Text: Psalm 24
We are coming now to the end of our study of the Seven Words of Worship that we began back in July. We have looked at worship through the lenses of Creation, Grace, Love, Response, Expression, and Presence. Today we come to the seventh and final word of our study: Experience. In this word of worship, we are reminded that worship should above all else be both an experience of God and an experience with God.
What do we mean when we say that we have experienced something? We talk about having experiences all of the time. We can experience a roller coaster. We can experience a tornado or hurricane. We can experience a mission trip. We can experience moments of national pride, such as the first man to walk on the moon, or national catastrophe, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attacks of September 11, 2001. Employers consistently look for someone with experience, sometimes as little as a year, but sometimes they look for experience measured in decades. As the race for the GOP nomination for president really heats up, one of the looming issues between the various candidates will be whether they have the necessary experience to handle the responsibilities of the presidency.
So what is the common connection among these varied happenings that define them as an experience? When we talk of an experience, we are necessarily speaking about something that is outside of routine, outside of the ordinary, different from what the bulk of humanity regularly experiences as their day. A tornado or hurricane is an experience, because they are abnormalities. The Virginia earthquake of some days ago was an experience – different than we expect. September 11, 2001, was an experience for those of us who were alive in America that day, because it was something that shattered our understanding and views of the world in which we live.
Experiences also have another common denominator. Experiences change us. The reason that prospective employers look for someone with experience is because that experience will change the potential employee. Experience teaches skills, abilities, and ways of thinking that will particularly equip the new employee for the job opening in a way that someone without the same experience would not have had.
We who witnessed the crash and fall of the Twin Towers simply cannot look at air travel in the same way. Anyone who lives through a tornado or hurricane looks at weather a different way than they did before their event. We pass through experiences and wind up different as a result. So an experience is something that is, for one, out of the ordinary, and two, it is something that changes and shapes us in a way to make us somehow different than we were before we had the experience.
Sometimes the very ordinary in our lives become experiences. We may have witnessed or completed it hundreds or thousands of times, but suddenly the mundane becomes something more: an experience.
The sun rises and sets each day without fail. But every now and then a sunrise or sunset is an experience that shapes us. Perhaps it is the people we are with when we witness it. Perhaps it is the struggle of the day of getting to the spot where the sunset is so spectacular. Perhaps it is the people who are missing whom we remember as we watch the sun come up or go down. Whatever the trigger is, on occasion a sunrise or sunset becomes a moment that changes us. We understand something new or deeper about life than we grasped before. Our view of our future is suddenly shaken into a new direction by an everyday occurrence.
What is true of sunrises and sunsets can be true of anything. A cup of coffee can become an experience if something about it is exceptional. A meal can be described as an experience as we taste certain foods in a new and exciting way. A conversation with a friend, perhaps a friend we have spent decades with, can reshape our whole worldview. In times like these, suddenly the ordinary transforms into the extraordinary. The mundane becomes the sublime. In spiritual terms, we might say that the profane becomes the sacred.
What if it were possible to take any given moment and transform it in to such an experience? What if each breath brought us a challenge, a change? What if every moment was filled with a richness that we could barely swallow, barely contain, barely grasp? What if Moses’ burning bush and Elijah’s still, small voice and Peter’s, “You are the Christ, the Son of God,” were not abnormalities in our lives, but instead regular occurrences that filled every moment with the fullness of God? What if our experiences of God were not limited to retreat centers, conferences, and occasional spirited Sunday morning worship times? What if we dared allow ourselves to surrender fully to worship God in all things, in all times? What if we truly experienced God with every breath?
This is the goal, the challenge I want to present to us today. Our worship should not be routine, ordinary, and uninspired. Our worship should be challenging. Our worship should be experiences of the Divine, the Holy Other dwelling in our midst. Our worship should challenge us, destroy us, and recreate us into something new and different as we encounter God.
And this kind of worship should happen routinely, like sunrises and sunsets, like breathing in and breathing out. What would it take for us to experience God like this regularly in worship? What would it take to encounter God as we worship together corporately and as you and I worship individually? What does it take to have worship experiences that shape us and prepare us for the challenges that God has for us this day, this moment?
I see five steps or preparations we can take in order to allow ourselves this kind of unbridled connection with God that finds a worship experience in each thing, as Brother Lawrence was able to find a worshipful encounter with God each time he cleaned the dishes for his fellow monks.
First, we need to trust. We need to trust that God is God. And we need to trust God enough that we obey Him, that we do the things that He wants us to do and tells us to do. For me, the Bible’s greatest display of unbridled trust in God is found in the account of Abram who would become Abraham. Abram lived in Haran with his father, Terah. They had lived in Ur, but had moved up to Haran. While there, God told Abram to leave his friends, his family, all of the business connections he had established in Haran, and to go from there to an unknown land that God promised He would eventually show to Abram. Just up and leave, with no other clear direction other than to not remain where he was. And, in what is amazing at least to me, Abram does just that. He takes his wife, his possessions, and his servants and he leaves, pursuing an unknown God. He winds up wandering around the Fertile Crescent, into Egypt, and eventually back to Canaan, all without knowing where he was to go when he set out.
