Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sermon for April 11, 2010

Praising the Passover Lamb

In his book The Source, James Michener tells the story of a man named Urbaal. Urbaal lived about 4200 years ago. He worshiped two gods, one a god of death, the other a goddess of fertility. One day, the temple priests tell Urbaal to bring his young son to the temple as a sacrificial victim to the fertility god . . . if he wants good crops. Urbaal obeys. On the appointed day, he drags his wife and boy to the scene of the boy’s sacred execution by fire. After the sacrifice of Urbaal’s boy the several others, the priests announce that one of the fathers will spend next week in the temple with a new temple prostitute. Urbaal's wife is stunned as she notices a desire written more intensely across his face than she had seen before. She is overwhelmed to see him eagerly lunge forward when his name is called. The ceremony over, she walks out of the temple. With her head swimming, she wonders, “If he had different gods, he would have been a different man?”

I have to confess, I have a hard time making it through Michener’s lengthy books. But, I like Michener’s perspective. Urbaal’s wife reminds us that worship shapes life. Whatever or whomever it is that you name as the greatest value–that defines who you are. Let’s look at another worship experience. This is from the vision of John the Seer in the Book of Revelation.
Then I looked again, and I heard the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne and of the living beings and the elders. And they sang in a mighty chorus:
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered—
to receive power and riches
and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and blessing.”
And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang:
“Blessing and honor and glory and power
belong to the one sitting on the throne
and to the Lamb forever and ever.”
And the four living beings said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped the Lamb (Rev. 5:5-11)

Do you ever wonder why we need to worship? I mean, why bother? Can’t we get along fine without it? A story is told about a young boy who was sitting with his mother in a morning worship service, bored to tears. Not much was keeping his attention, so his eyes began to roam the sanctuary, looking for something that would interest him. Soon his gaze fixed on a bronze plaque on that wall that was covered with stars, letters and an outline of the American flag. He couldn’t figure out what it meant, so he leaned over to his mother, pointed to the plaque and asked in a loud whisper, “Mom, what’s that thing over there?” She whispered back, “That’s a plaque in memory of those who died in the service.” After a long pause, the little boy, wide-eyed and anxious, nudged his mother again and asked her in a solemn tone, “Mom, just tell me one thing–did they die in the morning or evening service?

Have you ever felt that way–like sitting through another boring worship service would kill you? I have. If this is what worship is going to be like, can’t we just as well live without it? Sure, we go to church to see friends, or teach, or sing, or for any other number of commendable reasons. But if we don’t feel like we are meeting with God, it doesn’t seem worth it. It sounds dreadful to go to church just to tolerate another worship service. If God’s presence isn’t obvious at church, the main reason for attending is gone. So, why bother with worship?

Before we answer that, let’s understand what worship is. My definition goes something like this: worship is assigning the highest value to someone or something else. What consumes your thought time? Is there something you are obsessed with–so much so that it’s all you think about and all you crave? It’s probably something of tremendous worth to you. In a sense, whatever you thought of is something you worship. It doesn’t have to be God.

Some people worship the power of human reason. In other words, the human ability to be make objective, rational improvements has the highest value in the universe.

Some people worship self-sufficiency. That is, some consider the Self to be the highest good and that which is most worthy of praise.

Some people worship the power of technology. Some people assign the highest value to science, or psychology, or medicine.

Some people worship a dream. Some have a picture in their minds of what the future should look like. They spend so much time living in the future, they forget that there is some living to do right in the present. They unintentionally make their imaginings their highest value.

A lot of people worship that which makes them feel good at the moment. People become obsessed with personal delight. People begin to worship the things that bring the most individual gratification: sex, food, fantasy, alcohol, relationships, exercise, music, sports. The list could go on and on.

So, unless you value nothing, then everyone worships. The real question is, what does the object of your attention say about what you value the most? Whatever or whomever it is that you name as the greatest value–that defines who you are.

Robert Oppenheimer was the one man responsible for the development for the atomic bomb the United States used against Japan at the close of World War II. As a teacher at the California Institute of Technology, Oppenheimer was considered one of the top ten theoretical physicists in the world, specializing in the study of sub-atomic particles and gamma rays. From 1943 he began directing 4500 men and women at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Their sole purpose was to build an atomic bomb. Two years and two billion dollars later, they had successfully detonated the first atomic bomb. When he saw what he had made, Robert Oppenheimer underwent a radical reconsideration of his values. Upon seeing the first fireball and mushroom cloud, he quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am become death.” Two months later he resigned his position at Los Alamos and spent much of the remainder of his life trying to undo the damage, trying to get the genie of atomic weapons back in the bottle.

