August 28, 2005
“I appeal to you, therefore, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Today I want us to think about this idea of “Spiritual Worship.” What does that mean? What is “spiritual worship?” While you’re thinking about that, listen to something Jesus said. In John chapter 4, he told the woman at the well, “The hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the father in spirit and in truth, for such the father seeks to worship him.” Was he talking about the same spiritual worship as just described by Paul? I think so. “They will worship the father in spirit…” Do we know what that means?
I think this is a very important. In our world today, there is a great movement of spirituality taking place. There are many people, many of whom have been lost to the Church by they way, who are recognizing what we Christians have been trying to say all along, that we are spiritual beings. Many are looking for spiritual connections with God. And for many, that’s happening outside of the context of traditional Judeo-Christian circles. All kinds of “spirituality” is going on out there! And I don’t want to make judgment about it for now. I just want you to realize the search for God that is happening all around us!
Even within the Church there is a new trend toward people looking for the experience of God. People are desiring to “feel God’s presence.” They want, not so much to “know about God,” but to know the presence of God. They want to come to church and sing praise songs to God and to know the presence of the Holy Spirit. And Churches that are offering that opportunity are growing like wildfire!
I remember one time hearing Tony Campolo speak about this trend. He started by saying that the spiritual connection was extremely important to him. And he told us, “I don’t want a God that I just talk about,” he said. “I want a God I can feel.” I didn’t think much of that statement at the time. But it has grown on me ever since.
He also said this. “People used to come to Church to hear a good sermon. Now they want to come to experience God’s presence. They want to come to a worship place and sing praise songs until tears stream down their faces. And until the main line churches come to grips with that, they will become more and more disconnected.” And I think he’s right. People are discovering their spiritual nature, and they are longing to make that spiritual connection.
However, many in mainline Churches don’t want to come to grips with that. Many would rather criticize the whole movement. And believe me, I’ve seen it! They say of those Churches, “They’re just giving out easy answers to difficult questions.” “They’re just giving out ‘cheap grace’.” They would dismiss the spiritual “aliveness” that many are experiencing as simply “emotionalism” – as if experiencing God through emotions was bad. And don’t get me wrong! If that’s all there is, the critics may be right! But for people – even well meaning people – to dismiss the wonderful worship experiences that I myself and many, many people have experienced in trying to know God personally, is to miss the whole point of the life of faith! Yet I’ve seen it over and over again. And maybe this is something you’ve been struggling with in your own experience. (If it isn’t, it should be!) Jesus told how he would say to some people who did all kinds of wonderful things in his name, “I never knew you!”
As I have reflected on all that I have witnessed and experienced in the world and in the Church, it has caused me to make the following observation. First, we live in a world that is “suspect” of religion, particularly what they call “organized religion.” Many people of my generation have seen in organized religion “only a bunch of rules.” They only heard what they could do and what they could not do. (That part they really didn’t like!) But they didn’t see the glory. And maybe that’s where the Church has failed. We live in a world that is suspect of religion. But second, we also live in a world where people in in those “organized religions” are suspect of “spirituality.” (The world is suspect of religion, and religion is suspect of spirituality, which is important to the world!)
We need to think seriously about this idea of “spiritual worship.” We need to think of what it is Jesus meant when he said that “true worshippers will worship the father in spirit and in truth.” We need to consider what it means to be in worship and seek to experience the actual and clear presence of God – whether we prefer old hymns or new songs. Because the style of worship and the type of music don’t matter! What matters is the attitude of worship when we sing, or when we pray, or when we meditate on scripture. It’s the feeling we have and the knowledge of the presence of God that matters.
Maybe that thought is new to you. Maybe you’ve never thought of worship as anything more than just coming to a worship place on a Sunday morning (and only on a Sunday morning) and doing and saying and singing “religious things.” Maybe you have never tried to concentrate on feeling God’s spirit touching you. But that’s the essence of “spiritual worship.” It’s opening up your mind and your spirit to know the touch of God’s spirit.
I believe we should be doing just that! When we sing hymns, they often fall into two categories. There are hymns “about God.” For example, “A mighty fortress is our God…” That is singing something about God. And we can concentrate on God’s presence when we sing about him. But then there are what I call hymns “to God.” For example, “My Jesus, I love thee…” That’s a hymn we sing to God, first person. In that case, we should think of singing or speaking directly to God. I want us to be thinking about the difference between hymns that are “about God” and hymns that are “to God.” And whatever the case, whatever the style traditional or contemporary, I want us to think more about concentrating on God being right here with us. I want us to think about opening ourselves up to the presence of God! I want us to think about worshipping God in spirit and in truth.
