s grace. The bread and grape juice represent Jesus’ body sacrificed for us and the blood shed for us respectively. Likewise the water represents the total cleaning effect, so that after a person is baptised he/she will become a little Christ (I am paraphrasing Gal 2:20).
However, in the more traditional Churches, there are seven sacraments to symbolize God’s grace ever present throughout our life. First, Baptism: when a baby is born, the baby is baptised. The baby is accepted into God’s Church, being nurtured and brought up by the Christian community. Second, Confirmation: when the baby grows older, he/she is confirmed symbolizing he/she has reached adulthood. Third and fourth, Confessions and Eucharists. They are given and received weekly if not also daily. Then fifth and sixth, there are Marriage and Ordination (ordination symbolizes the people who have chosen to serve the Church full-time are married to the Church). Finally seventh, there is unction or oitment. This is the way to care for the sick; and for the people who are about to finish their life journey, the last rites. Whichever tradition Sacraments are a vital part of our worshipping life.
While there are a lot of spatial symbols in our Church centering around our Lord Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, reminding us about God’s unending love for us, we must not forget that the Church uses a great many symbols to indicate God’s grace is forever upon us. The Christian calendar we follow is a good illustration – Basically the Christian Year is divided into two halves. The first half is the Year of the Lord which begins with Advent and ends with Christ’s ascension. We celebrate the life of Jesus Christ and what he did for us with two centers: his birth (Christmas) and his crucifixion and resurrection (Easter). The second half of the year begins with Pentecost (10 days after the Ascension). This is the Year of the Church. After we commemorate and celebrate the life of Jesus Christ, we should then during the year of the Church duplicate what Jesus Christ did in this world. The Christian Year reminds us the time we have is also a tremendous gift from God. We should therefore try our best to use our time for God’s glory always.
Worship and worship setting are helpful pointers to us, guiding us how to live our life. We are encouraged to become like Jesus. This is the only way we can live an abundant life or a fulfilled life. It is not easy. Fortunately, we exist in a community called the Church where over the past hundreds of years, many of our foreparents have tried and succeeded. We are in full communion with these saints. This is one reason why we recite the ancient creeds, like the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed despite many of their symbols and words are archaic. In our church, we also encourage the congregation say the Lord’s prayer in our own language. All these remind us not only that many Christians have gone before us and indeed there are Christians all over the world, in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, in Oceana as well as the Americas. This universal and historic Church reflects the God we follow is the God of all history as well as the God of the oikoumene!
We come to worship God in spirit and in truth, i.e. to worship God with our whole life or total being. Therefore, the design of our worship is not only verbal: there are hymn singing and music. But more importantly there are periods of time for our silent reflection and meditation. These should provide each and everyone of us some personal space during worship. This space is precious, because it enables us to participate in worship in our own way.
So let us from now on come and worship God reverently and as frequently as possible in spirit and in truth. We worship God for God’s glory. But in doing so, our own life is greatly enriched.
Worship Directs the Church’s Mission
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on 18th March 2007, Fourth Sunday in Lent, by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Psalm 146 and II Corinthians 5:11-21
“Come to me, you will live” pleaded Yahweh through an 8th Century BCE prophet, Amos (5:6). The reality is that ever since the beginning of time, human beings desired and decided to turn away from God. That is why in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, which literally means the Beginnings or the origins, there were four stories of human fall, namely, “Adam and Eve” in chapter3; “Cain and Abel” in chapter 4; “The Flood” in chapters 6-9 and “The Tower of Babel” in chapter 11, after the two accounts of God’s creation (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:4a the “P” account and 2:4b-25 the “J” account). All these four stories of human sin have one thing in common, human beings are not satisfied to be human beings. They or rather we do not want to be obedient to God. We want to challenge God and want to play God ourselves. In worship, we consciously or intentionally “go to the Lord”, alluded Amos (5:4). According to the pietists, “Go to the Lord” implies that we come nearer to God and that we are dearer to God.
