Worship changes things; we might find that a self obvious statement or one which is totally puzzling – after all we gather here to worship week after week and many of us have been doing that for a very long time. Some of you started coming to this church before you were born and, consequently, worship is part of your DNA. Worship changes things.
In worship we experience God who meets us in many different ways. We may find different aspects of the service more awe-some than others. Some connect with God through the music, others through the silence; some with the proclamation of the readings from ancient texts, others from the exposition of those readings in the sermons. Some find God in the wee video reflections, others in the sense of God answering our prayers and others yet as we receive bread and wine together as we find Jesus has become real for us again and again. Our experience of worship, however, changes things – after all if it didn’t why would we do it?
Isaiah and Nicodemus
In our passage from Isaiah and from St John’s Gospel we meet two people who have encounters with the Living God – one rather more dramatic than the other.
In our passage from Isaiah the prophet has a vision of the Lord. It’s unusually specific – “in the year that King Uzziah died” in other words in the year 740 BC. Isaiah was given a vision of the Heavenly court and saw the Lord and the heavenly creatures who attend him. In our Gospel reading Nicodemus comes to Jesus but secretly, at night, for fear of what others might think. Nicodemus was clearly intrigued by Jesus but not overawed with him in the way that Isaiah was with his vision of the Lord.
Both Isaiah and Nicodemus react to their experience of the Lord.
Isaiah is, utterly, convicted of his unworthiness, his sin, his frailty. He is lost, he is a man of unclean lips who lives amongst a people of unclean lips yet, in his amazement, he realises he has seen the Lord. Often an experience of the holy convinces people that they aren’t! A few weeks ago I was in a meeting with some other URC ministers. One of them complained that if people swear around him they will then apologise – he complained as he felt that this separated him out, made him appear holier than thou. Afterwards it struck me that when people do this they are not worried about offending the minister but that which the minister represents. To many people (mainly those who don’t know us) we represent the holy and, in the presence of the holy we, all of us, stand convicted of our failures. Isaiah’s first response was to feel unworthy – he understood in whose presence he stood.
Nicodemus, on the other hand, didn’t. His response to the holy was to ask nit-picking questions, to try and find a way to explain the inexplicable and to put off any moment of decision – after all he came at night because he wanted to hedge his bets. He didn’t want to be seen, as a leader of the people, to be identified with Jesus but, at the same time, he didn’t want to condemn him. So, sitting on the fence he asks his questions but one gets the impression he never really understands Jesus’ answers.
Isaiah’s sense of his unworthiness means that he is open to being changed. In the heavenly worship scene where he has been transported he receives forgiveness for his failures and is cleansed from his sins. Nicodemus, on the other hand, doesn’t understand what Jesus says, can’t make a leap of faith and so everything stays on a theoretical basis – a theory he doesn’t understand. Isaiah understands before whom he stands and, consequently, falls in adoration and horror at his sin. Nicodemus sees Jesus as an intriguing teacher but, perhaps, one amongst many.
Isaiah, having received the Lord’s forgiveness responses to God’s question “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” with his emphatic “here I am, send me.” Isaiah is then given the difficult ministry of speaking God’s truth to the powers of his age. His task is to urge the king, Jotham and Ahaz, the son and grandson of Uzziah, not to get drawn into the games of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its ally Syria who were threatening the southern Jewish kingdom of Judah – where Isaiah ministered. The king, of course, ignored Isaiah, relied on an alliance with the great power of the day, Assyria, and ended up a vassal state subject to the whims of a pagan emperor. Isaiah was faithful to his mission but his was a hard mission.
Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus did affect him. Whilst he may not have become a follower, whilst he may have stayed firmly on the fence he did speak up at Jesus’ trial reminding everyone that the accused had the right to be heard under Jewish Law and, after Jesus had died, he, with Joseph of Aramathea, prepares Jesus’ body for burial. So even though he didn’t realise Whose presence he was in, Nicodemus is changed by his encounter with Jesus.
Worship changes things. Worship changed Isaiah and Nicodemus involving both in some risk to themselves.
Worship changes things. Every time we come to worship we open ourselves up to God who is at work in the depths of our being. Every time we come to worship we are confronted by the Holy and reminded of us lack of holiness. Every time we come to worship we are reminded that though God’s loving kindness we are made whole, clean and forgiven – this is why we often have a prayer of confession and an assurance of forgiveness in the service. Every time we worship we open ourselves up to God and realise that this raises the possibility of being changed, of being sent, of risk – risk to our free time, our comfort, our material inclinations. Worship changes things.
Isaiah was called to speak God’s truth in dangerous times. It was easier for the leaders of his day to put their trust in foreign policy than in God. Nicodemus was called to get off the fence, to fully embrace Jesus and follow him but that meant to risk his status and standing. It’s not clear if he every fully followed, but he responded at some risk to himself in Jesus’ trial and would have appeared to be a sympathiser by siding with his friends in tending to his lifeless body after the Crucifixion.
How does our experience of God in worship change us? How does our response to God change us and change our world?
We live in a society which is largely indifferent to Christianity and its claims. Whereas once everyone knew the differences between the churches, where even basic theology would be understood now people are ignorant of Christianity’s claims or, worse, hostile to them. The Church, if it is thought of, is often seen as out of touch, hypocritical, prejudiced and dangerous. Christians are seen as quaint but, increasingly, as odd. Yet we believe that God is still active, that God is met through worship as we are drawn into the life of the Trinity and as we are changed so we may change our world.
Long ago a small group of bedraggled disciples followed the Lord’s command to wait for the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost they were filled with the Spirit and their experience changed them, and the world forever. They proclaimed and lived their faith in, as Dr James Allan Francis put it, the one solitary life of the man who who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.
Those newly empowered disciples spoke of the one who never owned a home, who never wrote a book, who never held an office and who never had a family. They preached of the one who never went to college, never travelled more than two hundred miles from the place He was born, who never did any of the things that usually accompany greatness. They proclaimed the one who had no credentials but Himself…
While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth – His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Twenty long centuries have come and gone, and today He still calls us to respond to his message. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the monarchs that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of humanity on this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.
In worship, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we meet Jesus, that one solitary life, and are called to respond to his call to love God and our neighbour. Worship changes things because it changes us.
Will you pray with me?
O God our mystery,
you draw us into your presence,
bring us to life and call us to freedom.
In your presence we see your holiness,
and we find ourselves forever changed.
Help us, like Isaiah of old, to repent,
to change our lives around,
and so, proclaim your uncontainable word
so that, as we are changed,
we may participate in the dance of your Trinity,
that you change our world through us.