Even more remarkable is the trust in God that Abraham showed in Genesis 22, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice the very child of promise that was to bring to Abraham descendants whose number would rival the number of stars in the sky or grains of sand on the seashore. Again, Abraham acted. He obeyed. Peter, Andrew, James, and John likewise obeyed Jesus when he told them to drop their nets and to follow Him instead, promising to make them fishers of men. They left their livelihoods in order to follow an itinerant preacher.
When have you blindly obeyed God lately? What is He telling you to do that seems crazy to even contemplate? If we are unwilling to obey God, then we have no hope of experiencing God in the great fullness that Abraham and Jesus’ disciples did. We must trust God enough to obey what He tells us to do.
Second, we need to commit to seeking God. Speaking to the people of Judah after they had been captured and exiled across the lands by the Babylonian Empire, Jeremiah prophecies this in Jeremiah 29:10-14:
“For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”
Jesus offered his own promise: Matthew 6:33 says, “But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” He was speaking of things like shelter, clothes, and food. Things we were not to worry over. Instead, we are to commit to seeking God. When we do that, Jeremiah promises that we will find God, and Jesus says that God will make sure we have the things we need. In Matthew 7:7 Jesus would go on to say, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
We are good at seeking. We just aren’t always good at seeking God. The question is, if you are not seeking God, what else are you spending your time searching for? Riches? Glory? Vacation? Retirement? Financial security? Pleasure? Solomon tried all of those things and more and found in Ecclesiastes that they were all lacking. They were the vanity of vanities, a mere chasing after the wind.
In place of chasing after all of these misguided things the Preacher offers this counsel at the end of the book: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Do you hear it? It’s just what Jeremiah and Jesus also said: seek God! Commit to chasing after God, and you might be surprised the great and awesome things He accomplishes on your behalf of which you could not even dream or fathom.
So first we trust God enough to obey Him. Second, we commit to seeking after God and whatever He has for us. Third, we keep our focus on Jesus. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says in chapter 12, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” The writer had just recounted many of the heroes of the faith from the Old Testament, those being the witnesses he speaks of in 12:1.
But then he says this: don’t let anything stop you from the race that we are on to God. Focus your attention on what lays ahead, the challenge of faith that we must endure to the end. Focus all of your energies on this one task of pursuing God, of seeking God, of obeying God. Put all of your body, mind, and emotions to the goal of reaching Christ. Focus on Christ, and in focusing you will find yourself experiencing God in worship more than you ever have previously. To experience God in worship, focus all of your attention on Him.
Fourth, if we are to have regular experiences of worshiping God that challenge and transform us into all Christlikeness, we must expect such encounters to take place. We evangelical Christians are good at remembering to expect Christ’s second coming. Harold Camping exploited that in his May 21 prediction. We thrive on books like Tim LeHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series. We love to hear and talk about the end times and the promise of God’s coming again to establish His rule and His kingdom. We expect that, as we rightly should, and as the Bible commands us to expect it.
But do we expect to really, truly encounter God when we show up for church or Sunday school each week? Do we expect to encounter God in the sunrise or sunset? In the thunderstorm? On the evening news? In the mundane routines of life? It’s easy to neglect God in the everyday normal. I challenge you to not fall into that trap. God is almighty, and God is omnipresent. It is in the very mundane, ordinary elements of life that we can most regularly and closely encounter and experience God.
Seek God out and expect to find him. Come to church to worship God together expecting to encounter the Holy Other and be challenged and changed by Him even as Isaiah was in Isaiah 6. Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ words hold true. If we look for God, we will find Him. We must simply look and expect to find. There is no way that we can experience God in worship at any time if we are not looking for Him to make an appearance. If we only attend a service out of habit or a feeling of obligation, we will miss God’s presence entirely. We must expect Him. We must look for Him. We must wait for Him. An amazing experience of worship will happen when our expectation looks for it.
Finally, allow yourself to freely express your worship. You have trusted and obeyed, you have sought, you have focused, and you have expected. So let go and let yourself fully worship God when you do encounter him. 2 Samuel 6 records two attempts by David to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. On the first attempt, the law was not followed and Uzzah died for daring to attempt to prevent the ark from falling. But on the second attempt, the people obeyed God’s ordinances, and the Ark came to Jerusalem. Scripture records that “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” Such was his dancing that Michal, David’s wife, was embarrassed for him and despised him.
David didn’t care. He abandoned himself to the joy and power of the moment of worshiping God. We should do the same. So often we fall into the trap of caring what other people think of us when we worship God, and we limit ourselves to what is socially acceptable. It was not acceptable for a king to wildly dance wearing only a linen ephod, as David did in 2 Samuel 6. He did it anyway.
Worship is made to an audience of One: it is to God and God alone. Whatever you need to do in order to worship God in this present moment, abandon yourself to it. Allow yourself to fully know and experience God, whatever it brings you to do. Shout, weep, dance, sit, stand, bow prostrate on the floor, raise your hands, be silent, hug someone else. Whatever your expression needs to be, do it.
Then we will experience God. Then our worship will be life changing as the experience alters us and we become more like Christ, abandoning ourselves utterly and completely to God, offering our bodies as the living sacrifices that Paul pleads for the Romans (and the rest of us) to do in Romans 12.
How is your worship? When was the last time that you truly experienced God in a moment of worship? Do you long to do so again? Worship should always be an experience. There should be nothing normal about encountering God. There should be nothing safe about it. Trust. Seek. Focus. Expect. Abandon. And above all, worship.