There are certain individuals who, in a flash, see that all they once valued is really of no lasting value at all. Their entire life has been turned on its head. Everything is upside down. Priorities change. Objects of desire shift around. They see with painful clarity that the very things they prized most in life can be, in reality, inexpensive novelties, or at worst, destructive achievements. Whatever or whomever it is that you name as the greatest value–that defines who you are.

Think about that as we turn back to Revelation 5. John describes a scene of worship pushed to the ultimate limits. In this passage the creation says, “Jesus, you have the greatest value of anyone or anything else, hands down, bar none.” The angels, and elders and creatures all say, “Jesus, you are worthy. YOU ARE WORTHY to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and blessing.”

Why worship? For one reason alone–because Jesus is worthy. Why is Jesus worthy? Because he is the Lamb.

This is one of the most important images in the whole book of Revelation. When all seems hopeless – when it seems like the power of evil gets the final word, John hears the roaring of a lion. Image what he feels when he hears that noise: the spine-chilling sound of a muscular and ferocious animal that has the ability to tear him limb from limb. When he turns to look at the lion, he is instantly surprised and confused. Instead of a lion, he actually sees a lamb, standing as thought it had been slain. God fulfills the hopes and needs of humanity, and we see it in the vision of a resuscitated lamb. Not a lion. A lamb. God’s power is not the kind of power that manipulates people to worship through fear and force. God’s power is the power of self-giving love. God wins people over by loving them and inviting them to choose a new life. All the forces of evil could not conquer love by killing Jesus the Lamb. Jesus conquered evil. He did not retaliate. He did it through non-coercive love.

Now remember I said that whatever it is that you ascribe the greatest value to–that defines who you are? I think that worshiping the Lamb defines you as a lamb. In other words, worshiping Christ defines you as a Christian – a follower of Christ’s ways. Worshiping Jesus demonstrates that you are a person who can put your trust in Christ, even in most dismal circumstances. You might have doubts along the way. But somewhere deep inside, you know that Jesus is worthy, and you value the self-giving love of Christ above anyone or anything else. The Lamb has power because the Lamb stood up. When the power of evil wanted to sit him down, the lamb lives as a resistant force – a symbol of resurrected defiance against that which wants to keep us tied to deadly ways. And the Lamb’s overcoming power is available to those who see his risen life as our highest value. We see the Lamb who was slain and we order our lives according to the values of God’s Kingdom. We see the Lamb who was slain and we live our days with inclusive love and compassion. We see the Lamb who was slain and we forgive as we have been forgiven; we show mercy as God has shown mercy. We see the Lamb who was slain and we remember that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love.

Why worship God? Because the Lamb is worthy! The Lamb is worthy of blessing and honor and glory and power, forever and ever.

In honor of the beginning of baseball season, here’s a little story from a couple of decades ago. In 1988 Orel Herschiser pitched an unbelievable season for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the World Series, his complete game victory over the Oakland A’s in game five clinched the series for the Dodgers. Orel was awarded the Cy Young award and two MVP awards, one for the National League and the other for the World Series.

During the play-offs, the TV cameras zoomed in on Orel in the dugout between innings singing softly to himself. Unable to make out the tune, the announcers merely commented that Orel’s record certainly gave him something to sing about. All of this to-do was over a fellow who was cut from his high school baseball team, who couldn’t make the traveling squad of his college team, who almost quit in the minors, who never quite looked the part he was trying to play.

Johnny Carson replayed the tape on the Tonight Show a few days later when Orel appeared as a guest. Johnny asked him what song he had been singing during the game and if Orel would sing it again right then and there. The audience roared its approval over Orel’s embarrassed reluctance. So, on national TV, Orel softly sang the words TV crews had barely caught on tape.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Praise him all creatures here below;
Praise him above ye heavenly host,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Orel Hershiser did what God’s people do. He was praising God. When it comes right down to it, nothing or nobody else can do what Jesus does for you. Human ingenuity is not going to save you. Medicine might prolong life, but it won’t give you the new and abundant life that Jesus promises. Seeking pleasure only brings temporary enjoyment before one needs to seek the next thrill. But I promise you, nobody else is going to do for you what Jesus did. Nobody else is going to love you like Jesus does. Nothing else is going to gratify like Jesus. To me, that gives Jesus the highest value. The Christ, the Lamb is worthy of praise.

Paul Basden in The Worship Maze (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 15.
http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a z/v/values.htm
William Barclay, Jesus as They Saw Him (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 311.
Ted Grismund, Triumph of the Lamb (Scottsdale: Herald Press, 1987), 55-56.
Brain Blount, ed., True to Our Native Land, An African American NT Commentary, 533.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Sunday, 2010 -- "Startled, but Not Scared"

I usually preach with a full manuscript. This Easter sermon was more of an improvisational-style sermon. I scribbled an outline on a piece of paper and spoke from my heart. There is no manuscript -- but you can listen in the player below. There are a few more sermon PodCasts in the player on the left pane --mbb

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