Indeed in worship, we are in communion with God. In this communion, it is much more than we adore God and praise God, though these are essential elements in worship. Worship is not merely a one-way traffic: we to God. Worship is a two-way traffic: we to God; and God to us as well. For instance, in our three-act worship: The first act is Confession. In confession, we confess to God all our short-comings as well as the human frailty. The second act is the reception of God’s Word. God’s Word comes to us through the reading of the Bible and the listening of the sermon. The third act is offertory. We offer ourselves to God for God’s service and the service of God’s total creation.
Moreover, in each of the three acts, the same two-way traffic between God and human beings applied.
For example in the Confession act. God through the priest or minister calls us to confess. Then we confess to God all our apostasies and unfaithfulness to God. This is to be followed by the absolution or God’s forgiveness and the words of comfort. Likewise in the second act of hearing the Word of God, it is preceded by our preparation in opening not only our minds, but also our hearts to God and to be followed by our statement of faith by reciting the Creed. In the third act of offertory, we listen to the concerns of the church or the demands of God. We answer God’s call by intercessions and particularly by once again dedicate our life to God. This is to be followed by God’s commission and blessings to us.
So worship is our dialogue with God. Through this dialogue we, the Church, reforms and refocus our life and work. We become clearer about God’s will in the world and God’s demand on us. The mission of the Church or our mission becomes the Missio Dei or God’s Mission.
Central to God’s Mission is God’s Salvation to all of humanity. God calls us to witness to God’s love and justice, especially through service and in fellowship with those in need.
The Church does not only have a mission of witness (Marturia), service (diakonia) and fellowship (koinonia); the whole church is a mission. Church and mission exist together. Just as there is no fire without burning; a church does not exist without a mission.
In worship, we do not only seek God’s will, but also seek God’s empowerment to carry out God’s will.
In worship, we become clearer about the directions of the mission of our church. In confession, we understand that not only we but also all human beings are alienated from God, separated from one another and above all from our own self. Our life is full of brokenness. So the mission of the church, our mission, is to try to connect people to one another and especially to God. For indeed this is the core of the Gospel of Reconciliation; and this is the task God has given to the church. Let me quote Apostle Paul: “God reconciled us to himself through Christ and He gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (II Cor 5:18).
The Word of God demands us, the Church, to correct the human pride and selfishness. People always want to get more than they deserve. Is this the major cause of dessertification and deforestration? Our excessive and careless use of natural resources as well as our excessive and careless emission of carbon dioxide are the major causes of climate change and global warming, which in turn bring forth endless natural disasters causing tremendous human pain and suffering. Our indifference and silence of allowing the powerful to gain what they do not really deserve is the fundamental cause of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. We, the Church, need to correct all this so that this world may become a better place for all people, especially the future generations, to live and enjoy.
The Act of Offertory not only consolidates our will to be in line of God’s will; but especially strengthen us so that we have the wisdom, courage and power to carry out God’s will to connect people wherever they may be; to correct the many forms of injustices in this world as well as to consolidate or to strengthen the weak and the faint-hearted.
Worship drives us to change our mindset: from indifference to concern; so that we can heed God’s demand on us.
When we worship, we should always remember that we are not doing it for ourselves. But rather, we represent the whole Church to worship God. The Church has the responsibility to care for God’s entire creation. It is only in worshipping God that full humanity, i.e. human beings in full communion with God is preserved.
This kind of representational act has a long history even in the Old Testament times. For example, Job was a rich and righteous person. One day he lost everything: his home, his kins as well as all his possessions. In God’s servant as depicted in the fourth servant song as found in Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12, he also suffered. Let me read part of this song,
“Many people were shocked when they saw him; he was so disfigured that he hardly looked human.
“He endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne.
“All the while we thought that his suffering was punishment sent by God.
“But because of our sins he was wounded, beaten because of the evil we did.
“We are healed by the punishment he suffered, made whole by the blows he received.
“All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going our own way.
“But the Lord made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved.
“The Lord says, it was my will that he should suffer; his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness.
“My devoted servant, with whom I am pleased, will bear the punishment of many and for his sake I will forgive them….”
