One of my earliest experiences of exciting worship came when I was about fourteen years old, and found myself among a huge gathering of worshippers in London. Even before things began, the singing started, and got louder and louder. You couldn’t help but pick up the atmosphere, and get swept along. I started singing as well. I remember one of the songs was printed on the booklet we all had: and some people started swaying and waving their arms in the air. But the best moment came at three o’clock, when the Chelsea football team came running onto the pitch, and the crowd exploded with shouts and cheers.
Chelsea is my team – and I used to go to matches when I could at their home ground of Stamford Bridge in Fullham, West London. But was that worship?
I once invited to preach at my parish a man called John Boyers, who was Chaplain to Manchester United. He told us that thousands of supporters throughout the world literally worship the team. You worship that which has greatest worth in your life: you give it your “worth-ship” (which is the literal meaning of worship). And for them, that is Manchester United. I suppose it could be the Red Sox, or the Patriots. Supporters spend huge amounts of money supporting and traveling with their team. When they win, their lives are transformed: when they lose it’s like the end of the world.
It’s not just football or other sports. There are many objects of worship around. For it is a basic human characteristic to worship. It is as fundamental as eating, or needing the company of others. Peter Shaeffer in his play Equus wrote, “If you do not worship you shrink.”
Everybody worships. Everybody gives ultimate worth to something or someone in their lives. If it is not God, it will be a lesser god: maybe it will be a golden calf of our own creation – wealth, or power, or the superb skills of a footballer, or the voice of Elvis Presley. As Christians we believe that the only true and worthy object of our worship is Almighty God. “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you worship.”(Deut. 6:13)
And in our first reading today we read of that extraordinary story in the book of Exodus when Moses encounters the transcendent glory of God in the burning bush. And his response is to take off his shoes before the holy presence, and worship in fear, in awe, and in wonder.
But over these past twelve days we have been celebrating not the awe-inspiring transcendent God whose very name we dare not utter. Rather, we have been celebrating this same God, the God who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, who, at a particular moment, in a particular place, chose to become flesh in a particular human body, Jesus Christ. Through the mystery of the Incarnation, the transcendent God, who cannot be approached or seen, became immanent (as theologians put it) in Jesus Christ, and dwelt among us.
In the pages of the New Testament, God continues to reveal himself in Jesus, as both immanent and transcendent. The disciples experienced the immanence of God when they related to Jesus as a wonderful friend, who listened to them with compassion, who cared for them, encouraged them when they were sad, taught them, ate meals together, and shared their lives with him as a brother. But there were also times when Jesus revealed the transcendence of God, notably when he revealed his divine power and glory as in his miracles, such as the Feeding of the Five Thousand or at the Transfiguration, when they fell to their knees in awe and wonder. He was their friend but also their Lord.
We, too, can experience both God’s immanence and transcendence through our relationship with Jesus in our prayers and our worship. When we pray, we can talk to Jesus naturally and without formality, just like talking to our best friend. We can chat with him, laugh with him. In Jesus, God has come to dwell in our midst. This is the immanence of God. When we worship we can relax, enjoy fellowship with one another, laugh at jokes, feel part of a family, pray together for our needs, and have a deep sense that Jesus is our friend and brother, sharing our needs with deep compassion.
And yet, we shouldn’t let our sense of God’s immanence make us forget that other great truth, which is God’s transcendence. We must not become so chummy and relaxed with God that we lose sight of his utter holiness and glory, such as to make us want to bow down and worship, in awe and wonder. So it is right that our worship reflects this also. That we enter God’s house with a sense of entering a holy place: that we approach the altar and receive Holy Communion with awe: that we worship with due reverence and dignity.
For churches to keep the balance between the immanence and transcendence of God in worship is not always easy. And whether we like the worship in a particular church or not is often to do with whether that church emphasizes immanence or transcendence, and how that fits with our own relationship with God. Too much informality can degenerate into chummy, undignified chaos. Too much formality can fossilize into cold and empty ritual.
Each of us tends to prefer more immanence or more transcendence. Yet we need both to worship in spirit and in truth. True worship reflects God’s worth, and so in our worship we strive to worship the God who is both with us in the most intimate way – but is also beyond us, dwelling in the beauty of holiness.
So at the beginning of this new year, it might be good for each one of us to reflect upon our relationship with God in Jesus. Is God the one who has ultimate worth in your life? Or do you have another object of worth-ship in your life?
Has your understanding of God grown too small? Have you created an image of God in your own image? Maybe someone you keep in a kind of box, to turn to and talk to when you are in trouble. Maybe God is wanting to shatter that image – to reveal himself to you in all his glorious transcendence. Maybe God is preparing an epiphany for you? You might even dare to ask God for one!
Dare to ask: “I long to see you Lord, in all your glory!”
If you do not worship you shrink. If you do worship it is risky. Your life can be transformed – from glory to glory.
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