On 7 August, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 23, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40.
Imagine arriving at church, either offline or online, to be greeted with the question: “What are you doing here?” I think you might be quite surprised. What about the warm welcome, the pleasure in seeing you again, the hope that you have a good day, an invitation to stay for coffee afterwards, and so on?
Worshippers in Isaiah’s day were greeted with much worse, as God spoke through his prophet. God makes a list of what he doesn’t like about the people’s worship:
He’s ‘had enough’ of burnt offerings.
He does not ‘delight’ in the blood of the sacrifices animals.
The movement of the feet of worshippers he calls ‘trampling’.
The offerings are ‘futile’.
Incense is ‘an abomination’.
He ‘cannot endure’ the various assemblies.
He ‘hates’ the appointed festivals.
The worshippers are ‘a burden’ to him.
He is ‘weary of bearing them’.
We have to ask if this is the same God who says in Psalm 50: ‘I will not reprove you for your sacrifices, for your burnt offerings are always before me.’ Surely it was God who had instructed Moses in the system of sacrifices, new moon festivals, sin offerings, thank offerings. It was God who decided on the annual feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Why suddenly decide that all this was to be swept aside? Why the overwhelming dislike for all things religious?
In Psalm 50 we are told that God would not remain silent. His intention is to judge his people, to testify against them. In the uncompromising language of Isaiah, we hear what God thinks of his people. It was not the sacrifices and festivals that were at fault, but the people themselves. In language reminiscent of a court room, God marshals his arguments against those whom he calls his faithful, those who are in a covenant relationship with him. The solemn assemblies are accompanied by iniquity, rather than holiness. This builds such a barrier between God and his people that he simply can’t and won’t hear any of their prayers and pleadings. He accuses his people of having blood on their hands. They have done evil in his sight. They have forgotten his ways. For all the careful keeping of the appointed times in the appointed ways, it is hollow, a sham, a covenant in outward appearance only on the part of the people, although God himself has remained faithful. The people have forgotten the sheer power of God, which he mentions in Psalm 50. He is capable of tearing them apart, leaving them beyond help.
Yet, despite appearances, all is not lost. God acknowledges that the sins of his people are as indelible as red dyes yet he can wash them away, leaving not a trace behind. There is always the opportunity for a fresh start. God implores his people to set aside the evil they have been doing and to learn afresh what God considers to be good. They are to work for justice in their land, particularly for the groups of people who were easily overlooked: those who were taken advantage of by the powerful; those who had no father to speak for them; those who did not have protection and provision from a husband. God offers the people a choice: follow God’s way willingly and good things would be theirs; follow their own rebellious ways and death awaited them.
The psalm gives advice to correct the faulty sacrifices and festivals. The sacrifice required is one of thanksgiving because that gives God the honour due to him. Unless the people attend worship with thanksgiving in their hearts, it’s all a waste of time. Those who are obedient, living God’s way, are assured of salvation.
The letter to the Hebrews commends Abraham for his obedience. He didn’t have all the answers but he followed what God told him to do and thus became the father of more people than could be numbered. Abraham could have stayed in comfort at home and lived out his life but he chose to follow God.
Jesus reassures his followers that God’s salvation is on offer for them also. They too are urged to be obedient, to follow God’s ways, to give to the poor, to have God’s priorities as their priorities. In that way, unlike the worshippers addressed by Isaiah on God’s behalf, their heart’s attitude would be right, their worship would be in tune with that in heaven where they would be storing up an inheritance that no one can take away. This is the way to be prepared for when Jesus returns.
I don’t think it likely that you will be greeted at any church with the question: “What are you doing here?” Nevertheless, it might be worth asking yourself the question when you attend worship. Are you here to worship God with a thankful heart for all he means to you? Or have you come out of habit or a sense of duty? Or to impress someone? Or because you like the people? Or some other reason.
I don’t think we can necessarily manufacture the right feelings or motives for attending worship. Sometimes when our faith is struggling, I think it’s worthwhile just turning up. Even if worship feels empty, questions nag at you, you wonder what you’re doing here. As long as you’re honest with yourself and God, I don’t think it’s hypocritical but obedient.
I think it can equally be right to miss worship if we are busy doing some of the things that God urged us to do, as being part of the lifestyle he wants us to follow. Ideally we would have time to worship God and to help the oppressed and the poor but life is seldom ideal.
However things work out for each individual in terms of attending worship or not, the important thing is to keep our eyes on God, the faithful one with whom we have been offered a covenant relationship. By honouring God with a sacrifice of thanksgiving, rather than empty religious observance, we show that our treasure lies in heaven where nothing can destroy it.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor