True Christian Worship
Epiphany One Sermon| Romans 12:1-5 | Rev. Rolf Preus| January 10, 2004
There is a reason why people don’t want to go to church and are not interested in the teaching of Christ. It is because they are stuck on themselves. When you make yourself the center of the universe, you care little about your neighbor. When you care little about your neighbor, you don’t care about the things you do to hurt him. When you listen to the apostolic injunction not to think of yourself more highly than you should, you see your Christian brothers and sisters in a different light. You learn that they are as important as you are. You learn to see that you have sinned by setting yourself over them as if your wants and your needs should receive greater attention. When you learn of your sin, then – and only then – will you want to go to church and listen to the teaching of Christ.
What is the teaching of Christ? It is beautifully summarized in today’s Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah. It tells us that the promised Christ would come to preach good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. He would comfort all who mourn and replace their mourning with joy. It is only those who have learned to see their own spiritual poverty and whose hearts have been broken because of their sin and who have mourned over what they have done wrong who will care to listen to anything Jesus has to say. Those who refuse to think of themselves soberly will not be led to see their own sins and so they won’t care much about going to church and listening to what Jesus has to say.
Today’s Epistle Lesson talks about true Christian worship. When St. Paul talks about “your reasonable service,” he is talking about Christian worship. The word that is translated as “service” here is where we get the word “liturgy.” We do not worship God by having some kind of a dramatic and emotional religious experience. We do not worship God by mindlessly repeating the portions of the formal written liturgy. We worship God, first of all, by offering our bodies as living sacrifices to God. This is a reasonable service. It is not irrational. True Christian worship involves the mind. It involves the renewal of our minds. The apostle warns us against being conformed to this world. We certainly don’t look to the world’s values and standards to learn what worship should be. True Christian worship is not entertainment. It cannot be judged by what will appeal to the crowd or by what is marketable to religious seekers. True worship is hard work. It begins during the Divine Service on Sunday morning. It continues throughout the entire week as live sober lives in which we apply God’s will to what we do.
The “good and acceptable and perfect will of God” is what God has clearly revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. If we want to know God’s will for how we should live, we listen to the Ten Commandments. So many “how to” successful living religious books fill religious bookstores these days that it is impossible to keep track of them all. Most of them attempt to teach you how to discover God’s will for your life. If you really want to know God’s will for your behavior, consider where God has placed you and apply the Ten Commandments to your particular vocation in life. This is how you serve God. You serve God by serving your neighbor.
But when we consider only God’s will for our behavior, we find ourselves at a loss. The simple fact is that we cannot worship God – that is, we cannot serve God – simply by conforming our lives to the standards of the Ten Commandments. Even if we conformed outwardly (which we rarely do) we will not have offered our bodies as acceptable sacrifices to God. According to St. Paul, this offering up to God of our bodies as living sacrifices must be holy if it is to be acceptable to God. How can we make ourselves holy? We can’t. Therefore we are stymied at the very beginning. We cannot worship God unless we are holy and we cannot make ourselves holy.
Will going to church make you holy? What do you think? Certainly not, if by going to church we are referring to those things that we do, say, and offer to God during the church service. Doing holy things can’t make a sinner holy for the simple reason that a sinner can’t do holy things. Sinners sin. Saints do holy things. First one must become holy and only then can he offer holy worship to God. Even if the doing looks holy, the doer will remain a sinner unless and until God makes the sinner into a saint.
Back to the question, then. Will going to church make you holy? If we cannot do anything by our service offered up to God to make ourselves holy and acceptable to Him, does this mean that no one else can? Can God make us holy? Can God say things to us and give things to us that by His saying and by His giving will make us sinners into saints? And if He can, can He do so when we go to church?
He can and He does. And this brings us to a brief consideration of today’s Gospel Lesson. This account provides for us the only information about the life of Jesus from the time that He was a baby until He was thirty years old. When the Holy Spirit caused the New Testament Scriptures to be written, He guided the apostles to write what He wanted them to write. When He did so, He saw fit to ignore nearly thirty years of Jesus’ life here on earth except for this single episode of the twelve year old Jesus remaining in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Clearly, this is an important event.
Jesus shows us what is the one thing needful. As the Son of God He was omniscient. He knew everything there is to know. But when He became a human being, He chose now to take advantage of His divine knowledge. He learned. He grew in understanding. He asked questions of the teachers. He studied God’s word. He grew in wisdom. The Son of God become flesh regarded the learning of God’s word to be the most important thing He could spend His time doing. How can it be any different for Christian children today?
There is nothing more important than what God gives you in His word and sacraments. When children come to church, to Sunday School, to Wednesday School, or simply listen when their parents read to them from God’s word, they are becoming rich. For everything that we are given from God’s word is what Jesus put into God’s word for us to receive.
What did Jesus learn in the temple during the celebration of Passover? He learned how He would fulfill the ancient promise that the Passover gave. He learned how the blood on the doorposts that once caused the Angel of Death to pass over the house was not just the blood of a lamb. It was a divine promise that He would have to fulfill. It was to be His blood. He, the Lamb of God, would shed His blood to take away the sin of the world. He would face the Angel of Death and confront him with His own innocence. He would live the holy life, the life of perfect worship, the life that never conformed to this world, but was always that perfect and acceptable, sacrificial and holy life. But His sacrificial living would give way to a sacrificial dying. He would do more than live and show all children everywhere how to live. He would also die, and in dying He would bear the sin and death of all children everywhere.
Parents who love their children bring them to church. For the same Jesus who fulfilled the promise of Passover so long ago continues to give to unworthy sinners the forgiveness He won by that fulfillment. Will going to church make you holy? What else could make you holy but to receive the very holiness of Jesus? What else could enable you to serve God with a renewed mind than to receive Christ and His wisdom? We don’t come to church to do God any favors. We come to church to receive God’s favor. When Jesus is given to us and we receive Him by faith, the wisdom of Jesus and the favor He received by His holy living is given to us.
Did not Jesus tell His disciples that those whose sins they forgave would be forgiven? Did not Jesus promise that wherever His gospel was preached and sinners were baptized by His authority that those who believed and were baptized would be saved? Did He not promise that He would be present with His church until the end of the age? And what is the church but wherever His gospel is preached and His sacraments are administered?
We call this Divine Service. God serves us. He serves us by bringing to us and placing into our hearts and lives the treasures Jesus won for us. He earned what we freely receive. His obedience to His parents and to His Father in heaven was more than the perfect model for all Christian children to follow. It was offered up to God vicariously. That is, Jesus was living our lives for us when He loved the word of God with such single-minded devotion. We take this to heart when we are faced with our own sins against God’s word. We consider how we have put other things ahead of God’s word. We have skipped church for no good reason and have set a bad example for others. We have paid little attention to what we or the pastor were saying when we did go. We have regarded our own notions as more interesting or valuable than God’s teaching. We have not permitted our minds to be renewed and so to be transformed into the people God has called us to be.
So we look to Jesus and we see what He has done for us. He is the perfect boy to become the substitute for all sinful boys and girls, men and women. His teaching is never dry and irrelevant. It is always the heavenly teaching that gives us heaven. By teaching us His heavenly doctrine He joins us to Himself where we are safe from all harm and set free from all sins. This is why we come to church. We come to receive Jesus. We come to be served by Him. Only when He has served us by graciously forgiving us all of our sins and giving to us eternal life in His name can we begin to worship God. And when our worship is imperfect, Christ’s own perfection will perfect it, making our lives holy and acceptable to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.