Some people are uncomfortable with that. They would rather stay disconnected with God. Direct connection, spiritual awareness, those things are foreign and uncomfortable to them. Maybe you’re like that. Maybe like many, you would rather just talk about God than actually talk to God! Maybe you’d rather think more about learning than actually knowing God. I alluded to a quote by John Eldredge in a previous sermon and in my Statement of Faith where he said, “Too many people in the Church have substituted ‘knowing the right things’ for ‘knowing God’.” Then they wonder why they feel so spiritually disconnected and lifeless.
Do you know the story of William Tennant? That’s a big name in Presbyterianism. I served the Neshaminy-Warwick Church right out of seminary, where William Tennant was the second pastor – for something like 30 years! I only knew a little of his story then. But I lived only a stone’s throw from his memorial on York Road. And I knew many people who went to his High School!
What I knew then was that he started a school for theological learning – the first in this country – which was called “the Log College.” It was called that because it was actually a log structure. I also knew that, from there, his students went out to found over 60 institutions of higher learning in this country, including many of the “Ivy League” schools like Princeton and Dartmouth and Penn.
I knew that story. What I didn’t know until recently was this. The name “Log College” was a derogatory name given by the established clergy in the colonies at the time. Most of them were trained in the ivy covered, stone walled institutions in the Old World, and they thought themselves “better educated” than the students of this “upstart” William Tennant.
The other thing that was interesting about that story was this. There was a “spiritual malaise” (a spiritual depression) in the colonies by the early 1700’s. People didn’t care all that much about their faith any more, and church attendance was sparse. And one of the things this “upstart” William Tennant was teaching his students at this “Log College” was that the most important thing about our faith was the personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That bothered the established clergy who laid heavy emphasis on learning above all. But spirituality – seeking the presence of God – was something of which they had become suspect.
The rest of that story is that the students of William Tennant and his colleagues spread the news that a person could know the presence of God in their lives and live in personal relationship with him. And because of that, they were primarily responsible for what has come to be known in this country as “The Great Awakening.” That was a time of spiritual renewal the likes of which the world has rarely seen! When the great preacher George Whitfield preached on the lawn of the Neshaminy-Warwick Church, thousands of people came to hear him. Many had traveled many miles! And it was told how they were all moved to tears – and I don’t mean just “moist eyes.” This was loud weeping!!
It was a fascinating time in history. And having heard it I was really excited. Because I’ve heard my own version of that story over the years, with colleagues “pooh-poohing” the people who have “spiritual experiences” in worship, and dismissing that as “emotionalism.” But through reading the works of people I consider my “spiritual mentors” – People like Tony Campolo and John Eldredge, I have begun to come to grips with that idea of spirituality. I’ve come to understand that it’s the experiences with God in our lives that is the first part of our faith. Learning and knowledge are subservient to that experience, and not the other way around! So to hear the story of William Tennant and the “Log College” and “The Great Awakening,” was very exciting to me.
So the bottom line is this. And I suppose this is very simple – as it should be. Do you feel the presence of God with you as you worship? And by the way, worship is not just something you do in this place only one morning a week. This is “corporate” worship. “Personal” worship goes on all the time – or at least it’s supposed to! We should praise God at all times. The psalmist writes “I will worship the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth!” (Psalm 34:1) That’s all the time! That’s all day long!
Besides all that, Paul is telling us that there’s more. Worship – spiritual worship – is not just a state of the mind or the spirit. Paul tells the Romans that it is the way we live our lives in our physical bodies, it is the way that we present our bodies as “living sacrifices” that is our “spiritual worship.” Even the physical things we do are indicative of and contribute to, our spiritual worship. We give glory to God through our life’s actions, we are in spiritual connection with God in everyday life.
Some want to separate the two. They want to say that the physical life doesn’t impact the spiritual and vice versa. This passage from Romans is a direct answer to those who would say that. And there were groups of people who believed that in Paul’s time, just as there are people today who believe the same thing. Paul says “No!” We must present our bodies wholly and acceptable to God! Even that has to do with this business of spiritual worship!
So, worship God with your lives! Praise him in everything you do. Strive to be in spiritual connection with him every day. When you worship – here and by yourself- open yourself to the spirit of God. When you sing and when you pray and when you meditate, feel his power living in and through you. Worship God in spirit and in truth. For such the father seeks to worship him.
Eternal God, we open ourselves to you, our hearts, our minds, even our bodies. Fill us, use us, help us to grow in your love and in your grace. Increase our joy in you, for we ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.