Jeremiah, considered to be the prophet of the prophets also suffered immensely. As he asked his secretary Baruch to write down, “Yahweh has further added grief to my troubles” (c.f. Jer. Ch. 45).
Job, God’s servant as depicted is II Isaiah as well as Jeremiah suffered. Yet they did not suffer because of any wrongs they had committed, invoking God’s punishment on them. As a matter of fact they suffered because they decided to bear the sufferings and pains of many people. As a noted Old Testament scholar H. Wheeler Robinson in his book published in 1955 entitled “The Cross in the Old Testament” rightly pointed out, these servants of God represented the people who ought to be punished and suffered. In other words, on behalf of the suffering people, these God’s servants suffered. God uses this “vicarious suffering” as a vital means of salvation. Indeed this was what God himself did. Through incarnation, God in Jesus Christ was put on a cross, the symbol of utter humiliation, pain and suffering. Because of this, Jesus Christ was able to save the humankind from total disorientation. This was what Apostle Paul said,
“through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through the son’s death on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven.” (Col. 1:20)
This idea of representational or vicarious act was further elaborated by Paul in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 5:12-21, he used the Second Adam (or Adam and Christ) as an illustration. According to Paul, Adam rebelled against God by eating “the fruit of the tree which gives knowledge of everything” and which God specifically forbade him to eat (c.f. Gen 2:17). This act of disobedience was not only the origin of human pride and disobedience to God; but also it symbolizes or represents the human nature which is in all of us. For like Adam, we are all prone to put ourselves first and God last in all our deliberations and decisions. We very seldom honour God and God’s commandments. But on the other hand, Jesus was utterly obedient to God, and as Paul’s letter to the Philippines stated: Jesus was obedient even unto death, and death on a cross (c.f. the most famous Christological Hymn as found in Phil. 2:6-11). Because of this act of absolute obedience to God, Jesus was able to restore full humanity which Adam dissipated or lost.
So whenever we come to worship, we are making a decision to take on the responsibility to represent all Christians, and the whole universal Church, and indeed the whole humankind to worship God. This perhaps is the most important task of the Church, especially of Kowloon Union Church. Furthermore, in coming to worship, we must decide to take on the responsibility to care and to intercede on behalf of all the suffering people in the world.
Worship provides directions for the mission of the Church. It directs all of us to become like Jesus, to be the vicars of our sisters and brothers, and to bear the burden of the whole world which is in calamitous need.
Let us pray.
Holy God, you care for every person and everything you have created. Help us turn back to you so that we may be strong and serve you and your creation. (c.f. Is. 30:15). Amen.
Worship Beyond the Sanctuary
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on 11th March 2007, Third Sunday in Lent, by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Amos 5:21-27 and Mark 16:9-20.
Lent is a season for us to re-examine our relationship with God. Worship does help us to focus. For worship is for God and God only. In worship, we have only one purpose; to glorify God, or to put it more plainly, to manifest God’s mighty acts. Therefore, the highest point in any traditional worship is Te Deum Laudamus: to laud or to magnify God’s glory. In order to do that, we have to worship in the appropriate manner. This is to safeguard that we are not doing something for ourselves, according to our likes or dislikes.
Another important theme for lent is repentance. Repentance means to turn back. We may or may not be aware most of our lives have become “me” - centered now. We need to turn back to “God” - centered. Actually, that was the original purpose of God’s creation.
“God created man, the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27)
As human beings we must be like God who is the God of Love and Justice; who is also the God of Peace (c.f. I Cor. 14:33).
Likewise, in wanting to learn more about Christian worship, we must go back to its origins. This is what we plan to do in this year’s Lenten Sundays. We shall have a good look at Christian worship, tracing its origins and foundations. Hopefully through this venture, we will find our worship more meaningful so as to allow worship to really empower our life.
Two Sundays ago, we reflected on God as the focus of our worship. God only must we worship. Last Sunday we reflected on: in worship, we discern and dramatize God’s mighty acts. God acts in history as well in our midst. After we have reflected on Who do we worship, and What is worship, this Sunday we will reflect on Where do we worship. Is worship in the sanctuary sufficient?
