The First Sunday after Epiphany
January 8, 2012
“How to Worship God”
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Romans 12:1-5
Today we are going to talk about the right way to worship God. When the Apostle Paul writes of “your reasonable service,” the word “service” is the same word that is used for worship. There is a right way and a wrong way to worship God.
To some this might sound surprising. I have heard from lifelong Lutherans that the style of worship we use in church is purely a matter of personal taste and that God’s word says nothing about it. That’s not true. The style of worship we use in church is vital. There is a right way and a wrong way to worship.
The Apostle appeals to the mercies of God. Before we can worship God we must receive mercy from God. We do not worship in order to obtain mercy from God. We worship because we have already received mercy from God. This is why the Apostle appeals to God’s mercy. It is the source of true Christian worship. Worship may be commanded but it cannot be forced. It comes from the heart. We who have received God’s mercy respond to it from our hearts.
That doesn’t mean that whatever comes out of the heart is worship. Here is where confusion reigns. The Apostle’s inspired words clear up the confusion for us. He sets before us a clear contrast. On the one side is someone who worships according to the lights of the world. He conforms his thinking to the thinking of the world around him. He exalts himself above others. That’s the way of the world. On the other side is someone who offers his body to God as a living sacrifice. He is not conformed to this world but transformed by God. He humbles himself below others.
We talk about worship as if that is what takes place on a Sunday morning when we go to church. That’s only partly true. First of all, there is much more than worship taking place on a Sunday morning during the church service. Secondly, worship takes place throughout the week and not just on a Sunday morning.
Worship is what we do. We do it in response to what God does. First God showers us with his mercies. He is good and gracious to us. He delivers us from our enemies. He washes away our sins. He sets us free from the control of the devil. He fills us with the Holy Spirit. These are all his mercies and from receiving these mercies we are in a position to offer him something in return. What is that? Our very bodies! He who gave up his body into death for us on the cross has, by that sacrifice, opened up the mercies of heaven to be showered upon us. His was a bloody sacrifice. It required his death. That sacrifice has taken away all sin of all sinners. The benefits of that holy one of a kind sacrifice are given to us in the gospel and sacraments of Christ. We call this divine service. God serves us by speaking words to us that give to us the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice.
Jesus is sacrificed only once. That’s what the Bible says. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
He offered his life as a sacrifice once and only once. But he who died once and for all on the cross – having fully atoned for the sins of the world – gives us to eat and to drink of the same body and blood that he sacrificed for us on Calvary. He, who rose from the dead bringing life and immorality to light, gives us eternal life every Sunday as we gather in his name and hear his gospel that is nothing but forgiveness, peace, and eternal life coming from God to us.
We go to church to be served by God. And we go to church to worship God. If God doesn’t serve us through his gospel and sacraments we don’t have his mercy. For God does not give us his grace and forgiveness except through his gospel and sacraments. And this is how he transforms us. How he renews our mind. How he makes our living sacrifices holy and acceptable. God transforms us by his word. St. Paul writes:
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
I read a Dennis the Menace comic the other day. His mother was angry with him for something or other and Dennis was saying, “You told me to behave. You didn’t say how.” I laughed out loud! Dennis nailed the current American notion of spirituality. I say spirituality and not religion because religion actually means something – it means God-fearing and reverent – whereas spirituality means nothing but what you want it to mean. It’s like that statue at the flower garden in Mayville that looks like a giant pigeon. What is it? I ask. Nobody can tell me. It is what you want it to be. Dennis, behave! But he does! He behaves. He behaves as he pleases and who are you to tell him that that’s not how he should behave?
Ah, but Dennis, you need to be transformed. You can’t just do what comes naturally to do and expect to be doing the right thing. The only way that we Christians are going to be offering our bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy, and acceptable to him is if we first get an attitude adjustment. That’s because if we behave as we feel like behaving we will live to serve ourselves. We will be doing the opposite of offering our bodies as living sacrifices.
