Carolyn Park Presbyterian Church

The Real Thing

Isaiah 58:1-9a

Last Tuesday I went into Rite Aid to get a two litter bottle of Coke. Remember a few years back when Coke was advertised as "the real thing?" That advertising campaign must have made quite an impression on me because I can still see the chorus of children standing around a Christmas tree singing that song. And the entire nation... maybe even the whole world... new that Coke was "the real thing!" But guess what... Rite Aid doesn't sell Coke any more... and all I could find there was an off brand and Pepsi... and believe me... everyone can tell the difference.

I remember... also last Tuesday... telling someone that I am not a very academic preacher. Mostly I am interested in talking about what kind of a difference being a Christian makes in our lives. If we are changed people... if we have a new life in Jesus Christ... can anyone tell? What does it mean to be "the real thing"... a Christian in the midst of a secular world... a world that prefers to ignore God... and exalt humanity? Can anybody tell the difference?

I remember one time in class at seminary... voicing my misgivings about the significance of Sunday morning worship. I guess the professor must have wondered why I was preparing for the ministry when I didn't seem to have a very positive feeling for what appears to be the major purpose of my new career.

In those days I really felt that I had been called to a prophetic ministry... and I wasn't terribly crazy about the idea! Can you imagine just how popular Isaiah was in his congregation? Israel was God's chosen people... and they had failed to live up to God's expectations! Their worship was anything but "the real thing"... and somebody had to tell them. That unpleasant task fell to the prophets of ancient Israel. Somehow I saw myself in that same role because I felt that many Christians had become "all show" with little substance! Well... as things have turned out... I am not as "prophetic" as I thought I would be... and yet... I do find myself preaching most of the time about what it truly means to be a Christian... what it truly means for us to be part of the body of Christ.

We are gathered here this morning for worship... and I stand before you this morning as the leader of this worship service. Mandy is leading you in your part of the service... Cindy and the choir are leading us in singing God's praises... Evelyn and Lou provide the musical background for our songs of praise. We are doing all the right things... just as the Israelites were in our story today... so I can just imagine how we might respond to Isaiah's words... with an air of injured innocence!

Here they were... God's people... coming to worship God... just as they had been commanded. They were going through all the right motions... fasting... bowing their heads... lying around in sackcloth and ashes. How could Isaiah have the nerve to suggest that they had rebelled against God... and they were not about to admit it!

Well... be that as it may... I have to admit that I, myself, have never quite understood exactly what worship means... and so I went online this morning and checked the Encyclopedia Britannica. The first definition of worship as a noun is "honor, respect, reverence paid to a divine being." Other definitions include "a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual" or "extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem" such as "worship of the almighty dollar." Worship defined as a verb means "to honor or reverence a divine being" or "to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor or devotion" such as "taking part in an act of worship."

Several other nouns are mentioned in this definition including hero worship, ancestor worship... and last but not least... self-worship. Believe it or not... this list contains almost 240 words expressing ways in which we worship ourselves... ways in which we describe... or give deference... to ourselves. The list took up five pages... and I found such words as self- adulation... self-aggrandizement... self-confirming... self-directing... self-engrossed.

But strangely enough... most of the words listed are words describing self-disapproval. Words like self-abasement... self-accusation... self-criticism... self-hate... self-mortification. And that brings us back to Isaiah's words to his congregation. You see... fasting... and wearing sackcloth... and lying around in ashes... were acts of self-mortification... not of worship of God! You see... we are obsessed with self... even whether it appears as self-pride or self-putdown.

Somewhere along the line... I found another definition for worship that I really like... worship is also defined as "humility before God." Now I can understand how that might have gotten translated by the Israelites into self-mortification... but that's not really what humility is all about. Humility before God means being humble... coming to God in a spirit of submissive- ness... recognizing that we belong to God.

True worship is a time when we come together to celebrate our dependence on God... we do it in the form of singing praise... and praying... and celebrating the sacraments... and hearing the word. I consider participation a very big part of worship... that's why we do so much responsive and unison liturgy. We do have a time of confession which helps us acknowledge God's grace... and we end it by singing "Glory be to the Father...".

I guess this morning I want you to see that where we begin our worship of God is terribly important. When we begin with how bad we are... it is easy for us to fall into the self-denying habit... the habit of "beating ourselves with a wet noodle" as Ann Landers would say. And all too often... we get stuck there. But wallowing in our guilt turns into self-pity... and some of us... who don't deal will with guilt... turn it quickly into self-pride... and assume an air of wounded dignity if not outright pride. When we use worship to focus inward... on ourselves... we are misusing worship just as the Israelites were in ancient times... and the words of the prophet ring true for us today as well.

So where do we begin... and what is the natural outcome of true worship? I'd like to suggest first of all that we begin with God's grace meaning that God loves us... and wants to have a relationship with us... in spite of who and what we are. Now there are many aspects of grace that we can accept and even find desirable... we all like to be considered charming and graceful... we especially like having a grace period when our bills are due... we'd like to think that there is some "saving grace" about us that makes us worthy... but the truth is that God's grace is totally unmerited by us... and because that is true we must come before God in humility. Because of God's graciousness towards us we no longer have to concentrate on our own unworthiness. We need only praise God for his love and it's manifestation in Jesus Christ. We gather each Sunday morning not as sinners in need of forgiveness but as recipients of God's grace because we are forgiven in Jesus Christ.

Humility has a second component though that I want to mention just briefly in closing... and that is respect for other people. Every Sunday morning we come here to worship God... to thank and praise him for his gracious love. And when we leave this time of worship... we don't leave our humility at the door on our way out. In our everyday life we continue to celebrate God's grace by loving and caring for others. Isaiah said it pretty plainly:

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?"
"Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?"

And then I especially love the promise...

"Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard."

You see... when we worship and serve the Lord in humility... we do it not only in the sanctuary... we do it in the world as well. And he promises to go before us and follow close behind us... he surrounds us with his presence... we become spiritually healthy and whole and loving... and we shine like a bright light in the world for God's purposes.

May our worship be the real thing... and may we be a blessing in achieving God's purposes in the world. Amen.

A Sermon Preached on February 7, 1999
The Rev. Shirley R. Frazier
Carolyn Park Presbyterian Church, Arabi, LA

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