First of all, God is not only the God inside the Church; though throughout the centuries, people built great churches and cathedrals to symbolize God’s presence. In reality, God is the God of the whole universe. So extolled the psalmist of ancient times,
“For Yahweh is a great God, a king greater than all the gods. In his power and the depths of the earth, the peaks of the mountains are his; the sea belongs to him, for he made it, and the dry land, moulded by his hands.” (Ps. 95:3-5)
Of course, we must glorify God, and magnify God’s holy name in our sanctuaries. But at the same time we should not and cannot ignore the fact that there is massive human suffering in every corner of the world. Undoubtedly these will discredit God and will bring God’s name into disrepute. Moreover, wars, famines, social injustices; and any forms of exploitation, discrimination and suppression are all inconsistent with God’s will.
The Roman Catholic Church in the past decade has decided to combat poverty. For according to its teaching, poverty causes people of untimely death and deprives people of basic human dignity. As human beings bear the image of God, poverty of any form mutilate the image of God or defaces God so to speak.
God is the God of the oikoumene, or the whole inhibited earth. God loves whoever and whichever God creates. The Anglican collect for Ash Wednesday (a collect is a short prayer to collect our thoughts on a particular occasion) put it in this way, “God hates nothing that God has made.” To put it in another way, “God loves everything and especially every human being.”
That explains why the Israelites believed that God never turned away from human suffering.
“I cry to God in distress
I cry to God and God hears me.” (Ps. 27:1)
(God said) If you call to me in time of trouble, I will rescue you.” (Ps. 50:15)
This was how the faith in God of the Israelites began. It all began when they were in Egypt being suppressed and were suffering,
“God said, I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard their crying for help on account of their task-master. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings. Therefore, I shall come down to rescue them.” (Ex 3:7f).
God was always aware of our suffering. Again, as the psalmist wrote,
“For God has not despised nor disregarded the poverty of the poor, has not turned away his face, but has listened to the cry for help.” (Ps. 22:34)
In human history we have seen time and again that God was not only aware of human suffering, God also responded in God’s own way to all human miseries and pain.
This world is in calamitous need. Poverty is the number one problem in the world. According to the reports by the various agencies of the United Nations, one billion people have less than one American dollar to live on each day; more than 10% of the people in the world go to bed hungry at night. They have no clean water and/or
displaced. Most of them do not have a safe shelter. One in five children in this world is deprived of any form of school education. Many of these children have lost one or both parents. Are we aware of the plight of the millions of God’s children? Are we aware that many of our sisters and brothers are struggling hard just to survive?
As Christians we have a responsibility to glorify God. As Paul admonished the early Christians, “Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.” (I Cor. 10:31, c.f. Col. 3:17). To turn a blind eye to all these calamities and human suffering is the same as to turn away from God. So as responsible Christians, to worship God or to glorify God in the sanctuary is far from enough. This was how Amos, an Israelite prophet of the 8th Century BCE interpreted God’s will:
“I hate, I scorn your festivals, I take no pleasure in your solemn assemblies. When you bring me burnt offerings, your oblations, I do not accept them and I do not look at your communion sacrifices of fat cattle. Spare me the din of your chanting, let me hear none of your strumming of lyres, but let justice flow like water, and uprightness like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24).
God demands our good work in the world more than our devotion and our worship inside the church.
Another contemporary prophet Hosea struck the same tune:
“For faithful love is what pleases me, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not burnt offering.” (Hosea 6:6)
To have knowledge in God is more than to know God’s will. It implies that we try our best to manifest God’s will or to witness God’s love, justice and salvation for all in our word as well as in our deed.
Likewise, to have faithful love implies that we do not only love God with all our soul, all our mind and all our heart; but also to love our neighbours as ourselves. This is the core of the Holiness Code as found in Leviticus 17-26 as well as the summary of the Law. (c.f. Mt. 22:37-40).