In church on Sunday two things are taking place. God is serving us and we are serving God. The service God gives to us comes in the reading and preaching of his word, in the Lord’s Supper, indeed, in the word of God that forms the liturgy and is contained as well in the hymns we sing. Our service to God is faith. Faith is invisible. Only God can see it. It is expressed in our singing, our praying, our paying attention to the sermon, and our active participation in the service. But true service to God is faith. The highest honor we can give to God is to believe him when he talks to us.
God serves us by speaking words to us that give us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. We serve God by taking these words to heart and believing them, relying on them for the forgiveness of our sins, for comfort in our pains and sorrows, and for hope for eternal life in heaven.
The service we offer to God is faith. But our faith doesn’t benefit our neighbor. Folks will often comment on the faith of another, expressing admiration for it. But in fact, what you see is not faith. You see love. Love is the fruit of faith. And it is this connection between love and faith that is what worship is all about.
Worship is the life lived by the Christian. It is lived under the grace of God. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God.” This mercy of God is revealed in the gospel that shows us what God’s will is. This is why St. Paul writes, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” You cannot figure out by your own reasoning abilities what God’s will is. To try is a mistake. That’s because God doesn’t think like the world thinks, and we Christians, though we are born from above still need to be transformed. We need to be renewed. And this is our need every day of our lives. We won’t outgrow it as long as we are sinners living in a sinful world.
What is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God for us? I recall back in my college days I became acquainted with Christians from outside of the Lutheran Church for the first time in my life. They came out of generic American Protestantism, and they appeared to be conservative, Bible-believing Christians, sincerely dedicated to bringing the gospel of Christ to unbelievers. They belonged to an organization called Campus Crusade for Christ. They told me that God loved me and had a wonderful plan for my life. I couldn’t argue with that. I had always known that God loved me and while I didn’t know at the age of eighteen what his plan for me was I didn’t think that that mattered.
But as I continued my association with the group, it became clear that I was expected to know what God’s will for me was even on matters that I couldn’t possibly guess. While it was too long ago for me to remember all the specifics, they may even have appealed to the words of our text, “that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God,” as proof that I need to learn what God’s acceptable and perfect will for me was.
Well, what does the text say? Paul goes on to say:
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.
That’s the good and acceptable and perfect will of God! It’s not that you figure out where God is leading you. How should you know? It’s not that you figure out what God doesn’t clearly tell you in the Bible. If it’s not in the Bible you don’t need to know it. No, the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is that you live a humble life, not thinking of yourself more highly than you ought to think. It is that you subordinate your will to the will of others, that you find joy in humbling yourself before others in imitation of your Lord Jesus who humbled himself all the way to the cross.
There is one crucial thing we must understand if we want to live lives of humility as Christians, considering others to be as important as we are. We can do so only through Christ. The twelve year old Jesus went to the temple for the feast of the Passover and stayed afterward talking to the teachers and asking them questions. We do as Jesus did when we come to church on a Sunday morning, attend Bible class, read our Bibles at home, and take God’s word to heart. But Jesus is doing more than providing us with an example to follow. Jesus is learning to do what we need done. He is learning as a twelve year old boy what his circumcision meant. He is going to be shedding his blood again. He is going to be the Passover Lamb. He will do it. He will suffer it.
All of the neglect of worship, the taking of God’s name in vain, the idolatrous foolishness in which the world revels, it’s arrogant dismissal of the divine, its irreverent discard of what is perfect and holy and God-pleasing – all of this sin becomes Christ’s. All of this guilt becomes his burden to bear. That’s what the twelve year old boy was learning, contemplating, and planning.
And he is the mercies of God to us. He is the source of our faith. Our worship of God is trusting in this Jesus – in the blood he shed at the age of eight days, in his obedience at the age of twelve years, and in his suffering and death on the cross when he was full grown. We look to him taking away our sin and opening up the doors of heaven to us and we see the good and acceptable and perfect will of God toward us. This is what transforms our minds and protects us from the vain promises of this world. Amen