What Does Worship Require?
One of my very close friends is a consultant. He goes into large organizations and focuses on relationship and conversation. From him I’ve learned that not all conversations are created equal and that we need to understand that there are different kinds of conversations which all have different purposes. He names one kind of conversation ‘clearing,’ which he says, “is a conversation used ahead of performing to identify and deal with concerns that might interfere with performing.” I would like to adapt that idea for us this morning:
There is a clearing conversation that is needed ahead of us gathering for worship to identify and deal with concerns that might interfere with our worship.
So I want to open my heart a little bit more to you today. Throughout the time we’ve spent away from one another there have been a few things that I’ve observed and experienced. I want to share these with you in love, because I believe that what is on the other side of these words makes it worth writing them.
Let’s begin with today’s Old Testament reading.
1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. 9 When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
15 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
There are so many things I want to open up in this text, but I want to zoom in on a rather traditional reading of it. Many people interpret this passage as Abraham being put to the test, and while I don’t read it like that, I want to explore that idea for a few moments. That understanding is rooted in verse twelve:
“...for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
If this is a test of Abraham’s faith, what exactly is the test? Abraham is instructed to offer a burnt offering (verse two). In his day, this was an act of worship. It was how one pleased the gods, or at least kept them from pouring out their anger upon you. It is clear that Abraham is participating in an act of worship; when he sees the place that he is going he says to the others traveling with him and Isaac:
“Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
What was the test? What was required of Abraham to worship? To put his beloved son, the fulfillment of the promise, upon the altar and give him up to the Lord. And for him it was worth it to worship the Lord.
If we want to follow in the faith of Abraham, then we need to learn that worship often costs us something. It requires us to give up our own desires for the sake of the joy of worshipping the Lord. This is true of gathering for corporate worship, our contemporary parallel to sacrificing something on the altar. Sometimes in order to gather for corporate worship we have to give up the style of worship—Do we use traditional or contemporary music? Does the service feel liturgical or not? How long will the service be (in other words, how long will the pastor preach!)?—sometimes we have to give up the time we’d rather spend in bed, and sometimes we have to give up other ideas of how things should be done.
So here a piece of the clearing I want to express:
As we look to gathering again for church, and we all recognize that it will not look like it used to, the test of faith for us is our willingness to put our own desires on the altar in order to worship together. This takes me to our plan for gathering again for worship two weeks from today on July 12th. You can read our plan by clicking here. Our safety committee and board understand that no plan is going to make everyone happy, and there are things that each one of us on those teams would like to change about the plan if it were up to us. We have outlined our expectations for those who gather together, and I am aware that they are inconvenient, hugely un-fun, and may even seem over the top. I’ve had several conversations with our church family that expressed just that. I hear you.
And because I love you this is what I need to share with you as your pastor: If Abraham was willing to put Isaac on the altar in order to worship, then perhaps we need to be willing to do some things we don’t like in order to worship the Lord together.
One of things I have observed over the past few months is that far too many of our sentences are beginning with “I.” So often I start with what I think, what I want, what I expect things to be like. Instead, what if I slightly altered that “I” to be Abrahams twice used response to the Lord, “Here I am?” What if instead of trying to get my opinion out there I simply say, “Here I am,” not only to the Lord but to my sisters and brothers around me? How might this posture change the space we inhabit?
I heard this sentiment from one of you this week when I called to ask if there were questions about the plan. When I expressed that what we need right now is unity even though we don’t all agree on what gathering again looks like, this individual replied with a beautiful confession and declaration of faith in God and Christ’s body: “Well, there’s not one thing I like about this plan, but I’m going to do it because I care about our church.”
“Here I am.”
That kind of simple humility and sacrifice is what putting ourselves on the altar of worship looks like, and that is what worship requires of us, not just now but always. If I had previously been showing up to worship with a posture of getting what I want, then I have some changes I need to make. This situation is only highlighting attitudes and behaviors that I have always had, so now I am aware of what I need to work out in order to experience unity in the body of Christ.
I recently began reading a little book on Church history by D. Jeffrey Bingham, and the message of the early church is bursting with relevance for us today. In the days immediately following the apostles, before the New Testament had even been put together, there was a church trying to preserve the faith. In that church there were leaders who wrote to congregations and to one another, much like the letters we have in the Bible. One of those leaders was Ignatius. He was writing within about ten years of the book of Revelation being composed, which shows how close he was to the time of the apostles. He followed in the footsteps of Paul in pleading for unity. Dr. Bingham informs us
“Ignatius wrote to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, ‘Focus on unity for there is nothing better’ (1:2). Similarly, to the Ephesians he said, ‘There is nothing better than peace’ (13:2). Also he urged the Philadelphians, ‘Do nothing without the bishop… love unity. Flee from divisions. Become imitators of Jesus Christ, just as he is of his Father’ (7:2). And to the Magnesians he wrote, “Do not attempt to convince yourselves that anything done apart from the others is right, but gathering together, let there be one prayer, one petition, one mind, one hope, with love and blameless joy, which is Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is better’ (7.1).” 
These words strike me fiercely, finding me and gripping me, they shake me awake. Church, we cannot sustain division. If our impulse is not to flee from actions, attitudes, and words that compromise the integrity of our community, then we have yet to experience what the earliest Christians envisioned for the Church.
I am aware that we don’t all agree on how things should move forward, but we cannot let that keep us from living in unity and peace. Will we have difference of opinion and disagreement? Of course! We should. The last thing I want is to be in relationship with people who don’t think for themselves. Do I want mindless robots that never have questions or insights? You know me well enough to know that I am not interested in anyone being ‘mindlessly obedient,’ nor is that the picture of faith we see in Abraham. But our differences and diversity need not—no, must not—fracture the bones of Christ’s body.
Can we agree together that when we gather again for worship in a couple of weeks (or longer for some of us who do not yet feel ready) that we will show up with attitudes, actions, and words that are bathed in prayer for unity? Can we agree to get all complaining and personal opinions about the way we respond to Coronavirus out of our system before we are face to face? Can we agree to approach worship as an act of sacrifice rather than something we hope to gain for ourselves? Can we come prepared to be met with an altar? Can we come ready to encounter a God who desires to preserve life and affirm the sacred unity of the Church?
While I am writing to my congregation, this is also a message to the broader church. The Church universal needs us to prioritize unity right now. Let’s put our desires, expectations, and preferences on the altar and let God do with them what God wants. This is our witness to the world around us. Let us be faithful to testify to the reality of a God who can bring unity, even in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. The Church has endured worse, but let us not leave the church worse because of what we are enduring.
This can and should be an ongoing conversation. So let’s talk if you need or want. Call me, text me, email me. But let’s not let conversations that need to happen remain hidden in the shadows at the expense of our unity.
“Here I am.”
 D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church, 25-26.