“REMAINING FOCUSED”

The Church Forward: Worship

Ezra 2: 1-2a, 68-70, 3: 10-13

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

January 29, 2017

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“What is the chief end of man?” So asked the teacher as he paced around our Sunday School classroom. There was silence where there should have been an answer. So he repeated the question: “What is the chief end of man?” It was confirmation class. I was 12 years old. And the associate pastor was working hard to make us memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. And that is its first question: “What is the chief end of man?”

Do you know the answer? Of course. The answer is that the chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. That is our chief purpose in life, our main and most important goal: to worship God.

When I memorized that at 12 years old, I must admit it sounded to me like God might be a little self-centered if that was what he needed our main goal to be. He really needed to be worshiped ALL the time? Was God really that needy?

I don’t think 12 year olds are the only ones to ask the question. Why, indeed, DO we worship? Of course, the first answer IS that we worship because God deserves it. Not because God needs it but because God deserves our worship. God deserves our undivided focus.

But we also worship God for ourselves. Each of us here, we know that is true. We worship God to please him AND we worship God so that we can be changed and shaped. I have rarely seen a more powerful instance of this than I saw in a young couple in the very first church I served. In fact, I still think of them during every communion service, when we come to the table and eat and drink.

Beth and Matt were newly married when I knew them and you could find them every Sunday at that church’s evening service. Beth became pregnant and the two of them were overjoyed. They walked down that sanctuary’s long aisle, full of joy and promise as they waited their turn each week to take the bread and dip it into the cup.

Early in the pregnancy the two of them learned the terribly sad news that their baby was not well; that he, even when he was born, would not live beyond a week. They were devastated. You can imagine. And that Sunday evening, just days after they’d heard this news, I stood on the steps holding the communion cup and I saw them, there they were coming down that long aisle, tears on their faces as they took the bread and dipped it into the cup.

Matt and Beth decided to keep the baby, to carry through for the entire pregnancy, even though they knew what the end would be. And so week by week passed, Beth’s stomach grew so that strangers in the grocery store started to rub it and ask her when she was due. And still they came. They came down that long aisle.

Of course she went into labor one day. Of course what the doctor’s had told them was true. They knew it would be. Did they go to worship, dip the bread in the cup, did they do that in hopes of some kind of trade? Did they go thinking that they would get out of this difficult and terrible thing? No. They went to worship so that they could be changed. They had come to worship, over and over again, so they could keep their focus on who they were called to be, no matter what happened.

So I think of Matt and of Beth. Because we can be many things here, we can do many things. We have done and we will continue to do so. But all of our mission work, all of our teaching, all of our evangelism and our fellowship, it is nothing if worship of God has not been our focus. It defines who we are and it is what people most desperately need when they come here.

It turns out that worship of God is our chief end, not because God is so in need of it, but because we are. We see it in this Ezra passage today. You may not know this passage very well but it is the story of when a remnant of the people returned to Israel after their long exile. Two generations had passed before they were able to come home again. Before that, they had thought they were a people because they had a certain military power but it turned out they weren’t. They had thought they were a people because they had political power but it turned out they weren’t.

So, who, then, were they? When all other identifiers had been burned away, who were they? We read in Ezra that they were a people because they worshiped the Living God.  So the first thing they do upon their return is go to where the Temple had once stood and they worshiped there. In worship they were able to focus and remember who they really were. They were able to remember they were not a people because of THEIR power but they were a people because they knew where the true power was. All of the influence in the world would not teach them that; only worship could.

We see worship’s power again in an unlikely place. Jesus is in the wilderness. He is being tested. And in at least two of the three temptations, he evokes the power of worship in his life. “Worship me,” says Satan, “and I will give you all things.” But Jesus stands firm and replies that he—in himself and in his life—he will worship only the Lord. When Satan offers him relief from his hunger, Jesus counters that no one lives by bread alone but by God’s Word.

Worship is the food we need. It was the food that Matt and Beth were taking in. It was the food that Jesus chose. Whether come to it with joy or with heartache, being tested or being transformed, worship of the Living God is what we need. We do not know who we are without it. We cannot make it through the wilderness without it.

And not just us. We are not the only ones who need the shaping and focus that come when we worship and glorify God. It is the chief end of man; the chief end of woman; the chief end of a child. And we, the Church, have been given the responsibility to continue it, to carry it on to each new generation, to share its power with those who need it.

Mission is critical and teaching is key. Fellowship is meaningful and reaching out is important. But worship is our focus. It is who we are and it creates us into who we hope to be. Not because of God’s need but because of ours. So let us continue to worship the Lord. Amen.