To love God and to love our neighbours, especially those in need are equally important. To-day, too many Christians only know God conceptually but pay little or no attention to our suffering sisters and brothers. In other words if we concentrate our worshipping life only inside the Church, our faith becomes hollow and meaningless. One of the early Christian letters put it in this way:
“Anyone who says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brothers, is a liar, since no one who fails to love the brother whom he can see can love God whom he has not seen.” (I Jn. 4:20)
When we say we love God, we must pay special attention to the weak and the young. For this is how Jesus taught his disciples.
“See that you never despise any of these little ones, for the Son of Man has come to save what was lost. Tell me. Suppose a man has a hundred sheep and one of them strays; will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go in search of the stray? In truth, I tell you, if he finds it, it gives him more joy than do the ninety-nine that did not stray at all. Similarly, it is never the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. (Mt. 18:10-14).
The primary purpose of worshipping God is to glorify God. So to worship God only in the sanctuary is far from adequate. We must also glorify God outside the church. To worship God is to serve God. That is why many church traditions label their Sunday worship as Sunday service. To serve God and to serve all human beings whom God loves are two sides of the same coin. Worship God in the sanctuary must be extended to serve God in the whole world.
One of my former teachers Joseph Matthews used to say that worship in the sanctuary is the rehearsal of serving God and all humanity in the world. Of course we must take this rehearsal sincerely. Long time ago, I went to hear a rehearsal of the Boston Pop. Since it was a rehearsal, musicians did not wear black tie. However they still charged exorbitant entrance fees. All I noticed was that during the entire rehearsal the conductor and all musicians were dead serious. So must we. We must take our Sunday worship with utmost seriousness. Only then can we be serious at our daily life as the salt and the light in the world.
Worship in the sanctuary can never be isolated from what is going on in the world. I have come across a church in Stamford, Connecticut. It has only glass walls. Symbolically, all passer-bys could see what’s going on inside the sanctuary. In the same way, worshippers could not ignore what was going on outside the sanctuary. I have also come across a Roman Catholic Church in Metro Manila which went one step further. It has no walls at all. It has only a roof. The pews are arranged in a circle. In the middle is the altar or the communion table. In the local church where I served in the 1960s, there was a big world map at the back of the sanctuary.
The Church cannot be separated from the world. In all worship services, preaching, intercessory prayers and concerns of the church can never be devoid of what is going in the world.
Few churches pay attention to the ending of a worship service. Most end will be a benediction. No, all worship services must end with a commission. The commission helps us to connect the church to the society; to connect our worshipping life to our life of service at home, in our work, or our mission. The commission does not have to be lengthy. The following sentence is sufficient: “After you have worshipped God in the sanctuary, you are now sent out in the world, to continue to serve God and God’s creation in your daily life.” This brief commission does not only remind us, but also drives us to live a life of continuing service to God and all humanity. The end of our act of worship in the sanctuary is the beginning of our service in the world.
Just as Jesus’ commission to his disciples, all commissions end with a blessing or a promise of God’s power. This is a powerful reminder that we are not alone, whatever we do God is with us. Our life and our mission are never our own. Emmanuel, God is with us. Our mission is God’s as well. That is why it is called com-mission, since “Com” means together. God is together with us in doing God’s Mission. The commission at the end of the worship service will not only give us a sense of purpose and direction of life; but also strength and wisdom to live our life as well.
Worship Dramatizes God’s Mighty Acts
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on 4th March 2007, Second Sunday in Lent, by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Hosea 11:1-12 and Romans 1:18-25.
In this Lenten Season, I suggest we concentrate on Christian Worship in our thoughts. Last Sunday, we reflected on the only focus of worship is “God”: God alone must we worship. In worship, we must give our undivided attention to God. In worship, it is to God and for God; rather than to and for ourselves. It is absolutely pagan if we come to worship merely to look for our spiritual welfare and benefits; and according to our likes and dislikes.
God only shall we worship. The God we worship is not a concept for theologians to investigate. God is not even a supreme being high above, gives blessings to people at his whims and turns a blind eye to human suffering and injustices. “No” to all this. God is the God who cares and acts. “My Father still goes on working; and I am at work too,” so says our Lord Jesus Christ! (Jn 5:17).
One of the most important pillars of the history of the Jewish people is the “Exodus Event”. In fact this Exodus Event is the core of their creed (c.f. Deut 6:21b-25; 26:5b-9; Joshua 24:2-13); their historical psalms (such as Ps 68, 105 etc.); and their important prayer in the temple (Neh 9:5b-31). This is also how the Ten Commandments (or Ten Words) started, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of Egypt”. (Ex 20:1). [In fact, according to Judaism, this is the very first and most important commandment of God. The rest of the commandments are the extension of this first commandment.]
The Exodus Event was an historical event which happened approximately 3,300 years ago. Many Israelites had settled in Egypt. After Joseph, they were gradually treated as slaves by the Egyptians. Finally around 1,250 BCE, God sent Moses to lead them out of Egypt: from the land of bondage to the wilderness in the Sinai Peninsula. From this event, the Israelite sages came to realize how God acts in human history. Out of Love, God always directs human beings from bondage to freedom; from no people to people; from meaninglessness in life to a life full of purpose and meaning; from brokenness to wholeness; from darkness to light. In a word, from CHAOS to ORDER. This was also how these sages described God’s creation. To them, God’s creation was not so much “creatio ex nihilo” or creation out of nothing; but rather it is from chaos to order. Let us look at Genesis 1:1-2:4a, the so called “P” account of the creation myth. In Gen 1:1, we read, “When God began to create heaven and earth, it was formless and void”. God then decided to put some order into this chaotic situation stage by stage. That explains why in every stage or epoch of God’s creation, it was specifically stated that “God saw that it was good”. (repeated 7 times, in Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25 and 31). Here “good” means perfect or wholesome in terms of an order.
The Exodus Event has become the symbol of God’s deliverance of people either corporately or individually from Chaos to order. It has become the locus about how God acts in human history. Gerhard von Rad, one of the most important Biblical scholars in the last century called the Israelite history as recorded in the Old Testament as Heilsgeschichte or Salvation History. Indeed the Israelites later understood that God’s salvation plan was not for Israel only. But rather, God chose Israel as God’s servants to declare God’s salvation to all humankind.
The Exodus Event was never meant to explain things in the past. God’s salvation is forever present. As my faculty adviser and professor B. Davie Napier pointed out, there is only “isness” in the Old Testament. Indeed the message in the Old Testament concerning God’s purpose and mighty acts applies to all peoples in all ages: past, present and future.
This was also how Hosea, a prophet of Israel in the 8th Century BCE understood the meaning of history of his people. In the Old Testament reading this morning, Hosea outlined God’s mighty acts in a 3-act drama:
The first act: God called the Israelites from Egypt, the land of bondage; gathered them together and eventually gave them a purpose of living as a people. However, the Israelites turned away from or even turned against God. They started to follow many idols which included Baal. Consequently they should go back to the land of bondage. This time the land of bondage was Syria, rather than Egypt. (vss 1-7).
The second act: However, God’s love was stronger than vengeance and punishment. God would save them again and the Israelites would return from exile (vss 8-9).
The third act: After the delivance; the people of Israel would follow God again. (vss 10-11).
This was known later as the 3-act drama of God’s might acts: creation, redemption and continuing sustenance. Indeed this 3-act drama of God’s mighty acts did not only reflect in the history of Israel, but also in the history of humankind as well. It reflects time and again God calls people into meaningful existence through His Word, through ancient prophets and ultimately through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, God incessantly calls people to participate in His Saving Acts.
The early Roman Christians introduced the Trinity or the triune God: God the Father as the Creator; God the Son as the Redeemer; as well as God the Holy Spirit as the Sustainer to describe God’s mighty acts in the richest possible manner.
