Striving for true worship always
The Bible is a wonderful inexhaustible source of advice and guidance for true worship. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman he had a chat with at Jacob's Well, “the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers that the Father seeks. God is spirit and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.” The passage from Isaiah for today says some beautiful things about God. “he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty but formed it to be inhabited”. God's power is the power of creating life and love, of positive energy and relationships, of being together as a human community. “I have not spoken in secret”, says God. All around us is the evidence of the beauty of creation, the wonder of existence. God is not temperamental, capricious and difficult to deal with. He says, “I have not said to Jacob's descendants, “Seek me in vain”. In other words, The contemporary view that God cannot be known if he exists at all is false. God is there to be known. God is there to be believed. God is there to be loved. God wishes it so. “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth, for I am God and there is no other”, says God. Here is the all inclusive deal humanity needs. Jesus in time said words familiar to us now. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty......All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never send away”.
In Isaiah's time there were plenty of atheists and worshippers of false gods. The prophet says, “all who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame”. There was a Thanksgiving Service for the late Sir Richard Attenborough in Westminster Abbey in London this past week. The luvvies were in attendance. The ceremony, which lasted just under an hour, was "absolutely perfect", said Dame Judi Dench. "I think he'd have loved it," added Dame Penelope Keith, while Sir John Hurt called it "very moving" and "excellent". "It was very uplifting and it was a testimony to his amazing gift," said Robert Lindsay. That's a bit strange. Richard Attenborough did not believe in God. Neither does his brother David. But the attendants all prayed and sang hymns in a Christian Service acknowledging the existence of God and his love and purpose in Jesus Christ. Our passage for today from Isaiah ends with the words, “But in the Lord all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and exult”. We are such descendants. We are found righteous through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord and we rejoice in our worship of the Living God.
When Jesus went into the Temple in Jerusalem and cleared it out, he was seeking to establish true worship. The Temple had various courts, the first was called The Court of the Gentiles and was for everyone. The next court was The Court of the Women. In Orthodox Judaism to this day men and women sit separately in synagogue worship. The reasons given for this are as follows: i) it helps ensure that the main focus is on the prayers and not on the opposite gender ii) when men and women sit separately, there is no discrimination between singles and couples iii) men and women need space from each other to help them become intuned to their higher selves iv) it is only when both male and female spiritual energies are allowed to flourish that we are complete as individuals, families and a community. In Reform or Liberal Judaism men and women sit together. And now they can also do so in the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. In Christianity from the start, men and women worshipped together.
The next court was the Court of the Priests and beyond that was the Holy of Holies which could only be entered by the High Priest. Jesus' altercation took place on the outer Court of the Gentiles. It was intended to be a place of worship also – a sacred space for visitors and worshippers. It had become commercialised and secularised. It was noisy and chaotic, like a souk or Bathgate Market on its busier days. Donald MacFarlane used to go there every week to buy a kilo of meat from that large mobile shop that visited. The salesman recognised him each week and on one occasion picked him out in his sales pitch. “Here is our friend who buys a kilo of this fine meat every week”, he said. Donald replied, “It's for my dog”.
Prayer was not really possible in the Court of the Gentiles in the time of Jesus. But what annoyed Jesus the most was the exploitation of pilgrims. Every Jew had to pay an annual temple tax which was about one and a half a working man's day's wages. Maybe that would be about £75 for us today. This tax had to be paid in Jewish currency, the shekel. There was a charge for currency exchange and traders did well out of it all. If someone bought a pair of doves for sacrifice they cost perhaps £50 outside the Temple in our money. But they had to be perfect. Inspectors usually found blemishes and forced pilgrims to buy inhouse doves at exorbitant prices. All the buying and selling was the monopoly of the High Priest. It was high corruption of the kind we see in our everyday life in the financial sector of our economy. Pension annuities are a simple example of gross exploitation of people's savings where those in charge make disproportionate profits out of ordinary people who until now have had no other option.
Jesus set about the stalls and tables and overturned them. He also shooed some of the traders out of the place. There is no indication that Jesus actually used a whip on anyone but he must have appeared to have threatened to do so. He also must have had the moral authority that they could not withstand. He quoted directly from The Old Testament, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” - that is from Isaiah 56:7. That was the Court of the Gentiles' true purpose, to be a place of prayer and worship for pilgrims. Jesus was recalling everyone to the proper use of that sacred space. Jesus also stopped people carrying merchandise through the Temple precincts. This is a fascinating detail which authenticates the whole story. The Temple Court could provide a short cut from the eastern side of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives but there was a law forbidding such disrespect. It was being ignored. It had become a business thoroughfare. Jesus stopped it. He quoted Jeremiah 7:11 also “You have made this place a den of robbers”. Jesus got away with his actions because they were based on the verses of Scripture. He was not acting independently nor as he adding anything new to the laws of Judaism. His actions did not result in a riot and no-one seems to have attacked him in return. He had made his point and the passage from Mark tells us that later that evening he and the disciples left the Temple and the city. Word got back to the High Priest however and Jesus became even more of a marked man than he had hitherto been.
Striving for true worship always. You can only worship God with a full heart if you know God personally sufficiently well to be lifted and inspired to do so. If you bring a shallow and nominal Christian life to worship you will receive in that proportion. If you prepare yourself spiritually to come to worship that will make a difference. If you bring an already positive, faith filled, devoted and committed Christian life to worship you will receive in that proportion. If you are full of bitterness and negativity then it is likely that you will remain so, untouched by the Holy Spirit with your mind and heart and with eyes closed to what God is really doing around you. Worship has not changed that much since the time of Jesus and of the early Church. It may be more settled and ordered, maybe too predictable for some, not Pentecostal enough for others. It may also be lacking in depth and sobriety sometimes. But our worship is what we are before God. It is what we bring. It is a reflection of ourselves and of where we are on the Christian journey. Our attitudes may be a drag on worship providing a dark shadow on the life of the congregation. We might be a ray of sunshine with a smile and a kind word and friendly gesture. We may sing our hearts out lifting those around us. Real Christian conviction can be sensed in our worship. Routine, half-hearted, and Bible free personal faith cannot fan the flames of the Spirit of God into born-again consciousness and lifelong Christian witness and service.
We are coming near to Holy Week. It is the best week of the Christian year. It does not have the material and cultural distractions that Advent has before Christmas. It is a time for striving for true worship. It is an opportunity to take God seriously as we prepare for Easter Sunday. People can sense the spiritual temper of a congregation in its worship. Let us offer our Lord and Saviour true worship in spirit and in truth. It is not what we come here to find. It is what we ourselves bring. It is who we are. It is where we are. It is where we are going.
'I'll bring You more than a song For a song in itself Is not what You have required You search much deeper within. Through the way things appear You're looking into my heart I'm coming back to the heart of worship And it's all about You It's all about You, Jesus I'm sorry, Lord, for the thing I've made it When it's all about You It's all about You, Jesus'.
Let our worship be not about ourselves but about the Living God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus and the Holy Spirit, our sanctifier and inspiration.