In worship, we re-enact God’s mighty acts. Christian worship has its origin in Judaism. Worship as recorded in the Old Testament was sometimes lengthy but simple. It centered around in the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments and the reciting of the Creed; the singing of psalms; the reading of a portion of the Law (or the Pentateuch) and exposition or teaching of it; and finally a series of prayers. A good example can be found in Nehemiah chapter 9. This form of Jewish worship became clearer as we read God’s call of Prophet Isaiah as found in Isaiah chapter 6. It began with Praise: “Holy, Holy, Holy; The Lord almighty is holy; His glory filled the whole earth” (vs.3); then Confession: “There is no hope in me. My lips are not clean.” (vs.5); Absolution: a seraph used a burning coal to touch Isaiah’s lips (vs.6). Finally God’s commission and Isaiah’s response, vss 8 and following).
Worship in the New Testament basically followed worship in the Old Testament with the addition of the preaching on the Kerygma or the crucifixion and the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
It was Emperor Constantine who declared Christianity as the state religion of his Roman Empire in 323AD added many of the court rituals and made Christian worship, that is, the Byzantine liturgy or the divine liturgy of the Orthodox Church as well as the Latin Mass of the Roman Catholic Church very elaborate to this day.
Since the Reformation of the Church in the 16th Century, Christian worship became more and more pluralistic. Unfortunately while some have gradually lost some of the essential elements of Christian worship; many have become very homo-centric or human centred rather than theo-centric or God-centered.
We are reminded by apostle Paul that God is not the God of disorder. Rather God is the God of harmony and order (I Cor. 14:33). So must Christian worship which tries to glorify God. All genuine worship must have an appropriate order or form. Without an appropriate form we can easily fall into the “do as I please” pit. The form of Christian worship must also comprehensively reflect God’s mighty acts. Otherwise we may fall into the trap of reducing God into just “my personal god”.
Almost all great European composers in the 18th and 19th centuries like Mozart, Bach and Bethoven had written at least one mass of some kind. All these masses had a fixed form. It consists of the Kyrie (or Lord have mercy); Gloria; Credo (or the Creed), Sanctus (or holy, holy, holy…) and Beneditus (or Blessed are you Lord God) and finally Agnes Dei (or the Lamb of God). Needless to say, all these brilliant master-pieces have one thing in common: God’s magesty and human frailty.
So Christian worship cannot be just singing a few favourite hymns, reading a couple of Biblical passages, a lengthy exposition of the Bible, a series of prayers, etc. Christian worship must have an order or a form to express our adoration of God and God’s mighty acts.
As you probably notice all worship services on Sundays at Kowloon Union Church consist of three acts: the First act is confession. In confession, we confess once again God is our God. Yet in our daily life, we often forget that we are not God; but rather we are only finite human beings. Our alienation with God gives rise to many forms of our “sins”. So we ask for God’s forgiveness. “Whenever we acknowledge our sins” says an early Christian letter of John “God will forgive us” (I Jn 1:8) or as Paul pointed out, “Whose sin increased, God’s grace increased much more” (Rom 5:20). So in the Christian thought, the confession of sins and absolution or the assurance of forgiveness go hand in hand.
The second act is the Word of God. In this act, we hear the ancient Word of God by the reading of both the Old and the New Testaments. We also hear the contemporary Word of God as we listen to the sermon. In preaching the Word of God, the preacher tries to interpret how God’s Word and hence God’s work is relevant to us to-day in our own situations. We then respond by confessing our faith in God by reciting the ancient Creed together. We recite the Nicene Creed on communion Sundays and the Apostles’ Creed on non-communion Sundays.
The third act is Offertory. In this vital act of offering, we do not only offer our concerns to God through prayers, but also offer our total life for the service of God and the whole humankind, especially the people in dire need.
In every first Sunday of the month, we also celebrate the Holy Communion. We give our full thanks to God not only for God’s Word, but also the Christ Deed of ultimate sacrificial love to each and everyone of us.
As I emphasized before, every worship should have a form or an appropriate order. This is normally called a liturgy. The Greek word lituorgia comes from two words, laos (or laity) and ergon (or work). Literally, it means people’s work. Yes, worship is God’s people at work. It has one and only one purpose, i.e. to reflect God’s work. So in final analysis, it is through worship that we learn and begin to participate in God’s work in this whole world.
Glory be to the triune God, the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer. Amen.
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